“Stagnate and die” is the bumper sticker designed to compel bold risk-taking and change. It's the innovator’s cry to push the envelope, the CEO’s edgy opening call to action when the organization is threatened with disruption, the parent’s late night lecture to a wayward twenty-something. For decades, I have followed that cry, highly allergic to the energetic swamp of personal plateaus, constantly pushing myself to grow and evolve. (I may even have a t-shirt to that effect.) This past week, however, I was reminded of all that can bloom during times of deep stagnation, if we slow down long enough to uncover the lesson.
Federico was part of a group of leaders from all over Europe, India and the U.S. who came together in Munich recently to focus on their leadership development. As part of an exercise on how to inspire others around them to take action, the executives were reflecting on the most challenging and affirming moments from their lives, and physically drawing out leadership lifelines that depicted the turning points, crossroads, and choices which impacted who they are today and what they stand for as leaders.
On one side of the room, an engineer was drawing a linear timeline, with branches of experiences, similar to a fishbone diagram. Another leader was sketching a sweeping architectural design with artistic icons, representing the most challenging experiences he faced on multiple continents, and the values he discovered along the way. Another executive drew a winding path, across mountains and rivers, falling off the edge of a cliff, and then back up again. In each drawing, there was not just content on the people, places and events encountered, but heartfelt emotional lessons and leadership principles unveiled.
Walking around the room, I was drawn to Federico’s image, as a long horizontal line seemed to take up the majority of his paper, followed by a striking curve upward, of what looked like exponential growth. Curious, I asked him to share a bit more with me. Energized, Federico pointed to the micro ups and downs that were slightly visible behind the solid horizontal line that he said was a 12-year personal and career plateau. Turning slightly away, Federico paused, drew in a deep breath and exhaled, then began to share what each of the dips along the path had meant, not only in terms of business challenges, but mentally and emotionally.
Nodding as I listened, I noticed his eyes were watering. “I’m sorry”, he said. “This just reminds me of how I walked around with my resignation letter in my pocket each day, wondering if I could truly turn things around and keep feeding my family. But I was not ready to throw in the towel. Sitting in the stew and choosing to stay until I got the lesson – that is what turned my life around.”
I asked him what kept him going for such a long stretch of time. “I made the commitment that I would not stop until I uncovered what was causing this crazy stagnation, until I uncovered the beliefs that were keeping me – and therefore my whole business and family -- down. If I could free us up from the pattern, there was nothing we could not accomplish.” The striking upward line after the plateau on his paper spoke to the seemingly impossible accomplishments and good fortune that followed.
Sitting on the plane ride home, Federico’s simple story reminded me that every plateau, every stagnation, is an invitation to slow down and uncover repetitive patterns of thought or behavior that could very well invite profound transformation, if we let it. When we plateau or stagnate, rather than bulldoze through it to the next achievement, what might we discover is germinating underneath? What is seeking to emerge? I, for one, am willing to slow down and listen.