The Inner Journey of Leadership: On Authenticity, Love and the Gifts of Failure

In December 2011, I became the executive director of a civil rights organization I’d long admired. My two-and-a-half years there knocked me flat on my face. When I left, all I wanted was to get as far away from the experience as possible, preferably under a rock.

It was the best thing that could have happened to me. Failure gave me what no amount of success ever could have — courage to let go of safety and the freedom to be honest with myself.

Ultimately, it opened the door to an inward journey I’d been avoiding for years. I now believe this kind of inward searching is essential not only to our individual capacity to live whole and integrated lives, but also to our collective capacity to spark heart-level transformation in the world.

I’m sharing the story of my journey here because in more than two decades of social justice and leadership work, I never got how critical this was. In the midst of urgent problems and all that had to be done, courageous inward reflection felt like a luxury — a personal matter that I could tend to when the fires had been put out.

Now I can’t imagine how we — individually and collectively — can continue without it.

The Setup

Leadership only magnifies what we bring with us. In my case, I’d spent much of my life learning how to be anyone but myself.

The lessons started early. My family immigrated to the United States right before I started first grade, to a southern city with few other Asians or immigrants. I still remember that raw feeling of being unguarded, as all children are, and understanding that whatever I was, wasn’t going to bring me the things I longed for: acceptance, friendship, the warm security of knowing I was OK. Children adapt quickly, and I absorbed the tools I needed to be normal, to protect myself from ridicule and to get along. These included a new language, new cultural references and different ways of speaking and of holding myself.

No one ever asked me the question, “Who are you?” And I never thought to ask this question of myself. The frame I grew up with was about survival: “I am someone who works hard in order to succeed, and success will bring me and my family security.” I also accepted without question that the rules for whether and how I would succeed were all external to me. Power was outside — in mainstream culture, in school and other institutions, and in other people.

I would love to say that exposure in college to ideas of racial equality and social justice freed me of all this. It did, on one level. It gave me a positive alternative to the narrative of racial inferiority I’d grown up with, and gave me permission to replace shame with righteous anger.

But it didn’t fundamentally change my sense of truth and validation as something outside myself. The progressive social justice communities I was a part of in college had their own rules and norms, and I wanted as much as ever to belong. I never felt secure enough to question, “What in all of this is true for me? What does this sound like in my own voice?” In other words, I replaced one external narrative with another, albeit more empowering, one.

And I could convince myself I’d found what I should aspire to because it was noble. The Quaker leader Parker Palmer calls this “a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to [your] own heart.” My life imitating heroes took me to public interest law and to leadership positions in legal advocacy nonprofits. Engaging the world through law never resonated with me, and neither did policy advocacy. I experienced these spheres as sterile, foreign, and distant.

What had always moved me was deep connection at an individual level, and the mystery of the human experience. And yet, I soldiered on, convinced that even if it felt like I was wearing borrowed clothing, I just needed to try harder to make myself fit them.

Falling Apart

If someone had constructed a situation to bring all of this tumbling down, they couldn’t have created a better scenario than the executive director position I walked into.

My sense of worthiness depended on other people’s validation, and this was the one thing the job was designed not to provide. The organization had a reputation for being tough on executive directors. Its culture included a skepticism of authority that contributed to fearless advocacy outside the organization, and an uneasy relationship with positions of power within the organization. Layered on top of this was a deep internal conflict that defined my tenure. The board had approved an organizational change that many staff viewed as compromising the group’s core identity. In the months before I started, staff mobilized to oppose it. I thought we could find common ground; it never happened. The constant conflict, unhappiness and disapproval would have been hard on anyone; for me it was devastating.

As a leader, I’d always relied on a kind of disembodied skillfulness to get through things — shut down the emotions and push through what needs to be done. It was enough to make me a good administrator, but the organization needed more than that. As it navigated identity change and internal conflicts, it needed someone who could convene honest and courageous conversations and create space for genuine connection and healing. It needed a leader who could lead at the level of the heart. I felt the need for this but was too disconnected from my own heart to know how to respond.

I participated in leadership development programs that urged us to dig deep, but I experienced them as additional forums in which I needed to perform. It wasn’t that I didn’t hear the call to authenticity, or that it didn’t resonate with me. It was more that I’d never chosen my inner voice over external expectations. More than that, I suppressed my voice when they conflicted. It seemed impossible to explore, in a real way, what that would look like now in a context where the stakes felt so high.

All of this felt like failure, which my fears told me made me unworthy of respect and ultimately of love. And this kept me running and striving as if something existential, my very survival, was at stake.

The Road Home

In 2014, my husband took a job that required us to move to a new city. As painful as my job was, it was hard to leave. Looking back, I can see I was still chasing the external validation that would have enabled me to feel that I had done a good job, that I was OK.

When I let the striving go, I was exhausted. Mostly, I just wanted to hide. But I finally felt bad enough that I knew something fundamental had to change. For the first time in my life, I gave myself permission to just be, without expectations; to think and feel freely; and to take risks in order to find my own truth.

I’d been so scared of walking into the unknown and letting go of the external anchors of my identity — a respected job, professional achievements and other people’s approval. My leadership experience revealed these to be false refuges.

The more I explored what needed to change, the more I realized it was simply this: to live courageously and with integrity by being authentically and fearlessly myself.

I had no idea what this would mean in practical terms and took things as they came. I accepted that I didn’t enjoy the law and never had, so I left it. I read and listened to anything that made me feel engaged and alive. In conversations with people, I stopped trying to be polished, neatly packaged or anything else that I wasn’t. I started writing for myself again as a way to get acquainted with my own voice. I brushed the dust off of dreams I’d once had: to be a Jesuit Priest (yes, a priest), a teacher of literature, a therapist or a coach.

This discovery process was joyful at times, but mostly it was deeply uncomfortable. It’s hard to deviate from old patterns. It’s also hard to invest in ourselves, especially for those of us who’ve grown up learning to focus on other people’s needs. And it’s hard to claim space for inward exploration, especially in our culture of doing and achievement.

But as Joseph Campbell has said, when we live from our hearts, “the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” In the midst of this exploring, an organization I’d worked with earlier in my career called out of the blue and asked if I would coach a new leader. This enabled me to try on a new identity, and it wasn’t long afterward that I signed up for a coach training program.

At the training, I experienced something I’d given up on feeling in professional life. Simply put, I made sense. The things I’d always been drawn to but had suppressed in my prior work — intuition and emotion as forms of knowing, vulnerability as an expression of radical love, focusing on people rather than policies or institutions — all had a place here. Shortly thereafter I started my own coaching practice, supporting people to live and lead from inner authenticity and integrity.

The profession I’ve chosen is less important than the realization that it’s possible to be at home in our lives and in our work. These days I’m experiencing the pleasures of working from authentic self. I used to depend on imitating others, following outside formulas that left me exhausted. Now my contribution is generated from within and feels flexible and generative. I used to think I wasn’t creative. I now find inspiration and surprise in the creative process. The ideas come when they are needed. And there is the peace of knowing I am contributing the best of what I have to give.

Choosing Love Over Fear

Living from authentic self has opened the door to something else that was missing from my leadership experience — love.

The thing that fueled me instead was fear. When I look back on the moments that make me wince, fear is what they all have in common: shying away from hard decisions and conversations, instilling a feeling among staff that their work was never good enough, acting out of competition rather than solidarity and generosity. It’s painful even now to write these things down.

The opposite of fear, I’m learning, is not fearlessness. It’s love.

What I’m talking about is connection to each other and to our common humanity, a radical openness where we see the beauty in others and also allow ourselves to be seen. Here, we know there is something more real than security, achievement or success. What emerges instead is a courage that is willing to do anything, risk anything, for the truth of who each of us can be as individuals and who we can be together.

Authentic self is the opening to love, because although love takes us radically beyond ourselves, it starts from within. When I stopped running from myself, I was finally able to give myself the things I’d been seeking from others — acceptance, understanding and ultimately love.

And this opens the door to bravery. Love fuels the desire to give, and it also provides the shelter that makes courageous giving possible. You know that on the other side, whether it’s success or failure, you will still be here: precious, whole and worthy of love.

Taking a Stand

We want more boldness from our leaders. We want to see more out-of-the-box thinking and disruptive creativity. We want to see transformation, not just at the level of policy, but also at the level of millions of individual hearts.

I’m taking a stand that all of this is possible, but only if we take seriously the kind of courageous inner lives that are needed to spark and fuel the changes we’re desperate for.

We’re so practiced at looking outside ourselves for answers — the latest best practices; the models for how we should structure our campaigns and meetings; the expert analysis of what messaging works or doesn’t. There’s valuable information here, but too often it takes the place of simply being with the people right in front of us, of speaking honestly from what is in our hearts, of bringing something true into the world rather than something designed to have a certain impact.

What we all want, what we’re all fighting for, is the experience of our full humanity. We structure our battles against the institutionalized ways in which our humanity is taken away from us — racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty — and we act as if the humanity part will take care of itself once the structural barriers are removed. My years engaged in social justice work gave me righteous anger and language to demand respect, but it wasn’t until I went deep inside that I found love and a path to embracing my own full humanity.

We’ve all heard the call to “be the change you want to see in the world.” I’d always understood this as a call to action. What I see now is a much more demanding call to inner transformation as the ground for transformation in the world.

The world needs so much right now, but it all comes down to whether our hearts are open — to love someone we’ve learned to demonize, to feel our connection to the earth, to risk seeing our fates as intertwined. Hearts respond only to other hearts. The only power we have to engender love is our own love. If we thought we could hold ourselves safely apart while working for social change, we were mistaken. The best of what we have to give is right here, waiting for our courage to claim it.