Darkness Triggers True Colors of Leadership

Since childhood we have all heard stories about why and how the leaves of green deciduous trees display such a wide variety of colors in Autumn, before they fall to the ground. Some of these explanations are far fetched and some come pretty close to the actual chemical mechanism.  Here’s how it actually works:

As most everyone knows, the chemical, chlorophyll, is responsible for the dominant green color palette we observe in Spring and Summer.  Like any chemical, chlorophylI decays over time and must be continually replenished and fortified with nutrients.  As Fall approaches, nights get increasingly longer, and darkness triggers a signal to the cells near the juncture of leaf and branch to begin creating a barrier to the flow of minerals to the leaf.  As a result, the production of chlorophyll in the leaf slows, then stops altogether.  The many colors that emerge in Fall come from chemicals called Xanthophylls, Carotenoids, Anthocyanins and Tannins.  What is interesting is that these “inner” colors are present in the leaf all through the Spring and Summer life cycle, but, masked by the dominant outer coloration of Chlorophyll, they are not revealed until the chlorophyll recedes and disappears.

 “What is interesting is that these “inner” colors are present in the leaf all through the Spring and Summer life cycle…but not revealed until the chlorophyll recedes”

Like deciduous leaves isn’t it true we spend some portion of our life masked by a dominant, decorative layer of ‘chlorophyll’?  We work hard at developing and believing our story. We exert tons of psychic and emotional energy maintaining it and defending it, because it rationalizes our behaviour and excuses our faults and weaknesses. We surround ourselves with people and situations that enable our story to continue and we even cleverly manufacture opportunities for our story to be “authenticated” and deepened in the minds of all who (think they) know us.

As long as we remain firmly connected to the enablers and “nutrients” that fortify the facade, we bull our way through life’s interactions, impervious to irritating intrusions of reality that seek to inconveniently contradict our well practiced narrative.  Especially so in leadership roles, the ‘chlorophyll’ veneer inhibits introspection and prevents honest communication, sharing, gifting, connection, and collaboration. It impedes the kind of “me-to-you-to-we” interaction necessary for conscious, visionary leadership to unfold both personally and organizationally. And even more damaging, it forestalls any opportunity to inspire “enthusiastic engagement” and to create sustainable competitive advantage through innovation and discretionary effort by the team.

But just as Fall brings increasing darkness to forests of deciduous trees, so also do long, dark nights of crisis and tragedy – whether physical, emotional, professional or spiritual – come crashing into our lives, starving and decaying our ‘chlorophyll’ facade.  Suddenly naked and exposed, we have no choice but to acknowledge the pretense, name it and lay it aside. Only after our story has been laid bare are we able to reach through it to accept gifts of outstretched hearts, and display our authentic inner colors that were there all along.  In similar fashion a voluntary or involuntary collapse of story and pretense provides space for leaders to embrace vulnerability and step into self-awareness, inquiry, connectivity, and collaborative interaction.

“The night will give you a horizon further than you can see” ~ David Whyte

Just as the long, dark nights of Autumn trigger emergence of the masked inner colors of leaves, so too the darkness of personal crisis holds within it the potential to unveil the fullness of our own authentic story as Conscious Leaders.