Are you coping and managing or growing and leading? If you ask me, after sixty odd years in this life, I concur with Scott Peck (The road less travelled) that life is difficult. Every now and then we experience turbulence, curve balls or wrong ‘uns, major disappointments, high expectations, stressful situations, fear, anxiety, loneliness and confusion … if not devastating tragedies. This being so, the question is how we respond to these experiences. In essence there are three ways of responding: we succumb and give up hope; we find a way to cope; we grow.

Past experiences

The difficulty of life as we experience it today, is in some important aspects different to the past. In the past – and of course I generalise – we were cushioned against life’s blows by our communities. As soon as something bad has happened to you, community members helped to soften the blow with their love, care, support and solidarity. You were not alone. What happened to you also happened before to someone else. Others could acknowledge you for having the emotions and conflicting thoughts you have. Others could show understanding and empathy, cry with you. Others could offer you hope from their own stories.  They could point you to the beliefs and faith you shared with them. In a nutshell, they helped you to cope with your situation. All of it for free! Coping was a given, shared and collective thing … not a competition to see who is best at it.

Present experiences

Life today is much more privatised – social media despite. The frameworks of our intimate communities and even families have been dismantled for a variety of reasons. In the previous centuries communities and societies shared religious beliefs and practices. They shared ideologies, values, customs and worldviews. It provided a warm blanket for everyone to be warmed and comforted in the cold winter days – as long as they belong to the same community and stay there. A socialised mind-set kept things together.

It was, however, not sustainable in a world that experienced major man-made catastrophes such as the two world wars (where one ideology with its underpinning beliefs and loyalties came in conflict with another in its most cruel, revolting and traumatic forms) leaving people disillusioned, questioning the blueprints of life they relied on. Quantum science shifted paradigms and in an increasingly inter-connected world, old enemies met and discovered a common humanity across religious beliefs, challenging many beliefs about polarities and exclusivity.

In the shifts that took place, coping became much more of an individual and private thing: Everyone to himself! Suddenly we had to learn to think for ourselves, take care of ourselves, and dream for ourselves. Suddenly we found ourselves having to compete with others for our piece of sunlight, our voice to be heard. In how we respond to life’s difficulties, the spotlight fell sharply on our person: are you giving up (loser!) or fighting on (still in the game – a hopeful winner). Winning will allow you a brief moment of sharing the glory with other hopefuls, but then it is back to the familiar struggle. The common denominator is no more a ‘security first’ socialised mind, but a high risk self-authoring mind.

Going forward

Let’s look at the bright side: We have learned to think for ourselves. We have learned that we have (much) more potential that we previously thought. We have learned that, by applying ourselves with vision and determination, we are not limited to the circumstances we found/find ourselves in. But let’s face it, coping and managing in this life is stressful and draining – notwithstanding the countless uplifting social media quotes! We feel the pressure day in and day out mostly because we need to design, pursue, and defend our personal blueprint against other competitors in the game of life. To share our struggles, is to admit to failure – so we don’t.  But if we can’t see beyond coping and managing we are limiting ourselves to one recipe – the one we have developed as individuals for ourselves and the one that won the contest between competing blueprints in our work organisation.

Grow and lead

We were followers (socialised mind), then became managers (self-authoring mind), but can grow to become leaders (self-transforming mind). Leadership is not the aspiration to be at the top and to rule (over the socialised mind of nations) or to manage (those socialised minds and other self-authoring minds in organisations), but to facilitate for the best and most appropriate of our collective thinking. That is to grow a self-transforming mind. Leadership is only sustainable to the degree that leaders grow beyond their egos (self-authoring) to once more embrace the concept of community – even though it will look different to the past: not as homogeneous, tight, ‘in-grown’ and restrictive as before, but characterised by mutual respect, openness and appreciation of diversity and authenticity.

“The self-transforming mind can stand back from its own filter and look at it, not just through it. And why would it do so? Because the self-transforming mind both values and is wary about any one stance, analysis, or agenda.” (Robert Kegan).

What does it say for our response to life’s difficulties? That we can learn to look at it through different lenses for more and better perspectives; that we can learn to live together with it and not against it – thus grow with the flow. Will it mean that life becomes easy? Certainly not, but growing is better than coping. Lastly and most importantly, facing life’s difficulties is not only a mind-matter. How, and with what, we feed our hearts and spirits, is all interlinked with our thinking and willingness to grow.