I hated grade six. In a new school, in the suburbs of Indianapolis, I committed the triple sin of being physically awkward, intelligent and the youngest person in my class. If I were just ugly and dull, they could have ignored me. But I had bright red hair, giant glasses and I knew things. I didn’t talk much, but when I spoke, I used words they had never heard. I read alone for pleasure. I had ideas that seemed bizarre to other kids. The teachers loved me, adding kindling to the blazing nightmare of my sixth grade social experience. I was shy. I had no friends that year, no one to speak to, no one to whom I could tell the truth. I learned to create stories about what I wished had happened to me, what I imagined could be happening now or what I dreamed might happen in the future. In a lonely girl body, I fantasized that I might someday tell my stories to the other people who were alien like me, that I might somehow shine in my own way and help others shine too.
Eventually, I met the other aliens, many people who never fit into the social structures at school or damaged themselves in order to do so and then escaped. I heard the theories that only one of us could shine at a time. It was the law. We were told that we had to compete for size and volume or brightness. Sometimes we were told that we should be ashamed of wanting to shine. Why did we need recognition anyway? It was selfish; there was no “I” in team!
I kept my mouth shut but could still detect a glow underneath the skin of people, especially when they were happy or engaged. It didn’t extinguish when someone else began to shine, in fact, it seemed to be enhanced. At night, I looked up and wondered how the stars did it, forming their shining constellations, sharing air space and power.
Seeking to understand my own shine was a strong step towards my own mental and emotional health. Over the years, I took theatre classes and joined a public speaking club and these rhetoric skills became more comfortable. I studied psychology, political science and biology so that I might have something to discuss. I got more training in writing and research, honing the storytelling and observation skills that I already had. I constructed a career of healing, teaching and writing. My fears of standing in front of people diminished inside my passion for my work in the world, assisting people in finding their leadership and purpose, their healing and creativity. When I first read a feedback form where someone said he admired my charisma, the gangly child with owl glasses inside me smiled. She never expected that.
I have been intrigued by the recent book, Quiet, and Susan Cain‘s assertions of the Extrovert Ideal that American culture espouses. As a self reported Introvert, she discusses the potential leadership attributes of people who are more internally oriented, who might even identify as being shy. Introversion holds a kind of power that has its basis in introspection and intuition. It is a welcome idea to think about introverts taking their place in our guiding councils, to see the gifts of the considerate, attentive and measured responders honored equitably with those of the outgoing, outspoken, gregarious orators. All of these characteristics matter in a well rounded leader; we would do well to build relative fluency in the skills of both the extrovert and introvert.
In the trainings that I offer about leadership and power, we always talk about charisma and deconstruct what it is and is not. Every time it comes up, someone declares that charisma is inherited; we must be born with it. Someone else says wistfully that charisma is reserved for those who can talk to people without discomfort. I am not convinced that these things are true.
Angeles Arrien discusses a “power of presence” as a kind of influence that is appreciated by many cultures. Presence. We know it when we feel it or see it. Someone has an energy, an aura, a ‘shine’ to their appearance and to their message. It connects to what we find attractive, but it doesn’t have to meet our cultural standards of physical beauty. It emerges when we see someone come alive, communicating their passion or interacting with people and vocations that they find meaningful. When someone is immersed in the art form that they practice, we catch a glimpse of this. We are full of ourselves in these moments of presence. This is not the fullness of an engorged ego, but a true brimful of our own essence, complete unto ourselves. It is a vulnerable moment. With presence, we are not necessarily guarded or protected. In fact, we may be openhearted and shimmering in a way that attracts interest. We build our presence and trust in ourselves and our abilities. That trust lays the foundation for charisma and then, we shine.
Charisma is not solely reserved for either extroverts or introverts. It takes nerve to really live our purpose, to do more than what people expect of us or to see beyond the limits we have imposed. It takes deep faith in ourselves and in what we believe is needed in this world. It often takes the willingness to develop some facility with skills that are not naturally ours. Our choice to foster charisma and presence gives us the opportunity to shine, in our own way. This is a way to embrace our challenges and move towards fulfillment of our own destinies, as mysterious as they may be to us when we are dreaming of our potential. It is a bold choice, but maybe it is time we were emboldened. There is more than enough to do and dream for all of us.
How and why would we shine?
Our sun shines as a result of a dance between gravity and explosion. Gravity draws together dust particles, growing larger until an enormous mass is generated. Gravity pulls inward and inward until hydrogen atoms merge dramatically to release a burst of a new material, helium. This gives birth to a star, and stars shine because this inexhaustible explosion of hydrogen releasing helium just keeps happening. Gravity prevents the star’s destruction by pulling the energy inward and the explosion itself ensures that the star keeps expanding. There is a dynamic balance between the inside and the outside. Like creativity finding its way to the surface of your life. Like finding your joyful purpose on this earth, knowing it and doing something about it. When the forces of expansion and gravity are balanced, a star like our sun will shine for longer than we can ever conceive.
When we apply active leadership, we act as the sun, shining externally and responding to circumstances with our deeds and verdicts. We make achievements, we initiate programs, we decide. We don’t just stand there, we do things. This matters, but it is not the only way.
Our moon is dark; we only see it because it mirrors the sun. It doesn’t shine from surging gases within itself. We perceive it because of its regolith, another name for the surface of celestial bodies like planets and natural satellites. The earth has soil that comes from rocks and plants, the moon has a covering that comes from wreckage, the remains of asteroids colliding with it, leaving their debris, like ashes. The regolith makes the moon more reflective than it would otherwise be. The moon reflects the sunlight because it has been pockmarked by meteorites, because it has no atmosphere, no defenses. Like our decisions to follow our visions even when we meet obstacles, even when we are pummeled by events that leave craters in our surface. Like our wounds. Like our lessons. This loose dusty regolith makes the moon shine brighter and show its different facets, finally recharging in the blessed darkness.
When we employ intuitive leadership, we operate as the moon, reflecting and refracting what is going on around us. We open our inner eyes to examine what is beneath the surface, we deliberate more and take consequences into account. We draw the light to us. We engage our right brain and our creative processes. This is also not the only way.
Imagine yourself the way that someone who loves you unconditionally might see you. If you don’t have a person like that in your life right now or you never have had that exact person you wanted, invent them. In this version of your story, allow that person to look at you and imagine what they would say about your strengths, your gifts, your possibilities. Write it down and tape it to your bathroom mirror. Or let it ignite that spark inside of you to create explosions of ingenuity and shining risk. Or allow their unrelenting loving gaze to illuminate your imperfect surface, your craters and blemishes, the better for you to reflect it back to the world.