Master of one
Renown writer, teacher and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron tells the story of being sent by her teacher to direct North America’s foremost Tibetan Buddhist monastery. After years of devotion, Chodron excelled at practice, scripture, stillness and meditation. But in her new position, Chodron discovered that she was no Buddha.
She quickly learned that she had no idea how to lead effectively, and people were not shy about letting her know how bad she was at it. Her lofty self-image deteriorated in the face of her temporary incompetence. The experience, as she describes it, was its own glorious form of torture — relentless, humbling, and of course, character building.
Meditation, a truly powerful practice, is sometimes billed as the path to life mastery. But as Chodron’s story illustrates, even if you have (or think you have) mastered a certain level of personal authority — that is, the ability to sit in the director’s seat of your own life — or even accumulated knowledge authority in your field of study, you still need different skills to stand in your professional authority — that is, the power granted to you by the requirements of the job you are contracted for.
The Intimate Authority Black Hole
Dan’s story is a little different. Dan overcame a severe learning disability and as a result has a strong sense of personal authority — he knows what it takes to create a well-rounded life. He also excels in his professional authority as an engineer; he is not only well respected by his team, he is mostly able to encourage and direct them to their best work. But Dan’s husband does not get the best of his leadership. In couples coaching, Marc expresses concern about how deeply Dan retreats into himself, and how his silence at family events might be affecting their kids. Dan has little access to his relational authority at home in the roles of husband and Dad.
Dan’s story illustrates how our professional authority — the power given to us by the requirements of our jobs, does not always translate to our personal relationships. Luckily for Dan, his strong sense of personal authority helped him shift his behaviors and acquire more authority at home.
The Caregiver’s Dilemma
Finally, Donna’s story is a classic example of someone who excels at relational authority, but lacks in personal authority. Her competence in the roles of wife and mother wouldn’t be a problem if she didn’t feel victimized by her inability to move forward with her writing career. Donna needs to slow down, look within and reckon with the internal forces that compel her to put everyone else’s needs first and downplay her own desire to move forward.
Why should these arenas of authority matter to you?
If you are looking to feel good about who you are and your ability to choose the right next steps; familiarize yourself with these three different types of authority — personal, professional and relational, and how they relate to one another. The personal authority that comes from meditation, self-reflection and other centering practices is essential for stepping out of the victim role and into your potential. It’s what helps you build a sense of self, integrity and courage. In order to step into your relational authority and create connections that inspire and satisfy, you will need to learn many skills including listening and negotiating, and cultivating the vulnerability that true intimacy requires. And if you want to step into your professional authority, and have the power and respect to influence and create real impact, you will you need to learn how to establish your work persona, create and uphold a vision, learn how to contain yourself and how to focus on your actual job.
Understanding the areas in which you lack authority will help you focus on the things you need to learn and practice in order to move towards greater freedom, choice and mastery.