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How One Man Discovered his Purpose, Passion & Super Power

February 15th, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Some first impressions are unforgettable. That is how I felt when I met Andrew Nemr last month at the 2015 SupportTED Collaboratorium.

Andrew was one of 12 carefully-selected TED Fellows who brought to the event his life’s purpose –to speak love into our culture. His vehicle to do that? Tap dance.

The Collaboratorium’s four-day intensive event created a major shift for Andrew which he took back to his work as Artistic Director of Cats Paying Dues.

This week, Andrew’s dance company, Cats Paying Dues will celebrate their 10th Anniversary Season with the premiere of Three Suites. The new work will highlight the unique aesthetics the company has brought to the stage over its ten-year history.

In the Q&A below, you’ll see and feel Andrew’s “super power” bringing this show to life. I do, and I will never forget.

Joan Wright: First of all, what are you up to in the world, and how did it all get started for you?

Andrew Nemr: On the surface I’m a tap dancer, but what I’m really interested in is using tap dance as a vehicle to speak love into culture. Entertainment can be a very powerful thing, and if used for good, can serve to renew the culture of society. Whether through performance, teaching, talks, or producing, I enjoy using tap dance to unveil ideas about love, service, and human nature. I have a wide portfolio of projects that each reflect an aspect of my artistic and cultural interests. From highly improvisational music projects to choreographed theatrical endeavors, a curated blog on love to a foundation dedicated to the legacy of tap dance every project lends itself to a reflection of who we are and how we might learn to love in more complete ways.

It all started for my when I was three and a half years old and my parents signed me up for dance lessons at a local dance school in Alexandria, VA. While initially a social activity, dancing became a place I could grow and thrive while learning new skills. I enjoyed the challenge of learning and stuck with it and that same studio for seven years. When I was nine, I saw the movie TAP starring Sammy Davis, Jr., Gregory Hines, and Savion Glover. It was while watching this film that I fell in love. Within a year of watching the movie, I met Gregory Hines and Savion Glover and would go on to work with and be mentored by both of them. Gregory and Savion introduced me to their own mentors and eventually I was grafted into the oral history, regularly hanging out with and being mentored by 70 and 80 year olds – tap dance legends from the crafts heyday – while I was in my early teens.

Thanks to the many men and women who poured into me, the roots of tap dance were firmly planted. The adventure has been seeing how the branch I’m on is growing.

JW: In today’s culture, there’s often a divide – people driven by ego and people driven by heart. How does your heart guide you every day, and what do you think the impact of that is for others?

AN: My heart, checked along the way by my gut, have guided many of my choices – at least all the good ones. There is a resonance in my heart when I hear or see the truth. When I allow myself to respond to this initial resonance, even if it is to ask more questions, I find myself on a surer path than if I allow doubt to settle in. As for impacting others, I have been known to wear my heart on my sleeve. With that comes heightened emotions, highly personal responses, and a level of engagement that I’ve been told is rare. I hope that this disposition of vulnerability sets a model that allows others to feel that they can share their own hearts at whatever point they find themselves on their journey.

JW: What does a “job well done” mean to you and for you?

AN: A job well done means that I have listened well, been diligent in the work set before me, and followed through to the end of the task. It sounds simpler than I found it to be in real life, but these three things really encompass what I hope to be able to look back upon when I see how I have approached my work.

JW: How do you seek expertise and experience every day?

AN: I’m an experiential learner, so I have had to learn how to ask good questions, instead of just trying out everything I wanted to learn. I’m more comfortable being guided through a new experience while in the driver’s seat, but have come to admire good questions and understand the value of seeking the expertise of others. Today I find myself doing new things every day, whether it’s little things like a new conversation or larger things like a new production, I remember to ask questions and seek learning opportunities in every situation I find myself in.

JW: What is your own unique talent, skill, ability?

AN: I’ve recently had a major shift here. For me there is a discreet difference between my talents and skills and my mission. This might sound obvious, but in the performing arts sometimes it can be blurred. For much of my life I thought my mission was tap dancing, and I had superpowers like compassion, listening, and a quick intellect. Only recently was it crystalized that my mission is Love – a very specific kind of love that is rooted in my faith tradition and speaks of renewal, reconciliation, and value of both the individual and community. My superpowers now include tap dancing.

JW: What’s your go-to strategy when something doesn’t work out, there’s a mistake, there’s a problem? How do you recover?

AN: Every challenging scenario demands its own unique strategy, however there are general guidelines that I try to follow to walk through and recover from these challenging situations. I attempt to discern and acknowledge the truth of the situation, my own responsibilities and shortcomings or misjudgments. I will I try to fill in the gaps, find the work that needs doing and do that.

For recovery, I sleep. It is a wonder what a good night’s rest, or daytime nap will do. I’ll also do very simple tasks. Taking time to do small things that are easily accomplished help me to reset. Laundry is great for this.

JW: Where and how or in what are you “rooted”?

AN: I am rooted in my faith, my family, and my work, in that order. I have a family that reminds me of my faith, and a profession that would not be possible without my family or my faith, so I’m blessed in that keeping my priorities in order is the only way things work. It’s a self-correcting system, and still there is learning.

JW: What are three things you know you MUST do or have to obtain things you desire?

AN: Professionally, I was fulfilled years ago. I became a tap dancer, met and was mentored by my tap heroes Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. I was able to meet, befriend, and be mentored by many of the tap dance legends, as well. I have traveled the world doing something I thoroughly enjoy. Today my goals are simply to love and be loved – in every moment, in every choice, in every word, and in every action. I fail often, but less and less every day.

JW: How do you make decisions?

AN: I gave a presentation a few weeks ago about my endeavors and associated projects, and ended with this quote from the poet and artist Khalil Gibran, “When love beckons to you, follow…” – I really don’t have another framework for making decisions. I have however been learning a lot about Love’s voice, and whether its showing you something, teaching you something, or asking you to act on something. In the process of figuring. Out which is which there is often a lot of silence, a few questions, a lot of listening to the situation, and testing the waters of potential choices.

JW: What is a quality performance or experience for you? What’s the impact for an audience when YOU know its quality?

AN: There are so many variables that come into play in live performance, I have yet to establish a sufficient metric for a quality performance. I’ve experienced situations in which I felt that I gave everything I could, and the audience response was minimal, and the reverse as well.

To learn more about Andrew, please visit his website:

To learn more about the CPD’s 10th Anniversary Show, please visit:

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Peer Advisory Groups - Dedicated to YOUR Success

February 15th, 2016 at 5:50 pm

My husband Tom is a successful architect who enjoyed the building boom for many years. His business, however, associated with housing and development, was one of those that came crashing down in the financial downturn of 2008.  Like so many others, he struggled to keep afloat.  He and his partner did not agree on how to secure their future, so they split, and the business went from a thriving 45-person firm, to six employees.  With a lot of work and worry, Tom was able to pull the business back together, even to the point where he was making money again.  But a huge question gnawed at him.  Could he sustain this?  Should he shut down or sell the company?  Should he bring in a successor?  Tom really labored over these decisions and after much night pacing and mental anguish still was not sure what to do.

A few years ago Tom joined a peer advisory group.  These were just the sort of circumstances such groups were designed to address, so he brought his dilemma to his group. Tom laid it all out – not just the circumstances, but his experiences, his values, the long view of his life, where his heart was. Unanimously his peers told him he still had “fire in his belly” for this work.  They challenged him to find the best performer he could and raise him up to take over.  Tom did just that, recruiting one of his former star architects back into the firm.  A year later, his “mini-ME” is in place and things are looking good.  My husband came back to life.  His peer advisory group was, in a sense, his professional emergency response team, dedicated to his leadership and success.

A peer advisory group is a confidential group of committed individuals who come together on a regular basis to help each other move through situations.  It is indeed lonely at the top, and often an executive cannot bring their teams in on “sticky” issues.  These groups can be all non-competing businesses but composed of peer level executives who deal with the same kinds of issues.  They challenge one another and work through situations and issues together.  This is a vital resource that provides mutual benefits to those who contribute to resolutions, as well as those who receive the obvious benefit of enhanced “brainpower.”   These groups are a new trend in leadership, one that provides leaders what they previously lacked – trusted advice, committed partnership in success, and a confidential lifeline in critical situations.

My husband’s group is Vistage, the largest such peer advisory group.  Since 1957, Vistage has been bringing together successful CEOs, executives and business owners into private advisory groups, whose sole purposes are to help members improve the performance and outcomes of their businesses.  Groups are regional, generally composed of about a dozen peer members.  I have my own similar peer group we affectionately call the “Tree House Gang” because we resembled more of a group of friends, all in the same business, who met regularly at our “tree house” of choice.  I have been part of this group for years, and we have laughingly said the only way out is to die.  We have become much more than “professionals” discussing our similar businesses.  We are friends for life who are genuinely involved and desire the best for our fellow members in business and in life in general.  There are many similar groups, such as Master Mind.  Each group has its own unique set of “operating procedures.”

I am excited to announce that I now also will be part of the Vistage family.  I have been selected as the first female Chair to serve the Charlotte community, the second Vistage group in the state of North Carolina.  Vistage really appealed to me not only because of my first hand experience with my husband’s group, but also because Vistage is so well organized and committed to the concept of helping each other reach significance in their professions.  This, of course, is near and dear to my heart, since my partnership with Vistage speaks to my own personal and professional mission – to be the best FOR the world, versus best IN the world, a concept I discuss in my book, “UP:  Pursuing Significance in Leadership and Life.”  It is not so much about doing better, it is about being better and being best for the world.  Leadership is not done, it is lived.  My commitment to Charlotte’s new Vistage community is that our city’s leaders will live all that’s possible for their leadership because they learn regularly from others who are best FOR the world.

Can you imagine what can be accomplished when you put a dozen or so high level business executives in one room and provide challenges for them to break through together?  All of the combined rich experience and wisdom is applied to all such challenges.  These aren’t just surface discussions.  The group dives deeply into intense issues, examining all aspects openly in an environment of mutual trust, respect, and confidentiality.  The potential in these groups is enormous.

Peer advisory groups are rapidly becoming the “tool of choice” for top level executives and business owners.  The Vistage system has over 18,000 members in 16 countries.  This powerful leadership resource is growing daily.  A 2013 analysis revealed that companies that joined Vistage over the past five years grew at twice the rate of average U.S. companies.

Now isn’t that a statistic you’d like to live?

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Scratch Resolutions, Speak Declarations

February 15th, 2016 at 5:49 pm

Recently I had the privilege of attending a corporate banquet where I met a top executive who was charming and attentive to everyone he met.  He made the rounds and chatted with people as if he had all the time in the world, and those people were most important to him.  People spoke of this man in glowing terms, marveling at his consistent dedication.  He was universally admired.  I soon learned this man was attending his fifth such event in that evening alone.

Being the inquisitive creature I am, I asked him about this kind of schedule, and his ability to meet all these commitments with such aplomb and ease.  We had an intriguing conversation about how he saw himself as a role model, and that what he was doing was his job.  He further explained that he kept himself in top physical condition, just so he could be “fully present when I am with others.”  He spoke of the art of life balance and making sure he could be the best he could be, for the people.  It was evident that his choices involved sacrifices as well, but those did not outweigh his desire to be a role model for others.

I was struck at by how this man embodied the qualities of a Sherpa, a person who leads others up the highest mountains in the world.  Sherpas are those who have the experience, the keen knowledge of the mountain, and the desire to see others succeed.  Sherpas must be in top physical condition in order to lead others.

Some time ago I developed a life and leadership model that utilizes mountaineering terms and concepts called The Summit Advance Model.  Basically, it is a “mountain” with two sides and three levels.  The lower level is the place of Survival.  The middle level represents Success, and the top level is Significance.  The two sides are opposing, representing personal focus.  The left side is self-centered.  The right side is “others-centered.”  For the sake of distinction, I labeled the levels, sides and “inhabitants” of this model as follows:


At this moment I am only addressing the top level of Significance, where the two sides will find “Top Guns,” who are concerned with being the best IN the world, and “Sherpas,” whose only focus is being best FOR the world.  There is quite a difference between the two.  Tops Guns are consumed with ego.  Sherpas are devoted to others.

Sherpas live their purpose, to see others reach the top.  Their service, legacy and significance resides in others.  They are extremely loyal, people of integrity and truth, trusted explicitly.  They understand risks and sacrifice, and how those are calculated against the compelling vision of the summit.  They have inspired countless climbers to reach the tops of the peaks they pursue.  Sherpas sacrifice beyond what most would ever consider, in order to protect and provide for the success of their climbing partners.

As my conversation continued with this corporate Sherpa, I perceived that this man’s efforts were not about his success, but the success of others.  It was his singular motivation.  He was declaring, both privately and publicly, that he had made the choice to be best FOR the world, living as a corporate Sherpa to insure the success of others.  He made the appropriate physical, emotional and spiritual choices to keep his declaration fueled and doable.

As we begin another new year full of resolutions to be better, do better or live better, it is important to allow this critical choice to fuel every other kind of being and doing.  This should be our first New Year’s resolution – making it, in fact, a New Year’s DECLARATION.  We can then develop sustaining goals to make it happen.

There is a form of power in a personal declaration.  It is a “stand and deliver” announcement to your public of what you will do, not what you hope to do.  I remember in my own life how those big choices to run the NYC marathon and climb Mount Kilimanjaro became so much more powerful when I turned them into declarations.  Once I had declared those things out loud, to my own “public,” I was suddenly and powerfully accountable.

In this way, instead of the typical resolutions falling away mid-year as most resolutions do, making our declaration to serve others becomes part of the very core of who we are – Sherpas in training.

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February 15th, 2016 at 5:47 pm

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.  Really?

This time of year “peace on earth, goodwill to men” – the famous angelic message to mankind – rings in our ears through holiday voices.  Sounds good, yet do we really experience peace?  I can’t address world peace here, but I will address something each of us can know – personal peace.  Not easy, but definitely possible.

We know our lives are too full.  Full of gadgets, gizmos and commitments.  Full of promises, obligations and expectations.  Full of calendar, empty of time.  Technology has provided so many “time-saving” helps we can’t keep up with them.  We are high tech, high speed, and high clutter.  Little by little, what was supposed to save time has spent it before it arrives.  What was intended to make life easier has complicated it beyond words.  Our world is high tech, but our bodies, minds, and spirits are old school.  We struggle to keep up, and continue to lag behind.  This race is never won, all consuming, and completely exhausting.  What may be crying out for attention cannot be heard over the din of technology and command performances.  And the one thing that cries the loudest, but gets the least attention, is our own personal peace – that inner sense of quietude and calm.

Our bodies, minds, and spirits function their best in a state of order, quiet and peace.  Hardly what we face day-to-day at work or home.  We have created this world of havoc and cacophony ourselves, and have been taught to believe we must live in it, and with it.  To some extent we do, but we have the personal authority to make choices to enable us to live more simply – more peacefully.

I have worked through the clutter of my own life for many years.  I know it isn’t easy.  We are so conditioned to nurture the chaos that it requires a strong commitment to seek the simple instead.  Multiple distractions, forms of clutter, voices speaking, over-bookings and too much information keeps us from seeing, hearing or thinking clearly. When we acknowledge this is a truth for us, we can begin to clarify and sort, editing things out of our lives. This cleaning involves studying and assessing what we want to keep, then making choices and tossing out the clutter.  We must look at our bodies, minds and spirits, our finances, relationships and health, the physical and emotional conditions in our homes and offices.  Peace cannot be obtained until we deal with the internal and external clutter carelessly tossed on top of what we need – a clear mind, steady emotions, and a peaceful spirit.

Much of the time we can do this deep cleaning ourselves.  But for some things, personal or professional, seen or unseen, rediscovering peace requires some help.  What kind of expert could help you achieve a simpler life and experience more peace?  Do you need a personal trainer, an executive coach, an organizational expert (for home or work), or even a therapist to help you resolve the past and keep it there?  I often do make referrals for my clients to other professionals.  They may need a professional organizer (I did), to get their work or home area in a streamlined efficient condition, reflecting who they are and what they do.

During the physical process we are also sorting, tossing and organizing emotionally and spiritually.  Values are reclaimed, purpose is re-established. It feels good to relax into clarity instead of chaos.  Every corner of life is dragged out for review, and sometimes for burial, never to be exhumed.  Some sorting and organizing will not just be mountains of stuff, but mountains of gadgetry, piles of commitments and heaps of “white noise.”  That may mean turning off cell phones, ignoring social networks, making fewer commitments and quieting the constant blaring of other high tech balls and chains.

Peace is not just an individual issue, but one that organizations need to consider also.  This is particularly true in mergers and acquisitions where the fear of the unknown future can cause people−entire organizations−to hang onto “stuff.”  The organizational attic gets cluttered with things that can prevent a rich future.  If the past−or even the present−is hoarded, it will only crowd out the future.

As a special gift to yourself, and likely to those around you, turn it off, toss it out, trade it away, keeping only what you truly need, and what you honestly want.  Don’t spend this time intended to reflect “peace on earth” completely deaf and dead inside.  Find your own peace, and you will be much more able to spread it around as “goodwill to men.

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The Great Emancipator

September 16th, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Those three words usually bring Abraham Lincoln to mind, the American president credited with ending slavery in our nation.

For me, however, someone else fills that role, someone who freed me as certainly as if chains of forged steel had been smashed and shackles removed.

During my childhood and teen years I struggled with perfectionism, anxiety and shame. My parents had a strong performance orientation and I was receiving messages, at least as I interpreted them, that I had to strive for perfection.

No, more than strive -– I had to be perfect, and look perfect.

I attended a private, very competitive all-girls school which has produced some of the world’s top thinkers and doers.

My friends were people who are now renowned experts in their chosen fields. I worked my heart out, trying to perform and be what I thought I was supposed to be – the perfect, straight-A student.

I’m a workhorse, but as hard as I tried I could never get better than a “B.” My teachers saw me that way, too -– merely a “B.” I felt I wore that label for all the world to see. To compensate, I worked harder than everyone else. I believed there was something wrong with me because I was putting in the same effort as others and not getting the same results.

I was trying harder, but not getting anywhere. Part of this performance standard was not just to be the best, but to always look the best.

Eventually this desperate attempt to be what I thought I was supposed to be led to a serious and shameful addiction – Bulimia. I kept this a big secret.

In college, I spent a semester in Dublin, Ireland, land of my family roots. Every weekend I stayed at the home of a cousin I had never met before, but I was soon embraced as family.

Máire McDonnell Garvey was much older than I, with her own five children, a row house with dirt floors and an alcoholic husband. She had her hands full as the sole support and driving force in that family, yet Máire always found time to show her love and support for everyone else.

Something clicked between Máire and me, and we built a strong bond. Her Irish wit kept me up at night listening to her stories. Somehow Máire saw through my façade. She seemed to know my secret, though she didn’t, really. She singled me out, like I was being selected from a litter of puppies.

I say this because I never felt “picked” before. I was special somehow. I never told her about my addiction, and she never asked. We had the most amazing conversations and for the first time in my life I felt unconditional love.

Máire was the first person I felt who cared for me just the way I was, no matter what. No straight A’s, no standards, no expectations, just me. She encouraged me to discover why I was here, what I would be giving to the world. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

All of a sudden my self-imposed prison gates were opened and all expectations of performance were gone. I felt a freedom I had never known before. My soul soared. I was not free of the addiction at that time, but I was free of the heavy burden of expectation and performance.

Máire’s life was a testimony and the validation behind her encouragement to find what I would give to the world. Her passion was Irish culture, music and art.

At the age of 40, after raising five children, she stepped out to complete her college degree. She authored and published five books about traditional Irish music, its history, tunes and dance, winning a prestigious award from Ireland’s President.

Her joyful fiddle playing delighted everyone. Even into her final days, her personal mission was to preserve the spirit of Ireland’s past and ensure it would spill over into the next century and not be lost…and to continue encouraging others to share their “music” with the world.

Máire’s wisdom and ability to see into my soul, and her embracing love and encouragement changed my life completely and shifted my entire world view. There was such joy, acceptance and unconditional love in that home. Her alcoholic husband never got sober, but she loved him still. She found and lived her passion and encouraged others to do the same.

Máire’s life was not about perfection. It was about passion, unconditional loving, encouragement and giving to others. She awakened my potential, and the ability to measure myself not on the outside, but on the inside.

I continue to live with Máire’s words of encouragement, in the shadow of her acceptance and knowledge that I would give to the world in unique ways. I can honestly say she completely changed me and freed me to embrace the personal freedom to just be me. Máire McDonnell-Garvey was my “great emancipator.”

Complete personal freedom came in stages for me, but Máire opened the cell door. And with a grateful heart I now celebrate 32 years of being free of my addiction, and I make the choice to be free every day.

Over the years, with her words still ringing in my ears, I have discovered my passion, purpose and my faith in a loving God. Through it all, one of my greatest discoveries is that I also have the power and opportunity to free others.

I have been blessed to experience that joy many times in my work and my personal life. It takes a lot less than we think.

Someone you know, or someone you may meet very soon, is just like I was, enslaved by expectations, standards, “have-to’s,” and comparisons. You may hold the key that unlocks those chains. Your interest, your encouragement, your acceptance can change a life.

Who can you set free today? Tomorrow?

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Beyond Survival: 10 Critical Keys to Leading People from Victims to Victors

May 21st, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Disasters and catastrophes are part of life, and we have certainly had our share of these recently. Whether man-made, corporate, acts of nature, or acts of evil, we can’t change the fact that we will experience them.

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. They can be man-made debacles at the corporate level. They can be tragic events in personal lives. They can be natural events that devastate individuals and entire communities. Life is full of these things, and as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” The disasters of life interrupt us, and sometimes even stop us dead in our tracks.

Regardless of the nature and causes of any kind of catastrophic event, in any place, the road to victory is the same. Leadership is the same, and requires the same skills, attitudes and actions. The questions are always the same. What do I do now? Can I survive this? Can we survive this? Can we ever know victory again, or are we consigned to being mere victims?


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Of Tigers & Termites -Introduction to the Summit Advance Model

May 20th, 2013 at 10:36 pm

On The Yellow Brick road to Oz, Dorothy fearfully and famously uttered, “lions, and tigers and bears, oh my!” as she linked arms with the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion.  The road to Oz was full of hidden dangers, obstacles, unknown evils, and unexpected surprises – even flying monkeys.  The yellow brick road is life itself.  It leads not to Oz, but to a large mountain —and a life altering choice.


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Taking A Stand! Are you an Ostrich or a Story Teller?

November 12th, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Question: If you could stand up and defend anything, what would it be?

I was asked this question recently in an interview with Women With Know How Magazine, and wanted to share my response. As you read what I will stand up and defend, I hope it inspires you to consider your own answer to this question.

My Answer:

We all need to be heard and understood through our stories.

Did you know that by the year 2050, 97% of the 438 million people who join the workforce will be from emerging economies?  I read this in an article by Michael Taylor titled “Emerging Markets, Emerging Talent.”  An emerging economy can be defined as one of “foreign” origin, growing, yet possibly volatile, promising huge potential growth but also posing significant political, financial and social risks.

This statistic, while impossible to imagine, certainly is predictive of what the business world might look like, especially for those of us who work and live in the United States. Closing the gap between where we are today and where we need to be in order to survive and thrive in this new place, should not be left to futurists while we pretend and promote “business as usual.”  Change is hard, so we practice good ostrich posture. 

If we are ready to call ourselves citizens of the world, not just of our national allegiance, we need to get moving now.  But what does that mean?  For one thing, we definitely cannot be in true community until we feel connected.  Connections are formed in sharing life stories, knowing where we and others have been and are going.  Only in knowing someone’s “story” can we truly know them, be connected to them, and hope to have any kind of working relationship with them.

For the last four years, I have had the privilege of visiting and working in Central and East Africa as an executive coach and organizational development consultant.  Africa is often viewed as an exciting Safari adventure, or the chance of discovering hidden ancient treasures. The reality is what we don't see on travel brochures or in blockbuster movies. It is a reality of devastation, hunger, genocide, disease and orphaned children.

In the course of these four years, I have had two profound experiences. One happened in Uganda, where I was an American woman somehow responsible for providing a week-long leadership summit for fifty African leaders from eight different countries. For months, we designed and planned and designed again. Yet the same question surfaced over and over. Will what we do be relevant to their world?  Will our ideas about leadership and how organizations change be viewed more like the colonials who have historically responded with power grabs among perceived weaker peoples?

The leadership retreat gave me the gift of knowing the essential ingredient, the “secret sauce,” in facilitating this and any future transformational leadership experience – including doing business with “emerging economies.”  I’ve already stated it:  You can't truly know someone until you know his or her story.  This is it.  This is the way.  This is the only way.  People make up those emerging economies, and people have stories.  And, until they are known, and you are known through our stories, no one can even begin to trust a newly combined community when change is happening quickly and the whole future is at stake.   And without mutual trust, there is no long-term endurance to any community.

At this leadership retreat in Uganda, each night after dinner, we listened, laughed, cried and learned to know the pain and joy of becoming victorious over the most challenging survival stories.  We listened as one story led to another.  We listened until there was only shared silence.  Fifty African leaders shared their personal and communal stories of transformation from victims of circumstance into victors of hope and change. And, then they listened to ours. How powerful it was to be known by my own story. Now all fifty leaders, and the four of us who supported this week, are knitted together through our life stories.  Real trust began those nights.  Our focus was not just internal, it was external, larger than any one of us separately and greater even than all of us combined.  Individual stories became shared stories.  Individual lives became a community.  We found shared strength in each other’s stories.

Yet, less than two years later, I almost abandoned what I found and declared to be true.  This was my other profound, life-changing experience in Africa.  After nine months of serious training to attempt a climb of Africa’s awesome Mt. Kilimanjaro, and a successful effort to raise awareness and money to help multiple initiatives in East Africa, the day to start our climb brought me to my knees, to my own ego-driven struggles.  It wasn’t about anyone else’s story at that moment.  It was only about mine. 

With the known odds of less than 50% of people making it to the summit, I was quickly sobered into an ego-centric fear. What would I tell my family, friends and colleagues if I did not finish? I journaled about my anxieties, and shamefully had to honestly acknowledge that what I once billed as a “Climb for A Purpose,” became only a me-centered solo potential for failure.  I had forgotten my climbing community, and was only focused on my personal fears.  What would it mean to me if I did not make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro?  At that moment I didn’t care much about anyone else.  Just thinking about what might lay ahead, climbing 19,341 feet (and the very real potential of altitude sickness), through five different climates, six days of living in tents, and summit temperatures of 15 degrees below zero, consumed me.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a team challenge.  There were six of us, including the guide, yet my personal ego, pride and real fear kicked in, and my judgment about others included having quick and unfounded opinions of them.  Thankfully, during the trek, the same ritual of sharing life stories emerged. One by one, I was able to know each of my fellow climbers through their stories and they came to know me through mine. Bonds and trust grew, and fears subsided because I came out of my personal space into a community place.  And when it really counted, each of us had opportunity to be our best for one another during the climb.  And, the end result?  The sweet victory of all six of us standing atop Uhuru Peak.

While not everyone has an appetite to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or to travel halfway around the world to work, the realities of our global world require that we embrace others different from ourselves.  We must reconcile our differences and suspend our judgments by hearing each other’s stories.  People are people, not matter where they are from.  We all have our stories.  Whether it is an emerging economy or a new seemingly strange community, success is found in shared story.

My work experiences in Africa and on other continents have transformed me.  The global community is growing, and I will be ready.  Will you?  I have been touched by the lyrics from Brooke Fraser’s song, “Albertine.”  It speaks of the stories of Rwanda, and the horrors experienced there.  Once we know the stories, we cannot resume ostrich status.  Fraser sings:

“ that I have seen, I am responsible
Faith without deeds is dead
now that I have held you in my own arms, I cannot let go till you are.”

I will never let go of the people I have swapped stories with in Africa and other places.  Their stories are now mine, and mine theirs.  I will not let go – I will embrace.  This is the only way we will succeed globally, the only way we will achieve peace of any kind.

Are you an ostrich, or a story teller?  Do you hear the stories of others different than you, and embrace them?  Something to think about as we ponder our future together.


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Eve of our Kili Climb

September 17th, 2012 at 12:32 pm

September 16, 2012

Anticipation has us all about to pop! Sharing three reflections of the day. Final briefing meeting in just an hour, dinner, bedtime, the last of the showers for six days and then time to "get it done".


1. Climb your own mountain- wise leaders always know that when facing challenges or new territories, seeking good counsel is a success differentiator.  However, there is a time to "let's roll" and wise leaders act on what they know. A group arrived last night just finishing their climb and I noticed myself going into investigative reporter mode. How cold was it at the top, how painful were your hands and feet. Did you get sick? And how sick was that? Did you get any sleep?  None of their responses gave me new information. I reminded myself I am on purposes, I have prepared and it is time to let go.  All of this additional and redundant info was the wrong place to focus.    When I woke up this morning, I made a conscious choice to Climb My Own Mountain. And, in that, I will have the peace that I have gotten good counsel and will act on what I know a day at a time, step by step.

2. Dance with the date you brought-  A good golf teaching professional will talk about this phrase when their student is playing competitive golf. Once you are warmed up and begin, whatever game you brought to the course is the game you must play.   We never gain a performance edge trying to change our swing or try new tips on the golf course.  Today when I lay out on the hotel bed all of my clothes, my gear, equipment, fun snacks, etc another emotion kicked up.  We will be in five different climates starting at 95 degrees at base camp with the Summit temperatures dipping below zero. While I spent days packing judiciously, the "I wish I had brought..." crept in. That Patagonia blue gortex jacket didn't make it into the duffle and now that was on my mind.  We counted out at home the number of hand and feet warmers and now it seemed that there would never be enough of them.  Then the phrase, dance with the date you brought settled me down. We had arrived in Moshi, Tanzania, Africa and our climbing expedition had begun when we arrived. Focus on dancing with the date I brought to the dance!

3.  Expect the unexpected- how would I personally handle myself if I traveled halfway around the world and my two duffles packed with essential clothing, equipment, diamox for altitude sickness and personal comfort "stuff" was lost as I was about to attempt Mount Kilimanjaro.  Would my attitude plummet? Would I call it quits?  Well this father/daughter team has given us infectious inspiration as this exact thing that happened to them. And, it has been a real gift to me.   I have been able to deepen my appreciation for the two above lessons and see how we as a climbing team could share and help secure resources to back fill their equipment needs.  Additionally, the grace and courage they have demonstrated is fuel for my heart.  I will expect the unexpected in the days to come with two role models for personal leadership.

Today's African Phrase Hakuna Matata- there are no worries

-Joan O. Wright, MSW, Master Certified Coach

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Feeding the Mountain Beast of our Own Making

September 10th, 2012 at 5:51 pm


"The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

Winston Churchill

Philippians 4:2- I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

We are four days away from the start of our Mount Kilimanjaro climb, a mere 19,341 feet high. I am experiencing a range of emotions and not proud of two - anxiety and fear.

Since January we have trained diligently, raised a significant amount of money, studied our route, built a team, and let countless family, friends and colleagues know about our dream of Summiting. I have known our purpose deeply - we are doing this to raise money, resources and awareness for the neediest people in Central and East Africa.

Our Route
Our Route

So why am letting fear and anxiety creep in??? As a trained therapist and executive coach, I know these emotions are normal and natural. However, I need to remember that stewing on these emotions will sabotage this entire experience. Thus, feeding the mountain beast of my own making. For example, Fear -what happens if I am one of the 50% that doesn't make it to the top? Remember ABC's Wide World of Sports and the Agony of Defeat? Anxiety-with all the adrenaline pumping through my veins that I will not be able to sleep at night, not to mention knowing me, I am NOT A camper. I am a Starwood Preferred Platinum traveler and stay at the best hotels I can because of my travel miles. Expressing my anxieties about sleep, my friend Ellen said, "why are you so worried about your sleep Joan? You can sleep when you get home."

Yesterday a former client and close friend just finished his firm retreat. He talked about his role as a leader. Despite the deep fears and anxieties his team has been battling for four years due to this economic climate especially in their industry, he knows he must lead himself and his team out of the survivor mentality. As a leader, he had to create a compelling vision for their future. One that engages not their negative emotions but the passion and gifts they bring daily to their work and their ability to delight and solve the biggest problems for their clients. Ding, Ding, Ding, that's the focus I need to have. Not thinking about the next two weeks as just getting through- surviving the extreme physical, mental and emotional challenges but thriving in the experience of it. I need to raise my attitude towards the altitude I am traveling. I am reminded that this is why I signed up to do this in the first place. While being in Service to Central and East Africa- Senai Global and ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries), I am on Mount Kilimanjaro to get stronger in leadership and life.

- Joan O. Wright, MSW/Master Certified Coach


Tags: Climb


Climb for a Purpose – Journey UP to Significance

September 5th, 2012 at 3:11 pm


Climb for a Purpose – Journey UP to Significance 

We have all heard the joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” And we all know the answer: “To get to the other side.” So when anyone asks me why I am climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, my answer is “To get to the other side.”Why? Because getting to the other side has very special meaning to me. It represents the side of Significance.

My book, UP – Pursuing Significance in Leadership and Life, uses climbing a mountain as an analogy with reaching the Summit as its ultimate reward. On the left side of the mountain is the Pursuit of Success to be “best in” what you do. And yet many who are on this side called Success feel a void. I know this void. Why? Because success can leave you still feeling empty, in spite of countless accomplishments. This is what makes getting to the other side of the mountain, the right side, so powerful and meaningful. Because the other side is focused on the Pursuit of Significance and being “best for.” Instead of emptiness, there is peace and contentment. There is excitement as you witness first-hand what being “best for” really means.

This blog is called Pursuing Significance because the pursuit is an everyday adventure into knowing ourselves and others better in order to do better and be better for others. Our willingness to be authentic in our pursuit of significance also means being honest and willing to let our vulnerabilities show.

I have a confession to make.

When I publicly committed to making this climb, I exposed an aspect of myself that was selfishly real and that I am not very proud of. My initial excitement in making the climb was in how it would be best for me. About being in better shape and losing weight while getting to eat more because of the intense training involved. As I caught myself thinking these things, I reminded myself of one of the most important characteristics it takes to get to the side of Significance. The courage to look at oneself and acknowledge when we have gone astray, and then bravely reset the course to be focused on and for others instead of ourselves.

I am excited to be making this “Climb for a Purpose” with my husband, Mot, whom I love and admire so deeply. I am humbled by the generosity and support of everyone who is cheering us on during our climb. I am scared, and yet exhilarated by what I will learn and encounter along the climb. And I am grateful for this opportunity to get to the other side.

Most of all, I look forward to sharing the climb with you through this blog. Not just the climb to the Summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but the climb we are all striving to make toward Pursuing Significance.

- Joan O. Wright, MSW, Master Certified Coach


Pursuing Significance – An Introduction

Pursuing Significance Video Blog
Introduction & Welcome – 90 Seconds

Welcome to Pursuing Significance, a blog created for you.

You have come to a place without borders or boundaries, where we can engage in community conversations about leadership, life and our natural human instinct to pursue significance. You were directed here or were drawn here because of your own beliefs that there is more that you were meant to do.

This blog will open your eyes to the possibilities that exist within you. It will challenge you … inspire you … affirm you … empower you … and support you in your journey towards Significance. Because we all have Significance in us … and it is my pleasure and passion to help you bring your Significance into being.

- Joan O. Wright, MSW / Master Certified Coach

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