As I sit to write this article my mailbox is starting to fill with reports from the attendees at the Integral Theory Conference near San Francisco that was held last week. If I am totally honest, I am more than a little envious of the wonderful experience that attendees seemed to have had and look forward to experiencing the aftershocks, if not, the major quake in the Integral firmament. I have no doubt that the world of Integral thinking will be radically different as we move forward and try to assimilate the lessons that were taught by both acknowledged experts and informed amateurs.
However, before I allow the mind of jealousy to dictate my reaction to all that I am reading, I have to remind myself that even if I had made arrangements to attend the conference, life decided to throw me a curve-ball and just one week before masses gathered on the West Coast, I was supporting my wife as she buried her brother following a short illness. There is nothing quite like the passing of a relative, especially one in the same age cohort, to focus the mind on what is really important in this life.
As I pondered on both the eclectic, esoteric and in some cases practical teachings emerging from the conference, and on Randy’s passing, I kept being reminded of the fact that every spiritual tradition claims that we all have an opportunity to learn from everybody who crosses our path in life. As I meditated on that thought and the fact that my deadline for this column was drawing ever closer, it struck me that the greatest way that I could honor my departed brother-in-law would be to share some of the lessons that he taught me, just by being himself.
First let me tell you a little about Randy in order to create a context for his teachings. Born in Oceanside, Long Island in 1954, Randy was dealt a pretty bad hand for his life ahead. His mother’s OB/GYN doctor had standing orders that none of his patients were allowed to deliver their babies unless he was present. Randy obviously didn’t know the rules and decided to come whilst the doctor was still at dinner. The nurse on duty took the standing orders literally and placed a pillow between my mother-in-law’s legs to delay the birth, even though he was crowning! As a consequence Randy suffered extensive brain damage that was to affect him for the rest of his life.
That said, the family tried to lead as “normal” a life as possible and in a world where Special Education was still a pipe dream, Randy was introduced to the mainstream school system with no special support. Sue still remembers his first day in school; at around 10:30 the Principal came to her classroom to ask if she knew where her brother was? He had disappeared from his classroom and everybody was in a total panic. Sue went with the Principal to try and find Randy and after about 5 minutes they found him sitting at the back of a completely different class totally engrossed in the lesson being taught. When asked why he had left his classroom? He responded, “it was boring, so I looked for something more interesting!”
The path of life ahead of Randy had some more cruel twists and turns in it. At the age of 16 he suffered his first psychotic break. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and started on a twenty-year journey from psychiatric facility to psychiatric facility, while attempting to find a regime that could accommodate both his physical and psychological disorders. Talking to his family about the ordeal that both he and they went through is to hear of horrors that even Stephen King couldn’t write about in one of his books and be believed. If you were ever shocked by the portrayal of psychiatric care in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you really have only scratched the surface.
Eventually, Randy ended up in a facility in Baltimore and came under the care of a newly qualified psychiatrist who tried to treat Randy as a whole human being, rather than a set of symptoms to be suppressed. With hindsight I would say she took an integral approach long before the term had become popular. She devised a regime for Randy that allowed him to function reasonably well and not need to be constantly supervised to prevent him doing harm to himself and to others. The only problem was that the drugs in the cocktail recommended for him contraindicated each other and were highly toxic. The facility ordered the doctor to rescind the regime; she refused as to do so would, in her opinion, be contrary to the Hippocratic Oath. As a consequence, she was fired from the facility.
The bureaucracy associated with the doctor’s termination gave the family a chance to see and demonstrate that the regime worked and, as a consequence, they managed to get him into a Group Home about 100 miles North of New York City. Everything was set for his move when the New York Department of Health threatened to veto it due to the potential downside of his medication regime. Frenetic telephone conversations late into the night led to the Commissioner of Health being prepared to authorize the move, if the family could find a doctor willing to take responsibility for the drug regime in up-state New York. They had 48 hours to find a doctor otherwise the move was off and Randy was to be returned to his cauterized emotional state being sedated until he died.
In a world before the Internet, the family started to work their way through the Yellow Pages to try and find a doctor willing to pick up the gauntlet that had been thrown down. Thankfully, they managed to find a professor of psychiatry in New York City who was sufficiently intrigued by Randy’s details who actually called them back. With his interest piqued, he was moving towards acceptance when the family told him that Randy was being moved to a Group Home 100 miles North of the City. He burst out laughing when they told him where Randy was going, as it was less than 15 minutes drive from his weekend home and he would be able to see Randy regularly when he went up there.
Approximately 16 years ago Randy moved into the group home and started to lead a life commensurate with his coping skills. He had responsibilities around the house and went to work at a sheltered facility 3 or 4 days each week. Sue tells an anecdotal story of how that move was to change not only Randy’s life but also that of his family, the staff who looked after him and the other home members who got to know him over time. As Sue and her mother were discussing details about Randy’s care, he shuffled out of the room and disappeared. Just like his first day at school, the alarm went up and everybody went searching for Randy.
Sue eventually found him in his room sitting on the bed crying. When she asked him why he was so sad, his answer had a deep and profound impact on her. “Do you know,” he asked, “how long it has been since I have had a room to sleep in that has a door that I can close? Do you know how it feels to have privacy?”
As you can see from the brief description of Randy’s life, there is little or no chance that he would ever attend a conference on Integral Theory let alone present a paper or attempt to overtly teach a lesson about leadership. Yet, in the quiet moments since he passed away it occurs to me that anybody who had the privilege to be touched by Randy in their life had an opportunity to learn some deep and potentially life serving skills and capabilities.
Whenever we drove to visit with Randy, it was always a journey tinged with trepidation. We never knew exactly which Randy we were going to be visiting with: the Randy with the weight of the world seemingly sitting on his shoulders or the lighter more “playful” Randy, eagerly looking forward to the visit. In retrospect it didn’t matter, because the one constant Randy that was always waiting was the one who had the ability to touch the corners of your soul that are normally well hidden away. And that was Randy’s first lesson to anybody who visited with him—be true to yourself and how you are feeling in the moment, because that was exactly how he was going to be.
Randy was an “Authenticity Mirror” and he reflected back to you rapidly when you were being inauthentic. He didn’t mind if you were happy or sad, irritated or totally at ease. Just don’t pretend to be something that you are not. How often do we waste time and energy suppressing how we really feel or try to connect to somebody else who is doing the same? As a leader we need to get close to others and that can only be achieved if we are authentic and encourage others to be the same. When you are with somebody who hasn’t had the time or the conditioning to be otherwise, it is a wonderfully enlightening experience to realize how simple it really is to be true to yourself.
The next lesson that I learnt from Randy came when I went to visit him for the very first time. When we arrived, he informed us that he had decided to take up jogging and that he would be much better able to do so if he had a new pair of running shoes. I was later to discover that the need for new running shoes was a standing conversation between Sue and Randy. Nonetheless, we made a pilgrimage to Footlocker, and Randy knew exactly which pair of sneakers he wanted—you have a lot to answer for Michael Jordan. The staff in the store treated Randy with a degree of trepidation and left him to try on the chosen shoes himself.
I offered to help and bent down to tie his shoe laces for him. When the shoes were duly fastened I asked him, “Are they OK?” He replied, “I don’t know!”
A little puzzled I asked, “Why don’t you know?”
He gave me a look as if to say, “you foreigners are real stupid” and then said, “Because I am just standing in them and not running!” At which point he promptly started running in the Footlocker store, past the shocked store staff who thought, as he ran out into the mall, that he was trying to make off with the shoes, A wave of the Amex Card was needed to stop them from calling 911. About 2 minutes later he came running back, and said, “They are OK!”
From this one experience, I learnt three important lessons that I believe all aspiring leaders need to take to heart. The first is: if you are going to do something, do it with passion or don’t bother doing it at all. As I got to know Randy over the next 6 years, his actions reinforced this lesson. If he couldn’t put body, mind and soul into whatever he was doing, then he wasn’t interested. When he was interested, he became an unstoppable force and his physical limitations seemed to dissolve as he focused on his goal.
The second lesson that I learnt was how simple it is for us to fall into complacency in thinking we have the answer without necessarily experiencing the circumstances to check that our assumptions and thoughts matched reality. Randy demonstrated that you couldn’t assess the quality of the running shoes by just standing in them. You had to run in them to know if they would serve their purpose. How many times have you made decisions as a leader without having experienced the circumstances that you are deciding upon? How often do you get it right? How much is that good fortune rather than good judgment?
The third and final lesson that I learnt from this episode was how easy it is to be constricted by our ideas of expected behavior. The thought of running in running shoes, even if that means leaving the store, has such a “child-like” simplicity associated with it that as we mature we forget the obvious and constrain ourselves to the expected. The truly integral leader should have the ability to draw from these lower stages of development to inform the decisions that need to be taken.
I could give countless other experiences where Randy’s actions stopped me dead in my tracks and made me realize how we are conditioned in our behaviors and that can act as a barrier to being authentic. As a consequence, there is a risk that we will not make the most appropriate decisions that affect not just ourselves, but countless others. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all that I took from my short time with Randy was to truly embody the perennial wisdom that every person that crosses our path is a gift and has something to teach us. If we disregard that lesson because of the way he looks or the way she behaves, then we are the real losers.
Randy is no longer with us physically, but I can say with complete honesty that I know that I am a slightly more evolved individual as a result of knowing him. I take pride in including him with all the other great teachers who have crossed my path. I hope that by sharing these lessons with you here it allows Randy’s special energy to spread just a little further than might otherwise have been the case.