In his autobiographical novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce powerfully describes the discovery of his vocation as a writer as a calling to notice epiphanies and describe them to others. “Notice” is such an interesting word. The world flashes by us in so many colors, often at such great speed. To notice is to receive a gift. It is a moment of focus – a split second of clarity in seeing that which might go unnoticed. For Joyce, an epiphany was an intense noticing of the unnoticed, and then its capture in words to be shared.
To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
To notice is such a gift, but to reveal it to others so poetically, is truly sublime! We may not always be able to capture such epiphanies so beautifully, but we can certainly work on our noticing. Cleaning my mental slate through four weeks of travel abroad, the return to the beautiful normal of my life has felt like a cascade of epiphanies. Perhaps much of it rests in the sentimental flood of a return to all that is cherished. But there is more to be noticed beyond even the gloriously emotive world of children and grandchildren – though such noticing is itself a sublime gift.
Driving home from from the office the other day, I glimpsed a man sitting in a wheelchair on a sidewalk along a parking lot. I was chin-deep in rush hour traffic and the man was sitting behind a building off to the right, so I found it a bit odd that he caught my eye. However, I knew the building to be an assisted living facility, and there was something dramatic about the lone figure sitting at the edge of the parking lot.
The man was bundled tightly in what looked like an old, olive drab, army issue jacket. He had a hood over his head and his wheelchair was sitting on the curb, facing the parking lot. He was situated at the end of the sidewalk and two small American flags on long stems bobbed in the slight breeze. His legs were wrapped in a blanket and he was motionless as he sat in the sunshine on this warm November day.
My mind wandered over his image, creating its own stories to explain his reality. Perhaps he was a war veteran and the sunshine helped ease his PTSD. Maybe he was in memory care and the fresh air provided glimpses of clarity. Maybe he was waiting for his son and granddaughter to pick him up and take him to get a milkshake. I was past him in seconds, and as I drove away, the one thing that really stayed with me was an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
My small prayer: may he know today that he is noticed. May we all.
Leadership Beyond the Cliche
Last Friday, we had the opportunity to attend the Marian University Gala in downtown Indianapolis. Though familiar with Marian, neither Sally nor I are alumni, and we have no formal ties to the University. We were invited to sit at a friend’s table and it was our first time at this event – an impressive affair with over 2000 people in attendance. We watched the various speakers, enjoyed the food and conversation, and were happy to recognize many people from our broad community here in Indianapolis.
Toward the end of the evening, the President of the University, Dan Elsener, stood up to give his remarks. Dan is actually a relatively new friend of ours and this was our first opportunity to hear him speak formally on Marian. If he had a formal speech prepared and teleprompters in place, he quickly went off-script as he walked away from the podium, and proceeded to use the full length of the long stage to address the audience on all sides. The President spoke at length of the University, its staff, students, and supporters – all good, all compelling. However, I was most struck by how he carried himself, and the room, and wanted to share a few observations that might serve as lessons for all of us wanting to improve our leadership game.
- Really Human = Really Compelling. However he prepared, Elsener’s off-script approach came across as human, from the heart, and compelling. He wasn’t reading a speech, he was speaking from his experience, his intention, and his heart.
- Humility = Empathy. Elsener was commanding in his presence but his remarks and bearing were not about him. He shared praise, credit, and acknowledgments, liberally with many who were present, and many who were not present. His audience felt it and his humility was very endearing.
- Passion = Engagement. Elsener was clearly passionate about his mission as a leader and the mission of Marian University. He moved smoothly between the emotion of giving powerful examples of caring and leadership from students and supporters, as well as the motivation of the higher calling of what’s ahead. His approach rallied while it celebrated.
- Involvement = Commitment. As I looked around during his remarks, I could see the buy-in and enthusiasm of this crowd. From students to donors, the audience was all-in on the journey of this institution so far, and its mission for the future. Elsener shared three primary objectives, a unifying theme for the school and those interested in its future, as he challenged all of us to be a part of the journey. It worked.
As we were standing there afterward, many of those we spoke with were not alumni nor had a specific tie to the university…until Elsener had invited them in. Person after person was a convert of some form to the mission of Marian and directly drawn-in by Dan Elsener. It turns out that this leader’s greatest strength may lie in his ability to draw others to the mission. As a magnet to talent and those with a fire for something more, he has created a movement with undeniable momentum. The speech was pretty darn good, but the extended leadership effort, now for over 20 years, shows a resilience and integrity that cannot be sustained with a few impassioned speeches. Such staying power points far beyond traditional leadership cliche.
Elsener’s example of leadership was compelling but the most powerful message of the night did not come from the stage or the video monitors. When Sally and I first sat down at our table, we noticed that in a room that was full of gray-haired supporters of the University, our table and all of those around us were filled with younger attendees (yours truly notwithstanding). As the night wore on, we finally discovered a powerful behind-the-scenes story.
Ten years ago, Marian launched its School of Osteopathic Medicine. A very bold and risky venture backed by some visionary leaders from our community. Now, the school has graduated its 1000th physician and we discovered that the tables around us were filled with young physicians. Sitting at our friends’ table, we noticed that these young physicians kept coming over to visit with our host and his wife.
Immediately after dinner, a young physician stood up to celebrate the Medical School in some remarks on his experience with it. Shortly into his speech, he referenced our host, and my friend, Dr. Jim Pike, by name. It seems that Dr. Pike has been a key mentor for this young physician during Medical School, and beyond. We came to discover that the young physicians at the tables around us all had similar stories. Somehow, someway, Dr. Pike (with the help of his wife Jan) has managed to play a pivotal role in the lives and careers of these physicians while running his own practice as a full-time physician, helping start free clinics, serving as Medical Director for nursing homes, and being a friend to people like me. Only part of which I knew until the other night.
The Epiphany of Showing Up
In a room of 2000 people, I’m certain there are many compelling stories of sacrifice, support, and love. However, I was dumbfounded to learn that one of the biggest stories of the Marian Gala centers on the kind and humble man I know as Jim, who has quietly been showing up for young physicians (and it turns out, many others) for the last 10 years and well beyond. It turns out that the difference-making potential of one human being invested into many people over many years sums to an exponential result that is as profoundly dramatic as it is sublimely discreet. It is the sum of small things and they manifest in a steady showing up.
I wonder about all of the others who continue to show up in the small as well as the big. The small moments. The small decisions. The small hopes and dreams. The sum of which is truly exponential. Thus we have the big vision of Marian, manifested in a thousand small hopes, big to each individual, and sustained through the efforts of the humble and the quiet, showing up day after day after day.
And We Stand Fast
The leadership example of a Dan Elsener and the servant mentor example of a Jim Pike serve to remind us of the power of remaining steadfast. What happens when we stand fast at our post, diligently fulfilling our duty over time? The callings that fall upon each of us will demand something different in time, place, and effort, but our need to be steady, to “man our post,” in the midst of delay, resistance, attack, doubt, and even betrayal, remains. Watching the examples of these two men and all they represent, reminds me that action, effort, and choice, over time, reveal our true mettle. Standing fast in this way creates a life of meaning and instructs the rest of us in what it means to live.
Theirs are epiphanies worth sharing.