Forced Ingenuity

September 4, 2020

Poundmaker’s Lodge is an addiction and mental-health facility specializing in treatment for Indigenous peoples located just north of Edmonton, Alberta. In 2004, I attended a sweat ceremony there led by Big Futures Inc. with a group of 10 other entrepreneurs looking to up their leadership game through a program called Thunderbirds.

We drove out to the site, feeling pretty impressed with ourselves in our expensive cars and european suits. We parked next to a grassy field outside the lodge. We stood together yet apart, each of us uneasy beneath our veneer of cool, eyeing a makeshift hut covered in buffalo hides and rubber mats. A First Nations elder greeted us, cigarette burning between his weathered fingers. The deep creases and scars on his face reflected a tougher life than any of us could relate to.

He asked for our help in moving fresh-cut cedar onto an open fire laden with large rocks. Shifting uneasily in the wind and smoke, we listened to him as he shared his story with us. It was a story riddled with alcohol addiction, death, destruction and struggle. He spoke openly about his journey through darkness and into the light.

After a long silence, he started placing red-hot rocks with a long shovel into a pit in the hut. We were then instructed to change into our shorts, crouching in the long grass. Feeling vulnerable and unprepared, we filed in and crammed ourselves into the darkness of the hut.

It was pitch black and the heat was intense. Huddled next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, sitting on the dirt floor, our eyes burned in the thick smoke. The elder entered the hut, sat cross-legged on the ground and pulled a piece of rubber mat over the entranceway. Layers of unimaginable heat settled over us, each more oppressive than the last. The elder began to sing in Cree, his low voice emanating through the heat to the beat of his drum. The heat came in waves, accentuated by the sound of sizzling steam as he intermittently dipped a wooden ladle into a bucket and poured cool water over the red-hot rocks.

The purpose of this exercise, we were told, was to force our minds into a meditative state, a state fuelled with creativity, impelled by the unrelenting heat. In the elder’s words, we were being transported from a world of abundance and comfort into a world of suffering and scarcity. The only way for our bodies to endure the heat would be to allow our minds to escape it. The exercise would allow us to discover the source of our ingenuity.

Several companions wrestled with this over the first few minutes of the sweat. Cursing under their breath, they made for their escape. But most of us endured through the intensity and found ourselves struggling to escape mentally, moving our attention far away from the smoke, the darkness, and the insufferable heat. Closing my eyes, I imagined myself soaring in the cool air above the hut, floating in the sky. I noticed an Osprey soaring beside me. We hovered there together awhile, aerial companions in a universe of infinite possibilities. (Sorry about that last line… couldn’t help myself.)

In this current time of scarcity — a time when our financial future is unknown and we’re grappling with… all of it — I’m noticing more and more a kind of forced ingenuity starting to emerge. Some people are being forced into a broader and more resourceful perspective by these outside circumstances. People are shifting their attention away from the heat and toward a place of creativity. Entrepreneurial thinkers are shifting from traditional methods of conducting their business, inventing new ideas, creating new possibilities.

Adam Kreek, former Men’s Eight Olympic gold medallist and author of The Responsibility Ethic, shared a story with me a few years ago about his near-death attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat. Kreek and his companions found themselves capsized in the middle of the ocean after 73 days at sea. Floating in frigid water with their lives flashing before their eyes and their dreams of crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat crushed, Kreek and his team quickly adjusted course:

We really didn’t have any choice in the matter, he recalls. We had to get resourceful and creative, like our lives depended on it.

As a special advisor to Roy Group, a world-class leadership training firm led by Ian Chisholm, I’ve had the privilege of chatting with their remarkable team of practice leaders over the course of this crisis. During a recent call, we explored this concept together. It occurred to me that we had made a shift. Last week, we were in defence mode. Battening down the hatches. Discussing cash flow. Cutting extraneous expenses. We had been focused on the heat. But this felt different. I noticed that our conversation was fuelled with possibility. In Chisholm’s words:

I wonder how we might make this crisis the best thing that ever happened to us, our families and our businesses?

Great question. One that, for me, takes me immediately out of the heat and into that sky of possibilities.

There is a distilled focus emerging, Chisholm wrote in a recent letter to colleagues.

It is, I sense, an energy reserved for times of adversity — an extra gear that we didn’t know our transmissions were equipped with. With scarcity comes a newfound resourcefulness. It’s a mindset more valuable to me, to our organizations and to this planet than a mindset of perpetual abundance. This internal focus and energy echoes the intensity of the close-up portraits of healthcare workers in the media. There is a fierce beauty that has brimmed to the surface in their courage, their sacrifice and effort. The potential for that same courage and effort resides within us all.

Leaders are flipping the script and examples of ingenuity are showing up daily. From small selfless moves toward ways of supporting others through the crisis, to massive and blazing-fast transformations in the way we operate, leaders are rising above the fear of the unknown — the gripping heat — and toward that open space of possibility.

As I grapple with this and ask myself, How am I able to show up?, I hope to embrace this question and spend some time ruminating on it. And at the same time, I hope that we can also meet this from a place of humility — in a way that reflects what Chisholm acknowledges to be true of authentic leadership: Honest. Not polished. Real. Flawed. Riddled with the dents and insecurities that come with being a human.