By Diane M. Millis
SkyLight Paths Publishing, March 2015, 176 pp.
Diane M. Millis works with the Collegeville Institute Seminars as the interviewer and producer of the Lives Explored video storytelling project on vocation. She is an educator, spiritual director, and author.
In this excerpt from her book Deepening Engagement: Essential Wisdom for Listening and Leading with Purpose, Meaning and Joy, Diane shares the story of François from the Lives Explored project as a leader who seeks to serve with joy.
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
—Howard Thurman, Violence Unveiled
As a child growing up in Burkina Faso, François dreamed of becoming president. He wanted to be an agent of change and make a big impact on others’ lives. In college, he found himself drawn to the study of sociology, because he loved learning about people. However, after completing a master’s degree in sociology the only work he could find in his country was teaching, and he did not feel called to teach. His sister encouraged him to immigrate to the United States.
Finding work in the United States proved to be equally difficult, at least initially. He began washing dishes in a restaurant. Over time, the owner of the restaurant entrusted him with more and more responsibility. He soon learned how to prepare desserts and was eventually given funding to attend the French Culinary Institute in New York City. When asked to describe his life’s calling, he sums it up in two words: baker and lover.
I met François in 2013 when I interviewed him for a film series I produce called Lives Explored. In this series, we feature stories of deeply engaged persons from all walks of life reflecting upon what gives their lives purpose and meaning. Throughout our conversation, he invoked the wisdom of the sixteenth-century saint, Francis de Sales: Be who you are and be that well.
As he talked about his current work, I noticed that he didn’t focus primarily on his position as a supervisor for Sara Lee Bakery. Rather, his sense of calling at work transcended any particular role in his workplace. He reflected:
My job is to make sure that the product that we put out there is of higher quality. That’s something that is dear to my heart, to put out quality products for customers. At the same time, I want to make sure the people I work with love working with me, enjoy the fact that I interact with them and the fact that I care about them. It’s not just about the product; I care about the people I work with, ask them how they’re doing, how’s their family, the little things that go a long way.
The employees like to know that you care about their lives outside of work. I like to be part of their lives, know how they’re feeling out of work. It brings a lot of joy to my heart. I come home, and I am happy that we put a great product out there and the employees are enjoying working with me and doing a good job and loving what they do. Those are two elements that I really hold dear to my heart.
I have watched François’s interview numerous times and featured his story in many presentations. What I cherish so much about his story is his unabashed commitment to offer love and care to those with whom he works.
While he fully acknowledges that some people view his love and care as a sign of weakness, he nonetheless persists in engaging others in this manner, as he believes that “you can’t fail by being loving to someone. You can never fail in that. It might take time, but there is no way you can fail in being loving.”
What Does It Mean to Be Deeply Engaged?
François is one of the leaders I have personally encountered who epitomizes a life of deepening engagement. What most differentiates these deeply engaged leaders from the other leaders with whom I have worked is their overriding concern for their way of being in the world rather than the positions they hold or the roles they occupy.
Like François, these deeply engaged leaders consistently speak about their aspirations, including:
- To engage the deepest part of their being—their inner compass, core, or true self.
- To deeply engage others through their curiosity, concern, and generous presence.
- To build communities of deep engagement that cultivate, support, and encourage the practice of love, care, and compassion.
My life has been devoted to working with all those who seek to deepen their engagement with their true selves, engage others more deeply, and build communities of deep engagement.
As a spiritual director and retreat facilitator, I meet with individuals and facilitate groups designed to help people learn how to engage with the deepest part of their being.
As an educator and college professor, I offer workshops and teach courses designed to increase our capacity to engage deeply those with whom we live and work.
As a consultant and coach, I work with leaders in an array of sectors and settings—corporate, education, health care, ministry, nonprofit, and philanthropic—to help them cultivate communities of deep engagement.
In my first book, Conversation—The Sacred Art: Practicing Presence in an Age of Distraction (SkyLight Paths), I explored how our everyday conversations offer gateways for cultivating greater self-awareness, awareness of the other, and compassion in our communities. I drew upon insights and practices from many faith traditions that help us initiate more mindful engagement in our everyday encounters.
As I travel and teach about the art of conversation, I meet more and more people who are looking for frameworks and language to deepen their engagement in conversations that are often difficult to have in public settings—for example, how to find greater purpose and meaning in the midst of our daily routines, struggles, and challenges. In particular, I receive numerous requests for presentations and workshops on deep listening.
From what I see, there seems to be a growing concern with listening in our current age. As Bob Johansen, former president and CEO of the Institute for the Future and author of Leaders Make the Future, observes:
LISTENING FOR THE FUTURE is hard work. Leaders must learn how to listen through the noise of a VUCA World of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. But leaders can make a better future. We need not and should not passively accept any future as a given.
More and more of us are seeking better ways to listen through all the noise as we struggle to make meaning of our lives, especially the many aspects we find most disquieting.
Regardless of who we are or what we do for a living, each of us has opportunities to listen, lead, and contribute to shaping a better future. Our capacity to lead does not depend on whether or not we occupy a formal position of leadership. Our capacity to lead a deeply engaged life stems from the qualities—that is, the habits, dispositions, attitudes, and skills—we bring to our everyday relationships and responsibilities.