Prevailing In the End
In my book, keynote speech and leadership workshops, all under the title “Building Cathedrals: The Power of Purpose,” I introduce a powerful metaphor of a “Fire” to describe personal and organizational setbacks we’ve all experienced. The metaphor originates from the great fire of 1666 that leveled London. Pre 1666, London was a very medieval town. 10,000 people annually dying of the plague. The major cause of the plague was diseased carrying rats and fleas. After the fire, the rats and fleas were gone. The leaders of London were determined and succeeded in rebuilding and making London a great city. We too, like London, can come out of our personal “fires” great.
I’m sure optimism played a big part in the leaders of London as they began to rebuild. Optimism has played a significant role in my transition from 20 plus years in corporate America to now an independent business owner, realizing that while I would experience months without making any money whatsoever, I would eventually be successful. In fact my co-author, Skip Wirth, lists seven characteristics of those who come out of “fires,” with number seven being “optimism.” And while I still believe more than ever the power of being optimistic, I also realize the challenge of never confusing faith that we will prevail in the end—which we cannot afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality (our “fires”), whatever they might be.
This lesson is best explained in an interview with Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war with without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date and no certainty as to whether he would ever see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command; doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors.
During an interview, Admiral Stockdale was asked what helped him and the other survivors endure the torture and isolation. He described elaborate communications systems, strategies to reduce the sense of isolation and even coping mechanisms while being tortured. Reluctantly, the interviewer finally asked the question, “Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” He continued, “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they would say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” Stockdale then turned to the interviewer and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you cannot afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Some “Fires” last longer than others. Life is not always fair. We will all experience our personal “fires,” disappointments and setbacks for which there is no reason, no one to blame. It may be a death or it may be a job loss. It could be a divorce or recovering from alcoholism or drug abuse. What separates those who come out of the “fires of life” from those who are fatally burned is not the presence or absence of “fires,” but how we deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. Keep building your “Cathedrals” with optimism and the discipline to confront your “fires” and you will prevail in the end!
Greg Coker being interviewed on WNKY in Bowling Green, KY about the release of his book “Building Cathedrals, the Power of Purpose”. This interview was on May 16, 2012.
By Faye Christian Phillips
“WHY do you draw or paint? What do you want your work to SAY? “
These were questions posed by one of my college art professors and, at age twenty, I had no clue how to answer them. It would take a Buddhist proverb “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” along with several more years before my teacher would arrive in the form of a five-year old girl. That girl is my darling granddaughter – and she would want me to tell you up front that she is now almost seven. She has helped me see that the above questions apply equally to all interests and vocations as we seek to understand why we are attracted to, or inspired by certain people, places and things. Another universal quest is to identify the intention, meaning and purpose our work holds for us and those we share it with. (Yes, a five year old can teach us all that and so much more!)
Picasso knew all about the wisdom of children when he said, “We are all born artists. But the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”. If we observe a child, we see that she draws and paints for the sheer joy of it. That is her only why. The joy of expression removes any fear of failure as her focus is locked into the adventure of discovery in the present moment. There is simply no room for apprehension or hesitation in a little heart that creates from that magical space of joy, wonder, and pure potential.
A century ago, Robert Henri famously taught his art students to “push on to paint the spirit of the thing… because what we need is more a sense of wonder, and less of the business of making a picture.” To be honest, at first I couldn’t grasp the full meaning of that statement. (See how my patient my little teacher has been with me?) But my granddaughter’s approach to art helped me see that a bigger truth lies beneath the exuberance and joy in which work is created. When children share their art with us, we are not inclined to critique it for preciseness of drawing, color harmony, values or composition before we hang it on the refrigerator. Judgment is thrown out the window as the purity of intention surpasses those technical details. Children intuitively capture that sense of wonder Henri was referring to, because the underlying spirit of their subjects is all they see. And when we view their work, all we see is the energy and delight they bring to it. When any gift of creativity is received with the same joy it was created in, it becomes an exchange that uplifts and encourages both parties. Ultimately, we discover that if we do what we love, and simultaneously share our strengths and talents with others, we serve humanity on a higher level. Deepak Chopra connects our life’s purpose with service when he explains “…when we blend this unique talent with service to others, we experience the ecstasy and exultation of our own spirit…and lose track of time and create abundance in our own life as well as the lives of others.”
In 2007, I began writing about my art journey in a blog. My original intention was merely to share what I was doing with family and friends, but it has taught me that the process of painting trumps the outcome. And the journey has evolved along with a variety of interests and opportunities. I had a solo exhibit for the month of April, and this month I am donning the “hat of illustrator” for a new book called Cathedral Building, The Power of Purpose by Greg Coker. Next month I look forward to participating in Freedom Fest, a Humane Society fundraiser, where invited artists donate work garnered from painting sessions at Lexington horse farms. Discovery and continued learning is my lifelong pursuit, and who said it couldn’t be fun along the way?
So why do I paint? It has been in my heart and soul for as long as I remember. Like my granddaughter, I sketched as a way of documenting life as it unfolded. What I try to say with my art is that beauty exists in the most ordinary of moments, and I am humbled by the challenge of capturing that truth in paint.
As you read this, I hope you too will see the wonder in everything around you and keep a vigilant eye out for your next teacher (who may appear in disguise…just sayin’)
And I leave you with these enchanting words by Neil Gaima…
“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you are wonderful! And don’t forget to make some art – write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”
I was flying high! 20 years as a senior-level executive with three Fortune 500 companies, a high-level governmental official, a political player rubbing elbows with governors, members of congress and even private visits with the President. However, after 20 years of climbing the corporate ladder, extensive travel and a cell phone permanently in my ear, I started to feel that while I had achieved some level of “success,” I was lacking “significance.”
While playing corporate musical chairs, the music suddenly stopped one Friday afternoon and I found myself without a chair in that ivory tower I had grown so comfortable in occupying. But it was a 300 year old story that would not only be redemptive; it would provide the purpose I had been seeking and the means to help others in similar situations find their purpose.
Ironically, I had delivered thousands of speeches over the years about the power of purpose. Included in those speeches was a simple yet powerful story of a bystander observing two people laying bricks. The first person when asked what he was doing responded, “I’m laying bricks.” The second responded, “I’m building a cathedral.” Naturally, the “cathedral builder” had resonated more with me than the “bricklayer,” but after 20 years of playing the corporate game, pushing my way to the front of the room, I was starting to feel more like that “bricklayer.” And unfortunately, I wasn’t alone.
Numerous studies report that less than half of employees are actually satisfied with their jobs and feel a sense of purpose. Other surveys suggest that a high number of employees would leave their companies today if the economy were better. And with one in ten Americans currently unemployed, six of those ten unemployed say the next job they get will most likely not provide purpose; instead, they expect to have to settle for something less.
A women and workplace survey from “More Magazine” revealed that 43% of the women surveyed say they are less ambitious now than they were a decade ago. And only a quarter of the 500 women ages 35 to 60 say they’re working toward their next promotion. Three out of the four of women in the survey, 73%, say they would not apply for their boss’ job, reporting the stress, office politics and lack of purpose make the leap simply not worth it. In fact, two of three women said they would accept considerably less money for more free time and more flexibility. The bottom line is, there’s never been a time when Americans, male and female, young and old, public and private sector, need a sense of purpose.
The bricklayer and cathedral builder story, albeit apocryphal, started to convict me. And while I had told that story for many years, I was unaware of its origin or its authenticity. Research led me to the world’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, who was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of 1666 which leveled London.
One day in 1671, Christopher Wren observed three bricklayers on a scaffold, one crouched, one half-standing and one standing very tall, working very hard and fast. To the first bricklayer, Christopher Wren asked the question, “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m working.” The second bricklayer, responded, “I’m building a wall.” But the third brick layer, the most productive of the three, the future leader of the group, when asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with a gleam in his eye, “I’m building a cathedral to The Almighty.”
The characters in this simple yet powerful story not only changed my life, they provided the contents and the outline for my newly released book “Building Cathedrals: The Power of Purpose.” I had found an ideal leader in Christopher Wren. He was an inspirational leader who got out from behind his desk and challenged others to see the “big picture.” Is there a “Christopher Wren” in your organization? Are you that “Christopher Wren?”
The Fire provided a powerful metaphor for the setbacks and devastation in our personal lives. Devastations like death, divorce, job loss, alcohol/drug abuse, losing an election. Pre 1666 London was a very medieval place. 10,000 people annually dying of the plague. The number one cause of the plague was rats and fleas. Post 1666 the rats and fleas were eradicated and the leaders of London were determined and succeeded in rebuilding a great city. What are your “rats & fleas?” For me it was pride, ego, and self-absorption. The post 1666 London provided the motivation for me to rebuild after a major devastation in my life, a job loss. You too can be better, stronger and faster after devastation in your life.
In my book and keynote speech, I introduce a powerful metaphor, a “cathedral,” as a personal expression of purpose and encourage others to not only find, pursue and build their “cathedral,” but help and support others in building their “cathedral.” So, what’s your “cathedral?” Is it time to start building your “cathedral?” Maybe building your “cathedral” with more energy, more passion, more dedication? The “bricklayers” provide the foundation for a rich and needed discussion on employee engagement, corporate culture and team dynamics that occur in modern day organizations. Which “bricklayer” are you? What role do you play in helping that “bricklayer” to see the “cathedral?” Is your organization a culture of “bricklayers” or a culture of “cathedral builders?”
I left the comfort and security of corporate America on September 2nd 2011 (Coincidently, the Fire of 1666 occurred on September 2nd) and now pursuing my passion, building my “cathedral” assisting others in finding their purpose delivering the keynote speech, “Building Cathedrals: The Power of Purpose,” based on my book, to Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, trade associations, civic organizations, colleges and universities.
I was simply amazed to find out no one had taken this powerful story of Christopher Wren, the fire of 1666 and the three bricklayers and applied these valuable lessons, these powerful metaphors to not only our personal lives but to modern day business and government. This story was simply too powerful, the metaphors too strong not to write a book about it. Looking back over the last 20 years, I hadn’t been really building “cathedrals” as much as I was building “me.” True “cathedral builders” aren’t focused on building themselves. Their focus is on building others and assisting them in building their “cathedrals.” Thanks to a 300 year old story, I’ve made the transition and have never been happier! Please join me in this wonderful journey!
Buy “Building Cathedrals: The Power of Purpose” at www.thecathedralinstitute.com
Connect with me on LinkedIn, FaceBook & Twitter at CokerCathedral and let me know about the “cathedrals” you’re building at firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Coker is the founder of The Cathedral Institute: a full-service leadership development and consulting firm focusing on Empowering People, Building Teams, Transforming Organizations and Changing the World. He has over 25 years’ experience as a senior level manager with three different fortune 500 companies, a government regulator, an elected official and a state-wide leader. His experience ranges from leading the training & development for over 80,000 employees to directing the governmental affairs and public relations at both the state and federal level. His clients include public education, business and industry, colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations and high performance individuals who benefit from his executive/life coaching. Greg is the author of “Building Cathedrals: The Power of Purpose” and travels the country delivering the keynote speech and conducting workshops based on the principles of leadership, employee engagement, culture and purpose, the focal point of his book. He and his wife Nicki have two teenage children, Will and Abby and live in Franklin, Kentucky.