Leadership, Well-being, and Purpose


“A ship in harbor is safe—but that is not what ships are built for.” ~ John A. Shedd

Last week, I was honored to be invited to be on a panel with women leaders at the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) Boston Chapter Holiday Event 2016. The panel topic was about how well-being can help us become stronger leaders.

Mari Ryan, CEO and Founder of Advancing Wellness, an insightful and dynamic speaker, presented her framework of leading well-being with purpose in the center, surrounded by four other elements: energy, money, community, and connection. She then facilitated the conversation among panelists who were all accomplished athletes: Carol Addy, Chief Medical Officer at HMR Weight Management Services Corp., Elsie DiBella, Senior Director at Momenta Pharmaceuticals, and Lisa Wyman, Senior Director at Shire.

As each of them spoke about how their athletic endeavors and achievements have shaped their career in cultivating resilience, tackling challenges, and focusing on what matters most to them, I admired their passion for excellence and poise. Even the way they spoke epitomized “flow”—effortless, gracious, open, and caring. At the same time, I witnessed the receptive, curious, and engaged audience. Wholehearted generosity was palpable at this HBA event: women lifting up each other with respect, care, and strength.

When my turn came, I confessed that I am not an athlete. Yet like Mari’s framework, my story of well-being and leadership centered on purpose. I completely agree with her: purpose is central to well-being.

There was a time in my life when my purpose was out of focus. The purpose that started me on my legal career had run its course, and I was restless inside looking for a clue. I kept coming back to the same place: “There has to be more to life than working harder and faster to succeed and exceed external expectations.” I knew deep down I had outgrown everything I set out to do on this particular path. All the achievements, accomplishments, and successes no longer nourished me for further learning and growth. It was time to reinvent myself.

Still, I resisted change. I was afraid of the unknown and the uncertainty around venturing out of my familiar and reliable comfort zone that I had built and enjoyed for over two decades. Blocked by fear, I couldn’t see or sense my new purpose. Yet without a compelling purpose to pull me out of the same-old-same-old, I was stuck between an unfulfilling present and an unclear future.

What I needed to get unstuck came in 2010 at Bioneers’ six-day, residential retreat: Cultivating Women’s Leadership. Bioneers is an innovative nonprofit educational organization, so this retreat was not the kind of corporate leadership retreat that my manager or HR partner might have recommended. However, I felt I needed the unfamiliar environment and people outside my immediate network to benefit from diverse thoughts and experiences. It was my own way of getting out of my comfort zone to learn and grow. I plunged right in.

The outcome of this personal experiment was transformative as I was able to begin exploring my new purpose with the support of twenty other women leaders from all walks of life in their 20s to 60s. I still vividly remember the turning point I experienced there as if it happened yesterday. I’m grateful to everyone who held the space for me to begin cultivating the clarity, courage, and confidence to leave anyone or anything that was not making me come alive.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman

At that retreat, I learned three things.

First, women are incredibly resourceful and powerful. Every woman has an enormous capacity to lead themselves, their families, workplaces, and communities. When women come together with their hearts and minds, there is nothing that they cannot accomplish together.

Second, women’s leadership looks more like a circle than a pyramid. Rather than a command-and-control structure, the leadership model we explored together at the retreat emerged as collaborative, co-creative, and conversational, which are three keys to building and strengthening relationships. Since leadership is a relationship, this discovery was empowering.

Third, women’s well-being is essential for leadership. It starts with self-care and self-compassion to align body, mind, and heart. When our body, mind, and heart are at odds with each other, we cannot embody our highest leadership qualities. I realized then and there that I needed to “integrate” myself before anything else. I was living “from the neck up,” relying purely on my head for answers and solutions, while neglecting the messages from my heart and body.

When we’re disconnected from ourselves, we’re also disconnected from our purpose. Without clearly knowing why we do what we do, we lack motivation and direction to lead ourselves and others. I realized then and there I must remember who I was and what truly mattered in my life to uncover my new purpose.

Purpose is the glue that holds one’s heart, mind, and body together. When we have a purpose, it provides us with direction, meaning, and fulfillment. It motivates, inspires, and engages our whole self to move forward in alignment, which is essential for well-being and foundational for leading.

If you’re wondering what your purpose is, you don’t have to go on a six-day residential retreat. Everybody has their own way and time to discover purpose. One way is to start with a small step toward something that has been calling you. May these words of David Whyte, from his poem “Start Close In,” inspire you to take that courageous step today, this week, or in the New Year.

“Start right now / take a small step / you can call your own / don’t follow / someone else’s / heroics, be humble / and focused, / start close in, / don’t mistake / that other / for your own.”


Are you looking to clarify your purpose? SoulCo can help. Contact us for an initial conversation towards getting unstuck and into the flow of leading your work and life.