Leaders Listen to Obstacles


Once upon a time, a mentor posed these three questions:

1. Name your favorite animal and three reasons why:

2. Name your second favorite animal and three reasons why:

3. Name your third favorite animal and three reasons why:

After I answered, she responded with:

Your reasons about the first animal are the characteristics of how you like to be seen.

Your reasons about the second animal are the characteristics people see in you.

The third is how you really are.

I never totally got over the cognitive dissonance of my first answer being an elephant because they have a great memory, are loyal and playful and my third a bunny: soft, white and cute. OK, I was in my early twenties with extremely modest ambitions and apparently a mild personality disorder.

She followed that inquiry with: “You’re driving on a road to a crucially important meeting, your future depends on you making this meeting, you don’t have a cell phone, and suddenly there is a stone wall blocking the roadway, what do you do? “

How that question is answered reveals a lot including your self- image, your preconceived ideas about obstacles and your problem solving and leadership skills.

Obstacles shape you.
No matter what, obstacles will always shape you.
Obstacles are there to Mindfully grow through, grow over, and grow around.


Any time I choose to battle an obstacle, bust through, force my way without considering other avenues and energies, without listening to the obstacle (they always have something valuable to say) – the outcome is lacking and sometimes honestly bad.

Leaders listen to obstacles.

In our culture of timelines, deadlines, competitive lines people might not consider the wisdom within an obstacle. They generally consider it a pain in the $%#&, a hassle, and a threat to their success and happiness.

leaders work with obstacles like a Zen master.
leaders never make their obstacles their oppressors.
leaders listen to obstacles.

It takes practice. On any given day plenty of practice opportunities arise where small things appear as “obstacles” to your happiness, “obstacles” to your timeline, “obstacles” to your agenda. Practice mindfully growing stronger, listening deeper and posing possibility questions in those moments.  That leads you to Zen mastery over obstacles large and small.  

Field Notes:

Obstacles trigger and obstacles shape you from the inside out. Neuroscience proves that out. Neurochemical cascades, releasing norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, hormones and high stress cortisol into the brain shape the way you think and feel.

Think Michelangelo – that gargantuan slab of marble – from which he mindfully sculpted, obstacle-by-obstacle, inner and outer, the magnificent, awe-inspiring David as it also sculpted him and our memory of the great artist across civilizations.

Or, think Matthew Sanford, renowned yoga teacher teaching from his wheelchair.

Or, think this splendid result of being shaped by the obstacles: 

Turenscape Landscape Architecture


Obstacle: (n.) 1. Something material or non-material that shapes what it encounters.
2. An opportunity to lead.

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