Saturday 30 July 2016
now you are 15 weeks old, and you have experienced such an adventure in the past week. In a field exercise with the Austrian Armed Forces, you have lead the information operations unit of an in-theater international peace mission. You have hiked the Alps in the middle of the night, wearing a flack jacket and an army backpack, have fought with the darkness and resisted giving up.
REDEFINING MY COURAGE
While during the Online Seminar I asked self-reflectively about the theoretical meaning of courage in my life, the practical phase of the Summer Term 2016 demanded lived, embodied courage. Yet, my kind of courage is not manifesting itself in jumping from bridges, climbing on ropes 30 meters off the ground or withstanding dehumanization in the abyss of a cave. My courage is in setting the boundaries for two people: myself and the child that grows in my belly, one so fragile that s/he cannot effectively take these decisions for himself. Pregnancy comes along with all kinds of bodily and mental limitations. The physical restrictions range from – despite feeling able to – being strongly invited not to carry heavy things, such as backpacks, bags of rice and water canisters to avoiding activities that carry a higher risk of falling or abdominal injury. On a mental level, pregnancy has increased my (already intense pre-pregnancy) levels of stress and anxiety, as well as general fatigue and moodiness. It is also known that maternal stress can affect the baby’s development, and therefore I needed a more sensitive sensor in what activities are really beneficial for exploring and expanding my limits, and what activities are simply dangerous.
Knowing that there resides another soul in my belly indadvertedly made it necessary to me to be more gentle and loving with myself. I myself have become a temple, a precious vehicle to carry this new little being. While it appears easier to treat myself more gentle and with more self-respect now that I am tasked with the responsibility of another precious soul, I am astonished that it never occurred to me pre-pregnancy to take better care for myself. Am I myself not worthy of love and respect? The need to cultivate more love for myself is a red thread that runs through my life and keeps repeating its call. Maybe the wonder of life that I carry within myself is my opportunity to take and embed this lesson and to appreciate the Divine within me.
KNOWING MY LIMITS
I was aware of these restrictions when I entered the Field Training. In the Red Cross, I thus consciously took a gentle approach to the exercise, at least from a physical perspective. During the competition, I chose to stay at the base and apply CPR on the dying dummy. This time, I did not feel as if my task was less valuable or important than the tasks of my colleagues, who ran out into the mountains to look for victims. I understood that I am part of the puzzle of my team that can only succeed when all the pieces do the best in their respect and unite.
It might have been the disappointment of myself not being allowed to prove my physical abilities during the first week, that I really withstood my exhaustion during the mountain hike in the middle of the night. As we evacuated the hut just with the 12 hour backpacks, I felt really pushed to my limits but refused to give up. Surely, the backpack was uncomfortable and the flack jacket heavy, I got out of breath much faster than usual because my body now has to pump more blood through my system, but my will to make this through was exceedingly strong.
THE LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE
I never pictured myself as a leader. I also tend to have difficulties in obeying another leader, and generally working in groups poses a challenge to me, because I understand my lack of trust is obstructing deep, trustful work. In the ECM class last term, I had the chance to encounter this trust issue as a central conflict traversing my life, with its roots in early childhood and the loss of male energy through the divorce of my parents. Although I analyzed this conflict in terms of my relationship to my father, I notice my constant evaluation in how I have failed to transform the conflict, and to build trust, not only to myself, but also to others.
FROM VICTIM TO LEADER
At the Red Cross training, I consciously volunteered for a victim role in the morning of the second day, not because I feel so comfortable with it, but because I could deal with it on a much more reflected basis than before. With awareness, it was much easier to step in and out of the victim role without identifying with it as my life theme. I understood the value of the role-play for my colleagues without defining myself in these terms. As I took the role with more ease and a positive mindset that focused on the full picture, I really enjoyed the play, learned a lot, and laughed with my partner in crime.
The afternoon then came with a shift to leadership of the hospital team. Without consciously expressing my wish to actually lead the hospital, my team members transferred this responsibility onto me, and I accepted. The leadership challenge had begun – would I be able to trust, both myself and my team? Would I be able to speak with determination, to embody strength and authority authentically?
As a group, we prepared well for the arrival of injured and traumatized people, and I appreciate the engagement of every single one. In my personal definition, I perceive leading as holistic, not as hierarchical. Although I am charged with giving orders and keeping the overview, including holding the space to keep the situation and the team sane, the real work is done by my team. Yes, I have encountered situations where I felt overwhelmed and helpless, and sometimes I stepped into responsibilities of others in order keep the situation going, and some of the victims cared for. Leading, to me, was about staying as calm as possible, yet determined in my orders, assessing and deciding how to distribute tasks and priorities, but being able to stay flexible in the set structure. Leading a group of 3 wonderful women with their own precious talents and abilities was an intense learning experience to me, that would prepare me for the larger task ahead.
I was not too conscious with how I felt, or thought about myself, during the emergency operation, as my mind was truly captivated by the here and now, priorities and the concrete activities of my team members. It was only after the exercise that I realized I might have done things wrong, and the destructive belief sentences kicked in: One victim would have died, because we failed to realize he was unconscious and in need of recovery position – and another was psychologically traumatized, yet no one had the time to constantly care for her. I stayed with the feeling of having failed in some respects (human life in particular), while succeeded in others, such as the overall order. It was not until I got concrete feedback by some colleagues, that I became softer on myself, and realized my strengths. Some voiced how impressed they were of my calmness, of my leadership style that was both determined, respectful and loving, while my team members were thankful for being able to act upon their full potential, as I was keeping an order amongst the mess of mass casualties.
In awe of my physical restrictions due to pregnancy, I soon realized that I don’t have to limit all my challenges, in order to protect me and you, my baby, but that there are limits which have to be challenged, such as my personal prudence with leadership. Therefore, I consciously expressed my interest in taking up a leadership role during the role play, as head of the Information Operations Group. When the question was raised, another arm was immediately up, indicating his strong desire in this leadership role. My internalized belief system would tell me to suppress my need to raise my arm as well, thus to pave the way for those who were first, or “anyway better in that position than I would be”. But the warrior woman in me, who has to learn to speak up for herself day by day, would not hide in her comfort zone this time. Eventually, I was given the role.
While my group was out in the field for life-firing exercise and mine awareness trainings, I stayed at the base trying to convince the Headquarters of holding a Press Conference in the beginning of the mission, and organizing the logistical preconditions that could make the whole thing possible. I was under such a pressure, both time wise and logistically, and took decisions that I had to be ready to take responsibility for when everything fails. Yes, it appeared to me afterwards that a leader does most basic work in the background and then delegates concrete tasks to a group of experts, and that she, the leader remains invisible as long as the outcome is positive, but takes the blame if anything goes wrong. When the group then returned, we had the evening hours to begin work, and I distributed the tasks according to preferences of everyone. We had also developed primary fields of work in accordance, and assigned everyone to a field (Media Production Inside, Media Production Outside, Investigation), yet knowing that the responsibilities might become more hybrid and change according to situational needs. Eventually, everyone had a task, except for me, and I would often feel useless in the course of the role play, because I sincerely wanted everyone to be challenged, take up new tasks, and be occupied for most of the time. It was in this situation that one team member, charged with the content development of the Press Conference, packed his things and went upstairs without a word. This created a chain reaction, so that I stayed alone at 1 am in the night, trying to organize myself and to figure out if everything is being accounted for. I did want everyone to rest well, me and my baby included, yet I had planned another briefing before going to bed so that we could all inform each other where we stand.
Between military and heartfelt style of leadership, two very different styles of leadership, I often felt myself trapped without really knowing in which style to put my emphasis. Time often restricted me in choosing to put emphasis on the empathic style of leadership, where I would let everyone discuss and share their needs and emotions. I remember a situation where I told some of my team members what to do, and they responded to me: “We can decide it ourselves”. I realized that we were not under such a time pressure as usual and felt something between anger and astonishment, angry at them for rejecting my orders and astonished about myself that I simply ordered things without including suggestions of the group members. If time was the measure on which I could determine whether to use military or empathic leadership which includes group discussions, I certainly failed to assess the time pressures adequately in every situation. I was there trying to told the space, trying to make everyone happy with assigning tasks, but I didn’t feel seen by my group, at least during the time of the exercise. It was in these moments of complete loneliness, and of being surrounded with a sense of uselessness that I felt very sad. But it was until the end of the exercise that I successfully held the frustration, the sadness and disappointments back within myself.
Yes, my baby, we went through a lot of challenges together and grew and learned as a team. In the feedback, I received the reminder that I was a warrior and withstood so much stress and frustrations that arose from the group, despite carrying two souls. What I do know is that I am stronger than I often make myself believe. I realize that there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of self-esteem and self-appreciation, that I can be an amazing person whom everybody sees as the source of light and rainbows, but that if I myself don’t know it, all of that doesn’t even matter. This Field Training was indeed a field exercise in allowing myself to grow, in doing a valuable job that brought me to the limits of what I thought I could be and in re-validating my positive belief sentences by challenging and outgrowing my limits.
Photos by Martin Hörl