Last week I was reading the Daily Office.* (Hint to the non-liturgical: the Daily Office is not an e-newsletter about the five best ways to work from home.) There, as part of the tale of the Jews wandering for years in the desert, we find the Lord telling Moses to lead his people to the Promised Land. After saying he would send an angel ahead to drive out their enemies, God Almighty throws this rather peculiar curve ball: “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Whew! It’s pretty bad when even God can’t stand to be around you! Think about how you would feel if the CEO told your manager to have your team complete some task, but then threw in, “But I’m not going to be there with you, because I’ll lose my cool just being around you stiff-necked people!”
Stiff-necked is a term I heard my Grandmother use. It is a rather old-fashioned way of saying someone is stubborn, or perhaps haughty. Merriam-Webster has more than thirty synonyms for stubborn, running from arrogant to uppity. There are more than forty verses in Judeo-Christian scripture criticizing the traits of a stiff-necked people: the hardened heart, the refusal to be led, the haughtiness of certainty. Dealing with stubbornness clearly frustrates even the most powerful forces in the universe.
Stubbornness is different than persistence. We need the latter to see things through. Yet the refusal to move beyond Plan A or Plan B, even when those plans have clearly failed, moves us from persistence to stubbornness. Too often we dig in our heels, even when evidence is presented to the contrary.
Perhaps there are more than forty verses criticizing the traits of the stiff-necked because it is such a universal condition.
The challenges of working through my own bouts with stubbornness were front of mind when our yoga teacher announced to our online class that we were going to focus on the healing practices of Throat Chakra.** With Amy’s guidance we worked through various poses and breathing practices to open up the throat and loosen up the neck (there it is again). I learned through additional study that the healing practices of Throat Chakra are important when you are imbalanced. In that state you may talk excessively to fill space and to project a sense of security that is inauthentic. You may sound full of confidence and in control, but in fact you struggle with feelings of disconnection and loneliness.
If there is one thing that the pandemic should teach us, it is that we don’t control all that much in our lives. When simply leaving our homes can endanger us, how much, realistically, do we control? Stephen R. Covey considered this question in his discussions about our personal Circle of Concern/Circle of Influence. Those who focus on things they can influence radiate positive energy, causing their Circle of Influence to increase. Reactive people, however, focus on things they cannot control or influence with results that include blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language, and increased feelings of victimization. Reactive people can be very stiff-necked.
We are at our most stubborn and inauthentic natures when we focus solely on ourselves. Stubbornness is clearly a trait to avoid for individuals. But with leaders, stubbornness can be toxic. It doesn’t matter what size team you lead, choosing to be stubborn, isolating, and without flexibility in a time of pandemic puts the focus on you and not on the productivity and well-being of your team.
So how do we get past the haughtiness of certainty and the toxicity of stubbornness? First, recognize that we each have a unique voice. That voice can be stubborn, isolating, accusatory, and full of certainty. Or it can be beautiful, supportive, inquisitive, and inclusive. Think of how you want to use your voice for the greater good. Excellent teachers and leaders also use their talents and tools to help others find their authentic voices. They instill courage in us and help us to develop our own strength.
Second, we need to nurture empathy, so that we are better equipped to appreciate the challenges others face. It is difficult to remain stubborn when you are empathetic to the needs of others. According to recent neuroscience, empathy is hardwired into all mammals. Our default — our authentic self — is to have the courage and strength to help others. In order not to help we have to actively suppress that urge. When we’re stubborn or stiff-necked, we’ve suppressed our authentic selves to focus on our needs and our grievances.
Empathy and helping others is at the heart of both leadership and humanness. Nurture that impulse. Otherwise, we become the type of stiff-necked person others want to avoid.
Have a good week.
More to come…
*I’ll admit that I am not a regular reader of the Daily Office, which sort of defeats the purpose of daily meditation. However, I dive in on occasion and take what wisdom I can find.
**Chakra, in Indian thought, is each of the centers of spiritual power in the human body, usually considered to be seven in number.