Defiant Joy

Originally Published August 25, 2015

I am a naturally upbeat person who brings my whole self — my faith, values, life experience and unique way of seeing the world — to the work at hand. After studying a wide range to styles, I simply believe that is the best way to lead. Some might think it is easier to lead this way when you work at a faith-based and/or human service organization as I do, but I know many great leaders who find a way to authentically express their values and perspectives wherever they work. They seem to have taken to heart St. Francis of Assisi’s challenge to “Preach the gospel every day . . . when necessary, use words.”

Of course, some days, that’s easier than others. Regardless of your approach, leadership is hard work. And the fact that a leader may be optimistic/encouraging/enthusiastic . . . pick your adjective . . . doesn’t mean they are a “Polly Anna”, or that they don’t realize the gravity, or possible down sides, of the issues before them. I believe the most effective leaders are aware of the weight of their decisions AND believe a positive outcome is possible. Jim Collins calls this the “Stockdale Paradox” . . . good story behind it, but not a very catchy or self-evident phrase. I ran across a term recently that basically captures the same idea, but made me sit up and instantly know I wanted to steal the phrase.

Defiant Joy. I want to lead with that.

Giving credit where credit is due, the phrase came from the book Fight Back With Joy, where Margaret Feinberg wrote about her journey with breast cancer and the chemotherapy treatments that almost killed her. While keenly aware of the grim odds and torturous journey before her, Ms. Feinberg fought back with joy. Sure, she felt like she had been run over by a truck, had friends disappoint her, despaired about why her/why now, and acknowledged that some days it would have been easier to just give up . . . and still she chose to draw strength, not from an unrealistic optimism, but from a defiant joy. An “in spite of” joy, a “take that” joy, a conscious declaration that she had a choice even the longest odds couldn’t take from her. She could maintain her joy.

What would happen if we led that way? Sure there are external variables impacting our organizations that we will never be able to fully control . . . and sometimes the only option is to choose the lesser of the evils . . . and there will days where you want to pull your hair out and ring someone’s neck all at the same time. Are you tenacious enough to find the joy, the possibilities, in the midst of all of that? Can you step back and say “Here is the ugly/annoying/painful truth, and here is what we are going to do to move beyond that, right here, right now.” Call it a positive re-frame, a proactive action, or defiant joy. There is an energy, and maybe even a sly grin, that comes from knowing the choice is yours.

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