One day I came up with a pun. It's in French. "Trouve ta voix, trouve ta voie." As often the case, puns get lost in translation. A possible version in English is: "the day you find your voice is the day you find your way." And then I kept punning some more: "c'est par ta voix que tu découvres et vois ta voie." Again, we lose the pun, but you'll get the gist of the idea: "let the sound and the beat of your true voice speak and sing, and then listen, and dance to it, then you shall see and blaze and walk your unique way."
My father was an entrepreneur with an Ivey League business education. However, to whoever would inquire about his profession, he would answer that he was a woodworker, which puzzled me as a kid as I knew for a fact that he could not do much with a hammer or a screwdriver. His father and grandfather were woodworkers too. From one generation to the next, throughout a century marked by the destructions of world wars, there was no shortage of work for their European enterprise in the business of reconstruction. They were guardians of crafts and traditions and shared a passion for innovation.
I followed suit and became an entrepreneur with an Ivey League education. To whoever would inquire about my profession, I would answer that I was a woodworker, which did not puzzle my kids, who were too young at the time to notice that I was pretty handy with a hammer or a screwdriver. Often I would smile and project confidence to cover up the shame, to cover up the pain, a lingering knot in my gut. Obedient, I was following a script. All I wanted was to write one.
Today, after years of meanderings, I no longer answer that I am a woodworker to whoever inquires about my profession. I answer that I am a story worker. As an executive coach, I listen and help you transform your story for the better. And as a communicator, I listen and help you tell your story and reveal the gold in it you would not dare to see.
When the stakes are high for a strategic pitch or a public talk, I get called in as an advisor. As a wordsmith and a storyteller, I get a kick out of chiseling enticing arcs, key messages, and memorable lines. As a music lover, a singer, and a martial artist, I enjoy helping with voice, posture, and body language (in taekwondo, the rise of an eyebrow, the twinkle of a finger, or the hold of your breath are all parts of your arsenal to provoke and trick your sparring partner).
And if those lines may sound to you like an infomercial, they were, in fact, written to set the stage for this: there was a time in my life when I would freeze up speechless with stage fright, sweat running down my spine, pounding, racing heart. Silenced voice. Stuck. Jean-François, Stéphanie, Moe, Naziha, Tara, Barnet, Jean and Ted are some of the magicians who helped me find my voice along the way. Unstuck. Finally. I am grateful. Hopefully, they won't object if I reveal some of their magic tricks.
Jean-François is a salesman and a horse whisperer who started his career training and trading horses on the international showjumping circuit, a fast track to learning the art of the deal. After university and following a few years knocking on doors in the sporting goods and pharmaceutical industries, he became a sales performance and a sales management consultant, a trainer, and a coach with Mercuri International, a leading global advisory firm in the field. At this, he had been twenty years when one day I showed up as a curious apprentice. He became a mentor, one of the most influential I had ever had, one who would stand in the room for hours to make me rehearse some five-minute introduction to a full-day seminar—tough love.
The perspective of staying bedridden for six weeks following surgery would not sit well with him. To bend time, he ordered a couple of dozens of books from thought leaders on topics dear to him: psychology, neurosciences, design, and communications. He soon reached a scathing conclusion: unbeknown to us, we, a group of over five hundred consultants from all five continents, were misleading our clients. Or, more accurately, we were leading by poor example. And while we were experts in the art of persuasion, we would showcase best practices in the art of dissuasion. Guilty we were of spreading a fatal condition within corporations. A Condition known as death by PowerPoint, or the art of disengaging allies and enemies alike with wordy, lengthy, boring presentations.
Ready to lead a revolution, Jean-François designed in no time a series of workshops to teach the art of persuasive presentations. I was among the first recruits as a trainer. No better way to learn than to teach. Within months we turned hundreds of consultants into skilled presenters, trainers, and prophets. For the few years that followed, it is about the art of presenting that I would be presenting.
Eventually, I found myself hired as a keynote speaker. No better way to learn than to teach. Clients flew me long distances to speak about the future of sales and marketing in the digital age. Hosts would introduce me on stage as a subject matter expert. I was not. My expertise was to be a skilled presenter who knew how to impact an audience, showcase new and powerful ways to sell more stuff and grow top lines. A hired voice. My voice? Sincerely, not. I enjoyed the applauds, the rush of endorphins, but I doubted the purpose of what I was doing, did not always believe in what I was saying, and, frankly, felt like an imposter. To sell, or not to sell. To tell, or not to tell. In my gut, lingering knot.
I was undressed, in my boxers, lying on my back on the massage table. Time and time again, I had surrendered to the magic of osteopathy and deep bodywork to heal sports injuries. But when I closed my eyes, her hands never touched me. Yet, I could feel their powerful presence some ten centimeters away from me and moving all around. And for the following hour, I sensed shifts deep and within my body. And then it took me weeks to adapt to this feeling of lightness and brightness that I did not suspect could ever be. All was becoming clear. Is this what they call alchemy? I had come for a lingering knot in my gut. She was an energy healer.
Half a year went by before I came back. Stephanie later confessed that she had never hoped to see me again. Her first impression of me was that I was severely stuck in my head, drifting away into the currents of corporate busyness and way too rational in my thinking to surrender to the laws of the invisible, she later confessed. But I came back. And then, for a couple of years, I would visit her massage-with-no-hands table every couple of months. One day she declared that I could keep doing the work on my own. Our next meets would be over coffee. She had taught me techniques and a few magic tricks. Mainly: how to work and heal with my breath.
I never miss an opportunity to share and teach breathing techniques. With your breath, you can ground yourself, do away with stress and anxiety, find peace, re-energize and restore yourself. The cardiac-coherence breathing technique - developed by HeartMath Institute in California - is part of my daily routines. Five minutes of mindful breathing. Five-second inhales, five-second exhales. Bring your attention to your heart and pretend that you are breathing in and out of it. Express gratitude. Ask to be re-energized, and you shall be. Listen to your intuition, and then follow. Three times a day. Stress goes away. No knot in the belly.
Christian and I had not seen each other for over twenty years when we met to catch up over drinks at Hotel W in Montreal. We were friends from university, had had very different career paths. He was C.E.O. of Coca-Cola. First, in France. Then, in Canada. Halfway through our conversation, he mentioned a friend praising the work of her energy healer. He was intrigued and asked me - only God knows why - if I had ever heard of such a practice and what to make of it. I smiled.
During one of our coffee meets, Stephanie had told me of a simple way to speak of the invisible to rational and skeptic minds. When electrons move, it creates an energy field, right? Our physical bodies a full of electrons in motion, right? It logically follows that energy fields surround and pierce through our physical bodies. When the energy fields are entangled, and in knots, life is a mess. When the energy fields are neat and well-aligned, life is bliss. Makes sense? Makes sense. Healers needed.
Another strategy to heal the knot in my belly was to take walks on the wild side and explore territories outside mainstream business and economics. A first step out was next door at the C2 Montreal conference, an innovative and iconoclastic event where business and creative universes collide. C2 Montreal had invited me to facilitate a couple of masterclasses on the topic of storytelling.
Not just entrepreneurs and executives were in the room. Filmmakers and entertainers were in there too. Imposter? Again? When an award-winning movie producer from Los Angles, tanned, shades, no socks, came up to me and shook my hand and said: "well done," I wondered: "really? But I am just a woodworker from Sologne!" Unlikely but magic encounters. Barnet and I kept in touch, developed a friendship over Skype, and - coming from very different backgrounds and circles - were good mirrors for each other. Great minds don't think alike.
The following step out was a trip to Paris and then to the city of le Havre in Normandy to scout the Forum for Positive Economics, a conference with a speaker lineup of leaders and influencers focussed not just on growing profits but also on improving the fate of people and on protecting the planet.
When Tony Szaky took the stage, the audience went electric. The Mick Jagger of conscious capitalism, I thought. He was a nineteen-year-old freshman at Princeton University when he started his company Terracycle with a bold idea: to feed food waste to red worms and sell the by-product - i.e., worm poop - as quality fertilizers for plants. He soon developed an obsession beyond food waste and invested in research to develop processes to recycle or upcycle just about anything, from coffee capsules to cigarette buds to complex laboratory waste.
Terracycle's business model was also quite innovative: big brands would foot the bill and make donations to N.G.O.s. The latter, in return, would recruit armies of volunteers for clean-up campaigns to pick up trash. By now, over two hundred and two million people in twenty-one countries have helped collect and recycle enough waste to raise over forty-four million dollars for charities worldwide. In the audience in Le Havre, we were mesmerized. The Mick Jagger of conscious capitalism, I thought. A man on a mission. A superhero with a purpose. Star-struck.
Tom Szaky left the stage to Matthieu Ricard, a French Doctor in molecular genetics who had chosen to forsake a promising career in science to become a Buddhist Monk in Nepal. His talk about compassion and altruism as golden keys to personal and societal transformations left me inspired. But what impressed me the most was the power of his calming and mindful presence on stage. Tom Szaky had raised the level of energy in the room with excitement and resolve. With Matthieu Ricard's presence, we instantly felt a sense of collective peace and benevolence. Is this what we call alchemy?
Crispt messages and clear narratives will stick to your audience. Years after I listened to her talk at the Forum for Positive Economics, I remember the story of Véronique Chabernaud and how she overnight put an end to her successful career in the pharmaceutical industry.
As a medical doctor, a scientist, and a business executive, she had been promoted Head of Sanofi-Aventis' oncology business unit, with profit and loss responsibility. The board and her C.E.O. expected her to grow both top and bottom lines. Increasing the company's market share was a challenge she could see herself tackling with drive. The other factor in the business equation was market size. The bigger the size of the market, the bigger her top line, the bigger the size of her year-end bonus check. It takes a sick population to make a healthy pharmaceutical industry.
Her life's work had been to cure cancer, not to benefit from its spread. The day she woke up to the ruthlessness of C-level business mathematics is the day she handed over her resignation. Her work is now to promote ethical leadership. Finally, she speaks with coherence.
In between conferences, participants and speakers would mingle in the atrium of the conference center. And there, there was Naziha. She approached me with a smile. "I love your smile," she said, pointing at the yellow Smiley Face pinned up on my leather jacket. "Would you like to plant a tree?" I later learned that she and her creative partner Yacine were pioneering digital artists known for having patented video mapping techniques. Intrigued, I followed her through the crowd to discover her interactive art installation. On a multidimensional screen made of giant webs of elastics, a digital forest was alive and growing before our eyes. There was electronic music with bright chimes chanting and a baseline mimicking a heartbeat.
She placed me in front of the installation, asked me to connect to the beat of my heart, handed over the remote control. "There, all yours, plant your tree." I clicked. And then, on the screen, a seed of light appeared that transformed and blossomed into a fully grown digital tree. My tree of light. Her forest. Nazhia had programmed the algorithm to create trees of singular shapes, each time different. Mine was tree number one hundred and twenty-three. For every new digital tree, an N.G.O. planted a real tree in Ghana. One Beat One Tree was the name of her installation.
I became an enthusiastic advocate for the remainder of the conference, asking whomever I would meet if they had planted their tree yet and seeing them to the digital forest to sow their seed of light. Nazhia's purpose with art was to help us re-connect to our souls, nature, and true nature. She was moving and a mover.
Amazonian Huni Kuin tribes were at the source of her inspiration. She liked their wisdom, their rituals, their way of life. With their shamans, she learned to work with medicinal plants to sharpen her vision and explore worlds of invisible dimensions. "Ayahuasca," she said. "Ayahua-what?" I asked. Naziha and I kept in touch, developed a friendship over Skype, and - coming from very different backgrounds and circles - were good mirrors for each other. Great minds don't think alike.
The following summer before her subsequent trip to Amazonia, she received an invitation by the global advocacy group Avaaz to create a project for the first People's Climate March, scheduled for the Fall in Paris. She called me up to share her vision. We brainstormed. She put me on the task and then took off to reunite with her Huni Kuin family. Marches are opportunities to voice discontents. Protests often take root in anger. For the upcoming event, Nazhia wanted to transform the mood of climate activists and facilitate an experience of peace and gratitude. No less. She mentioned the cardiac-coherence breathing technique. I nodded. She also spoke of an indigenous drumming practice that triggered the drummers' heartbeats' synchronization. I nodded.
The founders of HeartMath institute in California responded promptly and enthusiastically to our request for advice and recommendations to guide collective breathing and meditations. As for the drumming, what followed was a lesson in synchronicity. Immediately after our call, I stepped out for a stroll downtown Montreal, ended up wandering Place des Arts. There was a large crowd and a stage along de Maisonneuve Boulevard. And there I was, listening to Pow Wow drummers at the Aboriginal People's Festival. And there was Bevan, a Métis and a medicine man. We had met before, but only once.
I asked Bevan for guidance. He placed a call, sent me on a short trip up North to Sainte Agathe in the Laurentians to visit Robert and Joywind, drum makers. In his workshop, Robert picked a large hand drum on top of a pile. "Here it is, Dominique. Moose hive. Hard to come by. Multi-tonal, subtle, and powerful. For healers. I made it two days ago. It was waiting for you, it seems. Let it teach you."
The gathering for the People's Climate March in Paris was Place de la République. We marched with the crowds down to Place de l'Hôtel de Ville. There, the twenty-five thousand activists flocked before a large stage set by the Seine. There were banners and chanting: No Nature, No Future; To Change Everything, It Takes Everyone; Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice; Resist, Build, Rise.
Nazhia and I went to a tent backstage to regroup and focus. For days we had visualized the moment; we had practiced her speech. The time had come. We were on, climbed up the stairs on the side of the stage. She led, slowly made her way to the microphone set up in the front, waited in silence for a while, facing a large, loud crowd. It felt like an eternity. I stood behind, still, holding on to my drum. Everyone could see a digital forest on a giant screen and a seed of light moving up and down, up five seconds, down five seconds, in a loop. There was electronic music with bright chimes chanting and a baseline mimicking a heartbeat. She turned the music down and grabbed the microphone; all went silent.
She spoke of the anger and desperation she had felt during her last trip to Brazil, flying in a small plane over Amazonia and witnessing the ravages of deforestation progressing rapidly from one year to the next. It's only natural to experience anger, she commented. She could relate to the rage in the crowd that day. But she went on to share some of the wisdom the Huni Kuin elders had entrusted to her. Not much gets resolved from a place of anger. True magic happens when you find peace in your heart. Then, and only then, new paths open. She then led the audience to synchronize their breathing with the seed of light on the screen, five seconds in, five seconds out, in a loop. I stepped forward, played my drum to the beat of a heart, inviting everyone to clap to the beat of my drum. All banners dropped to the ground. And for a few minutes that day, Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, there was peace, much joy, twenty-five thousand connected souls, and resonating hearts.
Following us was Nicolas Hulot, a legendary documentary producer and television host who later became the French Minister of the environment, a cross-over of sorts between David Attenborough and Indiana Jones. That day he rushed to the fore of the stage and leaned forward to harangue the crowd with force: No Nature, No Future; Big Oil No More; End Globalisation or End Civilization; Resist, Build, Rise. All banners were back up in the air in a flash. Loud voices of protest. The peace was gone. Rage right back on.
Stéphanie's teachings were to make peace and work with our inner moods. With Naziha, we learned how our collective moods could be toyed with at will, for better or worse. Climates. Out there and within. Our responsibility.
Moe is a multidisciplinary Métis artist, a composer, a songwriter, a spoken word poet, an educator, and an activist. With words and music, she cares for the healing of Aboriginal people, the restoration of balance between women and men, and the re-connection to Earth and our souls. Her transformative ways are poetic. Why did Stéphanie choose to make the introduction? I did not know at the time but had to trust her intuition.
I registered for Moe's workshop for voice embodiment. She was the voice coach. A yoga teacher friend of hers took care of the body side of the equation. We searched for and awakened the bear, the cat, the lion, the fox, the eagle, the hummingbird dormant in us. It was a dance between tears and laughter. By the end of the third day, I could sort of sing. The question then became: to sing, yes, but what words?
Next was Le Divan Orange, a Montreal hole in the wall with character and a stage, on Saint Laurent Boulevard. For a while, Moe and I would catch up there when spoken word artists would gather for slam poetry contests. They were of all ages and origins, sharing their compositions' raw, intimate words with the audience. Volunteers would form a jury, flash scorecards in between rounds; a loud, live tally would follow. Every month a slam champion would be crowned.
Some nights were open mic; amateurs could register at the door. I could never do this, I once confessed to Moe. But then she turned around, dead serious, locking her eyes with mine. "Never say this to yourself or anyone," she insisted. "There is a poet within all of us and words longing to meet the world, out and loud. The day you find and say your words on stage will be a day of profound transformation, of deep liberation, not just for you, also for everyone in the audience." I said thank you, closed my eyes, went silent. I was standing in front of an immense precipice. Big knot in the belly. Panic attack.
I was at the time doing reasonably well as a public speaker discoursing on the safe topics of sales, marketing, and digital transformations. But to me, matters of the heart and the land within were terrifying, unchartered territories. No way. Not going there. I bucked. I choked. Did not return to Le Divan Orange.
The year that followed was 2015, a pivotal year in the fight over climate change. In December, Heads of State and their delegations, leaders, lobbyists, public figures, influencers, and activists from all parts of the world would convene in Paris, hoping to witness the ratification of a global agreement to curb carbon emissions.
I would be there too, involved with a group of storytellers, journalists, bloggers, artists, filmmakers eager to craft novel narratives to nudge positive change. For the United Nations Climate Change Conference, hundreds of us from over seventy countries would check-in at Place to B, Paris' largest Youth Hostel turned giant innovation media lab. The place would be a buzz with workshops, conferences, interviews, live concerts, and events.
Tara was told of Place to B by her agent. For years she had toured as a lead singer for Cirque du Soleil, then launched her solo career. We met over souper in Montreal. Hole in the wall on Boulevard Saint Laurent. She cared for peace, women, and the environment. At Place to B, she would perform a live concert. She agreed.
There was a frantic build-up in the Fall. Around the world, groups and parties were all getting ready, building momentum. Yarrow reached out. Would I join the steering committee and act as a transatlantic liaison for #EarthToParis, a global outreach campaign for the United Nations Foundation to amplify the climate conversation? You bet. Being on a mission. We were unstoppable. But then, in a flash, all came to a halt.
On November 15, there was a soccer game between France and Germany at the Stade de France. At half-time, three suicide bombers struck outside the stadium. Another group of terrorists fired at the crowds in restaurants and cafés in Paris. A third group carried out mass shootings and took hostages during a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre. Blood and terror in the streets. Within hours, one hundred and thirty people died; several hundred more were injured; the deadliest attacks on French soil since the Second World War. And for the following weeks in Paris, broken hearts, silent gatherings, tears, flowers, and candles in the streets.
Two weeks later, from all around the world, in a city in crisis, we convened in shock but hopeful, holding space for silence but humming in choirs, searching for peace when all around was reminders of violence.
On December 3 at Place to B, hundreds of changemakers had gathered in the hall for Tara's live concert. A couple of days prior, she had extended an invitation to me as a form of thank you. Would I compose and say on stage, standing alongside her and the band, music in the background, a few words? I closed my eyes, went silent. I was standing in front of an immense precipice. No way. Not going there. But when my lips set in motion, they went the other direction: "Thank you, Tara, it would be an honor."
The cellist struck a chord. Then it was a guitar. Then Remi made a sign, guided me to the front of the stage, handed over the mic. Tara standing a few meters behind. Sweat running down my spine, pounding, racing heart. I closed my eyes. I went silent, standing in front of an immense precipice. And then, I jumped:
In the end,
What we care about,
Is the climate within.
For violence to Earth,
Blood in streets and the fields,
Is simply echoing,
The vast turmoil within.
We run fast and away,
We point fingers, look out there for a fix,
We get busy,
All we will ever find,
In this mad out quest,
Is excruciating pain,
Of disconnect within.
If I can visualize, close your eyes, do it with me
If I can visualize all the atrocities of life,
And shrink the dark picture
And hold it, tiny, present, in the back, on the left side of my mind.
If I can visualize, close your eyes, do it with me
If I can visualize all the beauties of life,
And shrink the bright picture
And hold it, tiny, present, in the back, on the right side of my mind.
And if I keep holding,
Dark on the left,
Bright on the right,
And stay just there,
I'm at the place to be,
To dive deep and within,
My entire being,
The artist inspires,
For on the long and perilous journey,
From the head to the heart,
She is showing us the way,
The heartist's way.
Weapons of mass re-connection,
Weapons of mass re-creation,
Of course, we can all be.
Please let my Poet Be.
Inspiring Leaders START WITH WHY.
For What's Next, We Ask: SO WHAT?
Far from being a fad, the search for a purpose is foundational to our quest for a better future. In words that sing to our ears like a Chopin melody, French writer, poet, aviation pioneer, and author of The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it beautifully:
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
Doubting that the quest for a purpose was a silver bullet, I embarked on a strange journey beyond purpose. The CEOs, entrepreneurs, social innovators, advocates, researchers, artists, adventurers, and spiritual leaders I met en route revealed some of our new blind spots: purpose bloating, purpose washing, and purpose myopia, to name a few. The leaders and changemakers I interviewed also shared valuable keys to clear the way forward with courage.
To organize my unorthodox findings and unsure of where the adventure would take me, I started to write The Book of So What, with stories of reconciliations and transformations from the Loire valley in France, the St. Lawrence valley in Canada, and the Jordan valley in the Middle East.
If I had to pitch it to you in an elevator, I would say that The Book of So What explores the liberating powers of the modern jester's question:
"Inspiring leaders start with WHY. For what's next, we ask: SO WHAT?"
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#asksowhat | Book Launch: Fall 2021 | © Dominique Bel, 2020. All Rights Reserved in all Countries.