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What Have You Swallowed?

Isn't it a remarkable thing? To swallow. Water and milkshakes and tea and the last drops of soup from the bottom of the bowl. Steak and kumquats and oatmeal and dry roasted peanuts. Pills and cough syrup and live vaccines and possibly even castor oil. Air and saliva and your fear and maybe more than just a few of your words. What have you swallowed lately?

Have you swallowed your words because you've had to eat them? Or have you swallowed them because you were hesitant to voice them? Have you held your tongue out of sensitivity to others or did some internal voice demand that you bite it? If you have ever swallowed words because you couldn't find the courage to speak them, you know they can leave a bitter aftertaste. Later you may berate yourself for not sharing your ideas or offering your opinion or giving your advice or describing your experience. Maybe someone else spoke ahead of you. And maybe you simply lacked the confidence to speak.

It's something we look for in our leaders, isn't it? Saying what needs to be said. Choosing words carefully. Speaking persuasively. Addressing issues honestly. Talking with others graciously. We've known people like that. We admire people like that. And little else stirs us other than a rousing speech or a touching testimonial or motivational talk! Ron Heifetz begins his book Leadership Without Easy Answers with these words, "Leadership arouses passion." This book has become a valuable guide for organizations of most every kind as leaders have needed to adapt to a changing work environment. Within the first ten pages, he quotes Franklin Roosevelt who, during the Great Depression, called for 'bold, persistent experimentation." As Heifetz claims, "People discover and respond to the future as much as they plan it." Perhaps alarmingly, Heifetz describes Adolf Hitler as "an authentic and successful leader" because "he inspired millions of people to organize their lives by his word."

Boldness. Persistence. These too are qualities we value. Like the confidence to speak (even as Hitler did so as to persuade people), they lend themselves to motivating others to join an effort, to embrace a cause, to stay with an organization. People who move boldly with persistence through life seldom look back with regret over not speaking up, not taking action, not staying the course. When we find the courage and confidence to live from these values, we discover that the taste of swallowed fear is less bitter than swallowed inspiration. What have you swallowed lately? Could it have been the very words a weary group of people needed to hear? The exact idea that would have sparked much-needed charitable action in a community? The precise prayer that might have provided healing balm for a flailing family?

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