The Courage To Be a Grateful Leader

By Donald Officer

Bryan O’Lynn, his wife, and wife’s mother, They all went home o’er the bridge together, The bridge it broke down and they all tumbled in, “Whoo, we’ll go home by water,” says Bryan O’Lynn.
– Old Irish song

Those who share the “Pollyanna” attitude of all the Bryan O’Lynne’s of this world are regularly mocked by all those others who struggle to see the best in any situation or person. Albeit, the song is spectacularly funny rattling on for a dozen more verses that confirm the over the top naiveté of one particularly cockeyed and legendary optimist. Since disappointment is painfully common in this world, both amusement and disdain are totally understandable.
During these troubling lockdown days where does anyone find the courage to be grateful or express optimism, to not give in to annoyance or dismay let alone to express leadership responsibilities wholeheartedly? We are continuously made aware of that nasty microscopic “elephant” which naturally, both blatantly and stealthily takes up all the space in the room. Yet is it possible we’re looking at our capacity to cope, our most basic strengths, through the wrong end of the telescope? I found myself asking that and a few other compelling questions as I read Franziska Iseli’s engaging book, The Courage Map:13 Principles For Living Boldly.
It took indisputable courage to experience and process the challenges this unstoppable Swiss-born businesswoman has taken on, many willingly, others of necessity, throughout her still young life. Not that courage was a stranger to her even in her earliest years. A favorite childhood memory is that of seeing the tears of joy on her father’s face as she remounted her horse when it balked and threw her as she confronted a course obstacle during a show-jumping competition. It was her determination to finish that drove her to remount, clear the ditch, and complete the course. What’s truly impressive is how that memory remains so vivid and motivates her still.
Years later Iseli would need that courage when her father died suddenly. Shocked, she realized
almost instantly that to live a life that matters with no guarantees, you had to do so with intent.
To prove the point, sometimes Iseli attacked a challenge deliberately without preparation. She
entered the New York marathon for example, without the universally advised months of
persistent training. Completion of the race took five hours and her sore ankles reminded her of
her haste for months afterward, but once again she finished. So, when she pondered a new
adventure in 2018, she found the determination that only practiced courage provides to follow
the silk road from her home in Switzerland with the intent to reach China like a modern Marco
Polo. When I talked to her earlier this month, she called courage a skill that must be exercised to
maintain and more importantly expand the limiting boundaries of our lives.
As the departure day approached, Iseli once again set herself up for an adventure that would
surprise and test. Franziska was not as totally unprepared as she was before the marathon. She
was persuaded to share the journey with a road buddy who knew something about repairing
motorbikes and reading maps. Mike was literally her salvation and an indispensable source of
experience and companionship more than once on the trip they took it as far as their equipment
and unanticipated circumstances allowed.
During the weeks that followed the start of their adventure, Franziska and Mike were confronted
by a continuous train of surprising experiences. Most of these could not have been scripted.
Franziska stuck by her expressed intent to greet everyone with kindness and openness even the
Russian biker she met in Kazakhstan who generously fixed her flat tire on the bike she’d
christened “King Giorgio.” That evening the unbelievably helpful Vladimir greeted them as they
entered the bar with a hearty “Heil Hitler.” To assure them there was no confusion concerning
his politics, he proudly showed off his swastika chest tattoo. As she’d promised herself from the
start, Iseli kept her cool with good grace as Vladimir related his experiences growing up with
both a Nazi and a communist grandparent. It took courage not to comment.
Not every discovery shifted to the dark side. There were incidents like one where they shared tea
with Turkish police who checked their papers pleasantly and politely or of being waved without
fuss across a border ahead of lineups when the guards saw how exhausted they were. Courage
means accepting what happens without condition knowing most people are kind and trustworthy.
Repeated several times throughout the text, the author explained to me what she meant by her
motto, “The universe has your back.” Nobody has unlimited entitlement, she implied, but if you
observe what’s happening and stay open to what you see, you can read the signs. That kind of
mindset embodies authentic gratitude and leads to the confidence that marks real leadership.
While riding the rocky road to Kazakhstan Iseli formulated the lessons and outline of this book.
As she writes and told me, the road allowed her thoughtful, reflective “helmet time” listening to
her “Travel Tunes” while maintaining the situational awareness every step of the journey
demanded. Using a journey with all its surprises and pauses for reflection to explain yourself,
and reveal the world as it unfolds is a device as old as storytelling itself. Why not use what has
worked since almost forever? Neuroscientists suspect we build our memories on an ancient
innate system of wayfaring that orients us in both space and time. This archaic, deeply intuitive
way to discover your bearings and attentively notice your changing surroundings seems to serve
Franziska Iseli pretty well too.
Why and how is courage so closely connected to gratitude? Three reasons come to mind: First,
people want many things, quite a few easily come by. Generally harder to obtain are those we
most yearn for. But difficult though the struggle may be, without courage we may not even try to
reach for what we really want for fear of failure. Alas, regret for never having tried can devastate
existing gratitude in an instant and last a lifetime. Second, courage itself is a strength we can
always be grateful for having. Third, courage is inspirational, refreshing, and much admired in
leaders everywhere. Coupled with curiosity, courage takes you on journeys and to heights you
could never have imagined. Case in point: the author of this book.
The connection between courage and leadership is evident in the life Franziska Iseli leads today.
Raised in a country known for its staid and cautious corporate environment, she found herself
with an MA in political science and advertising, her business career carefully mapped out for the
foreseeable future. Except it wasn’t a courage map. Recalling that sobering epiphany when she
lost her father, she decided to leave the corporate world, start her own international business, and
travel the real world. She found herself mentoring owners of small and medium-size businesses
and initiating a social entrepreneurship project to help save the already threatened oceans from
plastic pollution by recycling plastic waste into wearable clothing. All these and several other
striking moves took courage, built leadership skills, and nurtured gratitude.
The Courage Map:13 Principles For Living Boldly is a successful blend of memoir and
interactive self-help. Iseli has crafted an accompanying journal outline to help readers on their
own courage journey. A courage journal works much like a gratitude journal. Iseli’s prompts
trace the chapters of her book. Each section reflects one of the principles and the themes that
helped her continue through both her road trip and the last bold decade of her life journey.
Not surprisingly, principle one is Stories, followed by Truth (your own that is), Intentions, Trust,
Intuition, Love, Kindness, Imperfection, Non-Attachment, Flow, Playfulness, Evolution, and
Commitment. These are of course her principles, but readers could do worse than following
along to see where this set of drivers takes them in their own journaling. Mindful reflection is at
least as important as the actions that carry you from stage to stage of your own Odyssey.
To help her readers on their own courage quests the author has provided regular suggestions for
contemplation at the end of each chapter: Travel Tunes – what are the mantras that keep you in
motion? Pit Stop – consider the questions the chapter value raises for you (e.g. choosing to be
courageous, trusting others, finding your inner wisdom), and yes, Journaling – what does your
courage map look like; how are you embodying each principle; is it time for course adjustment?
I am grateful to Maria Inot at TCK Publishing for reaching out to The Center for Grateful
Leadership and to Roxi Nevin for forwarding the e-book and background material to me. I
appreciated reading Sir Richard Branson’s Foreword. It must have taken a different kind of
courage to describe your journey to a figure not easily impressed by bold schemes. Especially
thank-you Franziska for taking the time and trouble to bridge the 14-hour time zone distance
between Eastern North America and your home in Sydney, Australia. Thanks also for making
space in your day as it Zoomed by to talk to me about your signature strength and how you built
the skill base to make it real, despite your self-confessed “flawsomeness.”
Please note the following links for more information: The book, The Courage Map – Franziska Iseli
The publisher, and the author’s website
What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International
Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful
Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve
Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.