Category Archives: Courage

Risk

Does the word risk hold a positive or negative meaning for you?

I think there’s a tiny percent of the population who live risky in the negative sense—bungee jumping without the bungee cord, sky diving without a parachute, or heading to work without drinking a cup of coffee. For the rest of us, I think fear—of failure, of looking bad, of being rejected—prevents us from taking smart risks.

In her latest book on leadership, sociologist Brene Brown notes, “Not enough people are taking smart risks or creating and sharing bold ideas to meet the changing demands and the insatiable need for innovation,” is a core issue identified by corporate leaders as what is getting in the way of organizations around the world.

You may or may not be a corporate leader, but the need today for smart risks and bold ideas is massive. In a world of rapid change, polarization, impulsive leaders and threats the world has never known before, the idea that we can ‘play it safe’ is an illusion.

Fear is one of the leading threats of our time and one of the most destructive forces in history. A year ago I launched the Stephen David Leonard brand, representing for me a risk to show up give voice to another approach to life. Whatever success I have experienced in the past, I have succeeded by carefully hiding my true self—I failed to truly show up and be who I am designed to be. I know I’m not alone. Many people, many men, fear to risk showing their true selves.

The Stephen David Leonard product, brand, my family and my life are reflections of a larger hope. Each of us is designed to experience life to its intended fullness in a ruptured world as agents of a better one.

I pray as I take the risk to show up in my life, you may be inspired to take the risk to show up in yours. Lisa and I have created product for a decade that are tangible reminders of hope for women. I have seen the ways women are inspired to take risks. But women aren’t the only ones who need to be inspired.

As a father, husband and man living today, I see how we live in a world characterized by ruptured relationship. Most responses today are born out of fear. Instead, I call us men to risk being the people we are designed to be. Rather than agents of fear, retaliation, power, and selfishness, risk being ambassadors of love, justice, mercy and faithfulness out of a hope this is not the way it’s meant to be.

The SDL products are tangible reminders of that hope and the strength of character it takes to risk showing up. I designed the product to reflect you—the people you love, the character to which you aspire, the authentic life for which you were designed. This coming year, I am committed to risk showing up more. I invite you to join me.

Thank you to all of you who have support the Stephen David Leonard brand this year. The brand exists for you. You are the ones bringing a scary dream into reality.

Climbing Mountains

Since November of last year I have been training and preparing to engage a life-long goal of riding my bike on the famous climbs used in the Tour de France. Wearing glasses since I was five, hand-eye coordination sports never came easy to me. In elementary school I was a small kid who got teased a lot. In 6th grade I visited my grandparents in England, where their next door neighbor, David, introduced me to cycling.

I was enthralled watching Greg LeMond, the only American, fight it out in the Tour de France with Bernard Hinault. The next year he won the first of his three victories, becoming the only American to ever win the Tour de France. He was my hero. I convinced my mom to take me to the bike shop where I got my first ten speed ever—A Univega, complete with handlebar shifters, extra brakes levers and 40 pounds of mean cycling machine.

I rode all over Fresno. I had a new found freedom and loved turning the toe-clipped pedals. I was so skinny my mom had to take in my cycling shorts. We found the smallest ones around, but even taken in, they hung a little loose on me. Riding around Woodward Park, I imagined myself as Greg LeMond, climbing the Col de Tourmalet and Alpe d’Huez. It was the perfect sport for me heading into Junior High. Having spent so many young years feeling rejected by other kids, feeling shame about who I was, on the bike I found a place I could be me.

As time went on I moved up bikes, first to a low end Bianchi (my first real racing bike!) and after saving up a lot of money from my paper route, I bought a Battaglin frame (the same as used by Stephen Roche to win the 1987 Tour de France!) complete with Campagnolo parts. This was a top end bike I rode and raced with pride. Cycling gave me a way to find myself, to grow up and become independent. I made a whole new circle of friends, who didn’t know me from elementary school. They only knew me as one of them.

All the while I dreamed of riding the Tour de France one day. Every mountain I climbed, every hill I went up, became those giants in the Pyrenees and the Alps. I pictured myself there, riding these giants and living the dream.

Now I have teenage boys and it’s been a long time since I was one myself. My boys are the ages I was when I fell in love with cycling and finding myself. I see them on their journeys to become the men God made them to be. I think often how some of my life long passions started when I was their age.

In October I joined some friends and signed up to travel to France and ride these mountains I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. We began preparing in November, riding week in, week out. Every Saturday spending hours on the bike to be ready for days of 5,000-15,000 feet of climbing in France. At this stage of life, I have to navigate work and family time. Each workout had to count over the past months, whether on or off the bike. We aren’t in the Tour de France (other than in our minds!), but we are on an adventure that will finally take us to meet and ride these celebrity mountains.

Each of us has mountains to climb in our lives. Sometimes they are goals we hope to achieve. Sometimes they are obstacles we have to overcome. Sometimes it’s facing fears, taking risks, or engaging in personal growth. And sometimes they are literal mountains, just to see if you can do it. Each takes courage to take the initial step and sign up for the journey. In each case, it takes resiliency to show up week after week—especially when you don’t want to or when commitments make it difficult. And, once we’ve finally climbed the mountain, we realize we haven’t reached the end, but have begun a journey that will carry on through our lives.

Forging A Path

Matthias has always marched to the beat of his own drum. He prefers to be who he is and like what he likes rather than worrying much about what others think. I remember one Saturday in summer when he was seven and we went out to lunch as a family. As we were heading out the door Matthias appeared from around the corner.

“I’m ready!” he said

I took in the scene in front of me. Plaid shorts, coordinated T-shirt (the work of Lisa no doubt), green froggy galoshes, yellow rain coat, and a super-hero cape.

“Is that what you want to wear to lunch?” I asked.

“Yep. I look awesome.”

I couldn’t agree more. He managed to take it up a notch later that summer when he added upside down cycling gloves and a chef’s hat while we were on family vacation. As time has gone on, Matthias always finds his own unique sense of style. His clothing is a reflection of who he is—a person who sees the world through his own unique lens, comfortable in his own skin.

He went through a phase of lining up his toys in his room and around the house. I remember coming upstairs one afternoon and found all his stuffed animals in a big line in the loft. It looked like the crop circles in fields around the world.

“Did you do that?” I asked him.

“Yep!”

“Why did you line them up? What are the stuffed animals up to?”

“They just wanted to be like this.”

Absolutely. Why wouldn’t they? Matthias’ creative take on the world often peered through his unconventional ways to play with his toys.

From the time he was little, Matthias has researched everything his interests with books, the internet, TV shows and movies—any way he could get more information. Whether it was Ben 10 as a little boy, or Pokemon, or Star Wars, to Greek and Roman myths, he gives his all to understand these things. In the past few months, he’s been researching the Arthurian legends. One Saturday afternoon I noticed he had been on the couch on his computer for a couple hours. During the week, he does this sometimes for his school work. Being the weekend I got curious with a little dash of parent concern. We have limits and rules around screen time in our house and I figured it was time to enforce the rules.

“What are you up to kiddo? Seems like you’ve been on your computer a while today.”

“What? Oh, I’m writing.”

“Writing? Like for school? Do you have homework you have to do this weekend?”

“No. I’m working on my book based on the Arthurian legends in the modern world.”

“Really? How much have you written?” At this point, it dawned on me I had seen him typing away more than usual the last couple of days.

“I’m on page 45 right now. I have some ideas and I really want to get them down while they’re fresh.” He answered, only slowing his typing slightly to engage me.

Matthias is a kid, an emerging young man, who forges his own path one step at a time.

So much of Matthias’ narrative gets bound up with his brother with special needs. At times expected to have it together because his mom and I have our hands full with David. At times dragged along as we face a medical crisis with his brother. Sometimes bearing the burden of being the perfect child, healing our wounds. Sometimes overlooked as the typical brother of a special child with special needs. At times overprotected by parents who want to keep him from harm, rather than freeing him—empowering him—to experience a free and risky life.

This month Matthias turns 14. With high school on the horizon and his boyhood behind him, I see my son bravely risking to be the person God made him to be. As I see him finding his own voice, figuring out who he is, rather than who others want him to be in the trying years of middle school, he inspires me to use my voice as an adult. I am proud as a dad and inspired to forge my own path.

Who inspires you to forge your path?

Expectations

Expectations play a strong role in the way I experience life. I have a bad habit of placing high expectations on a family vacation or special event—even on mundane events like going out to lunch. A couple months back I took Lisa to Nashville for a special concert and get away to celebrate her birthday. In my mind, I built up an image of blissfully breezy autumn days. (In California where I live our seasons are summer and English summer, so autumn is something of a novelty.) We would walk and hold hands and laugh while we explored Nashville. I saw us discovering the unknown little restaurant next to the perfect boutique for Lisa to shop. I envisioned the concert as a star-studded bonanza of country artists playing their biggest hits. All the while I envisioned us gazing into in one another’s eyes like like we did when we started dating. I thought she would look at me with those eyes that said she couldn’t believe she was married to a guy who would do this for her.

I failed to consider getting up at 3:00 AM to catch the first flight of the day, the two flights from San Luis Obispo to Nashville and the pure exhaustion of travel. We walked out of the airport into 95 degree heat with 90% humidity (we Californians are not used to that weather!). Fatigue and heat are two surefire ways to put me out of sorts. Within minutes of arriving, I was grumpy with Lisa and we were looking at each other with less than swooning eyes. Instead of strolling around, we had to take Uber to avoid the heat get from place to place. With my body overheated like a radiator in an old car chugging up a mountain side, fatigue dragging my body toward the earth and my expectations shattered, it wasn’t long before we were bickering and not connecting. I wish I could say it happened once, but it happened a few times, one time erupting into a full-on argument. Not the dreamy, he’s my hero, birthday trip I had in mind.

But the frustrations and arguments aren’t the whole story. My expectations were dashed, but we also discovered moments of connection and delight we could never plan. After our biggest argument, we decided to hit the restart button and ducked into a honkey tonk bar downtown to listen to a band. We discovered a mother-daughter act who couldn’t help but put a smile on your face. One morning we risked a breakfast place we’d never heard of called Mosko’s and ate mouth-watering breakfast tacos. Honestly, as I hear is supposed to happen in Nashville, every restaurant and every meal was delicious in some way. We visited music stores and I played vintage guitars I never imagined seeing in real life, let alone having the chance to play. After a couple misses, we discovered amazing boutiques for Lisa. She explored vintage shops and enjoyed taking it all in.

In the end, the concert was not what we expected either. The event took place in this old church in Nashville, the Ryman Theater, nicknamed the Mother Church of Country Music because of its historic role in hosting names like Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Earl Scruggs, who invented bluegrass on the Ryman stage. The concert celebrated 50 years of country song writers instead of the artists who sang the songs. The focus on the unseen heroes who write the songs everyone loves touched Lisa and I deeply. We felt like we got to be a part of a insider’s concert! Hearing Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Trisha Yearwood, Kris Kristofferson, Trace Atkins and Deana Carter celebrate those who wrote the songs for which they’re famous was beautiful.

As for Lisa and I, while we had our moments, we still managed to stroll hand in hand through little neighborhoods. We talked about real things and found ways to help us hear one another better. Each of us learned about ourselves and some of the issues of the issues and false stories driving our conflict. And, we had fun together.

So how was our trip? When I was younger I would have told you how awful it was. I would have focused on the all the negatives and failed expectations. Not so long ago, I would have glossed over the conflicts and frustrations and told you it was amazing. The lesson I’m learning today is to embrace the messy delight. It was leaning into each other after our conflicts that increased our understanding of each other and ourselves. Once we navigated the obstacles of our heat and fatigue, we discovered a rhythm to enjoy this new and delightful place. When we embraced reality, we found space to explore, experience and enjoy. It goes to show, expectations are powerful. When we can let them go and experience reality, there is joy to be found.

Where are you finding unexpected joy?

The Bravest Person You Can Be is You

Looking over my life, I see how often, my biggest obstacle is me. I grew up as the child of an alcoholic with the family dysfunction and codependency that accompanies alcoholism. I was an unpopular kid at school—teased daily and a social outsider. All through school I never felt I belonged. By the beginning of high school I became a master at fitting in. Sociological researcher Brene Brown calls ‘belonging’ being accepted for who you are. ‘Fitting in’ is being accepted for who others want you to be. In my journey I mastered fitting in rather than belonging. My wife Lisa and I have faced the challenges of having two sons—our oldest has a severe genetic disorder (Cornelia de Lange Syndrome) and our younger son is a creative with a world-building imagination like J.R.R. Tolkien. I have been fired from jobs, robbed by people I trusted, and experienced the stresses of business success and failure over the past decade. But for all those obstacles, the one that holds me back the most is me.

For a long time now, I have believed I was made share a message with the world. This sense led me into the pastorate for ten years. The internal yearning led me to step into the role of leading our fledgling business almost a decade ago. I’ve had a few fits and starts, but eventually I find my self fighting against an internal struggle more powerful than any external obstacle I have faced. Fear. Insecurity. Self-doubt. Self-criticism. The result? More often than not, I stop. I keep my real self safe and hidden away. While I held a semi-public job as a pastor and have been the business face of our company for a long time, I can see looking back how I have always carefully avoided stepping out in my own name. I fear criticism. I fear rejection. I’m scared I might fail. But inside I long for more. In my heart I have a story to share.

As I share my story with other men I hear the same tension. I think of the teacher who loves his students and family. He earns a living to provide for his family and is present for his wife and kids. He spends himself earnestly for his high school students to help them see a vision for their future and to strive for it. But he also longs to step out and start a brewery and restaurant to create a great product and community building space so friends and family can gather and share life.

I think of the executive who has reached professional heights most of us only dream of reaching. He is responsible for hundreds of employees, large budgets, and a division of his company. He works hard, mentors his team in work and life, and exhibits a life of values-based professionalism. While living up to the high demands and travel schedule of his job, he does all he can to be present for his wife, his kids and takes his wife out date nights and little getaways. Still, he feels pulled between his career that provides for his family and his longing to be more present with his family and to give himself to his dream of launching his own ministry to reach people with his faith.

And there are many more stories of life in tension I could share. I am sure you have your own. You may want to launch a business, write a book, change careers, ask for a raise, find your purpose or simply spend more time with your family. The list is not complete. Many feel the tension of living our lives, dutifully showing up, but longing for more.

This tension has lead me to launch Stephen David Leonard. I believe the bravest person you can be is you. Not the version of you others want you to be, but the version of you God created you to be. My biggest obstacle is me. I get in my way when I give in to fear. Launching the Stephen David Leonard site is an experiment in facing the things that scare me most and taking the risk. The product on the site are reminders of living the life we are intended to live. They are meant to encourage and spur us on in our journey.  I invite you to join me. Join me as I share my story. Join me in taking your own brave step—large or small—to be who you are created to be.

I love the Theodore Roosevelt quote about the man in the arena. It reminds me when I shrink back I run the risk of become one of those “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Instead, I choose to step into the arena and top spend my life in the worthy cause of spurring one another on in the full life each of us is meant to live.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”  Theodore Roosevelt