I subscribe to the idea that every one of us leads. As in, cutting a path, parting the waters or taking the helm. So when I think about leadership, it’s not a lofty vision for individuals who manage people in an organization or who run for public office or who launch a movement.

Leadership to me is simply a demonstration of human virtues in the minutes and moments of our layered and interdependent lives. We lead for ourselves, we lead for community. And we lead with the most integrity of all when we respect our own and others’ inherent sovereignty.

It doesn’t appear that humanity has done a great job on the “respecting ours and others’ sovereignty” (R.O.O.S) front. It’s been a colonizing free-for-all for centuries and a subjugation free-for-all for millennia. So I can understand if this collective R.O.O.S muscle is isolated and atrophied.

Thank you, daily life adventures, for helping me find new ways to strengthen my own.

Last week, my 16 year-old and I were having one of those driving conversations (as in, driving home from his crew workout) about “what to do” in response to the chaos and polarized debates we’re watching in American politics.

His own leadership instincts are keen. His mind was fixed on rational policy responses–on political strategies that might better navigate between the extreme positions and move the needle towards sanity. He likes to push up against my ideas and prove he’s got better ones. 

And usually I’d be wrestling with his ideas, trying to present an optimal political road map.

So I suited up with the vague beginnings of a politically savvy plan that also aligned with my values. But this time I found myself without any fuel left to architect my point of view. It just made me tired. It felt too much like the policy debates raging on social media that become a war of words where the humans behind them are forever misinterpreted and misunderstood.

In a modest fit of pique, I told my sparring partner, that I really wasn’t interested in winning the argument. I didn’t care that my political views appeared so naïve from his very logical mind’s perspective.

My “what to do” in the face of our society’s madness would be to speak fearlessly to the larger truths about who is suffering in this country and follow-up with personal action. It would be to palpably demonstrate my willingness to ease the suffering with the relatively little time I had left and with the gifts I’ve been given. And it would be to lead from where I stood and live out my virtues as best I could in spite of the assault and violence going on around me.

In that moment, he could see that I’d “left the ring.” It was confusing to us both. If we didn’t debate these policy fixes, how would we flex those mental muscles that seem so important to getting things right and making things better. Maybe my 50 years of mental sparring juice had just run out.

Whatever was happening, I felt a quiet swell of relief that I could be in the world without having to prove myself and my ideas. That my leadership, as a single individual with no positional power to speak of, did not depend on how smart I was but rather on the clarity of the language coming from my heart. I had accessed some remote county of the sovereign landscape I hadn’t known existed. And it sure as hell felt like freedom.

We pulled up to the house. He could see that this debate, with me anyway, would be fruitless. We stopped talking for a while. He went off to his room and I started fixing dinner. He didn’t try to re-engage me or accuse me of wimping out. He seemed to authentically, if not begrudgingly, respect that I had simply defined some new “terms of engagement” for myself and they were just different than his. And in a house where elbows can get sharp between two feisty alphas, I sensed the whiff of peace.

The whole incident got me thinking a lot about this concept of “terms of engagement.” I had unwittingly stumbled upon new terms for myself that included valuing the language of the heart as equally relevant to, if not more important than, a mentally constructed worldview. And if my son and I had different terms of engagement, it wouldn’t mean we couldn’t live together peacefully, it just meant we had to acknowledge and respect these differences so one of us didn’t colonize the other.

Dominant culture feels to me like a set of norms most of us understand as the inherent terms of engagement required to survive and materially thrive. To survive, most of us have accommodated the dominant culture, leaving our own terms of engagement—I believe our innate sovereignty–behind. When we act outside the bounds of these norms, or when we resist the colonizing force of a dominant culture, we find ourselves marginalized and unable to access the system’s spoils. Worse, when we simply look like something outside these norms, we are subjugated and even exterminated.

People’s willingness to tolerate the dominant culture, and subjugate their own terms of engagement, has reached a breaking point. We want out. We want to experience our sovereignty as portkey to liberation. Yet I’ve discovered how layered my own sovereignty give-aways have been and still are. I didn’t even know how freeing it could be to stop trying to prove myself with the elegance of my mental arguments until I just stopped doing it and let my heart lead.

Yes, there is privilege in all that I am saying here. It’s absolutely easier for me as a white woman to reject my own dominant practice of mental gymnastics and embrace a more heart-led life. But each soul has a journey and this is mine. 

Today, I know in my bones that I have much more to discover about my terms of engagement. The good news is life will keep serving up the right learning environments—often in the form of conflict or challenge–for me to see them more clearly.

I imagine many of us are on this same road to the as-yet fully explored world of personal sovereignty. And may even have found new territories of freedom in places you would not have expected. These are the news stories I’d rather hear about so write them down, share them with your communities, help us all learn what this can look like. I’m listening!

Lisa Fitzhugh