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The soul might be silent but the servant of the soul has always got a voice and it has got one for a reason. --Cormac McCarthy

Losing His Voice Led Him to Helping Others Strengthen Theirs

--by Awakin Call Editors, Nov 06, 2018

“There are lots of ways to lose your voice in this world...”  

These words were spoken by Kevin Hancock,  an award-winning author, public speaker, and CEO of  Hancock Lumber, one of America’s oldest and most prestigious family businesses. Kevin is the winner of many distinguished awards including the Habitat for Humanity ‘Spirit of Humanity’ award, and the Boy Scouts of America Distinguished Citizen award.  

In 2010, Kevin developed a voice disorder called spasmodic dysphonia.  As his speaking voice became quiet, the voice of his soul became louder. This new voice urged him to connect with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where he became intimately acquainted with the Native American inhabitants. What happened next, was a deep relationship with a community silenced by injustice. This caused Kevin to evolve a new voice that changed his life and his style of leadership forever.  

“Strengthen the voices of others; practice restraint; learn the ways of shared leadership through nature; take care of your employees; work should enhance the evolution of the soul.”

Kevin shares these principles and more in this interview. He offers us ways to illuminate the authentic voices in all beings, as we create work, family, or other communities destined to bring greater goodness into the world. [What follows is the edited transcript of an Awakin Call interview with Kevin. You can listen to the full recording of the call here.]

Kevin Hancock: Earlier in my life, I saw myself primarily through my external roles.  Then in 2010, I developed a voice disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. It made speaking difficult, and forced me to sit still and listen a bit more. When I sat and listened, I began to hear ‘whispers.’ It was the voice of my own soul. That was the beginning of turning inward more; to work on myself and come to know myself apart from the public roles I played.

Jyoti Bachani: Thank you.  One of the things that touched me the most as I was preparing for this conversation, was a note of apology you penned. Could you read it to us and tell us how it came about?

Kevin: Sure. Shortly after I developed the voice disorder, in 2012, I began traveling from Maine to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, in the southwest corner of South Dakota. The combination of two events created two realizations for me. The first was that there are lots of ways to lose your voice in this world. The second was that leaders have often done more to restrict the voices of others than to liberate them. At Pine Ridge, I was searching for my own voice in a community that did not feel heard. The entire tribe felt forgotten, marginalized, and left behind.

So one day, driving in the Black Hills, I reflected on a conversation I had with a friend of mine at Pine Ridge. He said that to his knowledge, the US Government had never officially apologized for breaking the treaty of 1868. They had never taken responsibility for the cultural and economic oppression that followed. Suddenly a simple idea came to me. I pulled the car over and said to myself, "Why can't I write an apology?" So I wrote one then and there, and ended up sharing it in my book.

This is the apology I wrote. “To the Lakota people and all the First Nation tribes of the Northern Plains: My name is Kevin Hancock, and I'd like to apologize. I have learned the history of your people and I'm aware of the devastating impact America's western expansion had upon you. I apologize that we put our needs above yours. I apologize that we slaughtered the buffalo with which you co-existed. I apologize that we broke our treaties. I apologize we took your land under the guise of our own industriousness and as if we had God's blessing. I apologize that we saw your race, culture as barrier and treated you as such. I've also learned about the neglected federal mismanagement of your reservations in the 20th century, and for this too, I would like to apologize. I apologize that we restricted your constitutional right for free speech and religion. I apologize that we restricted your rights to gather and to bear arms. I apologize that we sold off your property without your consent or just compensation. I apologize that we sent your children off to unforgiving boarding schools to be remade.

Finally, I’ve seen modern day life at Pine Ridge and I would like to apologize for the conditions that centuries of  oppression and mistreatment helped create. I wish we could go back and rewrite history. I wish we could start over and do it differently. I wish we could’ve seen there was room for everyone. I wish we had not overreached. I hope you will accept this apology and that we can now join together in the Lakota tradition that says ‘all people are one people.’ An apology from one person may seem small. It changes nothing in many ways. At the same time, this is how I feel, and I do not believe I'm alone. I believe there are hundreds of millions of people across America who are also sorry. I hope this apology contributes to the process of healing, letting go and moving on. Having met your people I believe in your future.”

Jyoti: This is such a powerful statement. Because we have listeners from around the world, I want to now ask you for a description of your life in Casco, Maine.  And also ask how you ended up going to Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. I want to learn about the stark differences between the two places and how you were a human bridge for the two cultures.

Kevin: Sure. One of the things I thought a lot about, is the idea that we all come from a tribe. We are all born into a certain place, culture, community, and moment in time. That entry point pulls on us all to see the world in a certain ways. But ultimately each soul is here living a life on Earth to find their own true voice.  We are here to discover our authentic self and share it with the world..

I grew up in a small town in Maine. Our family had been in the lumber business for many generations dating back to before the American Civil War. I was the sixth generation to work for our company. My dad died young and I became President of the company at the age of 31.Everything went well at first, but in 2007, the National mortgage and housing markets collapsed. This put a great deal of stress on the entire construction industry, our company included.

In 2010, at the peak of the market collapse, I started having trouble speaking. When I went to talk, all the muscles in my throat would spasm. My voice got broken and choppy. It made speaking difficult. This forced me to think differently about leadership and caused me to share the stage more broadly. At first, this all just confused and frustrated me. In time however I came to see my voice problems as an invitation to strengthen the voices of others. I could see that doing less, saying less, and sharing responsibilities more broadly was actually strengthening the company. It was creating an environment where everyone could lead. A couple of years later when the economy stabilized, I read an article about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in National Geographic.  

The title of the article was ‘In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Rebirth of a Sioux Nation.’ I read that article and every character in the story, past and present, seemed to come alive for me. As soon as I finished, I leaned over to my wife and pointed to the cover and said, “I'm gonna go there. I want to see what life is like for the people who live there.” One trip led to another. I've now been there 15 times.

At Pine Ridge, I saw the consequences of overreaching -- those who have the most power taking from communities with less power. Events I thought long ago relegated to history, the winning of the west in the 19th century, were still playing out in this remote community on the Northern Plains. This reinforced the insight that began with my voice problems - that leaders often restrict the voices of others instead of strengthening them. This is when I began to see my voice disorder as a blessing more so than a liability.

Jyoti:  What resonated with you in the Pine Ridge reservation that led to the repeated trips and the revelation about the silencing of voices that needed to be heard?

Kevin: A few years before I went to Pine Ridge, I was introduced to Deborah Dooley, a psychologist and evolutionary astrologist from Palo Alto. She did an evolutionary astrology reading of my natal chart. The fundamental tenet of evolutionary astrology is that souls have multiple reincarnations across time for the purpose of growing and evolving. Every soul brings a karmic pattern into a lifetime.

You can think of it as an arrow being shot across the night sky. Where the arrow enters, represents the energy you bring with you from the past life or lives. This is the energy you are reincarnating to outgrow. Where the arrow is headed, is an indicator of the new awareness one is trying to acquire.

For me, the new energy was all about learning to lead differently and to see myself outside the public roles that I played. I was a dominating leader with a strong voice. I needed to learn to soften my approach and make the voices of others stronger.  

Jyoti: Thank you. Can you clarify the timeline of these events for us?

Kevin: In 2007, I had my introduction to evolutionary astrology. This inspired me to look inward, for growth, meaning, and purpose. Then in 2010, three years later, I acquired my voice disorder. In 2012, after the economy stabilized, I had a feeling that it was time to honor myself a bit more. I had held a lot of leadership roles for our company and community. A lot of my energy had gone to helping others, caring for the tribe. But I had this growing sensation that I needed to start putting more energy into myself, separate from the roles I played. I wasn't sure how I was going to do that.

From a very young age, I'd always had a love affair with the American West, particularly American history in the second half of the 19th century, the time of our nation's western expansion.  When I saw that National Geographic article, I had come to a point in my life where I felt much better about  following my own voice. I trusted that we could strengthen the world from within; we create social change by changing ourselves. That's the mindset that put me in the position to be able to take the leap and take off for Pine Ridge.

Jyoti: Thank you. Let’s talk about your two books.

Kevin: Sure. I published my first book, ‘Not For Sale: Finding Center in the Land of Crazy Horse’ in 2015. The book chronicles my first six trips to Pine Ridge. The essence of the story is the universal human quest to find one’s authentic voice. Across time, those with the most power have often over-reached and restricted the voices of others. The book contemplates a new leadership model where self-awareness and self-actualization become the primary goals.   

When I went to Pine Ridge and came back, people asked me what I did there. Initially I struggled to answer. Finally I just began coming clean. "I don't really do anything there,” I said, because I  just travel around the reservation and spend time with people. Pine Ridge is a place where for generations, outsiders have arrived, to fix, save, and change. That doesn't work, because change only comes from within.

The second book, which is coming out some point next year, is currently titled ‘The Seventh Power - Rethinking Work In The Age Of Shared Leadership’. This book builds on the idea that in nature, power is dispersed. If I went into the forest searching for a tree that was the king of all the other trees, I would not be able to find it. Where is the capital of the forest? Where is the headquarters of the desert? In nature, power lives everywhere. Because humans are a part of nature, humans ultimately aspire to organize in the same way.

For centuries, our big institutions, the family, the school, the place of worship, the place of work, and the place of government, have spun a story designed to convince us that power lives out there, somewhere else, with the chief executive, with the principal, or the king, or the baron, or the president. The reason that modern organizations struggle to affect and engage is because we're entering the Aquarian Age. This is an age where people return to personal power. Organizations are still trying to centralize and collect power in bureaucratic halls. This book looks at specific strategies that leaders can use to distribute power, to make the center smaller, and to make leadership something that everybody does.

Jyoti: Thank you. I like the concept that leadership is something that everybody does. I remember hearing you once discuss this style of leadership as something essential to Pine Ridge. I also remember you saying that they have rituals associated with a young person coming of age; or rituals for the elderly that embody communal wisdom. Can you say some more about these topics?

Kevin: Sure. After I traveled to Pine Ridge a number of times, I began looking at how their community was structured before and after the reservation era. Before the reservation era, the Sioux tribes were organized around a model of shared leadership.  

The great father in Washington, the president, would send negotiators onto the Plains in the second half of the 19th century to make treaties with tribes. The negotiators would show up and say, "Take me to your leader." But nobody in those communities really knew what that meant -- surely no one spoke for everyone; followership was a voluntary act; everyone made their own choice with respect to a treaty, or war, or whatever it might be. This is the model of shared leadership.  

The Lakota have seven sacred rites that were brought to them long ago by The White Buffalo Calf Woman. One of those rites is the vision quest. Young people coming of age or adults at a transformational moment in their lives leave the community. They journey into the wilderness to seek  a vision. The Lakota term is Haŋblečeya, which translated means "to cry for a vision". They go into the wilderness alone. The idea is to gain insight into the essence of one’s own true voice and path. If you were fortunate enough to receive a vision, you came back to the tribe, stood before the circle, shared what you learned, and then were bound to live your life in accordance with that vision. The idea reminded me of that iconic line from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book: "The strength of the pack is the wolf." The idea is that if every individual is strong, then the community will be strong.

Then, flash forward to the reservation era where places like Pine Ridge became the poorest places in America. When the native tribes were rounded up and put on the reservations, their instructions were simply to stay there. Someone would bring them food and provide housing. That model became bureaucratic, centralized, and hierarchical. Under these new conditions the communities struggled economically and socially. So there was one model where everyone led and the community thrived. And another model where the power of shared leadership was taken away and the system collapsed.

Jyoti: I’d like to hear more about how the elderly are treated at the Pine Ridge. And the other thing that resonated with me, is in India, we are obsessed with gold. I love your description of the Lakota language as to gold. Can you talk some more about both of these topics?

Kevin: Two great questions, thank you. So in Pine Ridge, one of the core values is wisdom. The Lakota believe that wisdom is acquired through experience. Those who have lived the longest, have the most experience and have acquired large quantities of wisdom. Elders are respected within the community.

If you go to a public gathering and a younger person stands up to speak, they will first ask permission from the elders. I remember a few years ago, when I took my mom to Pine Ridge, we had a lovely experience. It was fun for me to see that immediately upon arrival, she was put in a place of honor even though she never been there. It made me wonder how mainstream culture could engage Elders differently.

And then your second question about gold. The quest for gold is what really created the downfall of the tribes on the Northern Plains in 1873. I believe it was General Custer who led a military expedition to the Black Hills, where gold was "discovered." It was the intention of the mission to find gold and to relay the news back to Chicago. They knew this information would bring thousands of prospectors and settlers to the region. The Lakota refer to Gold as the "yellow metal that makes the white people crazy.”  I always chuckle when I think of that.

But it also is not funny because it speaks to the idea of greed and how easy it is for those who have power to take too much. This overreaching ultimately implodes back upon everybody. Overreaching was the most common outcome of leadership historically. Restraint, which is the opposite of overreaching, needs to become a hallmark of leadership. Restraint means have the power, but don’t use it.

Jyoti: Thank you. I chuckled because in India, the women value gold. I was given gold jewelry for my wedding. To me, it is the yellow metal that makes Indian women go crazy....

We’re about to start the Q & A, but before I do, is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners?

Kevin: Just a summary: when we serve ourselves, we strengthen our tribes. That done correctly, being selfish and selfless, we recognize that we're all here to bring out the best of who we are. We need to spend more time looking internally and working on ourselves; and less time looking externally and worrying about what everybody else is doing.

I think that that famous thought of Gandhi's 'Be the change we wish to see in the world' is super-accurate and relevant for the world we live in today.  It will always will be accurate and relevant.

Bela: This has been such a rich conversation. Thank you so much, Jyoti and Kevin. We’re going to hear from some of our callers now.  

Gayathri: Hi Kevin, my name is Gayathri. I'm calling from India. I have two questions.  I am curious about how your colleagues and staff at work reacted to your changed leadership style after you lost your voice. Maybe you could give us an example of a key moment or event when others in the community felt empowered to lead? My second question is I’m wondering how your family relationships changed once you received the insight that it's good to strengthen others’ voices.  

Kevin: Thank you for both of those questions. I think at work, people were skeptical initially. When change occurs within an organization, people first look to see if it's going to stick. Also, in fairness, the ideas I began talking about were so different from the traditional model of leadership in our country. The traditional idea has always been for leaders to get up earlier, stay later, work harder, go to more meetings, and take more control.

I began advocating something completely different.  I asked our leaders to start doing less; to broaden their lives;  and to create space for everyone in the organization to talk. We asked people to listen vs. trying to change someone's mind. We began valuing listening as an opportunity to hear authentically, to know how people were really feeling. Judgment was not part of the equation. We didn't want everybody to think the same way. Truth isn't meant to be singular. It's a collage and no two humans are likely ever to see the entire planet the same way.

It took awhile for these new ideas to take hold. But after having worked with this idea, we're at a point now where I'm not even driving this anymore. Our whole organization has embraced this new vision of leadership.This led to a bigger question: "What is the purpose of work?" I've come to believe that we shouldn't consider the purpose of work without first considering the purpose of life. Because work should enhance life, not the other way around. If the purpose of life is for souls to self actualize, then the purpose of work should be to help people do that.

At home, I am super lucky, because my wife and our children are very supportive. I think they saw how much energy Pine Ridge was giving me. They saw the vision of leadership that Pine Ridge was helping me create. Particularly with our daughters, it helped them understand that they should have their own lives, follow their own voices. It helped them see that the traditional idea of the dad as a head of the household was a model we could move beyond; a family could be an enterprise of shared leadership as well.  In a family, we have a collective relationship. But our purpose is to support each individual in their quest to find their voice.

Gayathri: Thank you.

Bela: Thank you so much. I also have a couple of questions. One of my questions was about your journey of leadership, which sounds like it started with the astrologist in 2007. After that, you started losing your voice. Then, later in 2012, you realized that you needed to focus on your own well-being.

I work with a lot of young people who work in social change.  One of their biggest challenges is self-care. They feel there is this need to sacrifice their well-being for the work they're doing around certain causes. What kind of advice or guidance would you have for young people working in social change, who feel that focusing on personal well-being is selfish? How would you help them see the connection between the self and external conditions?

Kevin: That's a great question. On an individual level, we all have to operate in a way that brings health, happiness, energy, wholeness, and vitality into our lives.

We're entering an age of localism, where simply being the person you want to be in your minute-to-minute activity is the most powerful gift you can give the planet. The idea of working on oneself as a way to be of maximum value to others is key.  I think young people in large numbers will embrace that idea. This embrace will change the world for the better.

Bela: Thank you. I am also sitting with a lot of what you said about shared leadership. I appreciate the concept that truth isn't meant to be singular. It's a collage. I see how it has been a slow process to evolve shared leadership model in your own company.

Could you describe some practices or insights you've gleaned about this slow process? I know there's no blueprint you can apply to every community and every company. But if you were going to shift a company culture, community culture, or service like the health care system in the United States, what are some underlying values and practices to apply?

Kevin: I think there are some critical ingredients. One is restraint on the part of leaders in terms of judging the perspectives of others. An important moment in the process of creating shared leadership is how leaders will react when someone does something the leader doesn't agree with.

My view is that the leader doesn't have to respond to what everyone says. Instead, he or she can think about the purpose of listening. It’s not to determine right or wrong. It's to help everyone feel authentically heard. If I had one wish for our organization, it would be that everyone felt safe to say what they actually thought.

I think when  people feel safe, this creates a platform where they can consider new possibilities. When people are judged, they become defensive about their positions. So that's a big piece of it to me.

And then the other big piece, is to really focus on the internal organization, the people within the company. Everybody in business has probably heard the expression the "customer comes first". I don't actually believe that's true. We've started saying at our company that "the customer comes a very close second.”

We really like our customers and they're super important.  We want to be of value to them. But in our company, we think the people who are going to take care of the customer come first. So we've adopted an employee-centric mission. The purpose of the company is to add value to the lives of the people who work there. If we're able to do that, they will figure out how to take world-class care of the customer and the company will be taken care of as well.

In that model, profit becomes more of an outcome than an objective. Making money in business is important because it helps create a sustainable platform for the organization. But it's not the mission of the organization.

In health care, the way that might manifest in a  hospital, would be to put the power in the hands of the people who are closest to the patient. If I were part of a hospital leadership team, I would gather the nurses and start asking questions, such as does anyone see any opportunities to improve the experience? The nurses know where the waste and opportunities are. By focusing on making life better for the nurses, you also make life better for the patient and the company.

Bela: That's amazing. I'm wondering if you've had an exponential rise in the number of applications from people that want to work with your company.

Kevin: We have. We have 525 people today. Like most of America right now, unemployment is super low.  The demographics in Maine are a bit challenging in terms of the available workforce, but this week we have just two openings.

Bela: When you said that in this model, profit becomes more of an outcome rather than an objective, I'm curious to know how this occurs. Did this concept change the profits of your company? That’s a radical model for the traditional corporate world to sign onto. 

Kevin: Right. There's a direct correlation between your question and the value of focusing on the people who work in the organization. Again, thinking locally, making work valuable for the people who do it, is the best way to produce great results for the company. But again, this is super important: the purpose of focusing on the people within the company is not to become more profitable. That's just going to happen, but it’s not the reason for doing it. People who work spend tremendous amount of time and energy working. The old idea that we would sacrifice our work time so that we could live on the weekend or vacation or in retirement is an unacceptable bargain. It doesn't make sense. Work needs to be meaningful in spiritual ways, not just economic ways.

Bela: In response to one of my earlier questions about essential principles and values for creating this model of shared leadership, you talked about judgment and the role of the leader. The purpose of listening is not to discern between right and wrong, but to create a safe space for people to share. But putting your judgment aside can be challenging. I'm curious to know what that process was like for you.

Kevin: I do not think I would have changed in a dramatic way without my voice disorder. My voice condition forced me to change. I needed a jolt. I believe it was a gift from my own soul, or the sacred energy of the universe.  

But early on, I was not thinking about any of that. I was just trying to protect my voice. Someone at work would come to me with a question or a problem because I was the "boss.” Prior to my voice condition, I would have used that as an opportunity to pontificate, give answers, and direction. But because I couldn't, especially in the early stages of figuring out how to deal with the disorder, I just started answering questions with questions. Someone would come to me with a problem and I would say something like "Geez, that does sound like a problem" or "Good question, what do you think we should do about it?"

I was not taking that approach because I saw the leadership innovation in it. I was just protecting my voice! But then that person would tell me what he or she thought we should do. Virtually every time, it made sense. In real life, the world is filled with great people who care about what they do. People have good instincts. So that person would tell me what he or she thought they might do about that problem, and I would simply say something like "That sounds good, let's do it."

Off that person would go with his or her solution to his or her problem. Again, over time I saw that people already knew what to do. They already had great answers and they didn't need a CEO-centric, handed-down solution given to them. They just needed a little encouragement and support to trust their own instincts.

Bela: Wow. Which book did you write that talks about all of this?

Kevin: They both do a bit. The only book that's out now is ‘Not for Sale: Finding Center in the Land of Crazy Horse.’ I think it’s important for that book to be first because it’s about the process of realizing that leadership is meant to be dispersed and great people are everywhere.

The second book, which is currently in New York, getting ready to be marketed for production will probably be out at some point next year. That's the one that goes into the specifics of how a self-actualized leader can create a dispersed power leadership model that helps everyone self-actualize and change the meaning of work in the modern age. I think it can position corporations to become highly effective, localized change agents that make the world better.  At the same time, the corporations can do well as a result of making the world better for the people within their company.

Bela: Really powerful. Thank you so much.

Jyoti:  Yes, thank you, Kevin.  I have another question:  At the community level, I understand the shift from control to shared leadership.  A statement like the opening apology you offered is one way to evolve the trust essential to a healthy community.  But at the organizational level, if there has been betrayal, how can a CEO restore trust? I don't see the people in power offering apologies within the organizational context. Are there are other practices that would help shift a once controlling culture towards trust and support? What might these practices be? And to make it more personal, if your sawmill manager comes to you and says "I'm just hanging out,”  how would that go down with the leadership?

Kevin: (laughs) Those are great thoughts, and great questions. With me, it would go over great because that's how we want our leaders to function. We want our leaders to become harder to find.  We want to surrender a good bit of the leadership responsibility to everyone.

I think the world is going to move in this direction we've been discussing.  Humanity is on a path to realign with the basic laws of nature. Nature disperses power and shares leadership.  

One thing that helps move us towards this new model, is a different view of time.  For us, ten years or five years in a career might seem incredibly long. In the scope of the universe it's a super short period of time. The rules of nature are going to carry the day when it comes to humanity. Leaders are not going to be able to stop that; but they can accelerate it. This is the exciting opportunity.

The winds of change are blowing. People are coming into their own power and finding their own voices. Leaders can fight and resist that. They can slow it down, but that's all they can do. The real power is in embracing the path. Wayne Gretzky, the great goal scorer said, "My secret is I don't go to where the puck is. I skate to where it's going!" I leaders need to think about the arc of humanity and just try to get out in front of that…

The world changes one person at a time. I can have the wish for all organizations to change, but really where I've got to put most of my energy is being that change myself. I've grown to learn that I am a full-time job. It's easy for me to lose my way. The biggest gift I can give is to try to get myself right. I don't really worry about the rest of it too much.

Bela: How can we, as the larger ServiceSpace community, support your work?

Kevin: I want to say thank you to you, all of you listening in, and the organization, because I think ServiceSpace is strengthening the voices of others and helping people self-actualize. I feel really blessed to be connected. As I said earlier, connectivity in and of itself is powerful. I follow your organization and I learn from it, and it's been a fun honor today to share back into your organization. I'm sure more will come of that in the future. This group of listeners, this community that you have is on a powerful path, and it's going to keep growing. I'm excited to be connected to it. So, thank you.


For more inspiration join this Saturday's Awakin Call with former CIA officer turned peace builder, Janessa Gans Wilder. More details and RSVP info here.

Syndicated from Awakin Calls. This interview was edited by Bonnie Rose, the Senior Minister at the The Ventura Center for Spiritual Living. Their mission is “be love, share love, serve love.”  Bonnie also encourages greater love in the world through her blog, www.dailybeloved.org. 


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