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  • Fabrice Desmarescaux

The Art of Retreats -- Introduction

Here is the introduction of my book, The Art of Retreats: A Leader's Journey Toward Clarity, Balance, and Purpose, which will launch in February 2022.

As you begin this book, you may have a few presuppositions. You may believe, for example, that retreats are reserved for celebrities, hippies, or the lucky few who do not have responsibilities in real life. Living a contemplative life is the special privilege of spiritual seekers, right?

Or perhaps you believe leaders should focus on what they do best: running organizations. They should leave the reflecting to others. After all, leaders are not intellectuals or contemplatives but people driven to action and success.

In this book, I invite you to question these presuppositions. Along the way, I will show you that the opposite is often true: Leaders achieve greater clarity, balance, and purpose when they combine “acting” with “being” and take time to retreat. And the higher they go, the greater the rewards for marrying “action” and “contemplation.”

Let me explain.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are in a leadership position or aspiring to be in one. You work hard to take care of business, earn money, and satisfy your bosses, clients, investors, and staff. You may have a family and be raising children. With whatever time is left in your day after that, you sleep or exercise or get involved with your community.

But even if you feel you have everything under control in the outer world, how do you care for your inner world? And how do you ensure that your true self is not at odds with your external persona?

These questions have been at the heart of my life for the last twenty years. Earlier in my career, I was a business executive and a partner at a prestigious consulting firm, but I was interested in spirituality, psychology, and human development before ever entering the business world. Once I began progressing in leadership roles, I struggled to reconcile my longing for authenticity and purpose with the demands of business. Eventually, it dawned on me: this is not an either-or dilemma. We can integrate both worlds, if we only decide to walk through certain gateways. In the last decade or so, I have guided senior business leaders on that path. Today, I work as a coach, retreat leader, and leadership advisor to businesses of all sizes. I love supporting my clients in this quest to find clarity, balance, and purpose in their personal and professional lives.

The leaders I work with know how to play the leadership game. They are efficient, driven, and focused. They have significant responsibilities and influence, and they deliver results to their stakeholders. They excel at what I call growth in the horizontal dimension—the material world.

But there is another dimension, the vertical one, that allows us to deepen our leadership. Depth is not about efficiency, scale, or shareholder value. Instead, it is about connecting with the things that give us meaning: self-awareness, presence, meaningful relationships based on caring, equanimity and compassion, embracing the complexity of the world with curiosity, life and death, wisdom, and ultimately, purpose.

My clients would love to spend more time looking within, but they have neither the time nor the method to do so. The demands on their time are such that they feel fragmented and scattered. Targets are increasingly ambitious. The combination of globalization, changing demographics, global warming, new technologies, big data, artificial intelligence, a pandemic, and the reality of inequalities surfacing in every field has created a complexity never seen before. Today, leaders reach a milestone, and several new priorities emerge instantly. There is no end in sight. It is never good enough.

To succeed in this relentless environment, one must excel at the horizontal dimension. This means exacerbating character traits such as ambition and drive and focusing on winning to the extent that other parts of life—like relationships, physical and mental health, or spirituality—are neglected. Somewhere in the process of fitting into the business culture and reaching for the top, leaders often become lopsided; their brightest qualities, such as passion, serenity, equanimity, generosity, and compassion, are eclipsed. They lose touch with the vertical dimension.

I wrote this book after spending countless hours with leaders who are all confronting the same questions I did. They want to achieve leadership depth. They’ve mastered the horizontal dimension but struggle to explore the vertical one. What can they do to look inside and regain wholeness? How can they find clarity and balance amidst this ever-increasing complexity? How do they reconnect with what makes them truly human? And how do they ensure that they ultimately make a positive difference?

My Journey Within

Spiritual traditions invite us to explore the depth of the vertical dimension. In my early thirties, full of naïve inspiration, I started a sitting practice to look within. This was a complete flop. Sitting in silence was like venturing into a deep cave without a lantern. My first reaction was to run back to the safety of the outside world. I hated the dark and the silence, which I promptly covered up with music. I hated the solitude and preferred to seek company. I concluded that meditation was a colossal waste of time. Like a hungry ghost, I resumed filling my inner emptiness with outer stimulation.

It was many years later, with greater maturity, that I finally accepted the darkness, and my eyes started discerning shapes and contours. In silence, I finally made out the faint messages of my inner voices. And in solitude, I realized that I was never alone.

Nothing destined me to seek a contemplative path. I grew up in the horizontal world of action. In my thirties, as a partner with the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, I advised leaders and boards of banks and insurance companies. I later joined one of these banks and oversaw a business with a few thousand staff, five hundred branches, and revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

My perspective shifted when, in my forties, I dedicated myself to the executive search profession. I became a “headhunter,” recruiting senior executives and building top teams for financial institutions. I measured how, despite their rich compensation packages and unbridled career ambitions, many of these leaders were suffering from a lack of inner guidance.

I explored with my clients what would make them and their teams more fulfilled and purposeful, without sacrificing the short-term imperatives of profits and growth. As a discreet behind-the-scenes advisor, I asked my clients: is this an either-or situation? Do you have to sacrifice your inner self to achieve career success? Can a leadership team align on goals that both satisfy their stakeholders and their desire to have a positive impact on the world?

Because I was raised in the West but lived most of my adult life in Asia, I blend Eastern and Western traditions into my work and invite leaders into a journey that is pragmatic and rational while also inviting awe and inspiration. I will invite you into that same journey throughout this book.

The Path Before You

Far from being dogmatic, this book offers a realistic path to balance our need for action with an increased longing for reflection, meaning, and purpose.

Together, we will explore four millennia of human wisdom—not in a theoretical way but interactively, through discussions and practical exercises. All you need for this journey is curiosity and the desire to achieve greater leadership clarity, balance, and purpose.

Along the way, you will need to carve out some time for yourself, and I will show you how. This may sound counterintuitive; time is already so scarce! For now, you will simply have to trust the process. As you do, you will see why personal retreats have been the secret weapon of great leaders since the dawn of humanity. Leaders who retreat regularly radiate presence, clarity, inspiration, purpose, creativity, and wisdom. If you accompany me on this journey, you, too, will discover how to access your inner resources, those you instinctively know you have but struggle to access amid everyday distractions.

You have an opportunity to rediscover the path that many other greats have trodden before you. There is no miracle cure, and I am no magician. The road that I am inviting you to walk with me has been explored for millennia by spiritual sages, philosophers, mystics, artists, psychologists, and neuroscientists. What makes our journey unique is that we will approach it from the perspective of a leader facing the challenges of the modern business world.

What to Expect

In the first part of the book, I review the challenges that leaders face and how personal retreats can be a marvelous leadership tool. I will show you how to structure a retreat, whether it lasts two hours or two weeks. And I will share tips on overcoming the initial resistance to taking time for yourself.

In the second part of the book, we will explore contemplative themes that are critical to deepening leadership. Most are counterintuitive and will challenge the unbalanced ideology of busyness, superficiality, power, and accumulation. To guide you, I will offer simple reflections, or contemplations, that will allow you to explore and deepen your own leadership style.

Many of these reflections are inspired by my work with other leaders—people who have valiantly walked this path with me. It has been a privilege to share their journeys. To protect confidentiality, names and details have been altered.

The path that I have charted for you is inspired by a quest to marry doing and being, action and contemplation, horizontality and verticality.

Let’s walk this path together!

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