Flowers in Armor
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Marisa Guerin, PhD – July 12, 2021
The title of this blogpost is also the title of an unpublished paper that I wrote some years back; its full title is “Flowers in Armor: The Crisis of Spirit and Authenticity in a Corporate Career.” The paper is a very personal reflection on my years as a woman executive in a global manufacturing company. Although my years in corporate life were successful by outside measures, the essay deals with my inner experiences, some of them positive but most of them difficult. The intensity of the inner rifts and tensions were such that, to resolve them for me personally, I chose to resign my executive role with its substantial rewards and authority. It was right for me, but might not be for others.
A short blog post like this isn’t the place for the full essay, but I think it’s time I put this reflective analysis out in the world. Perhaps it can provide perspective, or a feeling of solidarity for other women, or men, who struggle to integrate their values and their professional responsibilities. In this blog post, I have excerpted a few paragraphs from the text, and I provide you here with a link to the paper itself which is now on my website, in case you want to read it. I would be most interested in any feedback, since my perspective is from far within the experience. I know that it is far from a complete telling -- my corporate years also held much growth, learning, friendships, and professional accomplishments. But that wasn't what needed writing at the time I put these thoughts down. I will probably write more on it as I find myself looking back through a longer prism.
So that you can situate this period in my life: My fifteen-year corporate career (1984 – 2000) was my “in the middle” career. For ten years before that, I worked in various roles in Catholic youth ministry, including a stint as national director of the organization. For eighteen years after it, I had my own business as a management and organization consultant primarily to nonprofit and religious organizations. Since 2018 I have been retired from active consulting, mostly writing and teaching.
Excerpts from “Flowers in Armor”:
"On my desk in my executive office, there was a small, two-sided acrylic picture stand. In it, I kept two photos that I had taken in the same village church on a trip to Southern France – one was a bouquet of flowers that had been painstakingly arranged in the silent church by a calm little old woman. On the obverse side was a statue of St. Joan of Arc, in armor and with her lance, battle-ready.
"Some days the flowers faced me; more often, it was Joan. The images helped me to remember that the part of me that would just as soon cultivate beauty was still there, even when I had to “saddle up” for battle. My eventual decision to leave behind my corporate role was the only way I knew at the time to resolve that anguished inner divide.
"The reflections that follow are in many ways an exploration of the shadow, an exploration of crisis and ultimate “failure”. When I speak of failure, I don’t mean it the way the outside world might. I mean the recognition in my bones that there was a coherence or inner integrity in that corporate career that simply eluded me despite years of strenuous efforts to get it right, and with consequences both positive and negative for me and for others. ….
Mixed motives upon taking up a management role
"….I remember being pleased to learn that employees found me to be a “straight shooter”. My conscious intention was to be truthful about what the realities were and what the possibilities might be, even harsh ones, and I didn’t resort to spin doctoring. However, I clearly took positions on the issues in a way that put my own values and hopes into the mix, without registering that I had limited power to ensure that my values would govern the outcomes. I was trusted for my candor, but also for my vision – but the realization of that vision wasn’t mine to control. I wanted to be honest, and I wanted there to be happy endings. That problematic knot of motivations reveals the ways in which projected ideals can infect communication, seducing myself and others into hope and avoiding thoughtful engagement with the realities as they look to cynics.
"....It was not, in fact, honest...an organization is not ultimately aiming for the win-win of all its stakeholders, but for the value-added to its investor-owners. Clear eyes about that would have served me and the employees better. (this paragraph is not an excerpt, but an addition)
After telling about being promoted from plant HR leader to head of Corporate Training, at a terrible time for the team left behind at the plant -- a betrayal at a human relationship level
"…Part of me was rejoicing that I could leave what I experienced to be a very hard job and go on to what I considered my dream job in the company. Yet I also felt like I was being violently severed, leaving behind my arm or my leg in a ripping apart, not even a thoughtful surgery. The human community I had grown to be part of in my workplace, and the human needs to which I was attempting to respond from my role as manager, were apparently not viewed by my bosses in the same way that I saw them. …
"…This was the first of a number of significant experiences in which I was left with an un-resolved internal rupture between what seemed right by the lights of my personal, spiritual, and perhaps feminine values of relatedness and mutuality, versus what appeared to be right in terms of what I saw as the “real world”, business, masculine values of rationality and pragmatism. I became aware of an inner crisis of personal authenticity and spiritual integrity….
Being the only woman in the room
"…The experience of internal rupture happened enough times over the years to be undeniable within me; but I didn’t understand it. I assumed it was a deficiency on my part, need for a skill of some kind that I hoped I would eventually acquire.
"The predominant corporate culture where I worked was decidedly shaped by men – sharp and smart, assertive and critical, calm and calculating, busting on each other with humor and competing with one another quite seriously. These were good and honest men and it was a good company, full of people who had friendships going back many years.
"In my company at the time, I was often the only woman in the room during senior leader meetings. As the executive for Human Resources and therefore a representative of the company’s people-values, I was expected to take make the case for the fair treatment of the employees affected by a business decision. In both of those capacities, as a woman and as the HR leader, I may have been the only one on the team unconsciously permitted (perhaps in some ways required) to feel the import of the actions taken, although I certainly was not expected to express those feelings publicly….
Dynamics of denial of emotion
"…Over the years when I attended top level meetings as a member of the senior executive team, every now and then there would be days when I would have to withdraw to a private place for a good cry of fury and frustration. (The executive floor had a little hidden studio apartment in it for execs who might find themselves stuck overnight at the office for whatever business emergency. It was my salvation.)
"The tears were embarrassing to me, but sometimes I just had to surrender to the fact that my heart was wrung out by whatever exceptionally painful organizational decision had just been made. I’d rage and weep for a while, and then powder my face and get back to the work of implementing the corporate mandate, aware again of my inner self ripped in two….
"…With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think my inner distress occurred because the values I labeled feminine (relatedness/mutuality) or masculine (rationality/pragmatism) were polarized or incompatible. Rather, I think it was because the values of relatedness, mutuality and personal connection were denied and suppressed in that corporate environment, as if the only valid basis for good business decisions were impersonal, logical ones. It was subtle and confusing. The rhetoric of the company leaders was clearly about concern for employees, yet in my experience, corporate decision making was impersonal, business-driven, and lacking in any sense of compassion. Most of my male colleagues were, I believe, totally out of touch with this disconnect….
Time to leave
"…Depression, medication, exhaustion, and spiritual desolation were the private symptoms I coped with, symptoms that I knew would one day torpedo my public performance if I didn’t make a change. I waited patiently to see if I might be gaining enough experience, skill, or wisdom to see things differently and to feel them differently.
"I did not. One Sunday morning, writing in my journal, I realized I had learned to do the job well by external standards, but I still didn’t feel right about it. It was time to leave, to move to something that would be a better fit between my own self and my work in the world. I was unwilling to live my one life under such stress, constantly working against the grain of my personal gifts and values.
So six years after taking the job, I resigned….
Not condemnation, but holding both
"…My experiences haven’t led me to the conclusion that corporate business organizations are evil. Rather, I think that to lead or live in such a system with some measure of integrity and peace, it is necessary to accept its truths and its imperfections, and to accept my own truths and imperfections, and to make the best of both of them without doing violence to others or myself.
"This insight and this capacity were mostly beyond me at the point in my life when I worked within the corporate organization. While it may always remain difficult, I feel much more capable now than I was in the past….
A conclusion of sorts
"If there is a theme in this essay, it is my realization that it is impossible to escape the deep imperfection in myself and in all human organizations, and also that despite these truly painful flaws, some modest good can be done and in fact, must be attempted. It is clear to me that there is no “later” or “over there” in which things will be just right."
( For the whole essay, see “Flowers in Armor”)
The entire article from which these excerpts were taken is on my website, on the page for papers and presentations. It is described as “unpublished” because at some point, it might find its way to a publication or public presentation. Or maybe not. I write for various reasons and I think the main one is to gain clarity by reflecting on my own experience, for my own benefit. Another reason is to connect with readers who may find value or interest in what I write, but I am never sure exactly who that is.
What I am pretty confident of, however, is that I am neither crazy nor unique. Perhaps my attempt to put the turmoil of inner life into words and meaning will resonate with the other people out there who are also caught in the middle of so many emotions: the excitement of leadership, the traumas of betraying and being betrayed, the desire to build, and the reality of limits.
I remain deeply admiring of human organizations and of their leaders and members. Yes, many organizations are deeply compromised, corrupted, or just garden-variety-flawed. They are not families, and they are not relationship-communities, either. But organizations – human groups with a purpose to fulfill – are essential; we have no other way as humans to collaborate for a good life and a better world.
I was not called to the valiant work of leadership in an organization, but I learned that I was called to the containing and nurturing work of consulting to them. One must find one's right calling.
I’m glad I found my way to a life in which I can admire the flowers more often, and set the armor aside most of the time.