Pilgrimage is a universal phenomenon that describes the journey of human life, the search for meaning, an inner journey. This journey is inward and outward, an opportunity to discover new meaning or encounter the world with fresh eyes.

Pilgrimage, a special kind of travel, is a physical, geographical and a spiritual effort. It is the individual and collective search for the sacred, where spiritual experience and geography converge. The pilgrimage road, the path, the physical journey is the outward manifestation. For me, it is laden with abundant lessons about life and about leadership.

“…even before you sat down with them,
broke bread and drank wine,
wiped the wind-tears form your eyes:
pilgrim they called you again. Pilgrim.”

David Whyte, from Camino

Long before I began to travel or write about pilgrimage, I was drawn by the sacredness and purposefulness of pilgrimage. Nearly ten years ago, I first walked this pilgrimage known as El Camino de Santiago in Spain – The Way of Saint James. In the 9th century, the discovery of a tomb in the westernmost tip of Europe, reputed to contain the remains of the body of Saint James the Great (Santiago in Spanish), was found. Santiago quickly became a pilgrimage site, and for centuries has drawn pilgrims from all over the world.

My attraction to pilgrimage began with my parents. My Cuban mother, Jamaican father and Chinese Trinidadian relatives gave me an early appreciation of the world as a large and complex place. They were a liminal people, like many who immigrated to America. They were caught in a sort of limbo: having left their native Caribbean land, they no longer belonged to their homeland and yet they were not fully settled into the new.

My parents’ arduous journey from their island countries to America, with little more than a suitcase, was not unlike the pilgrim’s journey. It was a journey full of possibility.

As a Courage & Renewal Facilitator, leadership coach, and writer, I am curious about ways to access the soul, the inner journey. I am curious about how pilgrimage supports inner work, true self, true voice, and authentic service in the world. How does pilgrimage cultivate community and relationship while also nurturing the individual? These questions are foundational in my work with leaders, individuals, and teams.

Recently, I returned from leading a group of pilgrims on El Camino de Santiago. We began our walking pilgrimage in Santiago, a beautiful and lively medieval town famously known to be the end point for many of the thirty-nine Camino routes across the Iberian Peninsula in Spain. Our pilgrimage destination was the small fishing village of Finisterre, known as the “End of the Earth.” To prepare for the pilgrimage, our group of twelve pilgrims reflected on the Touchstones, savored poetry and prose, and invited daily open questions to walk with.

It’s said that in walking El Camino, the road itself is the best teacher, and for me, the road offered many lessons in inner leadership.

During my high-pressure career as a lawyer-lobbyist, I believed that effective leadership was about a set of competencies that included technical skill and expertise, power, status, and control. I believed that leadership was largely about positional authority and superior technical skills. The person at the top of the organizational chart was the leader. I played by these rules for decades, believing that if I had the right educational degrees, the right skill set, and right experience, I would be a successful leader.

img_7355Today, working primarily with leaders across professions, I’ve learned that a new language around leadership has emerged. Leadership requires self-awareness, emotional intelligence, integrity, and trustworthiness. In the face of complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, leaders are called to be adaptable, to embrace paradox, and to hold unsettled tensions.

On returning from leading El Camino, I shared my experience on a Peer Learning Call for the Academy for Leaders. I explained that in our group of 12 pilgrims, I felt called not to be the person up front, leading the group, but instead to position myself sometimes in the front, at other times in the middle, and often dead last.

img_6808I perceived that my role wasn’t to prove that I could walk fast, that I could keep up, but to support others in their pilgrimage journey.

Walking El Camino, the path itself, taught me that leadership is not about where I position myself in the group, but the relationships that I cultivate with each person, how I express care, concern, and kindness, how I offer support to others, and for myself. I realized that the support I could offer the fast walkers might be different from the support that I offer the slow walkers. El Camino helped me to attune to others and to trust my brief moments of clarity and my own intuition.

As I finished my sharing, a fellow participant in the call – a wise and sensitive college professor with a Ph.D. in indigenous leadership – thanked me and said that I had just summarized his research on indigenous leadership. He wrote, “A leader waits patiently for an opportunity to serve the people. Leadership is not about position; it is primarily about knowing the needs of others and meeting those needs….Authentic, traditional indigenous leadership is more about caring for others than about serving self.”

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I noticed that leading this way gave others permission to do the same. My individual leadership became our collective leadership as we each took turns walking in the front, the middle, and the rear. What emerged was a genuine sense of care, a vulnerability to accept not being in the lead, and the willingness to unconditionally support each other.

I learned about the inner journey of leadership by welcoming others and making space for everyone to become an integral part of that journey. Everyone mattered. Ultimately, we collectively created a wholehearted learning community on the pilgrim’s path.


Valerie BrownValerie Brown is a Courage & Renewal facilitator, international retreat leader, writer, and ICF-accredited leadership coach of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC., specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership (www.leadsmartcoaching.com). In her latest book, The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School (Corwin Press, 2015), she explores the role of mindfulness in strengthening thriving leaders and building greater understanding and peace within schools. Valerie will be co-facilitating the next Courage & Renewal Academy for Leaders at Pendle Hill, beginning November 10-13, 2016.

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