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Ode to the Termite: What I learned about leadership from an artist in old San Juan

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Life will grant insight in the most unusual places to those willing to listen. This time for me it was Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, the city where I spent my youth and my favorite place in the world. Every Christmas, I go there on a pilgrimage to recapture my roots and get reacquainted with old friends and family. One of my recently developed rituals, is to spend an afternoon with Charles Juhasz- Alvarado, a Puerto Rican artist and sculptor. Charles has a very clear mission in life, to create work that makes people think of everyday situations, news or objects, in fresh and different ways. Importantly, to create work that withstand the test of time. To that aim, he builds everyday items as huge structures to be touched and explored; for example, he built a shoeshine box as big as an adult like doll house where people can see and experience the magical soul that inhabits the ordinary. Charles is committed to his mission and through his words and actions he clearly demonstrates that there is total alignment of who he is and what he does.

One of my favorite installations "celebrates" the role of the termite in our lives. Charles created a musical band of life size wooden termites that look like recently assembled construction models. Celebrate the termite, why? I dared to ask and was truly surprised by what I heard. "The termite symbolizes my existential and physical struggle to transcend ". Charles loves wood because it represents the skin of the earth; it is raw , original and real. Termites also love wood as they feed on it to survive. They are the lord Shiva of our world , maintaining balance in nature: no creation without destruction. Charles respects and admires this tiny insect that gets in the way of his transcendences. He knows that he will eventually lose the fight but learning about the termite allows him to innovate around it to insure one more day of life for his work and his legacy. Charles considers the termite a curse but also a blessing: a curse, because the termite destroys his work; a blessing, because it is the motivation for him to do better and more lasting work. Out of that conflict and paradox his creations emerge.

I also explored with Charles the concept of creative integrity. He believes that to stay true to his mission in life he has to apply his utmost energy, passion and creativity to all the tasks that come to him; the big and epic as well as the small and crappy; the work he is commissioned with tight specs as well as the wide open work that he initiates. Every job is an opportunity to express his mission, to look at things differently, to enhance, improve or transform what he has in front of him. Creativity is an integral part of Charles being so he can not switch it "on" and "off" upon request or personal preference. Creativity and imagination need constant fuel and practice. If he was to apply it only to the projects he loves, over time, he could eventually drain it and slowly destroy his essence .

My afternoon with Charles led to very interesting conversations with my daughter Clara who is beginning a corporate career. Charles embodied three principles that we must never forget. First, we need to define our mission in life and insure that the work that we do is consistent with that mission. As leaders we spend a lot of time defining our company's mission and not enough time defining our personal purpose in life. It is only through the integration of company and personal mission that we will find fulfillment and meaning in our work and lives. The integration of the material everyday world with our spiritual thirst for significance will allows us to transcend and leave a mark in our world. Secondly, we need to embrace conflict and paradoxes as the sources of inspiration and innovation. Constructive tension will lead to meaningful creation and for that, diversity of thought is key. Finally, we must maintain a constant engagement approach to life. Creativity, inspiration and passion need to be manifested in everything that we do: the good, the dull and the extraordinary . Everything and everyone that we touch can be transformed for the better .

So what was supposed to be an art appreciation day ended up being a wonderful reflection on the leadership journey. I should not be surprised; being a student of leadership is who I am and I can not switch it "on" and "off" upon request . I did buy a wonderful piece from Charles : a termite that today sits in my living room. Sometimes I feel it is a magical being that gets up at night to do mischief around the house and is probably responsible for those wonderful wild ideas that sometimes wake me up in the middle of the night ...