by Pete Fierle, Fierle Strategic Communications

An eclectic group of thirty executives huddled on the porch, with a pebble in hand, and listened as Dr. Karen Ayas, a consultant in large-scale transformation and leadership development, recited writings from nearly 800 years ago.

The words crafted by Persian poet and scholar Rumi metaphorically placed an exclamation point on the “Back to the Future of Excellence” event hosted by Authenica.

The morning wind spreads its fresh smell.

We must get up and take that in,

that wind that lets us live.

Breathe, before it’s gone.

Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

I was invited to blog about my participation in the recent Authenica event which was the 50th such experience hosted by the company since its founding in 2014. My intent is to shed light on an event that provided those in attendance with an opportunity to freely share their thoughts. The result was the amazing impact the many stories of inspiration, growth, and perspective from passionate people who leverage their excellence for the greater good had on all of us. It is their knowledge, lessons, and actions that is the story.

Authenica’s Founder Craig Lucas is the “chief choreographer” behind the company’s one-of-kind immersive experiences. He possesses a unique trait of finding the best qualities in people and then bringing those individuals together at one of the many retreats and programs hosted across the country.

A master of creating memorable events, he does not have an agenda – at least not one he shares. While every detail is purposefully planned, Craig allows for unencumbered spontaneity that leads to incredible moments that organically unfold.

The awe-inspiring Wingspread Retreat & Executive Conference Center, across from Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin was the setting for this event held November 6-8, 2022. The Frank Lloyd Wright designed Wingspread was built in the 1930s. Since 1959, the magnificent mansion and surrounding countryside has served as the home to the Johnson Foundation. The core belief of the organization is that “all meaningful change begins with a conversation.” For seven decades, Wingspread has been a gathering place that fosters dialogue and meetings that allow for the building of authentic relationships. The ideas hatched at this secluded property are carried out into the world to form organizations that lead to significant social change.

The site could not have been more perfect for spurring the thought, compassion, learning, and self-reflection that occurred at this wonderful Authenica event. Wingspread’s layout includes narrow hallways with low ceilings that usher you through them to arrive at the massively expansive gathering places that include dramatic windows connecting you to nature. The bedrooms, now exhibit and meeting spaces, are also especially small as Wright thought they were only for sleeping and dreaming. Daring to dream and the belief in the possible was a theme woven through our days together accentuated by the architectural wonder of Wingspread.

The event kicked off on Sunday night as the group, a mix of first timers and many who have attended prior events, gathered for a social hour and dinner held in Wingspread’s spectacular dining room. The food was prepared by the retreat’s chef of 27 years, Dave Diedrich, and a support staff that rates second to none.

The roadmap for what was to follow was eloquently laid out by Focus to Evolve Founder & Chief Balance Engineer Jason Henkel, who has been bestowed the honor of providing opening and closing reflections at Authenica events he attends.

This thought leader, through his energizing spirit and intellect, urged us to approach the days ahead with an open mind to examining how to not go from “A to B” but travel from “A to Not A.” Acquiescing to Craig’s wishes, Jason threaded together a theme that included three things – water, Marty McFly, and Frank Lloyd Wright. In his remarks, he eloquently encouraged us to integrate three F’s into how we should process the information coming our way – flexible, focus, and flow.

On that note, the adventure began.

Throughout our time together, we enjoyed interludes featuring the uplifting voice and guitar playing of Luc Reynaud, a wonderfully talented musician and humanitarian who travels the globe through his organization, The Goodness Tour, and spreads joy to those facing adversity.

Plenty of time was set aside to allow for connecting and cultivating relationships with one another. On each of the days, specific slots of time were also carved out for assigned one-on-one conversations on a deeper level guided by a pre-determined topic. These exchanges took place in the multiple nooks and crannies tucked away in Wingspread and its adjoining conference center and guest house. The schedule also permitted us to take time to ourselves as we walked or biked the property as long as we were mindful of the gaggle of wild turkeys or many deer that wandered the land.

A reoccurring statement was stated many times after it was first articulated by one of the attendees who quoted business consultant, author, and inspirational speaker Ken Blanchard, “Love is the Answer. What is the question?”

Along that line, the seclusion of our location and the comfort created by the bonding taking place provided for special moments. Such was the case at a fireside gathering on the second night when two young women, close friends, shared their life stories and dreams for the future. The night included two other women leaders – wiser through age and experience – who selflessly and courageously shared details from unimaginable personal traumas – one from years ago and the other who is still facing the challenge. Their messages transitioned to one of hope in how someone works to overcome and learn from obstacles, as difficult as they may be to understand, and realize they shape us as people. Then, in a moment that could never be scripted, the entire group surrounded one of the women and placed their hands on her to transmit love and support as she deals with her struggle. Moments later, she was lifted into the air where she laid and focused on deep breathing to release her pent-up pain and replace it with the positive energy flowing in the room.

That scene differentiates Authenica from any other leadership event you’ll attend. The purpose is to push for growth that can only happen outside our comfort zones. Authenica has several verticals in the human potential activation space but experiences like this retreat challenge us to pursue excellence, personally and professionally, by unlocking depths of vulnerability.

And only at an Authenica event can a conversation between two people who seemingly just met lead to a revelation that their paths crossed 17 years prior. Responding to a question about if there was any one client that stood out over her career, the person identified a company. The person who asked the question suddenly realized that it was the company he worked for at the time. He proceeded to share that the training she delivered transformed his career and life and led him to where he is today.

Sprinkled among presentations, music, meals, and casual conversations were spectacular accounts of inspiration. Allow me to share just a few, starting with two marathon runners.

Dr. Dawn Mussallem is a physician and consultant in the Department of Hematology Oncology at the Mayo Clinic and is a diagnostic breast specialist. She makes a difference in the lives of her patients by introducing them to the importance of lifestyle optimization that leads them to discovering renewed vitality through healthier living. Craig invited Dawn to tell her story over lunch. It should be noted that Dawn arranged for an entire plant-based meal to be served. Her legacy includes the incredible journey in which she didn’t let a heart transplant detour her path in life. Incredibly, she ran a marathon on the one-year anniversary of her surgery (and others since then) while maintaining her hectic pace demanded by her work.

Aaron Hawkins, a successful banker from Nashville, Tennessee, focused on his personal life. He shared how he did not let multiple sclerosis derail his love of running despite the objections from his doctors. A diagnosis of lung cancer a few years ago that resulted in losing 70 percent of one lung also didn’t curtail his desire for competing in marathons. In fact, Aaron recently celebrated his 50th birthday by completing his 50th marathon.

At another moment, a James Bond impersonator by the name of James Taggart vibrantly shared his non-traditional and flexible path to enjoying several different careers that takes him around the world. There is also the story Brian Zawada, a former member of the United States Air Force, who later formed a highly successful risk management company. He’s now engaged in a new passion project as he and his wife relocated to Oregon where they operate their own vineyard, Violet Vines. Thanks to Brian for supplying his wines and coordinating with the chef to pair them with each course at one of the dinners.

Several experts in their fields presented profound content aimed at prompting the business leaders on hand to reflect and expand their understanding of themselves. We learned from a Jeff Bloomfield, the Founder & CEO of Braintrust, a training and coaching company rooted in neuroscience, that to become a great communicator, one must take it from being intuitive to being intentional in how we communicate. Another session led by a retired Marine turned corporate executive and now consultant Ray Brooks focused on the science of the heart and the science of feeling by looking at yourself at a deeper level and committing to a life of meaning.

A final presentation by a world-renowned speaker, lecturer, author, consultant and trained psychiatrist Dr. Srini Pillay, M.D., centered on the “Art of the Possible” and acknowledged that dreams are never too big. This session was followed by each of us spending fifteen minutes of solitude to ponder our self-discovery over the previous 40-plus hours. We were tasked with identifying how we would personally utilize this experience to shape the future.

The closing ceremony began with the sounds of another beautiful song by Luc that filled the vast open spaces of the historic landmark. With that, we made our way to the porch. Following final remarks, including the words of Rumi, we simultaneously hurled our rocks into the pond that lined the property.

Standing quietly with the sun and crisp autumn air adding to the aura of the moment, we stared at the ripples on the water and contemplated just how we will make a splash in life moving forward by using the knowledge gained from “Back to the Future of Excellence.”

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