The most powerful leader I have ever worked with is a sprightly seventy-three-year-old woman with blue eyes that radiate like the flames of a gas range holding some complex sauce at simmer. She has a strong, clear voice, and a strong, clear manner. Her name is Sister Amelie Mary Francis de Bouganville. She is the CEO of one of my clients, a multi-billion-dollar Catholic health care organization. Sister Amy walks at a brisk pace that most people have to strain to keep up with. That includes me, and I’m a fast walker, and twenty years her junior. If someone told you that Amy had been an Olympic gymnastics champion in her youth, you would believe it. The firmness of her handshake would surprise you if everything about her hadn’t alerted you that it was coming.
Even though Sister Amy was born in 1935, she still bears an uncanny resemblance to the French actress Audrey Tautou. That resemblance caused Sister Amy to be teased mercilessly by colleagues several years ago when the movie Amelie became an international hit.
“Is that you?” people asked her.
But everyone knew perfectly well that Sister Amy wasn’t the actress. To save her soul Sister Amy couldn’t play the innocent that Ms. Tautou did in Amelie. Innocence was brutally stolen from Sister Amy when she was a little girl. She is a warm, kindly, woman with a crackling intelligence, and those sparkling blue eyes have etched deep smile lines at the corners. Even so, there can be a flickering hardness in those eyes that is beyond Amy’s control. It flashes sometimes in the midst of conflict, especially if Sister Amy senses an absence of candor or fortitude on someone’s part. She can’t keep it from happening: light stabs from those bright eyes like the glint off a drawn blade. You just know in those fleeting instants that once upon a time Sister Amy’s eyes saw something very bad; and you know the sight wounded her permanently.
It’s an amazing quality: some part of a life story that escapes for the briefest moment before Sister Amy snatches it back and puts it away. Most people don’t know where that quality comes from, but I do. Sister Amy told me. I am her executive coach.
Amy has told me a lot about her life—where she came from, how she got to be the way she is. She confided in me not out of a desire for sympathy (she cares less about that than anyone I know), but because she wants to be the best leader she can be. Amy is one of those people whose work is a life offering. There are certain traits that she constantly struggles to manage. Intolerance of deceit and contempt for fear on the part of her colleagues are the two biggies. There were times, I could tell, when it made Amy uncomfortable to share her life story with me. Her discomfort, however, meant nothing to her compared to her passion for doing the best job possible. Sister Amy can take a helluva punch.
In many ways, Catholic health care is no different from the rest of American health care. It’s a mess, in other words, a briar patch of challenges. But there is no more elemental profession in the world than medicine. The suffering masses queue up seeking relief. Caregivers show up wanting to help. Sister Amy is one of those called to help.
Sister Amy’s amazing story is this. Her father was a French count. Her mother was an actress and artist. Amy lived with her parents on her father’s ancestral estate amid a centuries-old vineyard. It was a fairy tale life until the Nazis showed up. Even after the invasion, however, Sister Amy’s parents managed to keep the fairy tale going. They were able to cope with anything life brought them, even Nazis. They were part of the underground that smuggled Jews to freedom. Terrified refugees arrived in the darkness in the company of daring young men and women who risked their lives to guide them away from the ravening genocide machine. Amy’s parents escorted the fleeing visitors into a labyrinth of chalk tunnels beneath the chateau where the wine was stored.
Once underground, the refugees were greeted by an amazing scene. Amy’s parents laid a feast for them from the villa’s plenty. The appearance of all that food on the long wooden table, interspersed with beautiful floral arrangements, all of it dancing in candlelight, must have seemed a dream to the refugees.
Amy would never forget the way the visitors smelled in the confines of the chalk tunnels. It wasn’t just the pungent aroma of sweating unbathed bodies. There was another, more acrid smell. Amy could see that it was associated with the shocked eyes and trauma-etched faces. It was the stench of fear.
But then the fine wine was poured, and eating utensils clattered, and guitar and accordion music struck up, and songs were sung, and, most incongruously, laughter echoed against the chalk walls. It worked a kind of magic in Amy’s heart.
One day in 1942, a Nazi patrol rolled up to the villa in the middle of a sunny morning. It was the time of year when the air held the fragrance of blooming lavender. This had never happened before. The Nazi leader grabbed Amy’s parents and dragged them into the courtyard with the servants standing all around. He yelled angry questions at them.
Amy’s parents were calm and peaceful. Amy felt no fear, because her parents seemed unconcerned. She would never forget the equanimity in their eyes. Amy was troubled by the feeling she got from some of the soldiers, though. There was something wrong with their spirits, a kind of breathing death. She had never seen anything like it. Still, some were just boys who seemed almost as scared as the refugees who came in the night.
In the short circuitry of what then happened, Amy could only recall the deafening noise in the enclosed courtyard and terrible burnt smell. Her parents lay crumpled on the ground. They no longer looked like her parents, just bloody rags.
From another world, Amy heard the scream of an animal. It was an eagle, or maybe a wolf. It sounded as if it were being skinned alive. The soldiers were gone. Hands tried to pull her away but couldn’t.
The screaming went on. In some part of her brain Amy guessed it was coming from her, but she couldn’t be sure.
Darkness finally fell. Amy had no idea who she was, where she was, in what alien sky hung the stars overhead. A shadow dashed across the courtyard and scooped her up.
She bounced on the shadow’s shoulder as it ran. In some part of her brain she knew the shadow’s name, because she recognized the shadow’s smell. It was Roger Guillemin, one of the brave young guides. Roger was going to be a doctor after the war. He dreamed of treating country people in a small village. Amy’s father loved Roger, said he stood for la France profonde.
Guillemin carried Amy in his arms for days, walking always by night, hiding in barns and woods by day. They traveled in a band of ghostly, shuffling refugees. Amy was silent, but Roger constantly whispered comforting words to her. Everything would be all right. He promised her.
They entered the mountains. Air smelling of cold rocks stung Amy’s nostrils. Roger kept urging his exhausted flock to move faster. The sky was flushing rose. They came to a mountain inn just as the sun cleared the peaks. The innkeeper rushed them up several flights of stairs and through a hatch in the attic.
Allez, allez, allez!
Roger handed Amy to one of the refugees and returned below with the innkeeper. Then Amy heard the horrifying sound of machines outside—trucks and motorcycles, beasts of the apocalypse arriving from their lair of madness. There was a loud banging on the door and angry shouting in German. In a moment there was a new German voice, also angry, furious even. Amy recognized the second German speaker. It was Roger. She later learned that Roger had raced down the stairs, shedding his clothes as he went—pants, shoes, socks. He opened his shirt, tousled his hair, rubbed his eyes red to make it look as though he had been sleeping. Then he opened the door and cursed the intruders in their mother tongue. What did they mean? This was a friendly inn! They knew that perfectly well! The first German voice softened. The motors started and went away.
Roger delivered Amy to a convent that helped the maquis. She lived out the war there with the nuns. She never spoke, never smiled. She saw Roger sometimes when he arrived with refugees. She felt warmth at the sight of him, just like the warmth she felt toward the nuns. But her nerve endings were ruptured and the warmth stayed inside her and, as with the nuns, she neither spoke to nor smiled at Roger either.
After the war, relatives came to take Amy away. She refused to leave. The convent was her home, the only safe place in the world, the nuns her sisters. She loved them, this small, mute girl, and she felt their love for her. Felt it as surely as the sun on her cheek. The nuns were quiet women. They spent hours in silent prayer, but they exuded joy that was like beautiful music. It filled Amy with warmth. The warmth grew and grew inside her even though she never spoke.
The convent produced all its own food. It had beautiful flower gardens, and the nuns picked the flowers and arranged them in simple vases and pots, as Amy’s mother had once done. Amy never helped them, as she had her mother, but she loved watching the flight of their sturdy, graceful hands at work, hands like brown birds. Clematis grew around the convent as it had at her parents’ chateau. In the first and last light of day the vines’ leaves were like tender licking green flames, and their blossoms glowed like living jewels. Indigo, mauve, pink, white, violet. From her mother’s teaching, Amy knew the names of some of the vines, knew that some dated back to the Middle Ages. Amy found it odd that the nuns never picked the clematis. One day she took a pair of sheers and lingered among the vines. She appeared with a basketful of trimmings, and the nuns watched amazed at what then happened. Working as deftly as a small, silent surgeon, Amy re-sliced the stems diagonally with a sharp knife and plopped them in a basin of warm water. She disappeared for some time and then returned with her own harvest of flowers, soft pastels. She arranged the flowers with the clematis in compositions of such stunning, gentle genius that it made the nuns think of Monet’s garden at Girveny.
“Clematis make a fine cut flower,” Amy explained to the nuns. “They actually keep better than roses. My mother taught me.”
With that petit didacticism Amy had rejoined the living. She remained at the convent well into adolescence. She came to understand that it was the silence of the convent that brought her to God, that it was God who had returned her to the world. God was a presence, she learned, that could be found only in the deep silence of the mind. It was only with the mind’s noise willfully stilled by the mind’s owner that one experienced the primal stuff of the universe, which was love.
The nuns eventually sent Amy off to Paris to study. Psychology became her passion. After taking her baccalaureate, she entered a graduate program at the Sciences-Po Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris. That’s when she was seized by a terrible fixation that threatened to pull her back into her own personal abyss.
Amy was obsessed by the Nazi occupation of France and the holocaust. She discovered that there were probably never any more than twenty-two hundred Gestapo policemen running all of Occupied France. How could that be? The arithmetic was as bleak as it was elemental. Scholars had learned that there were at least twice as many French policemen in the Gestapo’s auxiliary. And there were some thirty thousand miliciens, Vichy “security police,” helping the Gestapo. And the miliciens maintained a cancerous network of informants. In all, figured the scholars, there were roughly a hundred and sixty thousand active members of the French Resistance. There were a hundred and seventy thousand French collaborators.
The French, in a sense, had invaded themselves.
Amy’s mind reeled. She sat up in the wee hours of the morning, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, reading, thinking. Her brain crackled more and more with the gunfire that took her parents from her. She sweated, her heart pounded, and she felt rage. She tried to remember the faces of the servants who watched the execution. Was there a collaborator among them?
“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright…”
The words of William Blake’s poem came to her one night while she was lost in ruminations on good and evil.
“In what furnace was thy brain?… Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
Amy hardly noticed at first, but she didn’t feel well. A bleak despair infected her. It seemed to her that human beings were a mistake. She was a mistake. The cold tiger of cynicism prowled her soul.
She considered suicide but rejected it; it didn’t satisfy her blood lust for revenge. She thought seriously of trying to join the Israeli Mossad so she could hunt Nazis. She found that she was a compulsive student of the naked face. She knew that she had a tendency to stare at people to the point of rudeness, but she couldn’t help it; life had made her too vigilant. Every stranger was a suspect.
“Did you betray my parents?”
The question leaped to her mind countless times daily as she watched people. She never said the words aloud, but suspects flinched under her hard, silent interrogation.
Amy was welcome among the old Maquisards whom she often joined in cafes, the atrocity at Chateau de Bouganville being a lingering sadness they shared. She felt at home with them, but their company wasn’t all that pleasant. There had been so much collaboration during the Occupation, so many betrayals, large and small, that enduring suspicions bedeviled the Maquisards’ world. They, too, wondered who had betrayed Amy’s parents. One of the most celebrated Maquisards, a woman professor, was actually suspected by some of luring Jean Moulin to his death by torture at the hands of Klaus Barbie. Barbie was known as the Butcher of Lyons. Moulin, dashing as a movie star, was a famous leader of the Resistance—”the leader of a people of the night,” “king of shadows.” Amy sat sipping wine with the woman one evening among a group of others. Suddenly, the woman recoiled painfully and looked away. Amy had been staring a hole through her.
Almost always now Amy felt the frosty breath of the tiger inside her. The best she ever felt anymore was merely sour, like the sere aftertaste of too many cigarettes, too much coffee, too much wine. The last vestige of the love of life seemed to have leaked out of her.
And then one day Amy just packed her bags and left school. Left Paris to its bare trees and cold dank walls, and gray skies. It was on the train, with the countryside slipping past her window, the rails clacking hypnotically, that she briefly recognized the wholly unconscious nature of her actions. She hadn’t acted at all. She was being acted upon. That was the first time Amy experienced her brain as having a life of its own. Her mind, she saw, seemed to use her life like a host organism. It was as though some reclusive creature had long ago taken up residence inside her without her ever knowing.
Amy arrived at the convent late in the afternoon just as one of her sisters was arriving at the gate pushing a wheelbarrow with a ladder balanced across it. The air was fresh and sweet, whispering a promise of spring. Amy could see that the sister was about to prune the dead brown stems of the great clematis that swallowed the rugged convent arbor and gate. The pruning would trigger the plant’s annual resurrection, forming the beautiful portal into this gentle world that Amy called home. Dazed, Amy set down her bags. The sister arched an eyebrow and studied Amy for some time. Finally, she smiled. The expression pierced Amy’s haze. It soothed her like the song of an angel.
With a little nod and wink, the angel retrieved pruning sheers from her garden apron and offered them. Amy accepted. The sister turned and walked away. No words were spoken.
Amy had pruned the clematis countless times, a magnificent old Etoile Violette, the violet star. It was the variety that liked hard pruning. Ordinarily, Amy dropped to her knees and swiftly snipped away stems near the ground where she found the first tender new buds springing from the axils. Then she would quickly lop off the old dead wood in large sections and bundle them in her arms. The chore was usually done in a few minutes.
Now, Amy just stood silently, mesmerized by the vine’s complex tapestry. She sensed its marriage to the sun and earth, the imponderable march of time that had given it this life form from other life forms. She was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of belonging. The vine blurred into a sepia tangle as Amy’s eyes misted.
Amy climbed the rickety ladder, found the apex of each individual stem and began clipping in minuscule fractions where each thready tendril had pulled itself toward the sun. The breeze on her skin, the earthy fragrance from the distant woods, the monastery’s silence, the pale blue sky with its flock of white clouds, the click of the pruning sheers: they all triggered a cascade of memories. Especially that scent in the air. It recalled the delicate chypre her mother had worn, a fragrance that conjured love, goodness and safety.
Amy’s life story washed over her. Everything. Early joy, the murder of her parents, the balm of the sisters’ love, the intellectual wilderness of Paris, the drugged state of her train ride. And now this mysterious return. It filled her with wonder.
Then the thought of colors came to her: the chartreuse of new leaves that would soon smother the convent’s entrance, the galaxy of purple flowers that would follow. The anticipation of the colors flooded her with tenderness and joy. And then she could feel her mother’s presence. It was as though she could smell the milk from her breasts.
The incremental way the clematis under Amy’s hands had built itself into the air made her think of the nature of thought, like the healing, joyful thoughts she was thinking at that very moment. Thoughts, she saw, built one upon another until a human life was formed. She saw how these “thought lives”—they were stories, really, each one—she saw how they mingled and shaped other stories, intertwined life. Families, villages, stone walls, plowed fields, manicured vineyards, nations, history. All were the fruits of thought, stories.
But was thought thinking her, or was she the thinker? It was hard to say.
The pruning sheers froze in her hand.
“C’est moi,” said Amy aloud. “It’s me. I am the thinker. And yet…”
And that is when Sister Amelie Mary Francis de Bouganville had the great insight that would guide her the rest of her life. She recognized that the vast majority of thoughts were not conscious. They came unbidden, undetected, and with the years they built up inside every life, like a kind of coral reef. In this way, the history of the world recorded itself in tissue of humanity. It formed a kind of destiny, in that it would either guide people without their knowing, or they would know it—this coral reef of the past—and choose a heading of their own at some angle from it.
Amy then saw that people are skin coverings of their thoughts. But there was more. Thought molded them, but they also molded thought. And yet you could see only their coverings. You couldn’t see the pulsing structure beneath that held them up and moved them.
This insight filled her with a compassion for which she could find no words. She felt so light she thought she might float away.
She had stepped off the ladder without even knowing to find herself chuckling at the comically fine prunings her trance had produced. The sound of her laughter tinkled in her ears like a wind chime.
The breath of le tigre d’ hiver, the dread winter tiger, was gone, replaced by a joy, she told me years later, that was much more than euphoria. It came from seeing that the world isn’t merely the world. It’s ultimately the story we tell ourselves about it.
“The world is our story”! she declared aloud. The idea, the loudness of her words, startled her.
Because here was a gift—the power of creation—of overwhelming magnitude. If God was real, and people were God’s children, what more loving gift could God give? Amy felt as though she had tumbled on the meaning of life.
She informed the Mother Superior that she wanted to take her vows.
That night, Amy had a dream. In it, two young men appeared at the convent gate. They stood singing beneath Etoile Violette. The regal old clematis was attired in her glorious robe of ermine blossoms. The visitors had tenor voices of spun gold. Their lyrics were strange, though.
The words were still going around in Amy’s head the next morning: I sing the master tailor, and I know why.
Over and over: I sing the master tailor, and I know why. By mid-morning, Amy thought she understood. Now there was a spring in her step. And it never went away.
Eventually, Amy went into health care, and eventually our paths crossed. I have worked with her for many years now and, as I said, she is the greatest leader I have ever known. Her essential genius is a fiery passion for continuous personal transformation. Amy leads by the example of her willingness to change her own mind in pursuit of ever-improving performance. Her capacity for metamorphosis and growth seems limitless. She role-models precisely the kind of adaptability demanded by today’s business environment. All who know her see her as an inspiring example of how it’s possible to transcend the limitations of bias and personal experience that none of us can escape. People think that Sister Amy is fearless, but she isn’t. She gets scared all the time, just as we all do. The difference is, Amy never lets her fear have her for very long. She has it instead. And then she gets on with her job.
It would be easy for the casual observer to get the wrong idea about Amy, to attribute her passion to her deep sense of purpose. She is, after all, on a mission from God. But religion isn’t really the source of the fire in Amy’s belly. If anything, it’s the other way around. Amy’s actions come instead from her intimate understanding of herself, from the insight she came to about the primal nature of thought.
Amy once told me she figures she lucked out to have had the insights she did—”the accident of the clematis,” she called it. I told Amy that I don’t think it was an accident, and I don’t think it was luck. Amy chose. We all choose constantly. That’s what we do. The consequence of our choices is where our lives come from.
Does Sister Amy sound too good to be true? Does my glowing description of her cause you to doubt my objectivity? If so, I pardon your skepticism. I’m not saying Amy is perfect; she’s not. But the simple truth is, she has only one fault that I know of. And that fault is so trivial I don’t hold it against her. I don’t think you will either.
* * *
The Story Behind the Story
Editor’s note: Sister Amy’s flaw, in case you haven’t guessed, is that she isn’t real. For my purposes, however, that trivial weakness is her great strength. Through Sister Amy I can get closer to the truth about Michael O’Brien’s clients, and what they get out of their struggles to know themselves, master themselves, and change their minds. The reason is simple. The work Dr. O’Brien and his clients do together is confidential. Michael has told me enough of their stories to help me understand the substance of their work. The stories are deeply inspiring to me because of the courage and dedication they reflect. As Michael says, real leadership begins with leading oneself out of patterns of thought and behavior molded into us by the mysterious circumstances into which we are born and raised. Changing that mold isn’t easy.
My problem is, I can’t actually name names or detail real-life circumstances. I share the psychologist’s view that some secrets must be kept.
The easy thing about journalism, as opposed to writing fiction, is that reporters don’t have to make up good stories. They just write them down. The tough thing about reporting is that living characters are much more inconvenient that made up characters.
While Sister Amy’s story is a fiction, her insights are not. They reflect a composite of the insights Dr. O’Brien’s clients come to every day.
Moreover, the life and times surrounding Sister Amy are truer than you might know. I wrote a magazine profile about Dr. Roger Guillemin before his brain research earned him the National Medal of Science in 1976 and the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1977. Guillemin was a member of the French maquis who dreamed of surviving the war so he could become a country doctor. Guillemin did smuggle Jews to freedom; he did once bluff a Nazis patrol, just as I relate; he was wounded at Besançon during one of his missions. The statistics concerning French collaboration with the Nazis are taken from Jane Kramer’s New Yorker reporting. (See the chapter “Klaus Barbie,” p.519, in Kramer’s book, Europeans.)
Sister Amy’s experience with post-traumatic stress disorder is based on my own experience with it, and that of fellow Vietnam veterans with whom I have compared notes.
Etoile Violette is a very real and stunningly beautiful purple clematis, one of some 70 varieties in my garden.
But where did Sister Amy come from? I don’t know. She just appeared in my mind the way she reappeared at her convent gate. The singers who came to Amy in a dream came to me in a dream. That is, I dreamed of them, so real had Amy and her world become to me. I can still hear the tune of the lyrics the night visitors sang.
“Dreaming is the flickering activity of the mind participating in the world’s imagination,” James Hillman writes in his foreword to Brooks Haxton’s translation of Heraclitus’ Fragments. “In our private rest, the restlessness of the cosmos continues to do its work.”
I think of Sister Amy as a kind of angel, then, trying to help me get at the truth about why humanity so desperately needs leaders today who can help us change our course.
In the end, much as my colleagues and I liked Amy, we couldn’t find a place for her in the published book.
How “real” is Sister Amy for you? What aspects of her story and character did you most relate to? Does Amy’s choice inspire you to make any important new choices of your own?
As for me, I am grateful to Sister Amy for her reminder of how we create the world with every choice we make. —Larry Shook
Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Michael O’Brien and Larry Shook