on leadership + finding your fire: an interview with Jac McNeil

16th February 2017

It’s always a slightly odd experience to meet someone you have only known via Skype and Instagram. And it’s even rarer to meet someone who is just exactly who they appear to be online. Jac and I have known each other for a really long time in internet years, and in 2016 our friendship went up a big-assed notch. We finally got to hug each other at JFK airport before spending a day flying and driving to Blue Star Ranch in North Carolina.

What I loved about Jac before we met, was completely amplified in person. She is smart and funny and thoughtful and completely real. Over the four days of co-leading our retreat, I also found that Jac is a remarkable coach – it was an absolute joy to experience her, in her element. 

We had so much fun that we decided to get together again! We’ve spent the last few months re-jigging our programme – weaving in new content and expanding what we know really works. And we are partnering again with Dr. Trish Ring and her remarkable team at Blue Star Ranch to bring you the Find Your Fire Leadership Immersive this September. More details below.

But first I want to introduce you to the magic that is Jac McNeil – enjoy!

1. Jac, this is so fun! Many things have changed in the world since we hugged goodbye at Blue Star Ranch last September. I am curious to know what these changes are bringing up for you around your own leadership?

I remember our hug goodbye! It was just after you helped me set the GPS in my rental car so I wouldn’t get lost in the Blue Ridge Mountains on my way to the airport. On that day, I thought I knew what my work was in the world. I thought I knew who I served. I was confident that little by little I was making a difference.

But on the tail of Brexit, came the US election. And then, the shocking and unconstitutional decisions and morbid dishonesty from the Whitehouse. And then, a terrorist attack in my own country when an Alt-right shooter opened fire at a Quebec Mosque during prayers, murdering 5 men and injuring 19 more.

My reality has shifted. And so has my understanding of leadership.

On the surface, I’m still doing the same things: writing, coaching, retreat facilitation but behind the curtain, my sense of purpose and my commitment to actively being in solidarity has been galvanized.

I continue to think critically about my work and am beginning to understand how my privilege influences and informs not only my day-to-day life experiences but also how I show up in my business. This process has been revealing and I’ve begun to write about what I’m observing and synthesizing.

For me, true leadership is putting a stake in the ground by stating explicitly what I stand for. It’s being willing to lose something (clients, money, affection, likeability, & maybe the ability to get through US customs if my Facebook account gets searched etc) because I’m willing to fight for something. It means speaking up when it’s my turn and it means being silent when other voices need to be heard. It means walking confidently into territory that is unfamiliar while staying humble and completely willing to fumble (shout out to Erica!). It means using my privilege and my platform in ways that don’t just serve my own bank account. It means operating with intentionality in the way I live, work, market, parent.

2017 is asking very powerful questions: What do you stand for? Who do you want to be in the midst of injustice? What are you unconditionally committed to? I think that how we answer those questions will reveal a lot about what type of leader we are.

2. One of the things I deeply respect and admire about you is how values-driven you are in your work. What core values are being amplified in your work the most right now?

Integrity. Feminism. Active learning.

Integrity has always been at the centre of my work but now it’s being dialled WAY up as I work from just ‘talking’ about solidarity to actively demonstrating my commitment to dismantling racism, patriarchy, oppression. That transition from talk-to-walk is where the real work lives.

Feminism is my everything. But now it’s intersectional. Until a few months ago, I had no idea what that word meant – had never heard of it in this context. So picture me wiping my eyes to bring this revelation into focus because: DUH. Of course feminism lacks substance unless it’s intersectional. So, that’s become one of my decision making questions and a lens for how I see the world.

Active learning – Not just learning about intersectional feminism or racism or white privilege from a blog post or a book but really rolling up my sleeves to participate in courses and to practice what I’m learning in real life situations regardless of the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. After 10 years in business, I don’t need another course on building a business I need courses on how to be a more engaged human who cares deeply and is willing to fight for other humans.  

Jac lives in Narnia (aka Nova Scotia)

3. How does the shadow side of your leadership manifest?

It manifests as Cynicism.  Which often sounds like: ‘fuck this. fuck them. and fuck the world.’

Followed by a brief period of opting out, pretend quitting, and metaphorical door slamming.

In my business, cynicism has knocked me off my leadership path in subtle ways. At times, it meant I went radio silent in social media and from my blog for periods of time because I felt too jaded and judgmental to show up.

As an INFP, I operate from a high set of values. My compass always points north until something happens that threatens those values and then I can find myself struggling to reconcile the reality with my ideals.

At the heart of it, I tend to trust rather easily. I want to see the good in others, to offer them the benefit of the doubt more often than not. But when I perceive I’ve been wronged or I notice overtly selfish behaviour in other people, groups or systems I get overwhelmed and move from trust to cynicism. It’s a way of protecting myself. I know that my default is to use criticism and judgment to distance myself from the pain and disappointment.

I think I’m getting better and better at recognizing this behaviour in myself. I don’t tend to wallow in the cynicism as long as I use to, but there are times when I still feel that sensation in my body – it feels like a wave passing over me, wanting to pull me under and I need to fight to stay above the water.

4. We have both had quite profound experiences with our four-legged friends. What have horses taught you about who you are as a leader?

I mean where do I begin?! Working with the horses at BlueStar Ranch last September was a bucket list moment for me.

One four-legged friend is always front of mind for me. His name is Leo and he’s is an 11-year-old Irish Sport Horse/Paint cross gelding that stands 16 hands. He was my coach that day. And what he taught me is still having ripple effects in how I see myself in relationships.

It came down to this one moment in the round pen when Leo had joined up with me. I was feeling deeply connected to him–stroking him, patting, leaning in, speaking softly to him. It all felt very familiar to me, I remember thinking: This is who I am in my important relationships. I support, champion, nurture, give, hold, love. My tenderness is mighty. Leo leans into me. I lean back. We’re having this special moment together. Soul to soul. It’s beautiful. Familiar. Safe.

After a few minutes Trish, who was witnessing everything from the observation deck, asks “What would it be like to stop patting?”

I remember feeling immediate resistance to her question. Stop patting? But this is my role. I’m good at this. Creating intimacy is my super power.  But I let my hands drop away and took a step away from Leo.

As I stood there wondering, what now? I began to realize that Leo was still standing there. He hadn’t left. He was connected to me even when I wasn’t giving anything to him. We just stood there. Both of us were holding this beautiful, powerful space together–equally powerful in the relationship. Both giving and receiving.

The question wasn’t about Leo at all. Instead, this moment led me to ask: Where else in my life, business, relationships do I assume I have to keep patting? Where am I over-giving because I don’t trust the relationship?

In that moment, I was flooded with answers. Tears started to flow as I recognized how important this question was (continues to be) for me. Equine coaching is powerful because whatever happens in the round pen is a ‘mirror’ for what is happening elsewhere in your life.

Leo taught me that I don’t have to work so hard on my relationships. In fact, they may be stronger when I stop patting.

5. We share the belief that true leadership arises when we are unconditionally committed to our vision. What are you unconditionally committed to?

I am unconditionally committed to doing work that has a positive and worthwhile impact in the world beyond contributing to my bottom line and the bottom line of my clients.

I feel strongly that as self-employed mavericks we need to *continue* to do our work and get paid for it (even in times of political chaos and uncertainty) but that we must also apply a higher level of insight and forethought to ensuring we link our work to the bigger issues (political, cultural, systemic etc) at play. I believe we need to adjust our messaging so that we are honest and aligned with our values, and deeply respectful of what people are experiencing right now.

One of the greatest examples of white privilege is being able to say “I don’t get political.” or… “I’m tired of politics.” This signals that we are privileged by race, class, culture, gender, religion – or all of these things– in a way that protects us from being marginalized, deported, attacked or killed. Not everyone can “opt out” of the fight for human rights.

We’d love for you to check out the Find Your Fire Leadership Immersive!

We’ve designed this experience to help you discover, deepen, and reflect on your natural leadership style. Our methodology is rooted in research and is intended to help you uncover and dismantle your perceived limits so you can recognize and claim the unique alchemy of your leadership. We want you to deeply know yourself – your shadow and light – so you can lead with intention, aligned to your values and strengths.

More details here.




Hello, I'm Sas Petherick. I'm a self-doubt researcher, coach and podcaster who helps thinking humans transcend self-doubt. If you'd like to receive these posts in your inbox please subscribe here (with bonus info and first notice of opportunities to work with me). PS: I totallyInstagram - join me there?


Search the site

Get Posts by Email