Authentic Leadership: Living At The Intersection Of Possibility And Purpose With Danielle Sunberg
Embrace authenticity, unleash possibility, and trust in yourself – the journey to authentic leadership begins within. Join us in this episode as TEDx speaker Danielle Sunberg shares her transformation from a corporate lawyer to a life coach. She shares the pivotal moments that reevaluated her life's direction and redefine success on her own terms. She shares how her experiences in different cultures and environments allowed her to peel back the layers and unearth her true self. From the corporate drone mentality to embracing her humanity, Danielle shows the power of authenticity in creating a fulfilling and purpose-driven life. As the conversation progresses, Danielle discusses the profound impact of beliefs on our experiences and how they shape our perception of the world. She reveals the art of self-trust and its role in becoming a pattern breaker. Finally, Danielle touches on the power of stillness. She shares how slowing down allows us to make better decisions, lead with clarity, and cultivate authentic connections. Life is an ever-unfolding adventure, and the path to authentic leadership lies within each of us. Tune in now and embrace the journey of possibility and purpose that awaits you!
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Authentic Leadership: Living At The Intersection Of Possibility And Purpose With Danielle Sunberg
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Danielle Sunberg. Danielle is a TEDx and authentic leadership speaker, author, and coach. She's a leading authority on authentic leadership and has spoken to audiences in Davos, Switzerland during the World Economic Forum, for the Young Presidents’ Organization, and the Institute for Noetic Science. She is featured on several leadership podcasts with millions of downloads and on this show.
Her new book, Atlas of Being: From Briefcase to Backpack, One Former Lawyer's Exploration of the Human Way, was an Amazon number one new release. It's a fantastic read. Danielle began her career as a commercial litigator for a renowned firm in Washington, DC where she successfully defended her client at trial against a $6 billion judgment.
Despite her success, she was diagnosed with depression. She left her firm to travel six continents, exploring the farthest corners of the world and the innermost reaches of the human soul to understand what it meant to live a truly fulfilling life. An advocate for authentic well-being, Danielle founded a cannabis wellness brand that was acquired in 2022. Danielle bridges her business and corporate experience with her expertise in conscious self-development to guide leaders to gain clarity, refine their sense of self, and confidently navigate life and work at the intersection of purpose and possibility. It is amazing. Danielle, I'm so honored and thrilled to welcome you to the show.
I'm feeling toasty by the fire. It's good to be here.
I'm so thrilled to have you. I love your introduction because there are so many parts of it that resonate with me on so many levels and inspire me, too, from hearing your story and the way that you have been on quite a journey. You have made a lot of impact in the world already and you still have lots to go. I can't wait to unpack your story through what we call flashpoints. These points in your journey have ignited your gifts into the world. That's what we are going to do here.
The way we are going to do this is I'm going to turn it over to you in a moment. I'm going to allow you to start wherever you like to start and share what you are called to share. Along the way, we will pause and see what themes are showing up along the way and see where we want to dig in deeper. Are you ready?
I’m ready. Let's do it. This is where the book starts, which is at this trial where I was defending my client against a $6 billion judgment out of a federal court in St. Louis, Missouri. What happened was when you are trying a case, which is rare, most things settle out of court. This was a rare occurrence in itself to be trying a month-long federal case.
I was living out of a hotel room in St. Louis and working twenty-hour days. No exaggeration. For a typical corporate professional life, 10 to 12-hour days is almost normal as bad as that might be for our work life experience. Twenty-hour days during a trial are normal, which means there is no time to exercise, get sleep, take a shower, go to the grocery store, or grab a carrot. It is a carousel of bad takeout food and you are not taking care of yourself.
Ultimately, I got pretty sick. My body shut down on me. I was hacking up. I was coughing and wheezing in the courtroom. I was diagnosed with depression. I was not taking care of myself. I flew back home to Washington, DC from the trial. I was looking at my bed and was like, “I'm going to take the longest nap and the whole world.” The partner on the case called me and said, “The jury came back with their verdict and we won.” I said, “Congratulations,” and then before I knew it, I said, “I quit.”
This was something that I had thought about and daydreamed about. I imagined what it would be like to quit but didn't think I was going to do it. I had been on this trajectory of climbing the corporate ladder of success and getting far. To say, “I'm done climbing the ladder,” felt like a non-starter. Yet, here I was saying the words, “I quit.” The partner on the case who was my mentor was speechless on the phone like, “Did that happen?” That was it. That was a huge fork in the road for not just my professional life, but my life and where I have come to.
This is a great way to start because it's a bang. You realize you can't necessarily go on the way you are. A lot of people find themselves in that place of, “This is what life was meant for for me. I thought this was everything that would be giving me success and reward but ultimately, I'm finding myself not feeling that any longer because I have given everything I had for this and it doesn't feel good.”
What I realized is that I had been living my life based on this agreement that I had. You can take the girl out of the law but you can't take the law out of the girl. A lot of things for me are still framed in contracts and agreements. I had been living my life under this agreement that I needed to achieve success at all costs. Those costs included all personal sacrifices, including mental and emotional well-being, friendships, hobbies, and all of those things.
When I achieved “success” I realized that those personal costs weren't worth it and something had to change. I had to do that inner work of, “What does it look like to renegotiate this agreement for myself? What does success look like on my terms? What does it look like to forge a new agreement that would be a value or a North Star that then would lead me on my path as I continue to navigate from that point on?”
I like that you put it in these terms of an agreement and leave it up to renegotiation. We have to make those contracts and agreements with ourselves to say, “I'm willing to take this path. I'm willing to take this course of action, but I'm also putting in a clause that says, ‘If, at some point, I decide that I want to back out of this, I can because I'm the one who's signing this agreement.’” I put in a clause that says that I can move in a different direction and that's completely fine.
That took so long for me to have that click. As soon as it does click, everything changes. To quote Michael Pollan's famous book, How to Change Your Mind, we forget that we can. We can calcify around these beliefs and agreements that we learned when we were kids and no longer serve us or allow us to make an impact in the world or live the life that we want. We get frustrated. That feeling of discontent and discomfort in our lives is a sign to go inward and look at what agreements and beliefs you are carrying around with you that need to be renegotiated.
There are so many different directions I want to head in here, but I want to get back to your story of what happens next. Here, you have this epiphany of, “I quit. I need a different path.” What did you decide to do next?
The prudent thing to do would have a job lined up or a plan in place. I didn't have any of those things. This was a real stepping into the void of the vast unknown. What I did was decide to travel the world. I am an avid traveler. That's been my hobby. I packed up my apartment in Washington, DC, and threw a backpack over my back. I then married my husband a month after I quit my firm. Together, we decided to explore six continents on our timeline and let it take us where it needed to take us.
The beautiful wisdom in the adventure is the newness of your environment and everything around you. Everything is unknown and unfamiliar, and it is vastly uncomfortable. It is an accelerant for growth. That's what it offered me. That's how I dived into this world of self-development and discovered what it means to be who I am underneath who I thought I was as the personas that we tend to show the world.
The beautiful wisdom in adventure is the newness of your environment, of everything around you. Everything is unknown, unfamiliar, and it is vastly uncomfortable and it is an accelerant for growth.
It’s like, “This is me. I am this high-achieving successful attorney in Washington, DC who wears Brooks Brothers suits. I always have the right heels, the right wine, and all of that.” In Thailand, all of a sudden, none of that matters. It's not that it's wrong. It's not relevant. Who am I now? It's this calling to go inward and go deep within myself to pull out what it means to be me when I don't have any of those acculturated societal values of whom I'm supposed to be nudging me anymore.
It's so brilliant that you share this. This is something that resonates with me very deep down. You often talk about the explorer's mindset, which is the sense of letting go of all that stuff that we expect, the creature comforts of home. It is allowing yourself to let go of all that and say, “I'm going out into the world to experience the world on the world's terms, not on my terms.”
You went out there and had the mindset of embracing whatever shows up and adapting to whatever shows up. That ability allowed you to transform through that journey. That is something that everyone should give themselves the chance to not go into the world as a tourist but to go into the world as a traveler. Allow yourself to experience it on the world's terms, not on yours.
That is beautifully said.
Thank you. You experienced it, so that’s me reflecting on you. You came back from a journey around the world that transformed you, but tell me. What happened next?
All of the traveling allowed me to do something that I hadn't done in at least a decade, if not more, which was to slow down, take hustle culture out of the picture for a minute, and not have results, productivity, and outcome be the driving purpose of what I wake up for. It is to experience life and to experience myself. In slowing down, I practice self-reflection. It is intuitive and natural for me as an attorney to sit there, write, journal, think, and peel off layers until I get to the essential nugget of something. Instead of it being the law, it's me. I love that exploration.
The journey itself was more profound and interesting than the answers. In doing this work for a while, what you learn is the answers are not static. You don't arrive at the answer and go, “I'm done.” The answers will change because we are dynamic human beings who evolve through the context of life. We are allowed to change. Arriving at an answer is a beautiful moment, but it doesn't mean you are done.
Arriving at an answer is a really beautiful moment, but it doesn't mean you're done.
That's how when we got back to the States and started to settle down, I thought, “What do I want to do with my life when I wake up in the morning? What's pulling me?” What was pulling me was offering this way of navigating life. It's very internal GPS-focused on, “What are my values? What are my terms for success?” It is giving that to people like me who are climbing that corporate ladder, still feeling like something is missing and looking for the answer that we are not taught exists, which is innate within you. You have the answers on how to pull those out and use those to navigate forward.
There are two things that you mentioned that I want to reflect on in the sense that you are using skills that you have already learned, but you are using them in a different arena. The introspection, the ability to get to the facts. The facts in this case are not based on the case, but it's based on you and understanding, “Who am I at the core? What am I all about?” It is being able to ask the right questions to unearth that. Also, there’s the realization that it's not a destination that you arrive at. It's the journey that you go on that is constantly something that you will always discover. It is getting comfortable with the realization that you are never finished.
For anyone who is married or in a relationship, this is the best analogy that I always like to use. You can get married and put that marriage certificate on your wall. You can hang it up like a degree and say, “I did it,” but you are not done. You have to wake up every day and honor that marriage certificate and practice the values and the vows. That's exactly what it means to do this journey of knowing who you are and living with personal integrity.
It’s a recommitment to that. It's a recommitment to everything that you stand for and everything you want to stand for. At times, you have to come back to, “What does success look like in my marriage? What does success look like in my life?” What does success look like in all aspects of your life? At different stages, it looks different.
That's right. My husband and I have done that exercise of doing a family mission statement. I can have my own and he can also have his own, but what is ours together? It's on my website because it's important to know who I am as a foundational person if you are interested in working with me. What are my values? I have them up there.
It's really important to know who a person is as a foundational person, if you are interested in working with them.
The one about family is that we move forward as a unit. If opportunities come our way, we assess them together and see how they impact our family and whether we all rise together or not. I'm not going to go do something in India if my family can't come with me or they would suffer as a consequence of it. I know for some people, what's okay in their family, but for us, that's how we came to how we are going to navigate life and all the opportunities that come our way.
Since I'm talking to a kindred spirit, and I want to ask your opinion on this, is there are a lot of people out there who may be reading and have been through this situation of like, “I'm in the corporate world and you are talking about these things that are around life coaching or life experiences. Why are you talking about these things that are more life-centric, not business-centric? My focus right now is on being good in my business.” Tell the story of why it's important to focus holistically.
We have grown up in a world that has siloed the aspects of our lives. That's the whole idea of the corporate drone. Leave your humanity out the door and be the job. That's what I grew up in. It’s not only for lawyers. That’s the culture. It is remembering that who we are cannot be siloed. When you navigate from your internal values and principles and let them lead you forward in all aspects of your life, you thrive in all aspects of your life. The point then is to find the work that aligns with your values because then, what happens is you will go above and beyond for work without it feeling draining. It's fulfilling you because it's in alignment with your purpose and your meaning. On the other side, your employer is going to be thrilled.
Find the work that aligns with your personal values. Because then what happens is you will go above and beyond for work without it feeling like draining you or exhausting you.
Work-life balance as a concept completely changes. It becomes not about this giant wall that you have to stand up that separates work and life because work is life and if it isn't, there's an issue. Instead, it's about a different question of what I frame it is a presence. Where does my attention need to go right now? That's a fluid question that depends on context.
This is exactly why I asked because I knew that you'd have a good response to this. It's beautifully said. There's a sense of finding harmony in everything that you are doing. It's not that wall that has to be put up where I have to have a boundary between each aspect of my life. It's separated between life and work. It’s all one. Let's get back to what happened next along your journey. I'd love to hear more about what brought you to the work you are doing.
As you are asking me that, Colombia comes to mind. It's a place that I spent about a month living in this rural town called Santa Elena. That was 9,000 feet altitude looking over Medellín down below. Have you been there?
No, but I have heard of it. What nationality are you?
I wasn't sure if you have any lineage to Colombia of any sort. I’m curious.
No, but I do have this exotic mystique thing that wherever I go, it is like, “You are Italian. You are Colombian.” I’m like, “Great.” There is no surprise. It’s not the first time. It all works well until I open my mouth and they are like, “You are American.”
You end up in Colombia.
I was craving nature, peace, and solitude in a new way that I hadn't ever had before as a city girl. When we arrive at the house, we pull up. It's nighttime. It is 9,000 feet in altitude so there are thunderstorms all the time. It is dark and wet. We get into the house, flip on the switch, look for heat, and look for the amenities. None, zero, or zip. We had to go find the firewood, which was pretty wet. We dried it off as best we could to make a fire to be warm. There was no flop on the couch and ordering sushi from Uber Eats, taking a shower while you were waiting for your food, and then picking your Netflix show and getting cozy, which is what I love to do.
It was the fire up the stove, the fire is the hearth. It is back to very rustic living. I write about this in the book. The first night I cried. It seems baby-ish to me looking back but I did cry. I was like, “I don't know if I can do a month here.” A week on vacation, sure. Let's pretend that we are wilderness people, but for a month, I was like, “I don't know if I can do it.” Keep in mind I was also exhausted from my flight and all that.
A month goes by and by the end of it, I wake up and remember one night to go to the bathroom. In the bathroom, I flip on the switch of the light and see dangling on a thread about 1 foot from my face is this giant black spider. That spider is in mid-battle with an even bigger scorpion. I go, “Good luck spider,” and then I flush and get back into bed like no big deal.
At that point, my logic was a spider is a better house guest than a scorpion. This shows how adaptable we are as humans. All the things that I thought I needed were BS. The other thing about it is because there were no amenities and because it was so rustic, I did slow down. I will talk about slowing down until my body slows down forever.
I love slowing down. It is so powerful, that presence that comes when we take a minute, breathe, and become aware of what's around us instead of hustling through the moment to get to the next moment. The insight and wisdom that becomes available is so profound and allows us to accelerate to get where we want to go. We haven't, as a society, tapped into that yet. I know I see it. You probably see it and probably teach it as well. It is the biggest non-secret secret out there.
It's brilliant. There are so many things about your story. I'm like, “Wow.” The inconveniences that you may have freaked out about like there's not enough foam on your coffee or your latte and the inconvenience of having a spider and a scorpion fighting above your face is a whole different ball game. You get to this point where those become no big deal. You let that pass.
What I also find interesting about your story is this is what we need more of in leaders. It is this ability to be calm. I often say the calm and the chaos. Being that presence for other people allows us to be able to lead them more effectively because we are not freaking out about the little inconveniences or the little things that throw us off balance. Instead, we are able to be that presence for other people that allows them to show up in a way that says, “Let's slow down for a moment and make sure that we are in the right place where we need to be, and then we can move forward and make the big decisions.”
What allows us to do that and what presence, slowing down, and self-reflection allow us to tap into is self-trust and that wisdom that we were built for life, and life is all one giant unknown. As much as we like to control our environments and think otherwise, it's simply not true. As we tap into that depth of self-trust, then we can carry that container as the CEO, C-level executive, founder, or entrepreneur for your organization. You carry that calm and trust of the container for all the chaos of everybody else and all the issues to be poured into. Know that it can get worked out. You can settle that chaos.
Slowing down and self-reflection allow us to tap into is self-trust. And that wisdom that we were built for life and life is all one giant unknown.
Time is flying by and I feel like I could have this conversation all day. I want to know. Is there maybe a big flashpoint you want to share that brought you into writing the book and the work you are doing?
In Greece, we had the good fortune of sailing on a beautiful catamaran with 3 other couples, so there were 8 of us total, around the Greek islands for a week with our captain. He was this British expat who was fueled by beer and cigarettes. I never saw him eat or drink water, but he was very kind and confident. He always got us everywhere. One day, he told us he was going to take us to this tiny remote island that had room for one boat. We were like, “That’s great. Let's go.” We end up sailing towards this huge storm.
This friend on the boat with me was seasick anyway and had been seasick for the prior four days. This is the fifth day of the trip. She had brought with her four seasickness patches. Each one lasts one day. Here we are. The storm is coming. She's feeling a little green. She's getting nervous. We see the boat starting to rock in the waves and the rain is coming down.
My husband, Ted, is from Florida. Hurricanes are a season. For him, he's all right. He gets into his pirate stance and he's ready. He is riding the waves. The rain is coming down. I look over at my friend and she's texting notes of farewell and love to her friends and family like she might not make it. Ted is doing a rain dance on the side of the boat. These two different experiences are happening simultaneously.
Since you got a chance to know me a little bit, this seems pretty obvious. I'm sitting there watching them thinking about these two experiences, how they could both be happening at the same time, and what their thoughts are that are allowing them to have this experience. I'm sitting there. They are in the same boat. We are both mortals made of the same skin and bones. We are in the same storm. The same things are happening, so why are our experiences so different? Ultimately, it came down to what we choose to believe is true.
I can't crawl inside their heads and say this is what they were thinking. What I know is that they were each having thoughts that they believed in that either allowed them to think that this was a fun adventure or made them think that they were in mortal danger. It showed the power of what we believe and how it 100% generates our experience of life.
Whatever we think is happening on the outside that's causing us to feel a certain way, we can point our finger at the president, the broken washing machine, or our spouse who didn't take out the trash for the eighth time as to why we are so mad and whatever. I am sorry, but all of that is not true. It's our thoughts about the experience. It's an internal recognition of understanding what beliefs we have that are the framework of how we perceive the world around us. Even though it is so hard to get all that responsibility back and to point the finger at ourselves is the most frustrating thing, it also gives us back all of the power because our spouse no longer has the power to make us mad. They also no longer have the leverage to hold our happiness hostage.
In those thoughts that we get paralyzed by, it's hard to break out of them until someone else reflects on us like, “What if that wasn't true? What if this wasn't happening this way?” We get so entrenched in those beliefs and the environment that we think we have created that it becomes a pattern that we get stuck in. Back when you were in your old world of working in law as a lawyer, you thought, “This is the way life works.” All of a sudden, you realize, “There are other ways.” You are a pattern breaker. It’s pretty neat.
There are so many things about what you shared. This is what people need to hear. They don't have to believe the things that they are believing. Maybe there are things that they want to continue to believe because they wholeheartedly believe that that's the way that they want to move forward. There are certain things that may be holding them back from a life that could be even more fulfilling.
To go back to what we said. I'm not here saying this and implying that I'm done and that I have completed that work in any way. This is always a process.
You are continuing to evolve and challenge your beliefs. I want to get into your book for a moment because it's a fascinating book, even everything about what you have shared. Even the cover is so cool. I love that you designed your cover, which was neat. Tell me what is one thing from the book that you want people to know or to take away.
The whole book is a journey about possibility and purpose, which is what I say I do with authentic leadership, living at the intersection of possibility and purpose. That's what I would take away from it. There is more possible than you can imagine. When the world becomes limitless, how do you point yourself in any direction? It can feel like you are drowning.
If any of you had an experience where you are in the sea and you flipped over something, and a wave crashes over you and you can't find your way up, it's that directionless overwhelmed feeling. That's what can happen when we realize, “Much more is possible if I break out of this confined box I have spent my life living in.” It can keep us confined in that box because it's safe at least and we know how to live in the box. The thing becomes about purpose. That's where that inward work comes in super handy because you have those principles and those North Stars to guide you through that ocean.
With every word you speak, I feel like I'm speaking to a female version of myself. Sometimes, I use a different language, but it’s beautiful the way that you see the world. It is in this sense that you do have to see possibilities, but you also have to find ways to step into action to be able to make sure you are directing yourself toward something that is going to move you forward. I love the way you shared that. That was neat.
That's a huge compliment. I appreciate that.
Thank you. I hope you will take it the right way. Before we wrap up, I have one last question for you. What are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?
There are so many. I'm going to offer a fiction one and a non-fiction one. I love fiction. It offers so much wisdom to get that deep inside of character development. What resonates with me as I'm reading about that character's growth is always something for me to then go reflect on. I love fiction for that. The book is called The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. I know that book won a huge prize. I don't want to mistake the prize, but a big one. I want to say Pulitzer, but it might not be.
I love it because it was my introduction without it being so explicit about reincarnation and the bardo. It's about these three people who reincarnate together over thousands of years and how they relearn some lessons in different ways. They take some of the wisdom from past lifetimes through how they evolve, how humanity evolves alongside them, and their impact on that more global evolution of who we are. That's a fiction book.
For the nonfiction book, it’s hard to say, but the one that's coming up for me is Be Here Now. My mentor, Ram Dass, is the person that I point to for everything. His story very much is resonant for me. He worked as a psychology professor at Harvard and then had his falling off version of the corporate ladder and into spirituality. He is a Jewish boy from Boston. I'm a Jewish girl from Philly. We have a lot going on. I very much look to him and Be Here Now when I'm looking for inspiration or new framing on something.
The choices that you have shared say a lot about who you are. I can't remember the title of the book, but there's a biography of his life, Ram Dass, and it is phenomenal. I will have to mention it to you when I can remember what it is. I read too many books. It was a fantastic book. You have to pick it up.
Please do. He has a library of Ram Dass books or Maharaji books and all of that whole thing. I haven't gotten through them all yet. That'd be great.
I love what you shared. It goes to show there's a lot of wisdom for us to be able to dig into and understand that the journey we go on, whether it's a past life journey or a current life journey, has a lot of things that we can take with us. We have to slow down and listen. We have to listen to the things that are being shared with us. Sometimes, it's not the outside voices. Sometimes, it is the inner voice that we are afraid to listen to. Get quiet, slow down, and listen. I could have this conversation for days. I want to thank you so much for bringing all of your wisdom, insights, and stories to this show. This has been amazing.
It's been an absolute delight. Thank you so much.
Thank you. Before I let you go, I want to make sure people know where to find you, learn more about you, and pick up your book.
You can find me on my site. You can find everything on my site from my book to services and working with me. It is my name, DanielleSunberg.com.
It's great when you make it easy. That’s awesome. Thanks again. Thanks to the readers for coming on the journey with us. I know you are leaving feeling so inspired, ready to go on, and take on a whole new lease on life and how to look at things. That is a wrap. Thank you so much.
- Atlas of Being: From Briefcase to Backpack, One Former Lawyer's Exploration of the Human Way
- How to Change Your Mind
- The Years of Rice and Salt
- Be Here Now