I discovered my kuleana in 1994—the same year both my grandmother and my best friend died. My grandmother saw my kuleana long before then, when I was a teenager.

 I discovered my kuleana in 1994—the same year both my grandmother and my best friend died.

My grandmother saw my kuleana long before then, when I was a teenager. One day she called me over and said, “Your (Chinese) name is all wrong. I’m going to give you a new one.” I had been named after a benevolent emperor, so I readied myself for an even better name. At the next family gathering, my grandmother announced my new name—Xi Tang, which means “scholar of soup.” And the room went silent. She was mistaken, the other elders said. But Grandma stuck to her guns, and in that moment, I went from emperor to soup.

For years, I was ashamed of my name. But shortly after my grandmother died, I realized what she saw in me by changing my name. While I was facilitating a contentious meeting among HIV activists and researchers, I somehow found a way to establish trust and respect among the group, and it all came together for me. As with making good soup, I took bits and pieces of each person’s contribution and turned it into collective wisdom. Feeling nourished, the group relaxed and worked cooperatively toward a common vision.

Likewise, my best friend Scott saw my kuleana as I took care of him during his illness. When he died, the elders gave me my Hawaiian name—Kahakula’akea—“weaver of the sacred light”— affirming my ability to create space for people that brings light to their purpose and all that is truly essential.

I have been fortunate to have had family and friends to guide me in discovering, claiming and fully realizing my kuleana. I now only need to look at my names to know that my gift and responsibility is to help people determine a clear and purposeful path to fulfill their own kuleana, and do the work they are called to do.

This essay and portrait is part of a community-art and leadership project called “wdydwyd?” Tony Deifell (KNLP-16) invited his colleagues in the Kellogg Fellowship to reflect on what motivates them to follow their personal and professional paths by answering the question, “Why do you do what you do?”

“wdydwyd?” has reached over 1.5 million people worldwide and it has been used for team-building at Google, Twitter, many colleges and universities, nonprofits and K-12 classrooms. And, according to Wired Magazine, “In Silicon Valley, that question has been the hottest team-building meme since Outward Bound – and it’s spreading.” For more information: http://wdydwyd.com/leadership.

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