Archives for category: Leadership

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From the earliest days of language humans have told stories about their experiences and ascribed meaning to those incidents. Listeners believed the stories to be true or changed the account. At some point the stories began to incorporate events that had not yet happened or were not tangible.

According to Yuval Noah Harari in his Ted Talk What explains the rise of humans? our ability to construct stories and act upon them as if they were true distinguishes us as a species. What sets us apart is our ability to imagine and to act collectively as if it were reality.

Our stories constrain us and they free us. How many of us carry a story from our past that limits us personally? One of the gifts of therapy and coaching is to help people create new storylines that emphasize strengths rather than deficiencies.

How many of us embrace accounts about our race, religion, nationality or way of life? These stories unite us in common purpose. They also divide us when we view the “other” as an enemy to be eliminated.

If individuals turn to therapists to create new stories, how do we do so as a species? Perhaps, as verses from John Lennon’s iconic song remind us, we begin by tapping our imaginations in order to create a new narrative.

…Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

 

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Prompted by the strident and polarizing rhetoric of political campaigns, conversation with friends this past week surfaced the lack of comity in our nation’s social and political discourse.

With its root in the Latin word for friendly comity means the cordial recognition of the other person and/or the other person’s position. In international relations comity acknowledges the sovereignty of another country and its representatives. It is also associated with decorum, the ground rules for debating differing positions and points of view.

Comity is under siege today. One symptom is the rebellion against compromise, which for some means meeting in the middle to solve problems; to others it connotes capitulation. Political correctness is another challenge to comity. Embraced by some to foster inclusiveness, it is vilified by others who feel muzzled by a progressive agenda.

Each year at this season the questions surrounding compromise and political correctness surface in another way. Why can’t all of us just greet each other with Merry Christmas? After all, the prevalent religion in this country is Christianity.

As with our politics our response to that question relates to our world view. Do we just need to get back to the ways that served us well in the past when life was simpler? Or, do we need to learn how to integrate the inevitable changes coming our way, including the influx of a growing number of people from diverse cultures, the requirements of justice at home and abroad and the environmental threats to the sustainability of our land, water and food?

Resurrecting comity may help us bridge our divides. After all, the baby whose birth Christians celebrate called us to live lives of love and reconciliation. The way we treat each other is the medium of the message.

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In April I had a phone conversation with the new exec of an organization that had retained my services for several years. In addition to congratulating him, I wanted to assess his awareness of the money they owed me.

He knew. He shared his intention to make me whole along with others to whom they were indebted. He also said it would take time. He suggested we meet this fall after he settled into his job. This week I took him up on his invitation.

We had lunch and an engaging exchange. It is evident that he has a grasp on the challenges and has a thoughtful plan for turning the organization around. It seems to be working.

Mid way through our conversation he pulled out a print out of all my invoices, payments made and the amount owed me. I confirmed. He then handed me an envelope with a check for an installment on the balance due.

Elation was my mood on the drive home. Certainly the money is welcome. Perhaps more significant is the fact that he was true to his word. Integrity is one of my top values. I believed in the organization and had invested in it during a difficult period. He believes in making good on his promise to improve the company’s financial health and retire its debt. In doing so he conveys a core value of leadership for himself, the organization and its stakeholders.

What a contrast to so much that goes on today in relationships, business and politics, where truth is often the victim of the quest to put “me” first and “the other” down. In defining who we are and what others can expect from us, our word may be our most treasured gift.

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In his novel, Ishmael, Daniel Quinn describes two cultures of people. Takers think and act on the premise that the world belongs to humans. Leavers behave as if humans belong to the world. Recognizing that you and I are most likely a mixture of the two, on balance which posture dominates your own actions?

The question has particular relevance this week. Unprecedented wild fires continue to burn and drought persists in our country’s west. The president’s trip highlighted Alaskan communities imperiled by melting glaciers, sea ice and permafrost. Anticipating conflicts over access to water, land and food, senior pentagon officials identified climate change as one of our country’s top security threats.

It is easy for us to view our individual footprint on the planet as inconsequential. After all, we are but one individual or family. However, when we add up all the energy that goes into creating and sustaining our ways of living and the effect of producing that energy on the quality of our land and air, the footprint increases considerably.

The planet’s growing population and our propensity to transform the earth’s crust into products of comfort and entertainment for the privileged rather than basic needs for all compound our imprint.

In a two-minute video gone viral Julia Roberts narrates the voice of Mother Earth speaking to humankind. It is a different spin on Ishmael’s takers or leavers. “I have fed species greater than you, and I have starved species greater than you. My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests…they all can take you or leave you.”

The concluding line is the compelling question for all of us: “I am prepared to evolve…are you?”

 

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Which is more effective in solving difficult problems, a group of intellectual superstars or a team of individuals who focus on building relationships? In his latest blog Alan Seale shares the answer.

Seeking to understand what makes some groups more successful and productive than others, researchers at MIT brought together hundreds of volunteers, put them in groups and gave them very difficult problems to solve. As was expected some were more successful than others.

Contrary to expectations, the highest achieving groups were not those made up of “superstars’ or people with exceptionally high IQs. Instead, the research showed the key to success was the social interconnectedness of the people within the group.

These findings are congruent with Alan’s own work on transformational presence and leadership, and I urge you to visit his website to learn more about his teaching and coaching. Being present to another person creates a container of safety that invites sharing and taps talent.

Embedded in Alan’s blog is a TED talk presented by entrepreneur and thought leader, Margaret Heffernan. In the talk she describes the MIT studies in greater detail and makes a compelling case for how building social capital leverages organizational effectiveness.

Describing the successful groups in the study, she used a phrase that sticks with me still: Bringing out the best in others is how they found the best in themselves. Given the fissures in relationships today, be they between two individuals seeking to strengthen their partnership or tribal adversaries who must learn to coexist, this is a compelling bridge to build.

Who or what brings out the best in you? When and how do you bring out the best in others?

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Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me. Taught by parents to an earlier generation of children as a defense against the cruel words of taunting peers, the verse betrays the reality. Name calling does hurt; think of the number of teen suicides in response to bullying.

The power of words is particularly evident in our cultural, religious and political conflicts. Wherever each of us stands on the spectrum of right to left, we know what phrases to expect from the other side and which are most effective for us to use from our own arsenal. Like an ice berg many of these words are code for a much larger load of assumptions and beliefs below the surface.

Take your own pulse for a moment. What thoughts or feelings come up with the following words? Flag. Second Amendment. Amnesty. Compromise. Forgiveness. #BlackLivesMatter. Marriage. Heritage. Amazing grace…

Our words help us declare who we are and what we stand for, our integrity. They can be weapons we use to defend ourselves or attack others. They also are tools for understanding, bridge building and reconciliation. The choice is ours – daily.

Words can inspire as in Rachel Remen’s contribution to Prayers for a Thousand Years, a compilation of hopeful expressions for the new millennium.

May we find each other in the silence between the words.

May we heal the loneliness of our expertise with the wisdom of our service.

May we honor in ourselves and all others the deep and simple impulse to live, to find sacred space and open land.

May we remember that the yearning to be holy is a part of everyone and the only hope for the next thousand years.

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The murders in Charleston last week coupled with the carnage committed elsewhere in this country and around the globe, are repugnant as killings and as instruments of racism. They are so aversive to my values and beliefs they leave me grappling with how to respond. I offer three thoughts.

The first is to share my unrest and invite your perspectives. How are you confronting these realities? What are your reflections, suggestions and actions?

Next, I seek to understand. If my head holds reasons why, my heart will more likely tap its courage for action. I believe that fear is the opposite of love. In order to alleviate our fears, most of us tend to affiliate with the familiar – faces, places, values and beliefs. Bolstered by our cohorts WE tend to define THEY as different and potentially threatening; we put THEM in the boxes of OTHER, where it is easier for us to control, manipulate, win, vilify or destroy. Our current politics and social media provide a mirror.

Another lens for understanding is our history and the values of those who settled this continent. Vestiges of their religious views, white patriarchy and slavery-based commerce persist today. A still larger lens would be to view our values and actions in relation to the survival of the planet.

Lastly, I am one individual with limited time. How do these events refocus me on my soul’s journey? Buddhism teaches that one root of suffering is aversion. Luke reminds Christians that the kingdom of God is a destination within each of us (17:21). Exploring those things that are most aversive may help my heart discover a new depth of love within and the courage to shine its brightness into the darkness without.

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Living life deliberately and leading others effectively depend on doing what matters most. Each of us defines this differently, which accounts for our unique contributions to the world.

At the heart of what is most important to each of us are some bed rock principles that serve as an internal GPS to keep us oriented in our daily dance of living. The same is true of organizations. Leaders who are focused on what matters most cultivate cultural norms that enable their teams to deliver with congruence the value promised to customers.

As a coach I work with individuals and organizations that are momentarily overwhelmed or stymied. Often, these are busy clients for whom unforeseen events land on an already extended schedule. I dare say it happens to each of us at some point. The result is a crisis, and in the fog of the moment we lose our bearings.

I have found that one of the most effective tactics is to have clients revisit and clarify their values. It sounds so basic, and it is. At the same time, it is very effective in breaking through the muddle to focus on the essentials. When life gets too complex, we need a way to simplify, to return to basics.

For each of us there are 3-4 core values that matter most in our lives. If we are momentarily overwhelmed or seeking clarity in making an important decision, reclaiming and reaffirming them can provide a lens that helps us see our way through.

What are the four values that matter most to you?

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During meditation this week these words from Pema Chodron grabbed me: “Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.”

What came to mind for me were images from three intersecting circles. The first circle held searing pictures of racism from videos of killings, protests and violence across our land. They confronted me with how far we have to go to heal the deep wounds of slavery, and they raised many questions. Collectively do we have the will to create equality of opportunity? Can we secure justice in the oligarchy that our democracy has become?

The second circle is an outdoor amphitheater that seats 600 in one of the camps of the youth organization I led for several years. The memory of standing in that arena with a blazing fire at its center to speak or lead songs and cheers restores the hope of engaging young people in social change.

In those years we brought together urban, suburban and international youth to strengthen their understanding and appreciation of difference, tap into their idealism and advance their leadership skills to make a difference. Today many of them are advocates for equality and justice in metropolitan St. Louis, Dayton, Cincinnati and elsewhere.

Within the third circle reside the questions of if and how to engage racism at this stage of life when my white privilege allows me to choose not to. What are my obligations in retirement? Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s words ring with their challenge: “I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.”

What is in your circle this week, and what is it here to teach you?

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In life and in leadership having a vision is a keystone to success. A vision is an imaginary destination. The fruit of our creativity and our sense of possibility, a vision taps our longing for a sounder self and a better world. It inspires our attitude and guides and sustains our effort.

At some point in his life my father seized upon a maxim that became his signature admonition to his family: Be always kind, be always true. I have adopted it.

For me this vision is an aspiration that grows from two roots. One is nurtured in the spiritual soil of love and loving kindness. The other springs from a core value of integrity, captured in the advice of Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet:

This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

Having a vision does not mean that one always achieves it. I am painfully aware of coming up short in fulfilling my own, as I am sure family and friends will attest. On the other hand, if we achieve our vision consistently such that we are not stretching, it may be that our vision is too small.

Our personal visions must be large enough to embrace those of others. The daily media bombardment of the abuse, violence and warfare we inflict upon each other and the primacy of deception in commerce, politics and foreign policy cries out for a vision of kindness and truth.

What is the vision that guides your life today or that of your organization? Does it spring from your truths, your gifts and your longings?