Learn to play, play to learn

IMG_6416Denise has been reacquainting herself with what it’s like to be a student. She’s started learning cello, taking two lessons a week. She loves the instrument as well as the chance to learn more about the student-teacher relationship. “As an adult you miss that sort of thing, a regular meeting with someone who’s helping you with some aspect of yourself and you feel very nurtured and cared about. You pay some shrink to listen to you every week, is what most people do. This week my cello teacher canceled a lesson, and I was upset about it. It’s a very intensely personal thing to study an instrument, and since adults are emotionally more rich and more mature, the nature of the relationship with a teacher tends to be that way as well. I’m so completely involved; it just takes you out of your life.” 

{Piano teacher, Denise Kahn, from the book Piano Lessons by Noah Adams}


An accomplished professional decides to learn something new for three clear and powerful reasons:

First, she wants to increase her empathy for her students, reminding herself of what it’s like to be in their shoes. Second, she wants to experience a mature and supportive relationship that will assist in her own teaching by helping her to (third reason) learn more about herself.

Her wisdom is demonstrated by her commitment to continuous learning about herself, others and her vocation.

This is the recipe for all who are committed to being the kind of human beings, perhaps the kind of leaders, who understand that to be well equipped for change and complexity means to willingly challenge our personal, relational, and professional status quo.

Finally, we’d do well to acknowledge that if the word “play” can be applied to something as difficult as learning an instrument, it can certainly be applied to our own pursuits.

What might happen if we played our way into and around these areas of learning? How might that alter our willingness to explore them even more deeply?

If it’s time to learn, it must be time to play. And it’s always time to learn.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Hiding in Plain Sight

“What is obscure we will eventually see;
what is obvious usually takes a little longer.”
{Edward R. Murrow}


Your team is hiding in plain sight. They are there, you can see them, they are working…all true.

But they are hiding, just the same.

What they are hiding is the depth of their creativity, their energy and their initiative because they do not (well, most of them, statistically speaking do not) feel engaged enough to do so.

In other words, most leaders of most workplaces haven’t earned the right to preserve, protect and defend the most important qualities of the human condition, those qualities that demonstrate who each of us is at our most open, and most vulnerable.

Knowing this as they do, they do not bring those best parts of themselves into the office. They leave them elsewhere for safe keeping…in the car, at home, online.

And the organization is impoverished for the lack of access to their best selves. Complex problems remain unsolved, possibilities remain unexplored, “craziness” remains unexpressed.

This is, technically speaking, a huge bummer.

But there is hope, here on a Tuesday, in the shape of you and your willingness to start a new kind of conversation in a brand new way. It goes like this:

“I would like to earn the right to get to know you at your most creative, energized and engaged. What would need to be true around here for that to happen?”


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Called to Rise

We never know how high we are
{Emily Dickinson}

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
  Our statures touch the skies—

The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King—


My father was an Episcopal priest and so it was not entirely a surprise when, around my 13th birthday my mother asked me if I had any inclination to follow that path for myself.

“Absolutely not,” I declared.

“But what if you are called?,” she asked.

“I would hang up!,” I shot back.

A few years later I would have gladly borrowed some of that conviction for what I didn’t want in my search to figure out what I did.

It became clear with the benefit of hindsight that a path was taking shape in front of me but it was so difficult to believe it in the moment that I hesitated to step forward. I was being called to rise – into myself, into my gifts – but I lacked trust in what I had already done as evidence of what I could and would become. The pieces were there, but the puzzle remained a mystery.

The clues to the solution came with a couple of major revelations. First, that what I had to offer was wanted and valued and, second, that the way I would and could offer it would remain beyond my imagination until I lived it into being. I know that sounds squishy but for me it’s the difference between reading a recipe and wondering about how it will taste and going ahead and making it to find out. It may not turn out as you imagined it but now that there’s a baseline, adjustments can be made.

I still wrestle with the voice in the head that shouts that I dare not dream “to be a King.” And those I mentor and teach, along with good friends and colleagues, generously share their own version of that same inner struggle.

I encourage myself and I encourage them with the reminder that I remain the worst possible judge of my potential; that if I sincerely want to respond to the call that comes for me, I must surround myself with those who will not only help me hear it but also grab the phone away before I can hang it up.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

 

More Joy

Ms. Tippett: Well, I feel like you’ve said this in a number of ways, but I do want to just kind of ask, as we close, how you would start to put words around this vast question of what this sweep of your experience as a memoirist, with the life you’ve lived as a poet and just as a human being — how you would start to talk about what you’ve learned, or are learning still, about what it means to be human, maybe that’s surprised you, as you’ve gone along.

Ms. Karr: There’s more joy than I knew. And the less scared I am, the more joy there is. The less in my head I am, the more south of my neck I live my life. The more awake I am, the more just simple joy there is. People always talk about the sunset and all that. I don’t get any of that; I have zero feeling for nature. But just watching the old lady with the walker on my way to the studio get off the bus in front of me, and just watching how — it was just so heroic. I was just looking at it, thinking, Homer wrote about this, just somebody struggling to move down the damn road, with all this effort, all by her little ancient self. Good for her, you know? It was just pretty to watch.

{Krista Tippett in conversation with poet and memoirist Mary Karr.}

How to Practice / How to Lead

I asked my piano teacher to help me create a practice plan. I have noticed that each day when I sit at the piano, after a few warm-up exercises, I find myself uncertain how to make the most of the time. I bounce around from this exercise to that song, from this chord pattern to that one, inevitably feeling a mix of satisfaction for having spent the time and uncertainty as to its greater value to my education.

She practically beamed at the question. It was one of those “when the student is ready” moments that is just the right approach for this adult learner.

Her recommendation, regardless of how much time I have to practice, is to break it down as follows:

  • 25% – Warm-up
  • 50% – Focus on songs I have chosen to learn
  • 25% – Something new, something fun

As soon as she mapped this simple structure for me I relaxed with the knowledge that comes with a coherent game plan. She gave me a container, a way to structure myself that allows me to proceed with more purposeful and directed action.

On the drive home I concluded that this would also be an excellent approach for the daily practice of leading others.

What if, each day, you “warmed up” by briefly checking in with each member of the team? You could ask how the previous day finished up for them, how their evening was and how they’re feeling about the day ahead. Just a few moments with each person to greet them into this new day and remind them that you are there, also, attentive and engaged in their success.

What if you then focused on your  most important projects and initiatives? This includes your desk work, responding to requests, organizing information, planning for and attending the necessary (and unnecessary?) meetings in which you establish and sustain the forward motion of the work itself. What would or could be different about this core part of your day if you begin each day with the “warm up” described above?

What if then, no matter how busy the day becomes and how aggressively it threatens to get away from you, you took the time to do something fun and/or something new? This could include that reading you’ve been putting off, some quiet reflection about a difficult question or situation, a walk outside with a colleague, a celebration of a team member’s or project team’s accomplishment, a team building activity to break up the mid-afternoon slump, or simply a “warm down,” checking in with your team members at the close of the day.

Perhaps you’ve already done the math on this idea and found that in a 9 or 10 hour day that’s over four hours of “stuff” that is very much not you sitting at a desk and doing the work itself. And with that realization you may dismiss this out of hand as pie-in-the-sky thinking that is out of touch with your reality.

I would gently remind you of two things: first, your job as a leader is to help the team be successful which means that you have to be with them an awful lot. And second, you have more freedom in the design of your day than you may choose to admit. When you recommit to your team’s success and reclaim your calendar you will find as I am discovering with the piano, that a thoughtfully applied “practice” plan allows you to relax into the work in both unexpected and rewarding ways.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

How to Change an Organization

In The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King the character Pippin, who is one of a ‘band of brothers’ on a quest to save Middle Earth, lights a beacon (a large and strategically placed bonfire) that begins a ripple effect of many more such lightings. From mountain peak to mountain peak, the fires are lit, passing along an urgent call to action. It is the Middle Earth version of S.O.S. and 911.

The lighting of the beacons is my favorite scene in the trilogy of films, both because it is beautifully constructed and filmed and because of the message it gives us about how we might begin our own efforts at organizational change.

None of us is preparing for a war that will determine the outcome of Middle Earth, though on some days it feels just that way. What we are hoping for, and struggling to enact, is change that allows us to operate more effectively in the every day. We want our best efforts to equate to beneficial outcomes alongside people we care about. That does not happen by accident. It happens when we commit ourselves to the necessities of adaptation.

The lighting of the beacons is not the story of a single fire but of the manner in which the lighting of one fire begets the lighting of the next. Most organizational change efforts are single fire, top-down affairs that rarely translate into new practices and better outcomes. Instead, they fizzle out, leaving cynicism and frustration smoldering in the ash heap.

What gets missed is that real change only happens at the level of the individual fire, with each group designing its own plans for change in the larger context of the system of which it is a part. This is messy and disjointed at first but allows the personalization of change – involvement and ownership at the ground floor – that is directly connected to the whole. When each group’s beacon is lit, it sends a declaration that serves to inspire other’s to light their own.

This shared responsibility for owning a link in the chain of change connects people in ways that top-down commands simply cannot do. The leader’s job is to answer where we are going and why.  The team’s job is to provide the how. Let them start the fire of change and they will strive to keep it burning for as long as they are entrusted to do so.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Choose to Make it Better

“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”
{Richard Rohr}


If you’re struggling in a poor work environment – not a toxic one, mind you but one that is marked by ineffectual leadership and uninspired co-workers – you can do one of three things:

  1. Leave
  2. Stay and join in the misery
  3. Make it better

Important to note that choosing #3 does not require you to make the whole thing better, just the three foot circle of it that surrounds you everywhere you go.

You could choose to have a radically positive and affirming attitude. You could choose to be on time in the morning, for all appointments and meetings and with your work as well. You could choose to compliment and recognize other’s contributions. You could choose to offer support when someone needs help. You could choose to abstain from complaining about what can’t be controlled and begin conversations about what can.

Your efforts may not yield the ripple effects necessary to shift the environment in a more favorable direction, but they might. And in the process, for as long as you choose to stay, you will feel better about yourself, most likely do better work, and be a light for others who are also trying to find a better way.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Our obsession with rationality

“Hindsight 2070” is an initiative by Vox.com in which they asked 15 experts to answer this question: “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?”

One of those experts is Krista Tippett, the founder and leader of the On Being Project. Her piece begins like this: “Our obsession with rationality will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now. We’ll look back and cringe at our conception of humans as fully rational beings.”

What she expresses and how she does so gets to the heart of what I aspire to, both personally and in my work with students, teams and leaders. She is precise and thoughtful in articulating the astonishingly high cost of taking ourselves so seriously for so long.

Here’s a selection to chew on before enjoying the whole thing (it’s not long and hers is an eminently worthy voice to bring to your own ongoing conversation about who we are, where we are and what’s to come):

“The great frontier of this century is to finally reckon with the hazard and the bounty of what it means to be human. That is to say, as we are on the cusp of creating artificial intelligence, to mine the intelligence we already possess, the embodied consciousness that is already ours to work with. To build a better politics, a more humane and sustainable economy, and while we’re at it better schools and prisons and health care, we have to design with sophisticated emotional intelligence and social technologies.”


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

“Because it is a big change.”

On the cusp of his retirement from the NBA, future hall of fame player Dwyane Wade gave an interview to ESPN in which he discussed how he intends to adjust to life after basketball:

“I’ll be in therapy. Seriously,” Wade said. “I mean it, it is going to be a big change. I told my wife, I said, ‘I need to do therapy, and we need to do a little bit.’

“I was always against someone that don’t know me telling me how to live my life or giving me instructions. But I need someone to talk to about it. Because it is a big change. Even though I got a long life to live, other great things I can accomplish and do, it’s not this. So it’s going to be different.”

One observer commented that this is a “mature” approach. I would call that a major understatement. For a male, professional athlete to so plainly state his need for help and his commitment to receiving it is a very big deal.

While therapy has been de-stigmatized throughout much of our society it is not something easily discussed among men, especially those in positions of power and authority. In the business world we call therapy “coaching” and though it is inappropriate to conflate the two (one looks back, the other looks forward is a simplistic distinction) we are well-served to remember that when a client and a trained professional of any discipline commit to doing real work, good things usually come of it.

Thanks to Dwyane Wade and others like him, there will be more men who choose to make themselves vulnerable and seek the help they need. And each time that happens our world will become a better and a safer place.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

You Get to Choose

You have a choice today: to lead with your competence, your position, your title, your sanctioned authority, or to lead with connection, your open heart, your curiosity, your earned authority.

You have a choice today – a choice you have every day – and how you choose determines the culture of your workplace, the quality of your relationships and the level of joy experienced in the work itself.

Please do not underestimate this choice. In fact, just try to overestimate the ripple effects of its impact. You will struggle to do so because most people do. A reality that positive and that full of possibility cannot be assumed, it must be earned.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.