“I, too, am America.”

I, Too
{Langston Hughes}

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

(Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Copyright © 2002 by Langston Hughes.)


The United States of America was born with three-fifths of the capacity it needed to live up to its stated ideals.

We have not closed the gap.

A child is expected to hit certain developmental milestones. We expect it to roll over, to crawl, to walk and to speak within a generally accepted timeline. If these milestones are not reached, well-intentioned caregivers seek the advice of professionals to investigate the cause and to prescribe a course of treatment to remedy any underlying condition.

None of this is taken lightly since it is understood that reaching the milestones “on time” is positively correlated to healthy development.

America is a child that has failed to achieve its first, most essential milestone, the one that unlocks all of the rest:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We have failed to achieve it because at the time it was written “all men” (all people) were not considered equal. In the 244 years since, we have failed to adequately address that underlying condition.

Unlike Germany after World War II and South Africa following apartheid, we have not faced up to the past in order to write a different future. We have hidden behind productivity, technology, armament and mythology (“the land of the free and the home of the brave”) to avoid the pain of reconciliation with our past. We have done so because of the false belief that vulnerability equals weakness. It does not.

America is a child whose underlying condition requires a more robust, honest and aggressive form of treatment. We will not meet four, much less five-fifths of our potential, we will not see our black citizens as human beings worthy of full dignity and respect, if we do not get it. This past week, I heard someone say that America is a construct, one that had to be conceived and built. That means that it is possible – if enough of us are willing – for it to be both re-conceived and re-built.

It is not too late for us to roll over, to crawl, to speak, to walk and perhaps even to run. But it is getting dark and too many of us, including me, have failed black Americans by believing it would get better on its own, that the child that is the American ideal would “grow out of it” and get back to normal.

It cannot and will not do so on its own, that’s the hard, grown-up truth. We have to act.

We have to act now.


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Beware the False Dichotomy

I read an article today that talked about the leadership challenge of navigating the difference between “wartime” and “peacetime” leadership.

It’s not a valid question because it’s based on a false dichotomy.

The distinction between “wartime” and “peacetime” suggests a dualistic, either/or approach to leadership. The discussion centered on working with the intersection of these divergent approaches – “What do I do when both are required? – but that only confirms the dualism of “two” approaches and that under “normal” circumstances you would practice one or the other which is, to put it mildly, hogwash.

Allow me to suggest that we think about this another way:

A leader’s impact, regardless of stability or crisis, is directly proportional to his or her dedication to the truth that leadership exists for the betterment of the human experience. Leadership is the moral responsibility to help other human beings work together to create extraordinary outcomes in the face of change.

When a leader is committed to this definition, dualism must go out the window. There is not “wartime” or “peacetime” leadership. There is, rather, human being leadership that always requires a few fundamental things: the preservation of dignity and respect; the vulnerability to have one real conversation after another; treating employees like adults; investing in their well-being as well as their achievement; clear goals and the resources to achieve them; the eradication of fear and the elevation of love.

With human being leadership, outside conditions are irrelevant. You’ve heard the wedding vow, “In good times and in bad.” Should I love my wife differently in the good times than I do in the bad times? Of course not. Leading a team is no different.

Lead them now, love them now, exactly how you would lead and love them at any other time. If you have to make a radical shift in your leadership practice because the wind has suddenly changed direction, you are doing it wrong.


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#44 – The Greater Good

“Social distancing”

“Hunker down”

“Self-isolate”

“Flatten the curve”

I did not plan to include “The Greater Good” on my list of “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For” but it’s never been made more real or more important to fight for it than right now.

Yes, it’s possible that we are already too late, that a surge of cases will overwhelm the system, but we cannot afford to think like that. We have to choose new actions out of a deep sense of responsibility to ourselves, our families and our communities.

In the age of the selfie we have to do the well-being equivalent of asking a stranger to take our picture. And when asked, we have to be willing to say, “yes.” Not a perfect analogy, I know.

Those of us living privileged lives with plenty of resources (toilet paper included), are morally obligated to take these steps in order to ensure we limit the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are morally obligated to honor the vital truth that we are all connected and that, by and through our connection, we wield the power to enliven and enable as well as the power to neglect and to harm.

We must choose the former and we must do it now. 


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#12 – Never Be Afraid to Reinvent Yourself

This is #12 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


I took a new job last fall. I call it a “real” job because after the wonderful variety of  consulting work I’ve done for the last 7 years, as compelling and rewarding as that has been, it feels great to come to an office and be on a team again.

It feels great to be a part of something that is brand new, that I am jointly responsible for building from the ground up. It feels wonderful to put into practice, to attempt to prove in real time, the ideas, beliefs and commitments that I hold in my head and heart about what the modern workplace has the potential to be.

I feel the discomfort of adjusting to an open workspace, to the unexpected needs of colleagues, to the daily practice of sorting out when to push for more and when to back off, listen and learn.

I am relishing the opportunity to lead, to influence, to shape and to support. I am using all of my experience, skills and training in ways I did not know I would get to use them. I am attempting to model energy, belief, and a full-throated commitment to learning as our cultural secret weapon.

I am reinventing myself, once again. I am adapting, learning, growing.

I like it. I like it a lot.


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Culture

Culture is not mission, vision, values. It is not architecture, design, product or snacks. It is also not the lighting, furniture, games, attire, or flextime.

Mistaking any of these things for culture is to confuse the map with the territory.

Culture is how you and your colleagues come together to solve problems under the pressure and stress of change.

If any of the items above help you to do that well, use them. If they don’t, let them go as fast as you can.


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

I Happened To Be Standing
{Mary Oliver}

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.


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The Side Hustle

My side hustle is teaching a class each semester in the College of Business at Cal State San Marcos. I teach a course in organizational behavior for non-management majors. I do it because I love to teach. I do it because the energy of working with aspirational students is addictive and fulfilling. I do it because it makes me a better professional in my day job which in turn makes me a better teacher for my students, which in turn…well, you get the point.

For me, the side hustle has become an essential piece of my overall professional experience. It provides a perspective, an alternate point of view that allows me to see my work with fresh eyes.

The side hustle, I am learning, is much more common than I realized. As these diverse endeavors come up in conversation, I am struck by the shy smile that emerges as well as the actual twinkle in the eye. And while I know that many, many people have a side gig for the supplemental income, most of the people I talk to are doing it to satisfy a personal passion.

When I see that telltale expression of mischievous glee, I can’t help but ask: “what is it about your ‘9-to-5’ job that is not providing the opportunity to pursue that passion?” And then I wonder, what might happen, and I emphasize might, if that passion was known by the person’s team leader and the two of them talked openly and expansively about how their current job might be adapted to satisfy it?

What happens so often – why engagement at work persistently hovers around 30% – is that employees leave their passion at home because they either don’t associate “work” as a place where it belongs or their present employer fails to create an environment where passion, even seemingly unrelated passion, it is welcomed and cultivated.

I truly love that we live at a time when traditional ideas and modes of work have been upended. And I truly love and admire that special brand of person who will always have another iron in the fire, always driving to create and express outside the lines of typical employment.

The truth, however, is that most people continue to work within the circumstances and conditions we define as “normal.” They go to an office, put in their time and return home at the end of an 8-hour day. If this huge population of employees is not expected, much less encouraged, to explore and express their passions within those four walls, that organization will always go hungry for the creative energy that is just beyond its grasp.


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Whole People / Whole Lives

The Uses of Sorrow | Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.


One of the gifts of a long relationship, in this case I am thinking of my 24 years of marriage but other, even longer friendships also come to mind, is that you learn how to stand with others in both the dark and the light.

As I think about this gift of learning to accept and be present to the fullness and wholeness of life – as opposed to just the summery, shimmery goodness of it – I think about my client organizations and all of the workplaces I have been privileged to be a part of through the years.

And I recognize that some places, some leaders, understand and embrace this wholeness much more truthfully and comfortably than others. That is to say, they acknowledge, accept and expect that whole people with whole lives walk through the front door every day. Those whole lives consist, of course, of pain and loss and fear and uncertainty just as much – and sometimes even more – than they consist of joy and openness and possibility and achievement.

This is obvious to us when we stop and think about it, obvious when the words are typed onto the page. But in the moment, in workplaces that are so often curated to be POSITIVE and CREATIVE and to achieve SUCCESS, it is too easy to forget. It is too easy to send the message – out of our own discomfort with other’s pain – that those less popular feelings of suffering and loss are to be left at home or in the parking lot. It is too easy to send the message that those feelings, the feelings of whole and full human lives, are not welcome under the bright lights of the workplace.

We might begin to counteract this by simply saying to ourselves, as we drive to work each day, or as we stride across the threshold: Whole people with whole lives are here today, including myself.


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Set Them Free

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

~ Hafiz


Today, will you build more cages or drop more keys?

The “small” leader needs to control because he feels out of control. He is small because he does not trust himself which means he cannot trust others. He is small because change frightens him, imagination freezes him, possibility unnerves him. He is small because what he cannot imagine for himself he must disallow for others.

The “sage” is a towering figure not because of stature but because of presence. His equanimity comes from learning to see control as an easy, costly fantasy. He trusts himself because he knows himself; he has done the work. And by doing the work he has developed the capacity to accept the unfinished in others. He is unfinished as well.

The sage welcomes change, because it is inevitable. Imagination is his wellspring of possibility, energizing both mind and heart. He knows that he is a catalyst for the emergence of these qualities in others.

Their rowdiness does not unsettle him; it’s what makes them beautiful. And he takes seriously his responsibility to unlock it because otherwise it will die.

The sage is the very best of who we can be.


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