#46 – A Living System is a Learning System

“In biology, living and learning are synonyms, indistinguishable processes that keep life growing and moving forward. A living system is a learning system.”

 – Margaret Wheatley, “Who Do We Choose to Be?”


Living and learning are inextricably linked. You can’t live if you can’t learn. You can’t grow, you can’t fulfill, you can’t become, you can’t materialize, you can’t evolve. You can’t be.

What is so challenging and so frustrating about this interconnection is that we need to be reminded that it’s true. Not at the biological level, of course, but at the rational, executive-mindset level of being. We get stuck, entranced, entrenched, enchanted, enamored, beguiled, bewitched, completely consumed by what we’ve done before. And so we do it again. Even though it doesn’t work. Even though we know better. Learning something new simply overwhelms our distracted, safety seeking selves.

This week, in the midst of these extraordinary circumstances, we find ourselves forced out of our denial of the living/learning connection and into new ways of working, relating and providing. It is a strange and discomfiting reality, one that has so much to teach us if only we will allow it to do so.

Many have said, including myself, “How frustrating!”

But another response is also available to us. In the words of Ben Zander we could say instead, “How fascinating!” Instead of leaning away from learning, this response leans toward it. It leans toward and into an opening to curiosity, the deepening of empathy, the commitment to new forms of connection and compassion.

This time has so much to teach us. We will know we are learning when we replace our yearning to “get back to normal” with a yearning to carry forward the hard-won lessons of our shared experience.

“When thinking falters, a living system is at risk. If it continues unchecked, the organism dies. Think about it. Now you know what to do.”

 – Margaret Wheatley, “Who Do We Choose to Be?”


This is #46 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another piece you might find valuable today.

PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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#45 – Integrity

“The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more one fully enters into the communion of all creatures.”
{Wendell Berry}


When my daughter was in elementary school one of her classrooms had the following sign over the door:

THE DOOR OF INTEGRITY:
I am responsible for everything I think, say, do and feel.

In my memory of it I cannot help but recall Viktor Frankl’s challenge to us when he writes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

And, I would add, in our response lies our integrity, the evidence of our more or less cohesive self.

How incredible that we get to choose! That we, alone among creatures, have the opportunity to reflect on our impulses and find even more effective ways to interact with the world. Wendell Berry reminds us that this effort is never for its own sake but that the deepening of personal understanding is at once the strengthening of connection with everyone and everything around us.

In these days of uncertainty, anxiety, simplicity and grounding may you access your deepest possible expression of integrity. And, however difficult it may be to swallow in the moment, may the aftertaste of personal responsibility be a savory accompaniment to the freedom you will have so rightly earned.

The best thing about the “Door of Integrity” is that however small it may seem, there is just enough room for all of us to squeeze through.

I look forward to greeting you on the other side.


This is #45 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s a piece on organizational culture you might mind valuable today.

PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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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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#42 – Common Sense

Common sense leadership practices in times of crisis:

  1. Take care of yourself.
  2. Take care of your team.
  3. Trust your values.
  4. Trust your strengths.
  5. Ask for help.
  6. Learn.
  7. Share your learning.

Today is a good day to turn each of these into a question and to assess how you’re doing:

  1. How have I taken care of myself today?
  2. How have I taken care of the team?
  3. How have I lived from my values?
  4. How have I employed my strengths?
  5. Who did I ask for help?
  6. What did I learn?
  7. How did I share my learning ?

If this seems like a lot of unnecessary “navel gazing” under the circumstances, please consider this: how you lead right now is the model for how everyone around you will behave. It is the model for how you and your team will respond to this crisis and the one that comes next.

Surely, you can spare a few minutes of reflection to help you stay on a path that is worthy of your well-being and that of the people you are privileged to lead.


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#41 – Change Ready

I believe that both leadership failures and leadership successes can be traced to a common question: has the leader done his or her internal work?

That work – the decision to diminish the influence of one’s past experience on one’s present behaviors – always precedes external awareness. It always precedes one’s ability to remain rooted and resilient in the face of change.

Put another way, the capacity of a leader to accept and engage with external change in a manner that is reassuring, resourceful, collaborative, and brimming with empathy for whomever is most affected, is positively correlated to the degree to which that leader is free from the constrictions of old adaptations.

This is crucial to understand because every day a leader does not act upon this knowledge is another day he employs an operating model that was once relevant but is now obsolete. And operating from an obsolete model like, for example, the need to be right, the need for endless praise, the need for easy answers to complex problems, the reliance on dualism, the need for allegiance, endlessly avoiding responsibility while blaming others, all of these only lead to the promotion of anxiety while failing to address the demands of change.

Think of it this way: people were driving and crashing their cars for a long time before seat belts, safety glass and air bags showed up. Those inventions don’t prevent the crashes, they limit the human damage. What was once a sure fatality is now more likely a few bruises and an insurance hassle.

Doing the most comprehensive internal work we can do equips us, just like those safety features, to make contact with change without it causing permanent damage to the people we are privileged to lead.


This is #41 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s a slightly different take on today’s post.

PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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#39 – The Real Conversation

Open. Authentic. Honest. Vulnerable. Expressive. Sometimes painful, always a catalyst for new learning.

The real conversation is the one below the surface of the one that is familiar and comfortable.

It is the one hinted at but only entered into when two people agree to ask the un-askable questions give the un-giveable answers.

I am a deeply privileged human being in so many ways. One of those for which I am most thankful is that the “real conversation” is explicitly stated in my job description.

It is an expectation of my professional interactions that I have – and help others to have – real conversations because they are the ones that lead to lasting change. And the degree to which people trust me to do so, the ways in which they willingly, if often tenderly and cautiously, enter into territory that has been perceived as off limits, is humbling beyond measure.

It helps me to appreciate how deep our shared need is for more authentic connection. It also makes me optimistic that the more we work together to meet that need the more likely we are to meet other needs as well.

This is #39 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Care for one more?


PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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#38 – Competence

It’s worth fighting for more competent leaders.

You don’t tolerate incompetence from your doctor or your accountant but do you feel the same about your leaders?

Maybe you think that effective leadership is that much harder to measure than the successful treatment of an illness or the filing of a tax return. I don’t buy that rationale because as subjective as “good” leadership can be, it is still the sum of the responses to two important questions: “Did we accomplish our goal?” (Are we better off?) and “Did we accomplish our goal in a way that we feel great about?” (Are we engaged and ready for more?)

The responses to both of those questions are both measurable and actionable if we are willing to do the work.

In spite of clear evidence of competence to the contrary, human beings sometimes act irrationally and overturn the apple cart just because we can. It feels good to “throw the bums out” and start over, regardless of the lack of qualifications or experience of those who take their place. We change things up for the sake of change, maybe to feel heard or to be seen, but not always because it makes good sense to do so.

As a country we did that in 2016. Just one example of a negative result of that particular preference for incompetence is that 1,600 scientists left government service in the first two years of the current administration. Incompetence then has both short and long-term consequences. Imagine the devastation to the ranks of our most competent government workers – and how that will impact research, policy design and decision making in the face of climate change and the current and next versions of Covid-19 – if four years turns into eight.

Incompetence is an insult to competence. We demand better in the arenas of life that most directly impact us (health and taxes!) but hit the snooze button when it’s someone else’s problem. It’s time to wake up and realize that those distinctions are false, that we are all connected and that we all pay the price for incompetent leadership.

Say it with me now: “Just Ok is not Ok.”

This is #38 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” This one’s another favorite of mine.


PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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#34 – The Next Smallest Thing

At the conclusion of a speech last October, on my way out of the conference hall, the organizer of the  event said that he would be more than happy to provide a written reference for me to include on my web site.

This week, I finally followed up with him and asked if the offer was still good. He replied right away (and with enthusiasm!) that it still is.

I thought to reach out to him because since that talk in October the speaking part of my business has been nonexistent. In my transition to a new, full time internal role I stopped seeking opportunities to do one of the things I most love to do.

This week I decided to change that by doing the next smallest thing I could do to bring this part of my professional life back in line with my aspirations. I finally asked for that reference.

The next smallest thing I did was to send an email to someone in my network who invited me to speak at his organization many years ago to ask if he’d be willing to have me back. 

The next smallest thing I did was to research organizations in my community who need speakers on a regular basis. I found three that I think would be a good fit and completing a speaker proposal for each of them is on the list of the next smallest things I will do in the coming week.

The next smallest thing I did was to write this blog post, because until you let people know what you’re looking for, they can’t help you find it.

(HT Carl Richards)

This is #34 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Learning is another great topic to explore.


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#33 – Originality

Doing a bad imitation of yourself is always better than doing a great imitation of someone else.

A “bad” imitation? Yes, as in you are still coming into your own. You are still discovering your point of view, clarifying your values, finding confidence in your strengths, getting comfortable with feedback, learning how to stand by your work at the same time you are learning how to recover from mistakes.

In the midst of all of that developmental messiness there is the potential to experience deep feelings of insecurity. There is the potential for the belief to take hold that who you are in a less confident, less composed, less fully formed state is not suitable for public viewing and should, as a result, be shelved in favor of showing up like someone else.

There is value in imitation, of course. I have heard many professionals, artists and engineers alike, describe their earliest efforts as attempts to copy the work of their role-models, those role-models providing the high-water mark of their burgeoning aspiration. At some point, however, whether you’re an artist, an engineer, a politician or an athlete, must discover and cultivate an original voice.

This is a progressive, iterative process. There is no flip of a switch. And because that is so, my vote is to get started when the clay is still soft. That is to say, to not allow the myths of “readiness” or “maturity” or “age appropriateness” get in the way of the expression of who you are right now.

Everyone looks back on their early work with one eye closed, a little sheepish and  critical. That’s who you were then. And because of that, you have become what you are now.

No substitutes. No imitations.

This is #33 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Perhaps one more?


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#30 – You Can Adjust Your Default Setting

Two beliefs are highly problematic for the modern human being. The first is the belief that we are supposed to be rational actors and the second is the belief that we are.

Just two minutes of silence reveals that in each of our heads exists a chorus of competing, irrational voices that makes our decision-making, especially under stress, unreliable if not problematic. For an even more clarifying experience, try something new, meet someone new, go someplace unfamiliar, navigate by landmarks instead of GPS, anything that increases your heart rate and decreases your sense of security. Now listen to the voices in your head. They should be practically chanting what amounts to your default setting, or how you see the world and your place in it under the stress of change.

That messy mix of voices is the aggregation of your preferences, perceptions, judgments and biases, the result of years of dragging a large collection net behind you through a rich, difficult and multifaceted life.

Remember, your default setting has been working hard to help you make sense of your world and to protect your place in it for a very long time. It’s not that it’s bad or wrong, it’s just that it’s no longer as useful as it once was. It feels useful, and better than an alternative, because it’s familiar and that’s the thinking that keeps us stuck in the status quo.

Here are three options for how to adjust your default setting, not so you can finally become rational, but so that you can more capably organize your competing voices of irrationality under stress.

One, in the category of highly desirable but completely unrealistic, you can find a wise teacher high on a distant mountain and take the next 10, maybe 20 years to get there, live there, and learn.

Two, in the category of moderately desirable and more realistic, you can find a counselor, therapist or coach somewhere in your neighborhood (or via the magic of Zoom!) and take the next five years to explore yourself, make sense of your learning and practice new ways of thinking and feeling.

Three, in the category of undesirable and totally realistic, you can do the following beginning right now:

  1. Pay attention to yourself in familiar, stressful situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  2. Put yourself into unfamiliar situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  3. Share what you notice with someone you trust and who has your best interests at heart and see what they think and what feedback they have to share.
  4. Identify and clarify the few things that matter most to you (financial security, family happiness, health and well-being, new experiences, community building, environmental action, continuous learning, achievement, impact, etc.). Use your spending habits and your calendar for clues. Write them down and share them with the person in #3 above, among others. See what they think.
  5. Do the same thing with your strengths. Get as clear as you can about what you do best when you are at your best. Think of concrete examples, write those stories down and share them, as above.
  6. Repeat with an honest assessment of your weaknesses (“opportunities” or “challenges” for the euphemistically inclined). The more honest you get, the better off you will be.
  7. Now, your aspirations and goals. What do you want and why? Write it down. Who knows about this? Find the right people and let them know, you might even ask for help.

What’s happening here? How is this laborious (and therefore undesirable) process of self-reflection, paying attention, writing down and sharing going to lead to the better management of your inherent irrationality?

It’s going to ground you, root you, establish you in your corner of the world by using clarification and understanding as a means to build confidence. The irony of the personal and relational insight that you will gain is that it will make you more aware of and accepting of your irrationality, as well as that of others, which in turn will make you one of the most rational people around.


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