Can you help me?

Last summer I was invited to be a guest lecturer in the College of Business at Cal State San Marcos University here in San Diego. Those first two classes allowed me to fulfill a longtime goal of teaching at the college level, and it is as challenging and fulfilling as I hoped it would be. I accepted two more class assignments this spring, eager for the chance to apply my lessons learned from the first semester and to see the experience less from the narrow perspective of survival and more from the advantaged point of view of having come this way before.

As the school year comes to a close and I anticipate continuing my affiliation with the University in semesters ahead, I find myself thinking about one interaction – one conversation – this spring that helped me to get fundamentally clear about my “why?” for teaching.

I am a leadership coach and consultant by trade. My “day job” allows me to work with leaders to help them become more effective in leading their teams and growing their organizations. It is challenging and humbling work. Progress comes in fits and starts and change is tough to measure in the speed and impatience of the modern company. If I had an agenda for my teaching at the beginning of the fall semester it was to bring this reality – the necessity of continuous learning amidst the demands of organizational life – to my students in a way that would bring urgency to our collaboration and focus to our work.

If I hadn’t physically bumped into a student at a campus event earlier this semester this would likely still be my point of view.

The College of Business takes seriously the opportunity and responsibility it has to prepare its students for career success. One example of this is an “etiquette dinner” for sophomore students who are on the cusp of pursuing and interviewing for internships. The evening is exactly what you are imagining: a facilitated dining experience, course by course, designed to equip students to succeed at the all-important professional lunch or dinner. I was invited to serve as a table moderator, tasked with keeping the conversation flowing amidst instructions for eating soup (spoon it away from, not towards you) and selecting the correct water glass (it’s on your right).

Before entering the dining room, students, faculty and staff were encouraged to “network” in a reception area too small for our group. It was a nervous, crowded room and if you wanted a drink of water you had to work for it. When I finally made it to the self-serve beverage station, I proceeded to bump into one of the students as I was reaching for a glass. I quickly apologized and noticed right away that he was hesitant to engage in any further conversation. Like many of the students that night he had a “fish out of water” sense about him, making it perfectly clear why an event like this is such an essential opportunity.

Just as I was retreating back into the crowd, this young man stepped toward me with unexpected composure and simply said: “Can you help me?”

Surprised at first, I replied, “Of course. What do you need?”

He said, “I don’t know how to do this. What do I say?”

“This” was the small talk of networking. He was out of his depth, nervous and intimidated and, in the swirl of all of those feelings, was still willing to ask for help! He made an affirmative choice to learn from the situation he was in when so many of his peers were shrinking from the opportunity. He could have stayed on the sidelines or just melted into the larger group but he chose a different path.

So we talked it over. I asked him a few questions and encouraged him to ask a few of me. I made some suggestions, shared some ideas and wished him well before we went our separate ways. It took five minutes. I think that I helped him, like he asked me to.

I still want my students to bring their energy and commitment to learning to our modern workplaces that are so in need of meaningful, sustainable change. I still want them to meet the crazy demands of the business world with a maturity and mindfulness that expands the conversation beyond the balance sheet.

But that’s my agenda. It’s not why I teach.

I teach because I want to be around people who, from time to time will courageously remind me that one of the bravest and most important things we can ever do is ask for help.

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 Don’t Fear People Whose Story You Know

20130316-155255.jpg“Ask: ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking.

Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty. Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.

Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.”

Turning to One Another,” Margaret Wheatley

Small Moves: 100 Days of Connection

“Because it is familiar a thing remains unknown.” Hegel

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Day 100 – “My first 6th grade essay – piece of cake!”

There is a powerful moment at the beginning of the movie “Contact” when young Ellie is calling out on her shortwave radio. She is trying to find someone, anyone, who might be listening on the same frequency. As her frustration grows her dad implores her, “Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”

Finally, someone answers. A man from Pensacola. Ellie is so startled that she doesn’t know what to say.

The movie takes us from this intimate moment between a father and a daughter to a wormhole in deepest space. The story arcs from what is closest and dearest all the way out to an astonishing celestial frontier before curving back to the familiar ground of the here and now. It reminds us that as far as we might travel to find what we are looking for, the things – the people – we most want and need in our lives are usually very close at hand. Connection always requires small moves and in my experience those moves consistently lead right back to what we most need to learn.

This is my lesson after 100 days of seeking connection: I have been looking for something that was not lost. Connection is always one small move away. It’s familiarity is the perfect hiding place.

Ellie is young when her father dies. What becomes her quest to discover life on other planets is really a search for a way back to her dad, a way back to what is familiar and comforting. Is it any surprise that when she does make contact with an “extraterrestrial” it takes the form of her dad, using the known to settle the confusion of the new?

An early, significant loss can make future attachment very hard. It’s just so easy to defend against the possibility of experiencing that old pain in a new way. In my experience it was easier to either smother another person to get them to reject me or to cooly keep my distance to avoid revealing my vulnerability. Of course, both responses left me disconnected and alone, reinforcing my belief that connection could only be attained through a perfect alignment of very specific variables. All or nothing is rarely a successful approach when it comes to matters of the heart.

I am just slightly wiser after these one hundred days. I am more awake to connection’s continuous presence and the deep satisfaction that comes with moving towards it each day. I am more aware of how small moves often feel insufficient in the moment, like breadcrumbs for a starving man. Through sheer redundancy of attention I also see that there’s no other way to do it. Ellie’s discovery of a message from outer space came from years of dedicated listening, one frequency at a time.

At the end of the film the alien who has taken the form of Ellie’s dad says to her:

“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”

My most recent 25 connection photos can be seen here.  Days 1-25 are here. And days 26-50 are here. Days 51-75 are here.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

Lead by Choice

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Is there any greater “accident” than the disregard for our common humanity that plagues so much of organizational life?

We are slaves to the false boundaries of time. We are held captive by control, jailed by fear.

To actively think about, to clearly see and to intimately know is to be fully alive in relationship with others with whom we can do great things.

Leadership, then, is no accident. It’s a choice.

A choice to be more human than otherwise.

Room to Run

Rita at Dog Beach/Del Mar - March 7, 2015

Rita at Dog Beach/Del Mar – March 7, 2015

“Always this energy smolders inside, when it remains unlit the body fills with dense smoke.” – from “Out On the Ocean” by David Whyte

You have more freedom than you think you do. This is the strange dilemma we face in a society of wide-open access to information, of infinite do-it-yourself possibilities. We have all the freedom we need except for where we need it most: behind our eyes and between our ears.

I heard a piece on the radio yesterday about the power of exposure as a way to open up the imagination to what is possible. If I see bigger I might live bigger. If I see freedom I might pursue freedom. If I see wealth, opportunity, advancement – a concrete example of another way forward – I might reason that it can exist for me also and then take action to achieve it.

Any opening to another way, however slender it might be, is enough to get some people to leap. Others, not so much. Most of us remain bound by our perceptions, locked in a mindset that makes sense to us, well-shaped by years of effort. This is what I know so this is what I am. All the while, smoldering inside is a tiny fire of possibility that is screaming for oxygen. Remaining unlit it streams toxic smoke into our bodies, directly to our hearts.

It may be that you don’t think you’re worthy of your freedom.

You may believe that how you use your freedom won’t pass the test of others’ care and concern.

Or, very likely, the room you want – the freedom you crave – belongs to a group of “insiders,” smart and special people who have what it takes and “earned” their keys to a door you’re still fumbling to find.

There’s never been a time like this. What are you going to do about that?

Rita doesn’t get off the leash too often. When she does, she makes the most of it.

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Three Signs You Might Be Out of Control

January-9What follows is my interpretation of material shared by Ken Blanchard at the Servant Leadership Conference in Coronado, CA on March 9, 2015. This is his work, not my own. Any dilution of its impact or misinterpretation of its meaning can only be attributed to me!

If you are depleted, exhausted, frustrated, angry or overwhelmed – or perhaps a bit of all of those – it’s likely that you are feeling and acting out of control. Perhaps only slightly, but enough so that you find yourself out of rhythm. In an effort to restore your equilibrium – no one wants to be out of control – you may be employing some unhealthy adaptations, likely small adjustments that have become incrementally more present and therefore harder to notice for what they truly represent.

Think about your lifestyle and behaviors over the last 30 days. Do any of these apply to you?

Are you skimming? You are in the room but you aren’t really present. You are distracted and disengaged from the people who most need your sincere focus and attention, your spouse, children and friends. You are going through the motions, not really tasting or enjoying your food, not really committed to that book you are reading, distracted during exercise or whatever form of restorative practice you rely on. You avoid the deeper dive and commitment of energy required for presence because you are reserving it to fight the battle of insecurity or anxiety.

Are you overindulging? You escape into alcohol, food, television or social media. You over promise, stretching yourself too thin. You avoid confronting the real issues you need to face by losing yourself in things that provide temporary feelings of relief instead of relief itself. You take the edge off, and then a little bit more even though more is never enough.

Are you blaming others for your situation? You look to anyone or anything else as the cause of the difficulty you are facing. You avoid responsibility because it stings too much. You neglect to hold tough conversations about what’s really going on for fear that all fingers will be pointed at you. You make life tough for your team because if you have to suffer they are going to suffer too.

If any of this is true for you – and if we’re honest it’s true for all of us in some way – it is easy to fall into the trap of self-judgment and good/bad thinking. We have to forgive ourselves for the understandable if unconscious use of these maladaptive practices. Having done so, we can more objectively look at the pattern we are in and get ourselves back to the opportunity that is always available to us: to choose our response to whatever circumstances we face.

If Only

The best way to prevent yourself from accomplishing anything worthwhile is to get stuck in the land of “if only.”

If only I had more experience. If only I had more connections. If only she would talk to me. If only they didn’t think that. If only I had more training. If only I had more time. If only I didn’t have these other commitments. If only I was lucky. If only I was more skilled. If only I was a better writer, speaker, dancer, marketer, programmer, facilitator, presenter, résumé writer, researcher, singer, networker, leader.

The biggest problem with a world in which the rules of the game are changing so dramatically is that we have to create a new story about how to navigate it. And it is only a story. The sooner we grasp that it’s all invented and that we are experts at constructing our own meanings and our own realities we get to decide what to do with that extraordinary insight.

One option is that we can tell ourselves a new story of possibility. Another is that we can tell ourselves an old story of the way the game is played and let “if only” rule the day.

One of three things is true:

  1. You’ve got what you need at least to get started and you are afraid that it’s insufficient for what the world expects.
  2. You know what you need to get started – new information, skills, relationships – and now you’ve got to go get it.
  3. You don’t know what you need because you don’t know what you want.

You either need to get moving, get learning or get clear. If only there were another way.

On the Edge of the Inside

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“Prophets, by their very nature, can’t be right at the center of the social structure. They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either. Their structural position to this day is “on the edge of the inside.” You must know and live the essential rules before you can critique what is not essential or not as important.” – Richard Rohr

I’m taking the risk that this piece will feel esoteric to some, perhaps even exclusionary. That is not my intention. Rather, I invite you to consider the ways – through the lens of a very particular example – you play the role of priest or prophet in your own practice of leadership. That is to say, do you find yourself leading in service of maintaining systemic order or leading in service of disrupting the status quo in support of a larger ideal?

Let’s remember our history right from the start: most prophets get killed. In spite of the intention that prophets would serve as a balance to the formal structures of the early church their role as disrupters would often become too much – too uncomfortable – for the kings and priests whose job was to hold the whole thing together.

The demanding realities of organizational systems – especially the dynamic realities of hierarchy, power and control – make it laughable to some to even consider this conversation. Understandably, most leaders don’t want to get killed. It seems to me, though, that the focus on avoiding death is alarmingly disproportionate to the energy spent defining what it is the leader is going to live and lead for. And in that focus on the avoidance of death – and in the absence of higher calling – comes the worst kind of loyalty, acquiescence to the seat of authority that granted the promotion in the first place. This misplaced loyalty comes at a steep organizational cost as the needs of the entire system, the stated ideals and vision of the enterprise, are so frequently sacrificed at the altar of personal gain.

Our organizations must not just tolerate but actively cultivate prophets, those precious few who can operate “on the edge of the inside,” serving the system by maintaining a remove that allows for a healthy and constructive critique of just how far it has strayed from its stated ideals. Essentially, this is about the courage and ability – and potentially the self-sacrifice – to hold the system in a conversation about the distance between where it is and where it says it wants to go.

It is not idealistic to say that a balance between priest and prophet is attainable. It is simply a decision to be made by those in the “seat of power” to no longer view the “seat of power” as a one-dimensional construct that occasionally tolerates outside perspective as an exercise of “inclusion” or “diversity.” It is decision to be lived out through thousands upon thousands of daily behaviors that promote tolerance, strive for understanding, enhance learning, open dialogue, challenge perspectives and energize commitment. Yes, a big decision but a decision just the same.

Once again, do you find yourself leading in service of maintaining systemic order or leading in service of disrupting the status quo in support of a larger ideal?

“For the prophets it was all about the purity and integrity of the divine-human relationship, which led them to point out the immense injustices of their world, their kings, and their priests.” – Richard Rohr

The Well

Reach way over, toes keeping contact with earth, hips balanced on the rough edge, arm stretching down to just the very surface of the water. Dip your cup and taste your presence.

This is your well. The internal spring of all that you are and all that you have to offer a waiting world.

Don’t drink from other wells, mistaking them as your own. Drink from your well, the one that is hardest to reach, the bottom of which is furthest from your hand. Reach down through the darkness to find a quenching you can find nowhere else.

You will love what you taste with a sadness for having not tasted it long or often enough.

Drink it in. Supply yourself for what you must give away.

Friday Reflection

The weekend is calling. Before you go, a brief reflection on the week that was.

This week I wrote about love, creativity, energy and choice.

I find myself in a deeper conversation about the regard for self – emotional, mental, physical and spiritual – that is necessary to stay as present as I possibly can to what matters most.

Love myself so that I can love others more generously.

Befriend my creativity so that it can be more fully expressed.

Maintain my energy to sustain my ability to love and create.

Trust that my love, creativity and energy is worthy of being chosen. And the only choice that matters is the one I make in favor of myself.

I wish you a restful, playful weekend. That you emerge on Monday morning with a renewed sense of clarity about the contribution you are meant to make and the determination to see it through.

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, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well.