The Illusion of Control

You’re at the beach, building a sand castle. You’ve strategically started to build where the water only comes to within 10 feet of your construction.

You dig a nice deep moat to catch the rare, tidal surge but your site remains protected from the waves.

You build higher and wider, packing muddy sand onto muddy sand, buckets and shovels full at a time. Small and large hands aid the work, details taking shape, underground passages collapsing on themselves only to be dug out again.

The water creeps closer. Energies are diverted to deepen the moat and reinforce the water-facing walls. They hold for now.

And slowly, though you have won many battles along the way, you are losing the war.

And you knew this all along. You knew that you were racing time, and you built anyway. You made your best attempt; you dug and diverted your way to a creation that was good enough, here and now, knowing full well what was coming.

Everything is built on sand. Everything passes away. In the face of impermanence, in that moment of acceptance that control is an illusion, to give your very best is an act of courage and resilience.




It Can Be Done Another Way

I find it easy sometimes to get stuck on how something should be done versus how something can be done. Preferences for certain actions can blind us to the fact that a chosen behavior is indeed preferential and not the only option.

We have some large palm trees in our front yard and occasionally a frond will snap and fall to the ground. These can be ten feet long and very heavy which means they need to be cut up to fit in our green waste can. I have a great hand saw that is perfect for the job while also providing a decent workout!

On one occasion I asked my son to do the cutting and he proceeded to plug-in an electric saw – not one intended for this kind of job – and carved up the branch without breaking a sweat. I remember saying, “That’s not how you do it! You’re supposed to use the hand saw.”

He gave me his best “Are you kidding me?” look with a hint of “Did you want this done or did you want this done your way?” I don’t remember exactly but I probably doubled-down with something like, “But that’s what the hand saw is for, not to mention it’s good exercise.”

That went about as well as you’d expect.

The fact is that he got the job done in a perfectly acceptable way and in a manner that was gratifying to him. Regardless of how I feel about it, that should be enough.

The leadership lesson in this is that if you hire highly qualified people and pay them highly qualified salaries you need to provide them the autonomy they need to do what you hired them to do. Creative and capable people will express themselves beautifully in the right conditions, and those conditions must always include the freedom to make their mark, to test ideas, to share their experience and to solve problems.

Breaking a sweat can be gratifying but it’s hardly ever proof of the best way to do the work.

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.

It’s a Decision

Do you work within an organization, division, department or team that you would describe as valuing ‘competence’ over ‘connection’ by a wide margin?

This is an environment that you might describe as static, procedural, technical or hierarchical far more than it is dynamic, connective, open and human-centered.

You might even say that it’s an environment fueled by fear rather than by love.

If this sounds familiar to you and you feel limited, stifled, stuck or afraid you have a few options:

#1. Wait for “them” to change it.
#2. Change it yourself.
#3. Leave.

If it’s a truly toxic environment, option three is the best bet for your longterm health and well-being. Yes, it’s risky but it’s a strong job market and there are plenty of good leaders building healthy and meaningful organizations that also perform.

As for number one? You already know what I’m going to say but you’d rather not hear it. A hero is not about to come riding in on a stallion to save the day. Unless the place is about to go under and those with real power demand radical change, the place is going to keep operating as is. This is because human beings are addicted to the status quo, even when it’s the worst thing in the world.

So, on to number two. This is where you come in. And you can, you most definitely can change it yourself. Not the whole thing, and maybe not even a large part of it, but you can change the area that is one, maybe even one and a half concentric circles beyond yourself. It’s just a decision. Here are some ways you might act on that decision:

  1. Get to work early. Be there when your colleagues arrive and greet them warmly to start the day.
  2. Check-in on your teammates. Ask about their work and stuff going on at home. Just listen. No judgments, no advice.
  3. Check-in on your boss. Find a few minutes once a week or so to say hello and ask how things are going.
  4. Offer to help. Where it makes sense and respecting context and boundaries, of course. Small things matter a lot. Be the person who picks up that slack.
  5. Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, read, see friends, hug your family.
  6. Never, ever contribute to negativity. Know and live your personal values. Know and live the values of the organization even if nobody else is doing so.
  7. Do your best work. No one knows what that means but you.

I predict that if you do most or even some of these things, you will feel better about yourself, your work and your workplace. What’s more, others will start to emulate your behavior and your small part of the enterprise will take on an energy that is envied by others. As long as you’re going to be there, why not control what you can control and make it the kind of place you want to be?

In summary:

Option #1 = Fantasy
Option #2 = Possibility
Option #3 = Escape hatch

It always was and always will be your decision.

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.

Back to Basics

I spent about four hours today applying a fresh coat of stain to our fence. I completed about 25% of the job. We have a lot of fencing and I’ll spend a good part of Sunday knocking out another big section.

But today, what I felt with each pass of the brush, and as each foot of board went from dull to bright, from dirty to clean, was the pleasure of being present to something so common, so basic.

I have been glued to the news these past few weeks, relentlessly refreshing and devouring the latest take on the latest twists and turns. I didn’t realize how consumed I was by it all until I was outside in the breeze of a mild October day simply, steadily painting my fence.

Today was both reprieve and reminder. I don’t know if I have enough fencing or enough stain to reset myself completely but I’m going to make the most of what I’ve got. And I am reminded how quickly I can get out of balance and how necessary it is to find simple ways to reconnect to what is, in fact, within my control.

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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.