The Courage to Play

I received the following “Words of EnCOURAGEment” this week from Terasa Cooley, Executive Director of the The Center for Courage and Renewal. I hope you appreciate and enjoy it as much as I do and then take a few minutes to go to the Center’s website and learn about their important work.

Back in 2013, Bruce Springsteen pulled a request from an audience member at a concert to play Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Which he had never performed before. Which his band had never been prepped for. He hums and strums and struggles to find the right key. The band is looking mystified and frustrated. And then he takes off. After a few bumbles the band kicks in. And then the joy begins. Everyone gets caught up in the pure creative fun, and you can’t watch it without laughing and dancing (even if in your desk chair!).

In today’s fractured and fractious time, it often feels to me like we’ve lost the joy of playing together and risking together. When we’re anxious our instinct is to hold ourselves tight, to contract, to hesitate in case we get it wrong. I know I feel that way. Watching this video and feeling the bubble of joy break through me, I realized how much I need this feeling, and how I need to let myself play!

What would happen if we tried and got it wrong? The world would not crash down. What happens when we hold back? Our souls close down. Bruce Springsteen had the luxury of a band that would play along. Who in your life could play in your proverbial “backup band” while you risk making mistakes and feeling foolish?

I never thought of play requiring courage. But clearly it must, or we would do it more often. Children at play are often fearless. At some point we realize there are consequences to our actions and the fear starts shutting us down. But that child in us still longs to play. My vow to myself is to let her come out and tease me into risking being the fool.

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

First, Turn the Soil

Soil HealthEveryone wants to talk about harvesting. A few want to talk about planting. Even fewer want to talk about preparing the soil.

I came across an article yesterday called What Amazing Bosses Do Differently. Like so many books and articles out there right now it says all the right things. None of it is new. Here’s the last paragraph:

The common denominator is attentiveness. Pay close attention to your employees as individuals. Take that extra bit of time to build their confidence and articulate a vision; to provide constant, ongoing, high quality feedback; and to listen to their ideas. And ensure that your own messages are consistent.  Is it hard work? Yes. But it’s worth it.

Attentiveness? Check. Vision? Check. Feedback? Check. Consistency? Check.

Hard work? Check. Just not the right kind.

Do we really think another researched-based study that comes to the same conclusion as the last one is going to get our leaders to change their behaviors? That will only happen when organizations realize they don’t get to have it both ways.

Telling our leaders what they already know without getting them ready to apply it is a recipe for cynicism. It promises to deepen the resistance to change that is fed by corporate pronouncements about “employee engagement” that fail to come with any substantive cultural change to support them. Our leaders continue to default to fear-based, controlling behaviors for two reasons:

  1. It’s what their organizations are compensating them to do.
  2. It’s the easiest way to ensure performance in the short term.

The best way to appreciate the danger of the reality we’ve created – yes, we are all complicit – is to go back to the farm.

If you’ve worked on a farm of any size or even carefully tended a garden you know that planting and harvesting can be good, hard work. You also know that those activities are nothing compared to what it takes to properly prepare the soil. Turning just a few spades of dirt, especially in compacted and root-bound soil, is enough to remind you what physical labor really is. And it is our willingness to stick with it – to turn it, amend it and smooth it out – that makes the difference in the quality of what it will produce.

One of the first principles of planting crops of any kind – assuming you want to avoid chemically “enhancing” the soil – is that from one year to the next you rotate them into different sections of the field. (This applies to small garden planters as well.) Since different varieties absorb different nutrients from the soil this prevents any one crop from taking more than it’s share.

The corporate bias, in a thoroughly unimaginative response to the speed of complexity and change, is to simply take all it can while it can. This failure to tend their own soil makes them slaves to the present instead of caretakers of the future. In the same way that crop yields diminish in depleted soil so too do organizational results wither from the lack of attention to the first principles of long term growth.

 

Defining “Hard Work” 

What we need to talk about – what so few want to talk about – is the kind of “hard work” that our organizations and our leaders must engage in if we are to see real change. In my experience, a person who is both willing and able to do the “hard work” of practicing great leadership behaviors does so because first – first – they have tended their own soil.

Organizations must create the conditions where this is not only possible but also expected. To be a “leader” must come with clearly articulated, high expectations of self-knowledge that precedes behavioral training. Advancement to leadership positions must be contingent upon an individual’s ability to display a detailed understanding of their values, strengths, aspirations and limitations. They must be able to define themselves both at their best and at their worst, demonstrating an awareness of the conditions in which they thrive and those most likely to send them off the rails.

My bias would be to send a prospective leader to therapy or counseling for a year before he or she took the role. Since I live in the real world I will relinquish that fantasy in favor of developmental initiatives that allow for a deep understanding of each individual’s “soil composition” and just what is needed to amend it for them to grow – and support others growth – as well as they can. These programs already exist. We just need organizations to have the courage to put them into play.

We must also stop confusing positional competence with leadership capability. It’s a shortcut, knowingly taken far too often, that utterly fails to serve men and women who would otherwise thrive with the influence of a qualified leader. Organizations will further impoverish themselves if they continue to teach new skills to people who have not addressed their own compacted and root-bound soil.

The articles about “brilliant bosses” and the lists of “best leadership behaviors” are sure to keep coming. They will be dressed up differently but made of the same stuff. We need to do better than this.

We need to collectively reject the temptation to plant in poor soil, the bias for short term thinking that limits the quality and quantity of our yield.

We need to get our hands in the dirt, face up to the reality of what we find there and make it ready to support the growth for which those we lead are so hungrily waiting.

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.

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.

Ode to Freedom

It is said that Friedrich Schiller originally wrote the “Ode to Joy” in 1785 and was “enthusiastically celebrating the brotherhood of all mankind.” The poem was originally titled, “Ode to Freedom” but in 1803, possibly out of fear of repercussions for such an “overtly political” theme, he revised it to “Joy.”

In 1824 Beethoven set the poem to music in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony and made it universal, perhaps eternal. I am fascinated by the irony that the poet edited his poem for being too political and that it went on, aided by Beethoven’s genius, to become the twentieth century’s anthem for brotherhood, peace and reconciliation. Think Tiananmen Square. Think Berlin Wall.

It is also said that Schiller later regarded his poem as a failure, that it was “detached from reality.” Again, fascinating.

It is not the job of the creator to determine or decide the impact or possibility of what he or she creates. The creator’s job is to break free of doubt and self-criticism – to break free from fear – and to allow whatever is inside, that part that is begging to be released into the world, to find its way to the page, the canvas, the children, the team, the organization.

It is not out job to decide or even know who will be moved by our work or where our contributions will lead.

It is our job to do the work.

—–

The 1803 version with references to the original is below:

“Ode to Joy” – Friedrich Schiller – 1803

Joy, beautiful sparkle of god, (1785 version: Freedom, beautiful sparkle of god,)

Daughter of Elysium,

We enter, fire-drunk,

Heavenly one, your shrine.

Your magics bind again

What custom has strictly parted. (1785 version: What custom’s sword has parted.)

All men become brothers (1785 version: Beggars become princes’ brothers.)

Where your tender wing lingers.

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ode_to_Joy

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 Messy Human Real Thing

“There is always an easy solution to every human problem: neat, plausible and wrong.”  – H.L. Mencken –

The journey from the age of machines to the age of meaning is proving to be a bumpy one. It’s telling, and not at all surprising, that the more complicated and pervasive technology becomes the more people seem to want to get out of the “cloud” and back on the ground. Our collective cognitive dissonance suggests that we believe we can get the meaning and connection we seek if only our technology continues to offer better, faster means of doing so. As that dissonance festers our only choice is to resolve it by either letting go of our need for authentic connection or reconsidering the role and purpose of technology. That’s not much of a choice.

In the age of machines people are treated like machines in order to build machines. In the age of meaning people are treated like people who are brought together by the common cause of creating something of value, machine or otherwise. There is a shared human need to connect to something larger than ourselves and while technological solutions can provide tools to aid that connection, to assist in that creation, it’s time to stop confusing that assistance as an end unto itself. It is, in fact, a terrible substitute for the real thing.

But the real thing – the messy human real thing – is precisely why we keep turning to technology. The clean landscape of ones and zeros tempts us to believe we can manufacture a more Disney-like version of the human experience. For too long we’ve been trying to outsmart ourselves and it’s time to get real about that. Despite our clever ability to build an even better mousetrap at some point we must learn that the path to freedom demands a humble reckoning with what has been denied: each heart’s deep longing to be seen, heard and understood.

When the organization becomes a place where that can be expressed freely, openly and with a strategic understanding of its relevance to the bottom line, the age of meaning will have arrived.

Remember to Play

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I want to close this week with a word about play.

I am always looking for meaning. I consistently interpret my experiences through the lens of significance and I make every effort to integrate those insights into my perspective and out through my language. I am an observer and an interpreter of meaning and it is a quality I genuinely value about myself.

It is also a place where I can get stuck. When overused, my bias for meaning can get heavy, a little too serious and a little too much work. I have been perceived as intense and brooding. When my idealism takes a blow, when it feels like meaning can’t be found, I do know that my darker qualities emerge. In other words, I take myself too damn seriously.

And the antidote to that seriousness is play. Frankly, the key to learning, the key to creativity, the key to relationships is the spirit and practice of play.

This week I have invited you to make friends with your obstacles, to declare yourself worthy of investment, to find the shelter to restore and protect what matters, and to reach deeper into the unknown possibility of yourself than you may have before. None of this – none of it – requires grim determination or depressed isolation. In fact, it suffers from it.

We always get to choose how we feel. Always. The more we choose the energy of possibility and the awakening of discovery, the more we equip ourselves to lighten our grip and open our hearts.

The playground is waiting.

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.