How to Practice / How to Lead

I asked my piano teacher to help me create a practice plan. I have noticed that each day when I sit at the piano, after a few warm-up exercises, I find myself uncertain how to make the most of the time. I bounce around from this exercise to that song, from this chord pattern to that one, inevitably feeling a mix of satisfaction for having spent the time and uncertainty as to its greater value to my education.

She practically beamed at the question. It was one of those “when the student is ready” moments that is just the right approach for this adult learner.

Her recommendation, regardless of how much time I have to practice, is to break it down as follows:

  • 25% – Warm-up
  • 50% – Focus on songs I have chosen to learn
  • 25% – Something new, something fun

As soon as she mapped this simple structure for me I relaxed with the knowledge that comes with a coherent game plan. She gave me a container, a way to structure myself that allows me to proceed with more purposeful and directed action.

On the drive home I concluded that this would also be an excellent approach for the daily practice of leading others.

What if, each day, you “warmed up” by briefly checking in with each member of the team? You could ask how the previous day finished up for them, how their evening was and how they’re feeling about the day ahead. Just a few moments with each person to greet them into this new day and remind them that you are there, also, attentive and engaged in their success.

What if you then focused on your  most important projects and initiatives? This includes your desk work, responding to requests, organizing information, planning for and attending the necessary (and unnecessary?) meetings in which you establish and sustain the forward motion of the work itself. What would or could be different about this core part of your day if you begin each day with the “warm up” described above?

What if then, no matter how busy the day becomes and how aggressively it threatens to get away from you, you took the time to do something fun and/or something new? This could include that reading you’ve been putting off, some quiet reflection about a difficult question or situation, a walk outside with a colleague, a celebration of a team member’s or project team’s accomplishment, a team building activity to break up the mid-afternoon slump, or simply a “warm down,” checking in with your team members at the close of the day.

Perhaps you’ve already done the math on this idea and found that in a 9 or 10 hour day that’s over four hours of “stuff” that is very much not you sitting at a desk and doing the work itself. And with that realization you may dismiss this out of hand as pie-in-the-sky thinking that is out of touch with your reality.

I would gently remind you of two things: first, your job as a leader is to help the team be successful which means that you have to be with them an awful lot. And second, you have more freedom in the design of your day than you may choose to admit. When you recommit to your team’s success and reclaim your calendar you will find as I am discovering with the piano, that a thoughtfully applied “practice” plan allows you to relax into the work in both unexpected and rewarding ways.


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.

How to Change an Organization

In The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King the character Pippin, who is one of a ‘band of brothers’ on a quest to save Middle Earth, lights a beacon (a large and strategically placed bonfire) that begins a ripple effect of many more such lightings. From mountain peak to mountain peak, the fires are lit, passing along an urgent call to action. It is the Middle Earth version of S.O.S. and 911.

The lighting of the beacons is my favorite scene in the trilogy of films, both because it is beautifully constructed and filmed and because of the message it gives us about how we might begin our own efforts at organizational change.

None of us is preparing for a war that will determine the outcome of Middle Earth, though on some days it feels just that way. What we are hoping for, and struggling to enact, is change that allows us to operate more effectively in the every day. We want our best efforts to equate to beneficial outcomes alongside people we care about. That does not happen by accident. It happens when we commit ourselves to the necessities of adaptation.

The lighting of the beacons is not the story of a single fire but of the manner in which the lighting of one fire begets the lighting of the next. Most organizational change efforts are single fire, top-down affairs that rarely translate into new practices and better outcomes. Instead, they fizzle out, leaving cynicism and frustration smoldering in the ash heap.

What gets missed is that real change only happens at the level of the individual fire, with each group designing its own plans for change in the larger context of the system of which it is a part. This is messy and disjointed at first but allows the personalization of change – involvement and ownership at the ground floor – that is directly connected to the whole. When each group’s beacon is lit, it sends a declaration that serves to inspire other’s to light their own.

This shared responsibility for owning a link in the chain of change connects people in ways that top-down commands simply cannot do. The leader’s job is to answer where we are going and why.  The team’s job is to provide the how. Let them start the fire of change and they will strive to keep it burning for as long as they are entrusted to do so.


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.

Our obsession with rationality

“Hindsight 2070” is an initiative by Vox.com in which they asked 15 experts to answer this question: “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?”

One of those experts is Krista Tippett, the founder and leader of the On Being Project. Her piece begins like this: “Our obsession with rationality will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now. We’ll look back and cringe at our conception of humans as fully rational beings.”

What she expresses and how she does so gets to the heart of what I aspire to, both personally and in my work with students, teams and leaders. She is precise and thoughtful in articulating the astonishingly high cost of taking ourselves so seriously for so long.

Here’s a selection to chew on before enjoying the whole thing (it’s not long and hers is an eminently worthy voice to bring to your own ongoing conversation about who we are, where we are and what’s to come):

“The great frontier of this century is to finally reckon with the hazard and the bounty of what it means to be human. That is to say, as we are on the cusp of creating artificial intelligence, to mine the intelligence we already possess, the embodied consciousness that is already ours to work with. To build a better politics, a more humane and sustainable economy, and while we’re at it better schools and prisons and health care, we have to design with sophisticated emotional intelligence and social technologies.”


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.

Poem for a Sunday Morning

You are you and I am me.
To be that – just that – as fully as possible, is what we are here for.
Do that, then. As will I.


As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

How to Motivate Your Employees

You can’t, so stop trying. That’s step number one.

Motivation is an internal dynamic, a choice based on a wide range of individual forces such as personality, values, perception, emotions, attitudes and stress. You can inspire but you can’t motivate. Knowing the difference is crucial to effective leadership.

A leader’s job is to create the conditions in which it is possible for people to motivate themselves. Here are five things you can do to create that kind of environment:

  1. Define and commit to a compelling purpose and vision for your organization. Help people to understand what they signed up for, where you’re going and what’s in it for them to be a part of it.
  2. Create obvious and plentiful pathways for your employees to be involved in decision-making,
  3. Hire terrific and talented people, connect them to the vision, provide them with the necessary context and then get out of their way. Autonomy is a powerful motivator because it is the tangible evidence of trust.
  4. Live out a value system that makes fairness a driving principle of the organization. For starters, you can pay people based on the quality and impact of their performance rather than on the parameters of a pre-determined scale.
  5. Make continuous learning a priority for everyone and work hard to develop your team members. Make it obvious to them that you want them to grow and that you are willing to invest time and resources to that end.

“How do I motivate my team?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “How do I create the conditions in which my team members will activate their internal motivation?”


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.

Nothing to see here

img_6409I’ve got this neighbor who drives a truck and tows a trailer behind it. Both the truck and the trailer are consistently full of random stuff, making him a kind of junk man. It seems that some folks have gotten the idea that all of that random stuff must equate to some kind of value because he’s taken to putting this sign up in the window.

When I noticed it this morning I imagined it as an incidental projection of the state of his self-esteem. And then I realized that what I was actually noticing was the darker truth that it reminded me about what was once the state of my own self-esteem.

It’s a stretch to say that I ever considered myself “value-less” but I have potent recollections of periods in my life when I put up a good front to protect against people finding out what little substance I had to offer. I remember a haphazard set of feelings that included confidence of having certain abilities but insecurity about not knowing what to do with them. And that not knowing compiled on itself until it became serious self-doubt.

For a long time it felt like a sick joke to know quite deeply how much I had to offer but to have absolutely no direction or comprehension about how to offer it. Because of some very good people who gave me some strong nudges in the right direction; because of some fortunate experiences that forced my maturity (like storing seeds in a dark cold place so that when they hit the warm earth and sun they only know to grow); because of some small risks I was finally willing to take; the not knowing turned into a hazy knowing which built some confidence which allowed me to own my gifts and start to employ them in ways that brought a sense of value.

Perhaps this is familiar to you. Or perhaps you recognize someone in your circle who carries themself as if they have nothing of value inside. More challenging still, that person may present a facade that is so well constructed that you have been convinced otherwise.

Whatever the case, it’s time for a strong nudge from someone just like you. For that matter, you might even have to break the glass. But do that and do it soon. The sooner they see how much you love, respect and value them, the sooner they will be on the path of offering that same consideration to themselves.


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.

The Best of Both

I have a client whose expectation of his team is that they will do their jobs with exceptional skill while constantly striving to be even better human beings.

There is no trade-off, no convenient acceptance of sub-par performance for a “really great guy” and no acceptance of toxic, or even stagnant behavior for someone who is “just too good at their job for us to do without.”

Learning is the driver, about the work itself and about the even greater responsibility to be a person of deep integrity and generous character.


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.

Disproportionate Influence

If you are a leader, you have influence that is disproportionate to that of the people you lead. By definition, you have the responsibility to see and do that which is necessary to help your team members be successful.

You are tasked with establishing a vision, providing resources, negotiating roadblocks, offering guidance, recognizing accomplishments and setting both a behavioral and emotional standard from which all others take their cue.

It’s absurd to think that this kind of influence – this level of responsibility – can be achieved and maintained without an equally disproportionate commitment to continuous learning.

A leader of any merit knows this and acts accordingly. There is no more valuable currency than that of continuous learning.


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.

Take Responsibility for Your Learning

Jia Jang is inspiring. He feared rejection so much that he decided to pursue it directly with the hope that he would learn to fear it less and respond to it more productively.

He recounts his “100 Day Rejection Challenge” in his self-effacing, funny and beautifully sincere TED Talk. It’s hard not to smile along – to root for him – as he teaches us an extraordinary lesson.

https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jia_jiang_what_i_learned_from_100_days_of_rejection

In the end I felt like I was rooting for myself; to keep learning the piano, to keep seeking out speaking engagements, to keep writing every day, to keep opening my heart to new people and experiences. All of this takes risk and, as Jia so thoughtfully proposes, all of it leads to benefits far too richly saturated for the fearful mind to anticipate or articulate.

{You can also hear Jia talk about his experience on this terrific episode of the TED Radio Hour}


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.