Beware the False Dichotomy

I read an article today that talked about the leadership challenge of navigating the difference between “wartime” and “peacetime” leadership.

It’s not a valid question because it’s based on a false dichotomy.

The distinction between “wartime” and “peacetime” suggests a dualistic, either/or approach to leadership. The discussion centered on working with the intersection of these divergent approaches – “What do I do when both are required? – but that only confirms the dualism of “two” approaches and that under “normal” circumstances you would practice one or the other which is, to put it mildly, hogwash.

Allow me to suggest that we think about this another way:

A leader’s impact, regardless of stability or crisis, is directly proportional to his or her dedication to the truth that leadership exists for the betterment of the human experience. Leadership is the moral responsibility to help other human beings work together to create extraordinary outcomes in the face of change.

When a leader is committed to this definition, dualism must go out the window. There is not “wartime” or “peacetime” leadership. There is, rather, human being leadership that always requires a few fundamental things: the preservation of dignity and respect; the vulnerability to have one real conversation after another; treating employees like adults; investing in their well-being as well as their achievement; clear goals and the resources to achieve them; the eradication of fear and the elevation of love.

With human being leadership, outside conditions are irrelevant. You’ve heard the wedding vow, “In good times and in bad.” Should I love my wife differently in the good times than I do in the bad times? Of course not. Leading a team is no different.

Lead them now, love them now, exactly how you would lead and love them at any other time. If you have to make a radical shift in your leadership practice because the wind has suddenly changed direction, you are doing it wrong.


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‘Essential’ is a Choice

Most of us don’t meet the government’s definition of “essential” when it comes to working the front lines of the response to the novel corona virus.

Most of us, that is, are deemed “non-essential.”

And we who are “non-essential” have been given a very short and manageable to-do list: wash your hands, stay at home and/or stay six feet apart.

But none of the “non-essentials” I’ve talked to feel like that’s “enough.” Most of them want to and are doing more.

You’re seeing it everywhere: acts of service, compassion, creativity, problem-solving, and helping hands. Educators, musicians, civil servants, service workers, neighbors, kids, from all walks of life, giving of themselves in innumerable ways and with epic levels of generosity.

These acts and these efforts, in all of their forms, are essential because they lift us up, give us hope, and remind us in tangible ways that we are all connected.

When we get through the worst of this crisis, it will be because the first wave of essential workers fought heroic battles to stem the tide of a terrible virus. It will also be because a second wave of people, those who chose to be essential, contributed their best selves to the effort, reminding all of us just how remarkable and just how powerful it is to be human.

This is the time to be essential.

Being essential is a choice.

Please do what you can.


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#49 – Vote

A little more than fifty days ago I decided to bring my daily blogging practice to an end. I decided to do so by using the final fifty days to write about “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” 

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I had 50 Ideas to write about but then I started making my list and they came easily. As the days went along, many from that initial list made the cut and many did not, as current events – personal, national and global – challenged me to think harder and harder about what I really believe in and what should be fought for.

In just seven short weeks the world has shifted so dramatically that it cannot and will not be the same again. Many of us haven’t felt the comfort of “normalcy” since the 2016 election. Our efforts to make peace with that outcome (with the rationale that the system will allow us to expunge the anomaly in four years) have been challenging at best, but here in year four the light at the end of the tunnel was finally coming into view.

And then the coronavirus changed everything. Not just because it is a once-in-a-century pandemic but because the ineptitude – perhaps even the criminality – of those sworn to protect the citizens of this country have led us into a crisis beyond description, the full scope of which will not be known for some time. We are needlessly stressing the entire infrastructure of the country, not to mention putting our most vulnerable citizens at risk, because of the greed and callousness of our failed leaders.

Does leadership matter? Ask your kids who won’t return to school this year. Ask the person just laid off from her job. Ask those confined to nursing homes who live each day in fear of infection without the comfort and care of family members not allowed to visit them.

Competent, compassionate leadership matters more than ever. And we see that kind of leadership at the local and state levels, as qualified people work tirelessly to respond to a crisis that their federal peers could have alerted them to much earlier and far more effectively. We see neighbors, co-workers, and complete strangers doing what they can to ease the burden of those within their reach because that’s the best of humanity coming through when those in power fail us.

I wasn’t planning to write about this today, but I have built an entire career on helping leaders become more effective in the face of change and we are witnessing the slow-motion train wreck of what happens when ineffective leaders have to face a level of responsibility for which they are tactically and morally unprepared.

What else could I write about, then?

I am disgusted, I am angry and I am so, so sad.

But what I feel even more strongly is the weight of my responsibility to do the following:

  1. Remain positive
  2. Control what I can control
  3. Be of service
  4. Show compassion
  5. Take care of myself
  6. Love my family
  7. Continue my work to build better leaders
  8. Vote

That’s it. So, that’s what I’m going to do.

What are you going to do?


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#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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#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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#32 – What Power is For

The purpose of power – at its highest and most noble application – is to make other people powerful.

At a material level, solar power is a great example of how this works. The panels on our home convert the sun’s rays into energy that is brought back inside in the form of electricity. We use a lot, sometimes most of what is produced on a sunny day but not all of it.

What we don’t use gets sent back into the larger system to be utilized for other purposes. We use what we need and give back what we don’t. And what we give away makes other things powerful.

At the human level, many people believe that power is to be accumulated and reserved for their own consumption, making it inaccessible and unusable by anyone else. They have not done the work to figure out how much they actually need so they operate in fear that any loss of power is a complete loss of power.

The irony of this miscalculation is that it is the reverse that is true. When power is distributed to others, through an increase in responsibilities, the opportunity to develop and practice new skills, to have greater influence, the power of the individual who helped to make that happen grows even greater skill.

The generous distribution of power converts to loyalty, commitment and engagement. Give it away and watch it grow.

This is #32 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Ready for another?


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