The High Five Test

Vicki Gravlin is a local school district administrator who is responsible for “academic excellence and innovation.” She spoke to my business school undergraduate classes this week about the joys, challenges and every day realities of leading innovation and change in the highly diverse and complicated world of K-12 education.

In a common sense, often very funny and always inspirational style, she reminded us that an effective leader is “always on” and always engaged, especially when it’s the last thing they want to be. She challenged us to meet our people right where they are – at their school, in their office, in the classroom – to best understand what is going on, how they are feeling and what they need.

One of her proven methods for doing so is through the liberal application of the “High Five” test. It’s not complicated. She stands at the door of the classroom (or walks around her office environment) and as the students file past she gives them a high five. From this simple and brief act of physical contact she is able to gather a ton of information about both that individual and the state of the group overall.

A look away and a half-hearted effort probably means that the student is preoccupied or disengaged. A too aggressive slap of her hand lets her know there is something unresolved or unexpressed. She’s learned to pull a lot of data from these encounters but she doesn’t accept it all at face value. She connects and verifies with those around her through sincere questions and thoughtful listening to put the pieces together.

Vicki’s high five test is a reminder of the simple and potent power of connection. A small and sincere effort, in the classroom or the office, to even just momentarily connect with others kicks open the door of learning and awareness.

If you’re looking for evidence of thoughtful and committed leadership, the consistent pursuit of learning and awareness is about the best data you can get.


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.

What do you have to teach us?

The question is not, “do you have anything to teach us?” because, of course you do.

The question is, “what is it?” And it may be many things. But if it could only be one and we gave you our time and our attention, what would you help us to see that we do not yet see?

What story would you tell that would expand our perspective, increase our empathy, magnify our understanding of ourselves, our team, our shared work?

You are a teacher, by your every word and action, as are we all.

The choice we each get to make is what we want others to learn by having entrusted themselves to us.


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 Adjust Your Default Setting

Two beliefs are highly problematic for the modern human being. The first is the belief that we are supposed to be rational actors and the second is the belief that we are.

Just five minutes of silence reveals that in each of our heads exists a chorus of competing, irrational voices that makes our decision-making, especially under stress, unreliable. For an even more clarifying experience, try something new, meet someone new, go someplace unfamiliar, navigate by landmarks instead of GPS, anything that increases your heart rate and decreases your sense of security. Now listen to the voices in your head. They should be practically chanting what amounts to your default setting, or how you see the world and your place in it under the stress of change.

That messy mix of voices is the aggregation of your preferences, perceptions, judgments and biases, the result of years of dragging a large collection net behind you through rich, rewarding, difficult and multifaceted lives.

Remember, your default setting has been working hard to help you make sense of your world and to protect your place in it for a very long time. It’s not that it’s bad or wrong, it’s just that it’s no longer as useful as it once was. It feels useful, and better than an alternative, because it’s familiar and that’s the thinking that gets us stuck in the status quo.

Here are three options for how to adjust your default setting, not so you can finally become rational, but so that you can more capably organize your competing voices of irrationality under stress.

One, in the category of highly desirable but completely unrealistic, you can find a wise teacher high on a distant mountain and take the next 10 years to get there, live there, and learn.

Two, in the category of moderately desirable and more realistic, you can find a counselor, therapist or coach somewhere in your neighborhood (or via the magic of Zoom!) and take the next couple of years to explore yourself, make sense of your learning and practice new ways of thinking and feeling.

Three, in the category of undesirable and totally realistic, you can do the following:

  1. Start noticing yourself more closely in familiar, stressful situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  2. Start putting yourself into unfamiliar situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  3. Share what you notice with someone you trust and who has your best interests at heart and see what they think and what feedback they have to share.
  4. Identify and clarify the few things that matter most to you (financial security, family happiness, health and well-being, new experiences, community building, environmental action, continuous learning, achievement, impact, etc.). Use your spending habits and your calendar for clues. Write them down and share them with the person in #3 above, among others. See what they think.
  5. Do the same thing with your strengths. Get as clear as you can about what you do best when you are at your best. Think of concrete examples, write those stories down and share them, as above.
  6. Repeat with an honest assessment of your weaknesses (“opportunities” or “challenges” for the euphemistically inclined). The more honest you get, the better off you will be.
  7. Now, your aspirations and goals. What do you want and why? Write it down. Who knows about this? Find the right people and let them know, you might even ask for help.

What’s happening here? How is this laborious (and therefore undesirable) process of self-reflection, paying attention, writing down and sharing going to lead to the better management of your inherent irrationality?

It’s going to ground you, root you, establish you in your corner of the world by using clarification and understanding as a means to build confidence. The irony of the  personal and relational insight that you will gain is that it will make you more aware of and accepting of your irrationality, as well as that of others, which in turn makes you one of the most rational people around.


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.

Hiding in Plain Sight

“What is obscure we will eventually see;
what is obvious usually takes a little longer.”
{Edward R. Murrow}


Your team is hiding in plain sight. They are there, you can see them, they are working…all true.

But they are hiding, just the same.

What they are hiding is the depth of their creativity, their energy and their initiative because they do not (well, most of them, statistically speaking do not) feel engaged enough to do so.

In other words, most leaders of most workplaces haven’t earned the right to preserve, protect and defend the most important qualities of the human condition, those qualities that demonstrate who each of us is at our most open, and most vulnerable.

Knowing this as they do, they do not bring those best parts of themselves into the office. They leave them elsewhere for safe keeping…in the car, at home, online.

And the organization is impoverished for the lack of access to their best selves. Complex problems remain unsolved, possibilities remain unexplored, “craziness” remains unexpressed.

This is, technically speaking, a huge bummer.

But there is hope, here on a Tuesday, in the shape of you and your willingness to start a new kind of conversation in a brand new way. It goes like this:

“I would like to earn the right to get to know you at your most creative, energized and engaged. What would need to be true around here for that to happen?”


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.

Called to Rise

We never know how high we are
{Emily Dickinson}

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
  Our statures touch the skies—

The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King—


My father was an Episcopal priest and so it was not entirely a surprise when, around my 13th birthday my mother asked me if I had any inclination to follow that path for myself.

“Absolutely not,” I declared.

“But what if you are called?,” she asked.

“I would hang up!,” I shot back.

A few years later I would have gladly borrowed some of that conviction for what I didn’t want in my search to figure out what I did.

It became clear with the benefit of hindsight that a path was taking shape in front of me but it was so difficult to believe it in the moment that I hesitated to step forward. I was being called to rise – into myself, into my gifts – but I lacked trust in what I had already done as evidence of what I could and would become. The pieces were there, but the puzzle remained a mystery.

The clues to the solution came with a couple of major revelations. First, that what I had to offer was wanted and valued and, second, that the way I would and could offer it would remain beyond my imagination until I lived it into being. I know that sounds squishy but for me it’s the difference between reading a recipe and wondering about how it will taste and going ahead and making it to find out. It may not turn out as you imagined it but now that there’s a baseline, adjustments can be made.

I still wrestle with the voice in the head that shouts that I dare not dream “to be a King.” And those I mentor and teach, along with good friends and colleagues, generously share their own version of that same inner struggle.

I encourage myself and I encourage them with the reminder that I remain the worst possible judge of my potential; that if I sincerely want to respond to the call that comes for me, I must surround myself with those who will not only help me hear it but also grab the phone away before I can hang it up.


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 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.

Choose to Make it Better

“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”
{Richard Rohr}


If you’re struggling in a poor work environment – not a toxic one, mind you but one that is marked by ineffectual leadership and uninspired co-workers – you can do one of three things:

  1. Leave
  2. Stay and join in the misery
  3. Make it better

Important to note that choosing #3 does not require you to make the whole thing better, just the three foot circle of it that surrounds you everywhere you go.

You could choose to have a radically positive and affirming attitude. You could choose to be on time in the morning, for all appointments and meetings and with your work as well. You could choose to compliment and recognize other’s contributions. You could choose to offer support when someone needs help. You could choose to abstain from complaining about what can’t be controlled and begin conversations about what can.

Your efforts may not yield the ripple effects necessary to shift the environment in a more favorable direction, but they might. And in the process, for as long as you choose to stay, you will feel better about yourself, most likely do better work, and be a light for others who are also trying to find a better way.


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.

“Because it is a big change.”

On the cusp of his retirement from the NBA, future hall of fame player Dwyane Wade gave an interview to ESPN in which he discussed how he intends to adjust to life after basketball:

“I’ll be in therapy. Seriously,” Wade said. “I mean it, it is going to be a big change. I told my wife, I said, ‘I need to do therapy, and we need to do a little bit.’

“I was always against someone that don’t know me telling me how to live my life or giving me instructions. But I need someone to talk to about it. Because it is a big change. Even though I got a long life to live, other great things I can accomplish and do, it’s not this. So it’s going to be different.”

One observer commented that this is a “mature” approach. I would call that a major understatement. For a male, professional athlete to so plainly state his need for help and his commitment to receiving it is a very big deal.

While therapy has been de-stigmatized throughout much of our society it is not something easily discussed among men, especially those in positions of power and authority. In the business world we call therapy “coaching” and though it is inappropriate to conflate the two (one looks back, the other looks forward is a simplistic distinction) we are well-served to remember that when a client and a trained professional of any discipline commit to doing real work, good things usually come of it.

Thanks to Dwyane Wade and others like him, there will be more men who choose to make themselves vulnerable and seek the help they need. And each time that happens our world will become a better and a safer place.


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.