For Dear Life

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

– James Baldwin


Yes, we cling to our hates.

We also cling to arrogance and selfishness.

We cling to certainty and control.

We cling to unhealthy appetites.

We cling to external validation and extrinsic rewards.

All because it is so frightening, so difficult to confront our pain.

And what I have seen, what I have witnessed, is that on the other side of that great divide lies a freedom, a lightness and a compassion that is all-surpassing and all-encompassing.

Do you remember when Indiana Jones walks across the invisible stone bridge? He has to believe it’s there before he knows it’s there.

And so it is with getting to the other side of pain.


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Set Them Free

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

~ Hafiz


Today, will you build more cages or drop more keys?

The “small” leader needs to control because he feels out of control. He is small because he does not trust himself which means he cannot trust others. He is small because change frightens him, imagination freezes him, possibility unnerves him. He is small because what he cannot imagine for himself he must disallow for others.

The “sage” is a towering figure not because of stature but because of presence. His equanimity comes from learning to see control as an easy, costly fantasy. He trusts himself because he knows himself; he has done the work. And by doing the work he has developed the capacity to accept the unfinished in others. He is unfinished as well.

The sage welcomes change, because it is inevitable. Imagination is his wellspring of possibility, energizing both mind and heart. He knows that he is a catalyst for the emergence of these qualities in others.

Their rowdiness does not unsettle him; it’s what makes them beautiful. And he takes seriously his responsibility to unlock it because otherwise it will die.

The sage is the very best of who we can be.


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Start Within

“…the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.”

Jim Yong Kim
President, The World Bank


There is no team member, and certainly no team, who will surpass the commitment to learning and development that is established by their leader. If you are frustrated by the lack of growth, or the lack of commitment to growth, being demonstrated by your team, you must first look at yourself.

The act of learning in organizational life, and the feedback required to enable it, depends totally on the environment created by the leader, one in which he or she demonstrates a personal, living commitment to continuous learning. If there is a “secret sauce” to effective leadership, this is it.

Today, the onus on leaders is to start within, focusing first on their own improvement as a continuous exercise of genuine humility. This practice of humility creates a space for a deeper empathetic sensibility that can then be applied to the leader’s team.

When feedback comes from that place it demonstrates a universal commitment to getting better (We are all in this together!) while also reenforcing the most basic truth of leadership, that leaders go first.

If you are not willing to go first, you are not a leader. If you are not willing to learn continuously, grow continuously, question your personal status quo continuously, you are not a leader.

Once you do so, however, it changes everything. You will no longer dread the discomfort of providing feedback to your team but will instead relish the opportunity to be a catalyst for their growth. Once you normalize a persistent and consistent approach to learning for yourself, you will normalize it for them as well.

As ever, leaders go first.


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Do you still get nervous?

I’ve been performing or presenting in some form or fashion since I was 14 years old. In choirs, as a soloist, a trainer, facilitator, or speaker, I’ve been getting “on stage” for 35 years now. Once I while I’m asked, “Do you still get nervous?”

My answer is always “Yes” and that answer is often met with a look of confusion. Like, how can you have been doing this kind of thing for as long as you have and still feel nervous about it?

What I found myself explaining most recently is what I think of as the difference between functional and dysfunctional nervousness.

My functional nervousness is a result of an energy surge that comes from having an opportunity to do something I care deeply about – be it speaking or singing – and my desire to do the very best job I can possibly do. That nervous energy reminds me that I care and I would be very concerned not to feel it in the moments leading up to the experience.

Dysfunctional nervousness on the other hand, comes from a lack of passion (I’m doing this even though I don’t want to and I hope they don’t notice), a lack of preparation or a lack of experience, and possibly a combination of all three.

Dysfunctional nervousness is the type that induces fear and the very real desire to run away as fast and as far as possible.

My recommendation for moving from dysfunctional or debilitating nervousness to functional or energizing nervousness is to do the following:

  1. Whatever it is, don’t go through the motions. Find your personal passion in the material and deliver it from there. If you can’t find that, what are you even doing there?
  2. Don’t wing it. Do your homework and be prepared. That way, you can put your attention on your audience – who very much want you to succeed – and create an environment of generous, reciprocal positive energy.
  3. Get more at bats. Say “yes” to more opportunities. There is no better teacher than experience and if you really want to feel functional nervousness you’re going to have to go out and find/create the opportunities to do so.

Not only does my being functionally nervous remind me that I care, it reminds that I am alive. That aliveness – that energized and activated presence – is the greatest gift you can give to those who have come to listen.


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And we also got lucky

When you listen to a business leader describe their company’s success you will inevitably hear them discuss the clarity of their strategies and the quality of their execution.

What you rarely hear them say is that they were also lucky and, by extension, opportunistic.

The fundamental attribution error of success in business is the belief that it happens through pluck, ingenuity and hard work.

Since good luck is typically the byproduct of hard work, generosity and awareness, I don’t understand why so many leaders of successful organizations have difficulty owning their share of it.

To humbly accept the role of luck in the success of any enterprise is to admit the truth that the forces of randomness and change are far more powerful than our ability to control the status quo.


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The Force Field

Change is coming.

Actually, it’s here right now, with plenty more on the way.

The people to your right and your left? You need them now more than ever, just as they need you.

You can attempt to face the impact of change on your own. You can curl into a fetal position to ride out the turbulence or you can start frantically doing everything that needs to be done, exhausting yourself (and everyone else) in the process.

Another option is to lock arms with your colleagues and have honest and purposeful conversations about the best way forward.

Connection is a force field under which we are reminded that we can mitigate the impact of change by choosing to absorb it together.


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Playing the Long Game

Why do I work with college students? Why do I teach, advise and mentor the next generation of community and organizational leaders?

Here’s a short list:

  • It’s fun.
  • It’s energizing.
  • We need them.
  • We need them.
  • We need them.

The immediacy of this moment will eventually shift. It seems impossible right now that those in power who abuse their power will someday not be there, but that day will come.

When it does, we need a group of qualified, engaged believers to take their places.

Qualified by their experience and their training; engaged by their commitment to bringing some humanity back to the human experience; believers in something larger than themselves.

Based on what I see in their eyes, in their hearts and most importantly, in their actions, we will be in good hands.

Those of us with the opportunity and the inclination to do so must help them. And then we must get out of their way.

They are getting ready. They are on their way. And when they arrive, we will all be the better for it.


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A Healthy Burn

For a healthy forest to remain healthy – for it to survive – it has to burn.

That’s not conjecture, it’s science.

A forest has to burn frequently enough to clear out the understory – the pine needles, dry grasses, and smaller trees – that when left unmanaged can turn a necessary cycle of periodic fire into an inferno from which few forests can ever fully recover.

Too much fuel equals massive devastation. When that fuel is reduced the mature trees – the ones we think of as “forest” – remain unharmed and even strengthen their resistance to fire.

Since people don’t care much for fire, these “healthy burns” rarely get a chance to run their natural course. We stamp them out as quickly as possible and unwittingly create conditions for much worse outcomes down the line.

The natural world, in its taciturn way, is always teaching us how to work with change in our own lives and in our organizations, too.

Sometimes the understory has to burn – old hurts let go of, good people moving on, dated practices falling away – so that we have the space, once again, to imagine just how high we would like to grow.


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Two Sides of the Same Coin

In conversation with a leader:

Question: In the context of this current change, what’s your biggest opportunity?

Answer: My opportunity right now is to seize the high ground. I will remain positive, connected and open to possibility.

Question: In the context of this current change, what’s your biggest challenge?

Answer: My challenge is to fight off every temptation to abandon that high ground; to surround myself with people who will help me to stay positive, connected and open to possibility.


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What About the Other 19?

Yesterday, I wrote about the Business Roundtable’s newly released Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, a declaration signed by 181 of its 200 member CEOs.

Nineteen corporations decided not to sign on to a statement that broadens the purpose of a corporation from “shareholder primacy” to a “fundamental commitment” to all of their stakeholders. In other words, it’s no longer sufficient or sustainable to be just about the money. Corporate interests must now include employees, suppliers, communities and the environment.

Those who did not sign include the Blackstone Group, GE and Alcoa.

While no one will be surprised if this new statement fails to result in systemic change, considering that it lacks any measure of accountability, it is a big symbolic step forward that has already met with significant resistance.

The Council of Institutional Investors said, “Accountability to everyone means accountability to no one. It is government, not companies, that should shoulder the responsibility of defining and addressing societal objectives with limited or no connection to long-term shareholder value.”

This reactive dualism is not surprising in the least. Rather, it is an instructive reminder of the prevailing limits of the corporate imagination and just how far we are from making the modern workplace more fully human.

In today’s New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin summed it up nicely, “For whatever progress may have been made Monday, it is hardly clear the debate is over. In fact, the fight for corporate identity is just beginning.”

Whether you are an owner, a leader, an employee, a supplier or a customer, I hope you see the possibility that exists for you to fight for that new corporate identity where you work and live. Raise your expectations, of yourself and your colleagues, and trust that an expansive application of accountability is the best strategy for long-term growth you can possibly employ.