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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#48 – Letting Go

Of expectations

Of how it’s “supposed to be”

Of old hurts

Of waiting for other people to “get” you

Of old patterns

Of smallness

Of hoarding

Of dualism

Of negativity

Of waiting to be “picked”

Of isolation

Of separation

Of the facade

Of control

Of fear

Of silence

Of what no longer serves you, your family, your community

Let it all go and relish in the freedom of the release. What you needed then made sense…then. It doesn’t make sense to hold it anymore.

So, let it go.


This is #48 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Up for another?


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#47 – Readiness

I noticed from my second story window the trees swaying in the following wind of a passing storm. Billowing clouds raced across the sky as the trees bent and shook. I walked outside to get a closer look, to listen more closely and then I decided to get some of that beautiful action on video.

I lifted my phone and hit “record” when from down the hill my neighbor revved and raced his motorcycle to the top of the street. The moment was ruined so I stopped filming. He raced back down.

I started filming again. He raced back up. And on it went, our ridiculous collaboration, until I gave up.

It seems that we each have our own methods of diversion. It seems that we each have our own ways of engaging the world at a time when what seemed easily knowable no longer does.

I decided to come back later to catch the trees in motion, but the wind had passed, and only a trace of breeze remained.

Spring is here. It’s a transitional time, a borrowed time, where nothing is permanent, nothing certain. Like always, it’s a time of exploration and emergence. It’s a time of both weeds and flowers, rain and sun. It’s a time of trees and wind and motorcycles.

It is a time in which anything can happen.


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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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#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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#40 – Explain About the Thread

“The Way It Is”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford –


I was captivated this week by an episode of the podcast, This American Life. Specifically, this segment featuring the magicians Penn and Teller describing their process for developing a new trick. Teller, the conspicuously silent partner, has fallen in love with the idea of recreating a classic floating ball and hoop routine. Penn is less enthusiastic, as in not at all. As Teller works and works to make the trick worthy of their show by the standard they have agreed to over 40 years of collaboration he falls short time and again.

A breakthrough comes when they agree that the way to make the trick compelling to both themselves and their audience is to let the audience in on it from the very beginning. The trick begins with Penn’s announcement: “The next trick is done with just a piece of thread.”  And off goes Teller, beautifully and brilliantly manipulating a ball with nothing more than a piece of thread.

What Penn and Teller understood and acted upon – after years of work on one specific illusion – is what William Stafford implores us to do in the poem above: “You have to explain about the thread.” 

I am often in a position to do exactly that. In the classroom or at a speaking engagement I am frequently asked about my own thread. Why do I do what I do? How did I get started? What are the steps I took from there to here?

I always respond in the same way, that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with my life when I was 17 years old. A bright red thread emerged through my experiences in musical performance and student leadership. I was intuitively aware that the abilities developed and practiced in those early settings were the strengths I would call on throughout my adult life. I held onto my thread through the first few years of college but lost it completely once I had to marry my intuitive sense of it to the harshly practical world of “knowing what you want to do with your life.” I didn’t know how to manifest my nascent understanding of my thread into a next step. And I was too afraid to explain about the thread. I wasn’t willing to say, “This is my thread. I don’t know much about it but I do know a few important things, not least of which is that it’s mine. Will you please help me figure out where it leads?”

Instead, I let it slip away. As it turns out, it did not let go of me. We played peekaboo on occasion, a flirtation here and there, but it took over 10 years and an extraordinary confluence (aka, the thread working hard behind the scenes) of people and events to land me in front of a classroom of aspirational leaders. The specifics of that first class are hazy because my memory is dominated by the aliveness I felt at having my hands on the thread once again.

A few years ago my thread led me to the college classroom and the opportunity to teach and mentor undergraduate students. The thread has a solid sense of humor. It says, “You struggled to claim me as your own. Others struggle, too. Here is your chance to help a few people struggle a little less, to find the thread a little earlier, and to gain the confidence and declare their commitment to hang on.”

There is no “magic.” There is finding your thread and there is holding onto your thread because “while you hold it you can’t get lost.” There is demonstrating to all who cannot see it that what looks like magic is just your commitment to trust where it will lead. Sometimes, like Teller performing for a full house, we hang on with artistry and elegance. Sometimes, like Teller in the early days of practice, we hang on in spite of our fumbling because our curiosity compels us to learn where it wants to go.  And sometimes we don’t hang on at all. But it is there, waiting to dispel the illusion that we can find our way without it.

What is your thread? Where is it leading?
Who have you explained it to? Who have you asked for help?
What makes it hard to hang on?
Is there someone whose thread confuses you?
Will you listen to them explain about the thread?

For further reading, here’s another reflection on “The Way It Is” by Parker Palmer.


This is #40 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” You’re one click away from reading another!

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#39 – The Real Conversation

Open. Authentic. Honest. Vulnerable. Expressive. Sometimes painful, always a catalyst for new learning.

The real conversation is the one below the surface of the one that is familiar and comfortable.

It is the one hinted at but only entered into when two people agree to ask the un-askable questions give the un-giveable answers.

I am a deeply privileged human being in so many ways. One of those for which I am most thankful is that the “real conversation” is explicitly stated in my job description.

It is an expectation of my professional interactions that I have – and help others to have – real conversations because they are the ones that lead to lasting change. And the degree to which people trust me to do so, the ways in which they willingly, if often tenderly and cautiously, enter into territory that has been perceived as off limits, is humbling beyond measure.

It helps me to appreciate how deep our shared need is for more authentic connection. It also makes me optimistic that the more we work together to meet that need the more likely we are to meet other needs as well.

This is #39 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Care for one more?


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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#33 – Originality

Doing a bad imitation of yourself is always better than doing a great imitation of someone else.

A “bad” imitation? Yes, as in you are still coming into your own. You are still discovering your point of view, clarifying your values, finding confidence in your strengths, getting comfortable with feedback, learning how to stand by your work at the same time you are learning how to recover from mistakes.

In the midst of all of that developmental messiness there is the potential to experience deep feelings of insecurity. There is the potential for the belief to take hold that who you are in a less confident, less composed, less fully formed state is not suitable for public viewing and should, as a result, be shelved in favor of showing up like someone else.

There is value in imitation, of course. I have heard many professionals, artists and engineers alike, describe their earliest efforts as attempts to copy the work of their role-models, those role-models providing the high-water mark of their burgeoning aspiration. At some point, however, whether you’re an artist, an engineer, a politician or an athlete, must discover and cultivate an original voice.

This is a progressive, iterative process. There is no flip of a switch. And because that is so, my vote is to get started when the clay is still soft. That is to say, to not allow the myths of “readiness” or “maturity” or “age appropriateness” get in the way of the expression of who you are right now.

Everyone looks back on their early work with one eye closed, a little sheepish and  critical. That’s who you were then. And because of that, you have become what you are now.

No substitutes. No imitations.

This is #33 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Perhaps one more?


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