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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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

Poem for a Sunday Morning

Dear Darkening Ground
{Rainer Maria Rilke}

Dear darkening ground,
you’ve  endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor-maybe you’ll let their work
grip them another five hours – or seven

before you become forest again, and
widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re real and ripe and worthy of you.

I want only seven days – seven
on which  no one has ever written himself –
seven pages of solitude.

There will be a book that includes these pages,
and she who takes it in her hands
will sit staring at it for a long time,

until she feels that she is being held
and you are writing.


green grass

Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

Whole People / Whole Lives

The Uses of Sorrow | Mary Oliver

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.


One of the gifts of a long relationship, in this case I am thinking of my 24 years of marriage but other, even longer friendships also come to mind, is that you learn how to stand with others in both the dark and the light.

As I think about this gift of learning to accept and be present to the fullness and wholeness of life – as opposed to just the summery, shimmery goodness of it – I think about my client organizations and all of the workplaces I have been privileged to be a part of through the years.

And I recognize that some places, some leaders, understand and embrace this wholeness much more truthfully and comfortably than others. That is to say, they acknowledge, accept and expect that whole people with whole lives walk through the front door every day. Those whole lives consist, of course, of pain and loss and fear and uncertainty just as much – and sometimes even more – than they consist of joy and openness and possibility and achievement.

This is obvious to us when we stop and think about it, obvious when the words are typed onto the page. But in the moment, in workplaces that are so often curated to be POSITIVE and CREATIVE and to achieve SUCCESS, it is too easy to forget. It is too easy to send the message – out of our own discomfort with other’s pain – that those less popular feelings of suffering and loss are to be left at home or in the parking lot. It is too easy to send the message that those feelings, the feelings of whole and full human lives, are not welcome under the bright lights of the workplace.

We might begin to counteract this by simply saying to ourselves, as we drive to work each day, or as we stride across the threshold: Whole people with whole lives are here today, including myself.


photo of person s hand holding a lensball

Photo by Nicole Avagliano on Pexels.com

Poem for a Sunday Morning

Posted on the bulletin board above my desk are three poems I intend to memorize. The first among them follows here. Do yourself a favor and read it aloud. Once, at the dinner table with the family, I did exactly that and my young daughter broke into tears. The language is that precise and that beautiful; the invitation to chase after what you love, that intoxicating.


The Song of Wandering Aengus
{William Butler Yeats}

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

How Many Times Have You Died?

“I don’t know exactly what happened to me after that car accident when my blood pressure dropped precipitously low, and in the end, I realized that it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to solve it or explain it. Maybe I died, maybe I didn’t.

I just don’t know.

What I do know for sure is that I have died many times is this life. As a lost and helpless boy, I died in a magic shop. The young man who was both ashamed and terrified of his father, the one who had struck him and got his blood on his hands, died the day he went off to college. And although I didn’t know it at the time of my accident, eventually the arrogant, egotistical neurosurgeon I would become would also suffer his own death. We can die a thousand times in this lifetime, and that is one of the greatest gifts of being alive. That night what died in me was the belief that Ruth’s magic had made me invincible and the belief that I was alone in the world.”

– from Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty.

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Thank you, Mary Oliver

I am so thankful for the life and work of Mary Oliver and so sad to learn that she died on Thursday. Her poem, “The Journey” is the first thing I posted on this blog twelve years ago. Just yesterday, in an accidental feat of perfect timing, I published it again as the centerpiece of a meditation on becoming a person. The person I am becoming continues to be shaped by Oliver’s work; “The Journey” and so many others. With deepest gratitude for her peaceful and powerful impact on my life, I have republished below a reflection I wrote in 2016 on her poem, “Wild Geese.” 

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Image credit: Kelly Warren – Wild Spirit Resources, LLC

I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can. First, here’s the whole thing.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.

Permission

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it  long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.

Perspective

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.

Invitation

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.


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.

Becoming a Person

I don’t want to start a philosophical or theological debate about this so let me offer a caveat at the outset: when I distinguish between a human being and a person I am distinguishing between the common accident of birth all Homo sapiens share and how some turn that accident into an intentional, conscious life. In my experience there is a vast difference between the two.

In my case, I don’t think that I became a person until I was 35 years old, because up until that age, even though I had done so many wonderful, beautiful things and faced so many deeply challenging circumstances, I had not honestly confronted my lack of consciousness about my self…my person.

You could argue that what I’m getting at here is more a question of maturity than personhood but I don’t find that word satisfying since it implies that if you live long enough you’ll get to self-awareness; again, the accident argument.

To become a person then, requires a conscious choice to venture out and away from the self in order to fully and wholly return to it. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, which begins:

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –“

That bad advice?

“Don’t do it! Don’t go! Stay here in the pleasantly familiar, entirely predictable pattern of a semi-conscious life. Don’t realize how you have allowed your circumstances to rob you of your freedom to choose how you will live.”

And (even more desperately now),

“Don’t remind me of my own fear, my own shame, my own self-satisfied stuckness by confronting your own!”

To become a person is to leave behind the relationships that hold you down – including the one with yourself – and take on the ones that build you up.

What is it, though, that gets you to the place where “you knew what you had to do and began.”?

For some, it’s tragedy; surviving an illness or a disaster, or grieving someone who did not.

For some, it’s the advent of anger that persists in unexpected, irrational ways. This can emerge in a new marriage or at the arrival of children, deep tears in the fabric of the familiar.

For others, it’s meeting a person of considerable influence who will not be bound by our rules of engagement, who hits us right between the eyes with the feedback we always knew was true but could never willingly hear.

And for others, it’s the revelation of childhood trauma, the awareness that their vulnerability was victimized by someone who knew better but still succumbed to their worst inclinations.

Whatever the source, our inner dynamics always find a way to emerge and provide us with a choice: will I remain constructed in this way (human) or will I set out to reconstruct myself into a person, by stepping into “…a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.” (again, The Journey.)

There is no path to becoming a person that is not littered with risk, real or imagined, which is why many people choose not to walk towards transformation.

Once again, I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. Rather, I am a student of the human experience, as practiced through executive coaching and organizational consulting. My domain of interest and influence is organizational life and how it can be made richer, more positive and more productive for every human, indeed, for every person who participates in it.

This is, then, a request to all leaders to take the steps necessary to become a person. Until you do, your human leadership is a roadblock to the positive, productive richness that your people both deserve and crave. For yourself, for them, please walk out into that wild night, leaving the voices behind and “save the only life you can save.”

Here’s the poem in full:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver


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.

You Are Not a Falling Tree

IMG_4703Can you imagine being present on the day when a massive, shallow-rooted redwood tree came crashing to the earth, splintering into enormous jagged shards of timber?

Can you imagine the sound, the grotesque violence, the shredding and grating of the collision as one falling tree snapped over the back of one that had previously fallen?

Can you imagine one member of a silent forest slowly toppling over and remaking everything in its downward path?

Can you imagine what would happen if we collectively realized and acted upon the fact that there are people in our workplaces – in our communities and families – who feel that same kind of chaos within themselves every day?

We cannot and should not rely on our leaders alone to recognize and prevent our coworkers from struggling with significant, debilitating challenges. We can and should expect our leaders to work with us to cultivate environments where it is possible to intervene, support, protect and account for the very real human needs that every one of our teammates brings with them to the workplace each day.

Our workplaces, just like our forests, will always bear the marks of the very real challenges that occur there. Unlike our forests, however, our workplaces can and must be places where the falling are caught, loved and brought back to wholeness however possible.


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Standing in the Tragic Gap

By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.” —Parker J. Palmer


This week, more destruction, loss and pain. More reminders of the frailty of the human condition, of the terrible pain we are capable of inflicting on one another. I am tired of swinging from exhausted cynicism to unrealistic idealism. I continue to challenge myself to stand in the middle of the uncertainty, to learn to pause in the ‘tragic gap.’ That challenge and that searching have led me back, once again, to the teaching of Parker Palmer.


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

 

The Stream Becomes a River

When I wrote about love a few weeks ago I wrote from a place of inspiration. I witnessed love in an unexpected time and place and expressed my hope that the expansiveness of love could be normalized within the more sterile landscapes of organizational life.

Today as I write about love, I write from a much different place. It’s mired rather than inspired in feelings of loss; loss of control, loss of solutions, loss of the familiar.

Some of that loss is about my son’s impending departure for college and wondering if I’ve done enough, been a good enough father.

Some of that loss is connected to a current family crisis that has resurfaced old hurts, bringing a sense of childlike helplessness.

Poet David Whyte says it is a delusion to believe that we can “take a sincere path in life without having our hearts broken.” That is, anything we wholeheartedly devote ourselves to – marriage, career, children – will undoubtedly, inevitably pull us apart at the seams.

It takes resilience to stitch those seams of sincerity back together, and resilience like that only comes from a more expansive heart.

Each of us is moving along a continuum of pulling apart and stitching together. For some it’s conscious and deliberate work. For others, it’s beyond awareness but present in corrupting behaviors. Some are inspired, others are mired. This is in the marketplace, in our homes and in our workplaces where we spend so much precious time and energy.

Which is why we must – especially as leaders – cultivate a presence that not only accepts this truth but also helps us learn how to work with it.

We can do this – I can do this – if I remain open to experience instead of turning away; if I remain open to learning from the wisdom of others instead of struggling alone.

Here is one example of that wisdom:

“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.”

 – Thich Nhat Hanh –

I know that the feelings of loss that come with change are temporary. I know that the seams can be stitched back together. What I must learn, and what I remain hopeful we all will learn, is that the garment itself can not be repaired to what it was. That in fact, with time and faith, it will be even more beautiful than before.

Though I feel like a stream, I seek to become a river. And streams become rivers as long as they continue to flow.


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.