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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#50 – Forgiveness

The Prodigal’s Mother Speaks to God
{Allison Funk)

the straps of his sandals broken,
his robe stained with wine,

it was not as easy to forgive.

By then his father
was long gone himself,

leaving me with my other son, the sullen one
whose anger is the instrument he tunes
from good morning on.

I know.

There’s no room for a man
in the womb.

But when I saw my youngest coming from far off,
so small he seemed, a kid
unsteady on its legs.

She-goat
what will you do? I thought,
remembering when he learned to walk.

Shape shifter! It’s like looking through water—
the heat bends, it blurs everything: brush, precipice.

A shambles between us.


I am so grateful that #50 landed on a Sunday morning. I am so grateful to close this chapter of my writing with another poem, poetry having become such a profound consolation to me these last many years. I am so grateful to have fallen into the grace of this poem, one that encouraged and allowed me to conclude these “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For” with “forgiveness.”

Could there be an act both more vulnerable and more generous than that of forgiveness? Could there be a time – not in my lifetime – when forgiveness is both more necessary and more challenging? Could there be – might there be – a swelling of vulnerability and compassion that leads to more forgiveness as a result of this extraordinary, frightening time?

We are all connected which means that we, by the very definition of connection, are vulnerable to one another. We go to great lengths pretending that we are not but that is just not so. 

We will continue to trample on one another’s vulnerability, that is the human way. Which means we must continue to rely on forgiveness to restore ourselves into the loving embrace of those on whom we so rightly depend. 

We can begin by forgiving ourselves for whatever ways we feel we have failed, for whatever ways we feel ashamed, for whatever ways we have hurt another. In doing so, we can wrestle with the hard, hard truth that as we travel that inner journey of self-forgiveness we are building the capacity to forgive others and to help them return it. 

Forgiveness is imperfect, always incomplete and always ongoing. It is also the greatest gift we can give or receive.

Please forgive. That is all I ask of you.



To hear the brief and beautiful meditation on this poem that inspired me to share it with you, please visit Poetry Unbound.

 


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#43 – Compassion

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20
http://www.lynnungar.com/poems/pandemic/


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#37 – Eat What You Want (It’s your birthday)

Years ago when I was downplaying another birthday as “just another day” and “not a big deal,” a friend suggested otherwise. She said that the day of our birth is inherently important because it is the day we started being us. It matters that we are here and because that wasn’t always so – and will not always be so – it matters when we started!

I haven’t thought about birthdays the same since and I won’t start now because my wife, Theresa’s birthday is today. If she hadn’t shown up on March 9, 1971 the cascade of life events and changes and chance that led us to one another and the life that we have built together as a result, would never have happened.

And for that I know that I am a very lucky guy.

And you’re lucky, too, even if you don’t know her, because the good that she does in small and meaningful ways every day is the kind of good that goes out into the world with quiet potency.

She’ll give you anything you need and help you in any way she can, no questions asked. She gets stuff done. She is loyal. And, no pushover, she is fierce.

On Sunday afternoon she was making crêpes at the stove. She makes the batter from scratch and then, one at a time, turns out a soft, golden brown, perfectly cooked crêpe.

I said, “Why are you making crêpes?”

“Because I want to,” she said. “And I’ll probably eat them on my birthday.”

C’est ma fille!


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#29 – Little Things Are Big Things

Mossbawn: Sunlight
{Seamus Heaney}

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.


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#15 – You are the one you’ve been waiting for

#15 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.


Love After Love
{Derek Walcott}

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 


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Welcome

To welcome something is to say “yes” to it. It is to encourage its existence and to join with it in a positive spirit of participation.

I choose this word as a companion to accompany me during these final celebratory and transitional weeks of this year. I think of it as a guidepost to which I can turn when preparing final grades, or decorating the house, or assisting in the wide variety of chores that will present themselves in the coming days.

I welcome the opportunity to read my student’s papers so that I can thoughtfully evaluate their work.

I welcome the opportunity to help prepare the meals that will serve as a centerpiece for our family’s celebrations.

I welcome the request to unpack the decorations and to work together to make our home an outward reflection of our inward beliefs.

I welcome the opportunity to offer to help when that offer is unexpected.

I welcome the opportunity to respond with ‘yes’ when the request I have received is unexpected.

I welcome the opportunity to create moments of connection in the busyness; periods of reflection in the push to get it all done.

I welcome the chance to live into the simple, meaningful lessons of this season of giving; to receive what comes in the spirit of friendship; to start with “yes.”


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The Delight of Solitude

“Solitude is painful when one is young but delightful when one is more mature”
— Albert Einstein


For years now I’ve been contemplating why it is that I am increasingly comfortable with and even possessive of my time alone. It’s unknown territory for me, a long way from where I started.

Between the ages of 18 and 35, I could fairly be described as an “insecure extrovert.” I didn’t want to be around other people, I needed it in an unhealthy way.

I didn’t know how to be alone and it made me restless, anxious and uncertain when I had to be. Since this was still the pre-Smartphone era I didn’t have an easy form of escapism to dull the pain. I just had to feel it. And I hated it.

Other people served as a distraction from the unresolved questions in my heart and mind and the difficult feelings that accompanied them. In many cases I used other people to escape those feelings leading to unhealthy and short-lived relationships. It was a pattern broken by marriage but not resolved by it. In fact, had I not sought help in reconciling my inner life I’m sure my marriage would have suffered great damage, becoming an even more painful casualty.

Doing the work on myself not only made me a better friend, colleague, husband and father but it gave me the peace of mind and heart to be better with and to myself. That made it easier to be with myself and allowed me to transform from an “insecure extrovert” to a thoughtful and even loving one.

This is possible now because the time I spend in solitude refreshes me and heals me. It equips me to be more positive with and more generous to those I care about, instead of requiring them to feed my insatiable insecurity.

Increased comfort with solitude as we age makes sense because our experience of life is simplified. We’ve found our place and way in the world and the comfort of that leads to a quiet sense of security within the known certainties of change.

In my personal experience that increased comfort is also the equity earned from an investment in reconciliation; binding old wounds and enlarging my heart.

That’s something to be thankful for, today and every day.


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Unique Human Needs: Connection & Love

I am energized to spend this week reflecting on Tony Robbins’ list of unique human needs. Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on “Connection and Love.”

Unique Human Needs

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli
3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed
4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding
6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others


Part 4: Connection & Love

To write about needing connection and love is a little bit like writing about needing food and water. What more is there to say about what is so inherent to our shared human experience? And yet, why is it that I am so often, so tempted to go it alone?

In the summer of 2015 I decided to work with this question in a direct and consistent way. I took a 100-day project challenge to explore my complicated feelings about connection, choosing to take a photograph each day that represented connection, posting it publicly with some brief comments about its meaning.

At the conclusion of my 100-day project, I wrote the following post to summarize the experience. I am proud of how I expressed my learning at that time and not at all surprised to learn that it is even more applicable today.

Small Moves: 100 Days of Connection
September 13, 2015

There is a powerful moment at the beginning of the movie “Contact” when young Ellie is calling out on her shortwave radio. She is trying to find someone, anyone, who might be listening on the same frequency. As her frustration grows her father implores her, “Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”

Finally, someone answers. A man from Pensacola. Ellie is so startled that she doesn’t know what to say.

The movie takes us from this intimate moment between a father and a daughter to a wormhole in deepest space. The story arcs from what is closest and dearest all the way out to an astonishing celestial frontier before curving back to the familiar ground of the here and now. It reminds us that as far as we might travel to find what we are looking for, the things – the people – we most want and need in our lives are usually very close at hand. Connection always requires small moves and in my experience those moves consistently lead right back to what we most need to learn.

This is my lesson after 100 days of seeking connection: I have been looking for something that was not lost. Connection is always one small move away. Its familiarity is the perfect hiding place.

Ellie is young when her father dies. What becomes her quest to discover life on other planets is really a search for a way back to her dad, a way back to what is familiar and comforting. Is it any surprise that when she does make contact with an “extraterrestrial” it takes the form of her dad, using the known to settle the confusion of the new?

An early, significant loss can make future attachment very hard. It’s just so easy to defend against the possibility of experiencing that old pain in a new way. In my experience it was easier to either smother another person to get them to reject me or to coolly keep my distance to avoid revealing my vulnerability. Of course, both responses left me disconnected and alone, reinforcing my belief that connection could only be attained through a perfect alignment of very specific variables. All or nothing is rarely a successful approach when it comes to matters of the heart.

I am just slightly wiser after these one hundred days. I am more awake to connection’s continuous presence and the deep satisfaction that comes with moving towards it each day. I am more aware of how small moves often feel insufficient in the moment, like breadcrumbs for a starving man. Through sheer redundancy of attention I also see that there’s no other way to do it. Ellie’s discovery of a message from outer space came from years of dedicated listening, one frequency at a time.

At the end of the film the alien who has taken the form of Ellie’s dad says to her:

“You’re an interesting species, an interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”

My most recent 25 connection photos can be seen here.  Days 1-25 are here. And days 26-50 are here. Days 51-75 are here.


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To Forget Oneself in Loving

“Fully alive people learn to go out of themselves in genuine caring and concern for others.”

– John Powell, S.J.


Today, I continue to explore John Powell’s “five essential steps into the fullness of life.”

Part 3: To Forget Oneself in Loving

You can’t love somebody wholeheartedly if you don’t love yourself.

I did not know what I was getting into when I got married at 25 years old. I knew that I loved Theresa and that she loved me but I had no idea what that meant or what that required. It was a hunch, we were blessed with the wisdom to make a lifelong commitment and we continue to do the work to live into the wide-eyed sense of possibility we held over 24 years ago.

There’s a part of me that considers it a miracle that we’ve made it this far. Not because of any explicit trauma or challenge that occurred. Not because of the wedge three children can drive between a husband and wife. And not because the daily grind of life can steamroll even the most ideal of married couples.

The reason I sometimes consider it a miracle is because it took me a very long time to forget myself in loving my wifeIf you read my posts on Monday and Tuesday you have some insight into why this was true. In short, until I learned to accept myself and to be myself it was impossible to forget myself. In not forgetting myself, I could not “remember” her as an independent person whose individuality could become larger by our relationship instead of as a dependent person who would be subject first to meeting my needs.

In other words, until I learned to forget myself it was far too easy, too convenient, to treat her (and others) as a supporting actor in the movie called “My Life” instead of as someone worthy of a feature film all her own.

So, if the path to forgetting oneself in a way that leads to true empathy and full regard for another comes through accepting oneself and being oneself, how do you get there?

Partly, it’s through maturity. Sometimes you have to learn how to live a life by living it and, if you’re surrounded by enough good people they provide the checks and balances that help you grow. That’s a more passive approach but for some people, if those checks and balances come early and often enough, it can be enough.

In my case, the facade of competence I had developed in order to mask my insecurity was so well built that I required professional help. Not through my own courageous decision-making but on the indirect recommendation and encouragement of a mentor, I visited a therapist for the first time at 35 years of age. I went back once a week for 6 more years, long enough to finally know myself well enough to learn how to forget myself.

I know that that decision made the current quality of my marriage possible. By deconstructing myself I was able to see how what I had constructed was a barrier to authentic connection. The rebuilding experience was hard but not so hard that a loving and loyal partner would choose anything other than to be an integral part of the process.

Aliveness is a dynamic state of being, a continuous flow of energetic insight, evaluation, connection and compassionate correction. It starts within, of course, but has to include others, significant others especially. The gift of aliveness is in recognizing that this work to accept myself and to be myself is why I am ultimately able to forget myself in the embrace of another. There is no separation, only a sprawling network of connecting tissue that stretches out from the first decision to just be.

I know that this is getting long and I also know that some readers may rightly ask what any of this has to do with organizational life. I did, after all, commit on Monday to offering these reflections in that context and so far have spent the lion’s share of my time on high school achievements, college and early career insecurity and the triumph of my marriage over my selfishness.

The glib answer is that this has everything to do with organizations and the leaders who lead them! The math is pretty simple. If it’s tough in an interpersonal relationship to relate to someone who doesn’t accept himself, who is uncomfortable being himself and who, as a result, cannot forget himself in favor of a true commitment to the welfare of others, how tough is it on the employees who have to work for him?

Business is a human enterprise first and foremost. And each and every one of those humans who have chosen to lead must claw and scratch their way to aliveness if they are ever to become the leaders we deserve.


Tomorrow: Part 4, To believe

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