The Story of Now

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and the challenges offered by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

— Thomas Merton —

The Story of Now is the story of what we do with our learning and how we continue to develop it. It is the story of turning insight into action, of turning our internal awareness toward our external reality. In other words, it is the story of how we change.

My daughter attends a school that is primarily made up of Hispanic students. Yesterday they were concerned about the election. Today, many are scared that they will be forced to “return” to a country they have never visited. This is not unique to her school or our community. This is our new national reality and it doesn’t much feel like the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Today, I am thinking of our great country as a small child who has crawled into its mother’s lap seeking reassurance that bad things won’t happen. That mother, like all mothers do, lies to her child. She says, “everything will be ok” and “nothing bad is going to happen.” She delays the child’s experience of reality because she knows that the child needs reassurance right now, in this moment. Sixty million Americans crawled onto mom’s lap yesterday because they preferred to be seduced by the lie of simplistic reassurance rather than challenged to wrestle with the complexity of truth.

The truth is that the America of the 1950’s – homogenous and predictable – no longer exists. It hasn’t for some time. That change has been hard for lots and lots of people, in real ways that I have no intention of denigrating or belittling. Globalization is real. The world is smaller and more connected than ever before. Jobs have been lost. The definition of marriage has changed. The make-up of our citizenry has changed. Racism (and so many other “-isms”) remains pervasive. A black man was elected president…twice! And, sadly our government has proven itself to be an ineffective monolith of self-serving behavior. In the face of all of that, with the option of choosing either a deeply flawed woman who was prepared for the job or a detestable narcissist who is grotesquely unqualified, well…60 million people spit in the face of common decency, picked up their ball and walked home.

It’s an immature, shallow response to a new level of complexity. The greatest nation on earth just announced that it is not prepared for change. The “right” guy came along at the right time to fan the flames of uncertainty and send half of the electorate to act on the regressed belief that machismo, polarization and isolation are not only viable but preferable responses. This is stark evidence that when imagination is lacking human beings do the simplest thing they can think of, even when it’s horribly wrong.

We have to, perhaps now we will, reconcile ourselves to the depth of our country’s division. We need leaders who are equipped for that and we need them at all levels of public and private service. In part, that “equipment” is the ability to tell three distinctly and inextricably linked stories: one of personal understanding, one of deep connection, and one of continuous learning. That last one? That’s the Story of Now.

An honest and ongoing self-examination reveals us to ourselves and creates the opportunity to do something with and about what we discover. That experience creates openness to others and the ability to enter into and build relationships of powerful empathy and mutual reliance. With that foundation in place it becomes possible to wrestle – productively, positively, imaginatively – with the realities of complexity and change.

Know yourself. Commit to others. Learn together to create change. That’s the recipe mature adults – mature leaders – follow to navigate toward and meet the challenges of our shared existence. Yes, there are many days we long for mother’s lap and her false promises of security. But we don’t succumb to that temptation because we have earned the ability and made the commitment to stand on our own two feet, holding each other up when the going is difficult. We have earned the ability to see simplistic lies, false promises, fear mongering and hatred for exactly what they are.

The changing face of our country and the interconnectedness of our world will only continue, regardless of what happens these next few years. More acceptance is coming. More openness is coming. More structural dependency is coming. More integrated, holistic and systemic thinking is coming. And it will be created, sustained and led by people who understand how to speak the stories of understanding, connection and learning.

The Story of Now is happening…now. If ever there was a time to write your part, this is it.

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.

Picture Day

I’m guessing 3rd Grade…

My daughters had “picture day” last week. They looked great: hair carefully styled, faces clean, teeth brushed and looking good in their chosen outfits. I’ve been working from home for almost three years now so I’m usually around for these happenings.

My work is speaking and consulting to organizations on leadership and organizational culture. I work with a number of individual leaders in coaching relationships and I also do a fair amount of writing. Typically that writing consists of a semi-regular blog post but for much of this year it has been focused on something bigger. I made the decision to put the lion’s share of my professional effort this year on getting a book written for publication in 2016 (and I’m happy to report that the writing and editing are complete!). Doing this required that I do a few less speaking engagements and take a few less consulting and coaching assignments. It also means that I am home even more than usual.

By the time picture day rolled around my kids were used to seeing me in “writing mode” most of the time: comfortable clothes, maybe workout gear, a day or two of stubble on the face, a baseball cap.

On this particular morning, however, I was getting ready to visit a client. I followed the conventional ritual of shower and shave, put on my best professional attire and exited my room to head down for breakfast. I met my oldest daughter on the landing and without skipping a beat she said: “Is it picture day for you, too, dad?”

It was both a compliment and a dig, a great line delivered in a moment of surprise. My unexpected attention to grooming, at such an early hour no less, threw a wrinkle in the system that she caught right away and handed back to me with the graceful ease of her impeccable timing.

Her question got me thinking about the necessary transition from one kind of focus to another. For so many months now I’ve been of one mind, giving my energy to the work of completing the book. And as gratifying as it is to have come this far, I am fully awake to the reality that an even bigger question looms: So, now what?

That question carries with it the sizable implication that every effort we make will eventually yield to the responsibility of the next one. There is a season for all things, as the verses of Ecclesiastes assure us. As such, you don’t write a book forever. At some point that experience ends, giving way to a new question and a powerful opportunity: what to do with it?  It is time to emerge from the cave of creative effort and organization, the cave of comfy clothes and shave-less days, into the realm of activation and application.

I have done something and it is time to share it. It is picture day, once again.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

Storyteller

IMG_2227In a small clearing in the woods I discover a pile of rocks and I imagine that each is named for an old story I no longer need to know.

I picture myself tossing them into place, a mound slowly forming as gray stone thuds down upon gray stone, dusty paperbacks tumbling from a cardboard box.

I have lugged them around long enough. They have been read and read again, each turn of the page revealing familiar words and predictable plots, faint notations marking futile efforts to mine new learning.

With a hint of loss I send them to the pile, recalling their past if limited usefulness, and noting with both empathy and surprise just how small they now seem. Immovable boulders reduced to toss-able rocks. Fragments of former truth.

I carry a stone in my pocket. I selected it from a basket of gratitude and blessing. Smooth and black, its rounded edges tell the story of elemental shaping. There is a ridge running along half of one side, an invitational crease, the line of disruption a reminder of possibility. It is my touchstone, the shape of a new story. It comes with me now.

The others I have left behind.

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Reinvention

Neil Peart, of the band Rush, is widely considered one of the greatest drummers of all time.

In the documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage I learned something extraordinary about him. At the height of his prowess; at the height of his band’s power and prestige, he decided to reinvent himself. That is, he decided to reinvent his playing style. In his words, he was looking for a “looseness” that had escaped him in his lifelong effort to master the precision that became the hallmark of his style.

He sought out the famous jazz drummer and teacher, Freddie Gruber, and became a learner all over again. Remember, he was already the best – the best – at what he does. And he knew he could be better. But that knowledge is nothing compared to the humility and vulnerability required to subordinate yourself to the emotional demands of letting go of expertise in order to make space for new possibility.

Personally, I love that his goal was “looseness.” It makes perfect sense to me that after so much time and energy throughout a lifetime of brutally long, arduous practice sessions, he would recognize that “perfection” was no longer a sufficient goal.

When I hear “looseness” I think of presence, accessibility, responsiveness and openness. I think of improvisation and creativity.

What he reports about the impact of his training is the best part. He says that to the listener his sound would be no different. The difference would be felt and appreciated by his band mates. His “looseness” created more space for them; the sound and structure of his playing opened up the possibility of new interpretations and added resonance in their own musicality.

His willingness to learn displayed the best qualities of  leadership: he challenged himself to change before asking others to do so, modeling the necessary humility required to go from best to even better. In doing so, he generously provided a space for those around him to do the same.

Author’s note: yes, that’s consecutive posts influenced by and about the band, Rush. I just saw their documentary (available on Netflix) and I am so impressed with who they are, how they work and what they’ve accomplished. A really good, very inspiring story.

 

Small Moves for Big Change

There is a fascinating profile of Pope Francis by James Carroll in the December 23/30, 2013 edition of The New Yorker that I believe is essential reading for anyone who bears responsibility for the leadership of meaningful change. “Who Am I to Judge?: A Radical Pope’s First Year” is a compelling account of Francis’ road to the papacy as well as the actions he has taken and statements he has made in the first 10 months of his tenure that mark a significant break from his immediate predecessors, especially in tone and what I will amorphously describe as “feel.” Catholics and non-Catholics alike agree that the new Pope is quite a different leader and all are watching in earnest for how his leadership will impact the church and it’s 1.2 billion followers. What we are watching for is how and when, beyond tone and feel, his leadership will lead to change.

Carroll quotes Francis as saying: “Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time for discernment.” Francis also referenced the words of John XXIII who frequently repeated the motto “See everything, turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.”

What Francis is telling us, by recollecting the words of a predecessor who led the church through the renewal and reform of Vatican II, is that the leadership of change comes first from the patience of intensive discernment (knowing and understanding what’s going on at a level of profound depth) and, second, from the ability to understand the critical importance of “timing and dosage.” He acknowledges that leading change is essentially a frustrating, difficult and lonely enterprise, not for the faint of heart, as it requires great tolerance for all that is not working and the ability to apply minor corrections to the most important issues in precisely the right way to insure they can be sustained over time. To put it simply, it is about playing “small ball” – hitting for contact instead of swinging for the fences.

I had the opportunity to experience the wisdom of these sentiments directly when I shared in the design and facilitation of a cultural transformation at TaylorMade Golf company between 2005 and 2012. The mandate was to create a “coaching culture.” Through highly personalized and specific leadership development activities we were to build the capacity of the organization’s leaders to be more adaptive, agile and responsive in the face of constant change. Our approach was simple: we would take it one leader at a time.

While the impact of the learning initiatives we put in place – one-on-one coaching, team off-sites, quarterly learning events – are notoriously difficult to measure what I can report is that the company’s top-line tripled during the period of our efforts. And, not surprisingly, employee engagement soared as well. It was a period of intensive learning, creative exploration and risk-taking and it was completely energizing.

The most important takeaway from the experience was how I learned to appreciate the importance of taking the long view; the understanding from direct experience that small shifts made in the context of a larger, meaning-filled vision, always require powerful awareness of the context in which you are operating, generous tolerance of what is beyond your control and the ability to apply consistent effort over time. The latitude for much of this is typically in short supply in for-profit organizational life as the demands of speed and immediacy are always present. We were not exempted from these pressures but we were fortunate to enjoy a rare window of time to do things the right way – slowly, steadily, consistently – that afforded us an impact we would otherwise not have achieved. Since we knew it wouldn’t last we did our very best to make the most of our time, hopeful that our efforts would exceed their immediate application and extend well into the future. Others will have to weigh in as to whether or not we achieved that goal.

Is it even appropriate to suggest a comparison between the leadership challenges of the Roman Catholic church and the cultural transformation of a golf equipment manufacturer? In many ways, of course not. And, what’s true is true: the leadership elements of meaningful change – sustainable, necessary, growth-inducing change – remain the same regardless of the enterprise:

1. See everything – know the landscape and understand it in a deep, meaningful way. This requires listening.

2. Ignore what you can’t do anything about. There’s plenty of it so let it go.

3. Apply the right timing and dosage to what you can control. Correct a little, using small moves in support of a big, compelling vision.

4. Take the long view…it’s just over the horizon. (Remember that diamonds are formed with consistent pressure over time.)

Quick fixes and silver bullets are sold by the arrogant and purchased by the foolish. Do you really want to bet your future on the possibility of a home run in the bottom of the 9th?

The Space Between

Between grief and thankfulness there is a space. That space is today.

Yesterday we buried my mother-in-law, committing to the earth a woman who is remembered for her sparkle and her sass, her practical goodness and her deep love of family. My wife, with the strength and composure that are her signature gifts, represented the family with a beautiful eulogy in which she reminded us that her mom’s death was no tragedy, coming as it did after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s.

Our grief is as much for Marion’s death as it is for the years we lost to a disease so merciless in its thievery of the simple joys of recognition, remembrance and connection.

Tomorrow we will share in a Thanksgiving feast, the preparations for which are already underway. We will celebrate our family, near and far. We will celebrate our opportunities and our relationships. We will be mindful of how much – and it is so, so much – we have and, perhaps in that recognition make a new resolution to share it more generously than we have before.

And what about this space between? What about today?

Between the depths of our grief and the height of our thankfulness we live another day, both replete and unremarkable. Like every day, it contains all of it. Whether we choose to see it or acknowledge it, it is with us; the losses we mourn, the gifts we celebrate. All are contained in this single day.

We are always leaving behind and we are always moving towards. We are always losing and always gaining.

This space between? This is now.

And it holds everything.

 

Connection

I am the father of a 13-year-old son and lately it’s been a little rough. He is in the early stages of a developmental period that is referred to in psychological circles as the “second individuation.” The first “individuation” commonly happens at about 5 years old when boys work hard to separate from “mommy” and look to dad as the model of all things masculine. This is when dad becomes “Superhero” as in: “my dad is faster/stronger/smarter than your dad.”

As we all know, this idealization comes to a screeching halt not longer after puberty hits. It’s a bummer, too, because I really like being idealized. Well, at least compared to “deidealization”, another psych term for, you guessed it, the deconstruction of dad as Superhero and the reconstruction of dad as moron.

For the record, my son is a beautiful young man; handsome, kind, smart and funny. He’s a great athlete, he has many friends and he seems to be navigating the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty with a lot of grace and poise. At least he’s doing better than me.

Lately I find myself biting at everything he casts, responding automatically and emotionally rather than from the higher ground of understanding and with an empathy for the reality of the circumstances. I’m not suggesting I should be an automaton or a pushover but it serves me well to remember that I am his primary target right now because, though he loves me greatly, he has to normalize me if he’s going to normalize his own experience; if he’s going to separate from his parents well as he formulates and establishes his own identity.

And this brings me to yesterday at the beach. As my son was surfing my wife and I decided to throw the frisbee. A few minutes later he joined our game and asked me to throw to him as he dove into the waves. Following a few successful connections – well-timed throws and leaps resulting in thrilling last-minute catches before being pummelled by the waves – it hit me with a blinding flash of the obvious that I have forgotten to emphasize the single greatest opportunity I have to stay “close enough” to my son during this transition: I have forgotten about the power of simple connections.

For many dads and sons, the language of connection is spoken through many literal and repetitive acts of connection. Throwing, catching, hitting and shooting – me to you, you to me, from here to there and so on – are the shared actions through which we have established masculine intimacy and meaningful relationship. As we tossed the frisbee yesterday, celebrating our hits and laughing off our misses, I remembered that reality and welcomed the simple respite from the biological and psychological forces that are hard at work in reshaping our relationship for the shared joys and struggles yet to come.

A leadership corollary: I have yet to read the results of an employee engagement survey that doesn’t include strong statistical and anecdotal data describing the desire for more access to and interaction with senior management and more recognition for contributions to organizational goals. In short, people are repeatedly and consistently asking for more connection; simple, intimate and sincere connection – the corporate equivalent of a game of catch – that demonstrates that leaders see employees as human beings hungry to make a meaningful contribution to something worthy of their best efforts.

It seems to me that simple and consistent connection, grounded in empathy and humility, is as crucial for fathers and sons as it is for leaders and followers. Guess who has to go first?

Telephone Poles, Fence Posts and Railroad Ties

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I routinely make the mistake of downloading hundreds of podcasts to my iPhone because I have no clue how to successfully navigate the new iTunes interface. The old one was fine and I am slow to change. So be it. (Yes, I am a curmudgeon in training.)

One of my favorite podcasts is This American Life by Ira Glass. Since it usually airs on Sunday afternoons I rarely hear it live so the podcast is a God-send. Scrolling through my hundreds of unlistened-to recordings in the car the other day I came across this one: Episode 494 – Hit the Road. The first story is of a young man, Andrew Forsthoefel, who decides upon losing his job to walk from Philadelphia to the Pacific Ocean wearing a sign that says “Walking to Listen.” It’s an incredible, beautifully told adventure and one you deserve to hear for plenty of reasons and especially for his interview with a man named Otho Rogers of Melrose, NM.

At age 73, Mr. Rogers reflects ruefully and honestly on the passage of time and his personal loss of physical ability. You ache with him when he describes the shame of having to climb a fence rail to mount his horse when all he wants is to be able to get his foot in the stirrup and haul himself up the way he used to do without a thought or a care.

Mr. Rogers thoughtfully describes our shifting perspective on time as the difference between viewing telephone poles, fence posts and railroad ties as you drive along the road. The longer we live the less space there is between each marker and that the accelerating vehicle that is our life in the span of time gets moving so quickly that the railroad ties of everyday existence become a blur of activity speeding to the certainty of our final moments.

We come to know in a real and often painful way that time is both unstoppable and completely unsympathetic to our plight: that we have what we have and how we spend it is completely up to us.

And to that end, Mr. Forsthoefel shares his own response to a question he asked of many people he met during his journey: what advice would you give to your younger self?

His answer is a guide for all of us, whether we are counting by poles, posts or ties.

You know exactly what to do.

There’s no need to be afraid.

Keep walking.

How to Be Invisible

There’s a lot to learn when you’re in transition. If you’re like me you don’t want to spend too much time actually learning it though, because well, you know, you’re in transition. And that alone is plenty awkward on plenty of days. I find that taking the stance of a dispassionate, objective observer of my own experience during this particular experience is particularly difficult. There are moments of insight, however, and this is one of them:

I’m learning what it feels like to become invisible. And, not in a superhero kinda way. It feels a little naive to say that I didn’t expect to disappear, at least a little bit, after making this change but I guess I wasn’t aware of just how much the sloughing off of an old skin can leave you unrecognizable to yourself.

I know this feeling of disappearance isn’t a permanent condition but if I wanted it to be, here’s how I would go about it:

1. Be someone else’s brand. I was walking through the airport the other day when I realized with some embarrassment  that nearly everything I was wearing and holding – luggage, briefcase, shoes and attire – was branded by my former employer. It took me a lot of years to acquire all of that stuff and there’s really no good reason, in my situation, to get rid of it. What once felt like loyalty and commitment now just feels awkward and obsessive. Here were the vestiges of an old life coming together to remind me how penetrating that life was and how much it is no longer. I suppose our identities are a bigger product of our affiliations than I care to admit.

2. Spend more time listening to other voices than you do to your own. Through the generosity of friendship – caring, supportive and thoughtful – many, many people have offered the help of insight, ideas and perspective. It’s humbling. And, it’s useful. It’s also a place to get lost. To lose your own voice. It reminds me a bit of the title of Truman Capote’s book, “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” There’s always another voice in another room available to “talk it over” and “hash it out” and “think it through.” And, there’s a point at which that becomes a seductive exercise that feels productive and creative but ultimately can become a holding pattern; a clever form of procrastination. “Maybe this next conversation will be the one that breaks the logjam of ideas and possibilities?” Probably not. Because at some point you just have to sit down and do the work. (See “The War of Art“)

3. Give in to your vices. Let’s face it, transition brings up all kinds of vulnerability and uncertainty. It’s exactly the time to comfort ourselves with, well, comfort. Another drink, a little more dessert, another movie, another show, sleeping late. None of this is bad stuff. It’s just bad stuff when it becomes the rule, instead of the exception. Transition is incredibly useful as a time to form new disciplines of physical and emotional renewal. It’s just a hell of a time to get them in place and make them stick. It’s so easy to think that “with all this free time I be able to do all this great stuff I’ve been wanting to do.” Like reading, meditating, exercise, etc. In my experience it’s much, much easier to do that when bound by the parameters of a working day which forces the creative use of time and energy.

4. Be hard on yourself. Beat yourself up for your need to maintain a connection to your old company, that old brand., because it reminds you of your contribution and your value. Criticize yourself for your need to talk to everyone you know to seek input, understanding and ideas about what’s next because doing so deepens your own thinking and opens you to new insights. Allow the voices of guilt to be the loudest when you indulge your desire for a little more of the good stuff, relaxing into the truth that you do have this day in which to be however you want and need to be.

If you want to become and stay invisible this is exactly what you should do.

Every Good Boy Does Fine

“There’s a labyrinth of voices inside your head, a counterpoint of self-awareness and the remembered sayings of your guides and mentors, who don’t always agree. Sometimes you wish you could go back and ask your teachers again to guide you; but up there onstage, exactly where they always wanted you to be, you must simply find your way. They have given all the help they can; the only person who can solve the labyrinth of yourself is you.”  

(From the New Yorker article, Every Good Boy Does Fine, by pianist Jeremy Denk)

Precisely seven weeks ago today was the first day of the next chapter of my professional life. I declared, both in word and deed, to myself, my family and all who would listen that I was stepping into new territory; pulled forward by the energy and possibility of the unknown…accelerated by my own evolving awareness of the limited window of opportunity to make the impact I want to make in the way I want to make it.

Sitting here in my newly fashioned home office looking out on a perfectly brilliant spring afternoon, I reflect with gratitude on my guides and mentors and how diligently, patiently and considerately they have influenced me to get to this place. I am on my own path to mastery because of them and the most important lesson they taught me: that until I learned to look within, to go below the surface of myself and wrestle with and reconcile myself to what I found there, I would continue to grant authority over my life to others rather than claiming it for myself.

I freely admit that there are days when I don’t want the freedom I have earned; that there is great temptation to bask in the guidance of those I have looked up to for so long. And, that if I hold those relationships where they are for just a little longer, I’ll eke out just a little more wisdom and just a little more confidence for the path ahead.

But that’s an old voice tempting me back to the safety of the known. And it’s much softer now. And getting softer every day.

This boy will be fine.