Author Archives: Nancy Winfrey


I was wondering today if I could write a blog about nothing. Sort of like a Seinfeld episode, which makes me laugh even though I know the entire series is about nothing. But if I keep coming back, watching old reruns (the parking garage, the junior mint, the soup Nazi) there must be something there. What is funny about nothing?

That makes me wonder, what exactly is nothing? Seinfeld is about life in a community of friends. Just the daily stuff. Maybe the daily stuff is nothing. My daily stuff sure seems like nothing. Nothing exciting, nothing special, nothing to write home about.  So, what would I write home about?

I don’t own anything new and shiny, but I bought groceries today. I’m not lounging in a house perched on the cliffs of Santorini, overlooking the Aegean Sea, but I stayed warm and dry last night under my roof during a torrential storm. No one has asked for my expert opinion today, nor have they knocked on my door for an autograph. Turns out I’m not all that. Nothing special there.

But what about how the afternoon sun is lighting up the underside of a million leaves on the Pin Oak tree outside my window? How about the comforting sound of a snoring beagle, sprawled out on the hardwood floor by my feet? Then there is the life-sustaining aroma of coffee in my bluebird mug. The bluebird mug was a gift from my dear friend Evelyn. I think about her every morning while I hold it, waiting in eager anticipation by the expresso machine. I remember her generosity and I’m thankful for her friendship. Is that nothing? I think that must be something.

Perhaps “something” and “nothing” are just words with relative values. I have food in the cupboard, a roof over my head and coffee in my mug. A hound dog.  Just being here is something.  I guess what is important is that I share my daily stuff with someone else, and our collective daily stuff is what we know as “life.” Life in a community. Yes, there is something there.

It’s All Love

Have you ever had that dream, the one where you come home and someone else has dinner ready?

Or the version where someone pops their head in your office and says, “I’m getting some coffee, would you like a second cup?” Or even better, they say, “I just came from Starbucks and I picked up a half-caff, low foam, skinny grande latte, since I know it’s about that time of day for ya…” and they plunk down that nectar of the gods right there on your desk. Now that’s my love language! Acts of service, Gary Chapman called it, in the book he wrote back in the 1970s called The Five Love Languages. Acts of Service is one of my love languages, followed closely, or in conjunction, with Quality Time. I’ve apparently spent quality time with that person in my dream, since they knew my Starbucks order! The other languages are Receiving Gifts, Words of Affirmation and Physical Touch. Gifts are fine, and you can’t really argue with a good hug, but when I hear “You did a good job,” I think to myself, “Well, that’s nice.” As in, “Whatever.”

Affirmation though, goes a long way with my friend Lynn. She knows she likes it. It’s more than encouragement; it’s a statement of truth, a confirmation. It makes her feel good. I know that’s true because I recently thanked her for being a friend and I could see her absorb what I was saying. Literally, I could see it in her eyes and the way her shoulders relaxed. She took it in and tucked it away for a time when that memory would provide needed energy and acknowledgment.

So, I am thinking about these love languages, and how everyone has different preferences. It occurred to me that I tend to engage with other people in the ways that make the most sense to me, according to my preferences. I serve a lot. I spend time with people. I do like to give little gifts, and I think I’m pretty affectionate, but I don’t think about speaking words of affirmation to other folks. It’s been a long time since I read that book, so it was a good reminder to find out how to connect in ways that are meaningful to the other person.

And then I had this “ah-ha” moment. It goes both ways. If I’m paying attention, I can also recognize that when someone speaks to me with words of affirmation, they are doing that because it makes sense to them, and even though it isn’t my favorite I can appreciate their effort. Connecting is about both of us. Sometimes I get my love language, and sometimes I get yours. But it’s all love.

Poetry, Art and the Real You

Vicky Edmonds is a writer and an advocate for the power of poetry to bring our deepest truths to the surface of our lives. In 2003 she conducted a writing workshop during the afterschool program at Thorndyke Elementary School called Writes of Passage. Anthony Manago, a third grader at the time, wrote this poem from the prompt “If I was a work of art…”

If I was a work of art
I would be a picture of the wind
blowing fast.
The wind, sort of light blue,
really hard and strong.
I would be blowing away
from hatred,
blowing toward love.
When people see the picture
they would know
I was going the right direction
instead of the wrong one.

Now, ten years later, Anthony is a freshman on an athletic scholarship to Trinity Lutheran College and studying to be an athletic trainer. Though he hasn’t written another poem, he has excelled as a track and field athlete. His coach Matt Koenigs says “He’s been fantastic to have on the team–he brings a great work ethic and a wonderful attitude with him to practice every day.”

Isn’t it cool that a young boy who described himself as a picture of the wind is now actually running as fast as the wind? And it sounds like he is still moving in the right direction.

This prompt is a great tool, and you don’t have to be in a writing workshop to use it. The purpose is to understand and articulate something that has meaning in your life, so why not start your next staff meeting with a quick check-in question that asks, “If you were a work of art, what would you be?” and get to know each other a little better. Or plan ahead and have everyone draw a picture or cut out something that answers the question.

Second Innocence

We tend to associate innocence with childhood, when we naturally see the world as full of possibility; we are spontaneous, forgiving, creative and fully engaged in the moment. Then as we age our innocence is replaced by experience, and we come to see the world as it really is. As long as we operate, though, on the assumption that innocence is a stage on the way to experience, we fail to grasp the extent to which our loss of innocence shapes our experience of the world. John Izzo, in his book Second Innocence: Rediscovering Joy and Wonder calls us to reclaim our trust and faith in the world. This “second innocence” does not deny what we know, but is a choice we make in light of what we know.

Since our loss of innocence is generally a move toward a bit of cynicism, we might find ourselves struggling to engage deeply in the possibilities life offers. There is a tension, after all, between engaging and holding back. Can I fully love after I have been betrayed? Can I work enthusiastically after having once been fired? Can I claim a life of integrity after having bent the rules?

Believe it or not, innocence has a place in learning to lead. It is a childish hope to want everyone on board and always happy, but it is a childlike quality to maintain faith in other people and continue to encourage and empower those who are working with you. And, eventually, the tension of what you want in your work team or department and the reality of the “now,” brings feelings of discouragement. It’s a normal experience in the evolution of a leader, and it can be a portal to renewal and deeper insight if approached with the open heart of second innocence.

Since second innocence is a choice, you have to ask yourself some questions. Can I live a life of wonder when my spouse isn’t perfect, I’ve been hurt by my friends, and I’ve disappointed myself and others by the choices that I’ve made? The answer is “yes,” according to Izzo, who reminds us that life is not so much about where you are going, but about being where you are. I choose to engage right here, right now. How about you?

New Year’s Resolutions

This is the second quarter of 2013, and I thought it was time to check up on our New Year’s resolutions. “You can’t be serious,” you might say, “I made those resolutions months ago,” and I would respond, “I know, and that’s why I asked! How is it going?”

Did you know that 45% of Americans usually make a resolution for the new year, but only 8% achieve the goal they set for themselves? According to here are the top five resolutions made for 2012:

1. Lose weight
2. Get organized
3. Spend less, save more
4. Enjoy life to the fullest
5. Stay fit and healthy

Do any of those look familiar to you? They do to me! John Tierney, who wrote Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, says that unfortunately, when it comes to resolutions, we begin with “the best of intentions but the worst of strategies.” I can relate to that. In fact, the truth is, I don’t make resolutions any more because I never kept them. When I read Tierny’s strategies I felt a little better about that decision, since he suggests that you not start on January 1st. You are more successful when you own the start date by choosing a time that you are ready to begin.

You know the basic tips for meeting a goal: make it simple, make it measurable, visualize yourself at the finish line, don’t depend on “feeling like it,” journal, get a partner or support group, use affirmations instead of negative self-talk, and so on. Here is a favorite of mine:

Believe in the promises you make to yourself. If you had a friend who kept making promises she never kept, you would soon discount what she had to say. So, if you make resolutions, or set goals, and then consistently abandon them, you will come to distrust your own words. Here is a suggestion: train your subconscious brain to believe you mean what you say. Make a To-Do List every morning, and list the simple things that you already do. Drink a glass of water, read your email, drive the kids to school. The point is to have the frequent experience of writing something down and then actually doing it. The size of the task doesn’t matter.

Your To-Do List is a promise to yourself, and every time you check something off, you’re reinforcing the idea that if you say it, you will do it. Soon, you will be adding bigger things to your list. Begin when you’re ready, and let us know how it’s going.


While we’re on the topic of reframing (see last week’s post) I’d like to talk about that process in the context of leadership. Since everyone has a worldview, a belief system, a “frame” through which they see the world, it’s a good idea to invest in a reflection of how your frame influences the way you lead. For example, if you believe that people are generally self-centered and need external motivators you will look for ways to enforce boundaries, dictate appropriate behavior and control outcomes. We know that carrot/stick model from traditional educational and organizational environments. What if we reframe that belief as “a person’s capacity for creativity, exertion, compassion and wisdom is more fundamental than the forces that may dampen or distort that capacity?”

What if we shift our view of leadership from managing tangibles (people and things) to a deeper trust in basic human nature that opens up space for the creative, sometimes uncomfortable, messy process of emergent learning and action? This is a leadership issue because we influence how people show up and the direction that things will go by the way in which we frame our interactions. Our meetings. Our hallway conversations. By our invitations, by our presence, by how we open and close meetings, by the questions we ask and the physical spaces we create, we influence the process. Leadership shifts from controlling the tangibles to inviting ourselves and others to show up fully, and to express more of who we are in our working lives.

Part of what makes that messy is the fact that once there are two people together you have two frames of reference. Three people–three frames….. you can do the math. When we encounter a frame that is different we can solidify the boundary between us or suspend judgment as we learn another angle on the world. That is the beginning of true dialogue, collaboration and innovation. It’s possible that we could create a new, larger frame together.

And the truth is, each one of us only sees part of the picture.

Piano Lessons

In the third grade I started riding my bicycle up the hill to Mrs. Evans house for piano lessons.  Every week pedaling uphill I huffed and puffed my attitude toward music lessons. The piano was okay; and Mrs. Evans even had a stunning baby grand in her parlor, as opposed to the old upright with cracked ivories on which I practiced at home.  But the idea of lessons, of practice, was where I struggled. I struggled in fifth grade when I began playing the clarinet, in seventh grade when I switched to the bass clarinet, in ninth grade when I moved to the bassoon, through college where I attended on a music scholarship, and even a short stint playing contra-bassoon with the Chattanooga Symphony. I loved the music, but I hated the practice (and that’s not to say I ever did a great job of practicing).

Now, as an adult I am trying to reframe my view of the word “practice.” The most simple dictionary definition of practice is “to do repeatedly in order to acquire or polish a skill.” Since my brain works best in metaphor, I like to picture the principle of practice as a tree.

So, I’m thinking of practice as a way of living, a relationship between what I believe and how I engage in the world. What I believe- bound up in my values, experience, and desire- is represented by the roots of the tree, that anchor me into the ground (my reality). The branches are the expression of those values in my conversation and the actions that I take.  The trunk, which joins the two, is made of my individual practices and the collective practice of the people with whom I interact the most often. For me to live an intentional life, one that is aligned with my values and dreams for the future, I need to maintain a connection to my roots. Without a practice that continually reinforces that connection I am likely to live with a set of beliefs that are seldom articulated or acted upon. Practicing authentic living is something I do, as opposed to something I merely think about. Otherwise, I am left with some good ideas layered on top of the same old ways of doing things, and the perpetual frustration of wishing for, but not experiencing change.

The stronger my trunk and root system, the more healthy my branches. In other words, the more peaceful, creative, compassionate, and giving I am as I go through the day… the “me” that I want to be in this short life. That’s practicing that I can live with.


It’s not hard to have fun at a good wedding. By “good” I mean food, dancing, friends and family. A little champagne doesn’t hurt. But, of course, the really good part is the hopeful and happy commitment of two people to each other. They share some vows about being faithful, squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube and being very, very patient.

Commitments aren’t limited to wedding vows, though. We make commitments all the time. And while we’re on the subject of “good,” a good commitment is a promise made to another with no expectation of return. As long as our promise is dependent on the actions of others it is not a commitment but a deal, a contract I devise and keep hidden in my mind. I’ll pick up my socks if you don’t bug me about watching football this afternoon. I’ll turn in this paperwork late because everyone else in the office is late.  And then there’s conditional commitment, which depends on the answer to that famous question, “What’s in it for me?”

“I’ll try,” is not a commitment. Neither is “I’ll do the best I can.” Those are often code for refusal. It may not be a final refusal, but at the moment there is no commitment. Interest, perhaps, but interest becomes action only when it’s convenient. The problem is that the marriage, the task force, or the big project can’t move forward with “maybe.” There is no momentum with “maybe.”

So here are some questions to ask yourself next time you inventory your commitments:

  • What is the cost to others if I keep, or fail to keep, my commitments?
  • What is the ”no,” or refusal that I’m postponing?
  • What is the commitment that I’ve changed my mind about?
  •  What kind of evaluation of my commitment is meaningful to me?

Commitment takes some staying power, if you continue the course of seeing your promise through. I suspect if you ask someone who has been married for fifty years if it’s worth it, the answer will be yes.

Delegate! – Part II

I imagine you’ve been waiting all week for “Delegate! Part II.” It’s hard to argue with the principle of delegation, but effectively practicing it is a bit of an art. We learn by doing it—even though getting started is sometimes difficult.

It takes longer at first.
You might feel out of control.
You might feel threatened by someone else’s good work.
They may not do it as well as you do in the beginning.
You might be seen by others as “not doing anything.”
You might need to let go of a task you enjoy.
People might view you as passing on jobs that you dislike.
Perhaps the task will not be completed and you feel (are) responsible.

Maybe, like me, you are apt to say, “I like things to be done my way, but by somebody else!” Well, unless you are assembling widgets by a standardized, detailed factory process, the person who does the task you delegate probably won’t do it exactly like you. But that’s really the beauty of working together as a project team or department. Everyone brings something to the table to drive the movement forward.

Even so, you are entrusting another person with a task for which you remain ultimately responsible. That might mean leaving what you do well (the task) and moving into the realm of managing other people. Now, some of the art of delegating means that you must ensure that the other person has sufficient autonomy to undertake the task in their own way, and yet be able to influence the person and the process.

Here is the process:

  • Decide which tasks should be delegated, and clearly define the deliverable, the deadlines and the process of working together.
  • Choose the best person for the task and make sure they understand the parameters. You can’t hold someone responsible for vague or undefined tasks.
  • Develop a process for monitoring or coaching the person to whom you have delegated.
  • Review the experience and decide what changes should be made, on both sides, next time around.

And finally, remember to recognize the effort that was put into a task, and reward it in an appropriate way.



Delegation takes time–to organize, prioritize and monitor the tasks that you give over to other people, but it’s a good investment. The truth is, the cost of avoiding it is much higher! If you are doing the work that other people can do, need to do, or even want to do, then, it’s time to schedule an appointment for an organizational consultation with yourself. Here are some questions to get you started:

Is my desk overflowing with uncompleted tasks?

Am I doing something that I don’t do very well, but don’t need to learn?

Do I set aside enough time for work on long-term projects?

Is my staff developing skills and knowledge that enable them to perform at an excellent level?

Now start making some lists.

What tasks am I doing that aren’t really necessary?

What am I doing that could be done by someone else?

What tasks am I doing that can only be done by me?


You and I both know there are many good reasons to delegate, but here are three to inspire you, in case you need it:

Delegation increases your available work time. Operational responsibilities, routine tasks and daily emergencies can crowd out the more important items on your to-do list. To create more time for yourself, you might need to hand off work that can be completed by other people in the office. And the more you delegate, the more experienced your staff becomes at working under your direction, and that eventually makes the transition of tasks a simple process.

Delegation can reduce stress. The pressure to perform under changing work conditions and looming deadlines takes a toll over time, particularly on your personal well-being. Clearing your desk and calendar eases the pressure, and that allows creativity and energy to flow back into your work, and ultimately, into your department or work team.

Delegation motivates others. A sense of achievement is central to any employee’s job satisfaction. Working in a structured environment, in which everyone is aware of their responsibilities and has the necessary skills and resources to carry out those tasks, is a process that builds confidence and competence.

The most effective delegators are self-disciplined enough to focus on the work that is truly theirs to do, and are able to equip, develop, and monitor others in the work that is distributed among the team members or within the department. We’ll talk more about that next week.