Category Archives: Your Leadership Story

The Principal’s Office

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve been to the principal’s office. If you’ve been there, you know that sinking feeling of being in trouble. The anticipatory dread.  I would always hope that the assistant principal of my high school, Mr. Farmer, would be the one who was actually sitting across the desk from me. There was more wiggle room with Mr. Farmer.

Okay, so I’ve been more than once.

Isn’t it funny that now, all these years later, I sometimes get that same “in trouble” feeling when I imagine that someone is unhappy with me. Sometimes that’s my issue, and sometimes a result of an aura exuded from the person in charge. There seems to be a human tendency to gain, and remain, in control and it is magnified in some leadership styles. I think of it as “Principal-Style” leadership and it’s really not necessary in adult interactions.

Here are four basic values of the Principal-Style:

  1. To remain in unilateral control
  2. To maximize “winning” and minimize “losing”
  3. To suppress negative feelings
  4. To be as rational as possible

In order words, clarify the problem and take a position. Don’t back down. Be strong. Be rational. Be convincing. Be right. The down side to this approach is that it limits the inquiry and reflection that might shed unexpected light on the issue at hand. It also makes it difficult to draw people together toward a common cause. As a worst case scenario, the people around you can become passive and cynical, since there is no room for participation in generating solutions, or ownership of the system that surrounds and often supports the problem.

I don’t like the “I’m in trouble” feeling, and I don’t want to give off the “you’re in trouble” feeling to others. Here is an alternative view to consider if you tend toward “Principal-Style” leadership:

  1. Which people need to be at the table to tackle a problem, and how can I best mobilize them?
  2. How can I create a safe space for conversation, and facilitate the process?
  3. What are the underlying dynamics of these particular people? Their work group? The office?
  4. How can I be more self-aware? What impact do I have on the people and the system?

Both approaches to leading can come across as confident and competent, but “Principal-Style” is more isolated and has the added pressure of wondering if you are, indeed, always right.

Encouragement

This is a question for those of you with children: have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish my kids were a little more _______” (fill in the blank). Okay, of course you have. They are such darlings in so many ways, and yet I wish they would just be a little more ______.  And yet for every mom who wishes her child was more outgoing, you know there is a mom who wishes her child would stop talking for a minute and listen. Children are amazingly, beautifully, exhaustingly different.

Of course, children grow into adults, and then we have to get along with them at work.

It takes discipline, in parenting and in leadership, to maintain a focus on what is positive and beautiful about the people around you. Difference can be leveraged into a creative process, or it can remain as an undercurrent of tension.

I sometimes think that life would be easier if everyone was just like me. We’d enjoy a cup of coffee together, sitting on the porch during a rain storm, and talk about the last book we read. Or we would pack a picnic, jump in the car, roll down the windows and turn up the music as we take off on adventure. No tension.

Of course, at other times I am really thankful that everyone is NOT like me, because then the world would be technically challenged and perpetually lost driving downtown. We need the balance of each other. I think it only seems difficult to leverage differences if you aren’t in the habit of doing it. Not that it’s always easy, but it’s doable.

Focusing on what is positive about other people is a choice I need to make every day. A choice to pay attention to what they do well, even if I don’t truly appreciate it. A choice to be supportive of their interests even when I don’t really understand. A choice to applaud their efforts even if no one else will join me. If you need inspiration to appreciate people who do things that you would never dream of doing, invest one minute watching this video here on encouragement. I promise you’ll like it.

A Ying Yang Life

E.B. White once said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”  You might recognize that name as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. If you were an English major in school you might also know he co-authored The Elements of Style (which we fondly call “Strunk & White”) or that he was a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine. Imagine writing a reference guide that has sections like “Elementary Rules of Usage” and “Rules of Composition” and a story of love and loyalty about a girl named Fern, her pig Wilbur, and a large grey spider.

Two ends of the literary spectrum, if you ask me. And so I think his quote must have truly come from the heart- like enjoying the world by pondering the magic of childhood and life on the farm, and improving the world by dictating our usage of the English language. You might even say it is two ends of the human spectrum. He held the paradox of being and doing, reflection and action. Isn’t life full of the tension that exists between who we are and what we want to be? What we want and what we have? What we see and what we wish would be true?

To hold tension in a life giving way is no small task. It is much easier, even rewarded in our culture, to stay busy. If we stop too long to think we might be overwhelmed, or discouraged, or distracted from the day’s to-do list. We just work hard until our annual vacation, and then we rest ourselves so that we can plunge right back into busyness.

But what if reflection and action were so intertwined that one was always present in the other, sort of like the Chinese symbol of Ying and Yang? If that were the case, reflection would not be a luxury we indulge during our vacation week at the beach, but a practice in which we regularly engage, because the insight we gain drives our actions in the world. And our actions affect the world in a way that requires our continued reflection.

With all due respect to Mr. White, I’m going to suggest that planning our day wouldn’t so hard if we understood being and doing as integrated, interrelated elements. And when we get it right, we feel fully, wonderfully alive.

New Eyes

We can get pretty attached to what we perceive as reality, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. I view the world this way because it is this way. To a great extent, that worldview will determine what I’m capable of seeing, and as a result, how I show up and behave in my life.

Say, for example, that I’m really intent on having apples, and I walk through life with my hands open for apples. Many times I’m going to get oranges or bananas from life instead (you know how that works, right?) and I’m so disappointed that I don’t have apples that I can’t really see what’s wonderful about figs. Pomegranates. Blueberries.

When I was a troop leader I always wished for the world’s best co-leader. I’d try to recruit my friends. I wanted someone who would see the world the same way that I saw it. Well, you can guess the end of that story. I got star fruit and kiwis, but no apples.

So here is the lesson. When we can get away from our worldview for a few minutes, we might empty ourselves long enough for new ideas, new perceptions, or new possibilities to enter our minds. If my world is divided into two categories: “apple” and “not apple,” then I miss so much.

Why not look for small, frequent opportunities to empty your mind and be open for something new? It might be right there in front of you- something that is equally real and valuable that you just never considered before. Marcel Proust, a French novelist in the late 1800s said it like this:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Have you ever experienced “new eyes?” We’d love to hear the story.

Why Did You Do That?

I’m more likely to think about the meaning of Memorial Day, as opposed to Labor Day, but mostly those holidays exist as bookends to June, July and August. A three day introduction to the summer and a three day wrap up, usually with a sale on school supplies and computers. Even though my adult schedule doesn’t look much different in the summer, I still hear James Taylor in the background singing “Summers Here” when the neighborhood kids get out of school. Who doesn’t love to kick back a little?

The truth is we spend most of our year on the move, conjugating the verbs: to do, to want and to have. But what about to be? Is that relegated to a week’s vacation in the summer? (I’m not even sure, frankly, that one week is enough time to be… it takes a few days to slow down, sleep in and linger over morning coffee. You know, talk to the person in the rocking chair beside you).

But it’s September now, summer is over, and I want to talk about to do.

I know we are all busy, but if someone asked you “Why are you doing this?” what would you say? The “this” can be anything; in fact sometimes it is simply a situation that emerged in which “this” had to be done and somehow you ended up doing it. But if our actions are perpetually dictated by factors external to ourselves, we end up living reactive lives. Action is simply reaction when it does not come from a sense of who we are and what we want to do, but instead is an anxious reading of how others define us and of what the world demands.

When you get a moment, see if you can define yourself apart from what you do. Then do a little math and figure out what percent of your actions are intentional and authentic, and what percent are what you need to do to hold a job, make a living, satisfy the expectations of others, fill your time, or to evade the fact that you don’t know what else to do.

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What about Us?

If you think about it, the mission of our organization is pretty huge. Amazing, but huge. We want to build girls of courage, confidence and character, and that is no small thing. And then, we want them to go out there and make the world a better place. That isn’t a task they finish by the time they age out of the Ambassador program. It’s more like a philosophy to live by, a way of being in the world that shapes their whole life.

What about the women who work and volunteer with our organization? You realize we have to ask ourselves; Are we living courageously? Are we confident? Are we known for our character?

In what ways am I making the world a better place?

We ask girls to learn by making their own decisions, acting on those decisions, and engaging others in the task. Isn’t that what we mean by girl led, learning by doing and cooperative learning? When that process applies to us grown-up girls it’s not uncommon to hear all the reasons why we don’t have the time, money, energy, or support to learn the things we’d like to learn. Or the things we need to learn. Sometimes those stories are shared with others, and sometimes they remain quietly unexamined.

I think there is a link between our commitment to learning and our capacity for risk-taking. If I don’t value the process of learning, and fixate instead on effectiveness or measurable results, I’m less likely to step out with courage or confidence. I’m less likely to risk the necessary failure which happens along a lifetime of developing character. When outcomes are the measure of my being in this world, I will want to control them, and that will limit me to predictable arenas where I know I can succeed. I will only “learn” by doing what I am reasonably sure I can successfully do- the things that yield instantly visible results. But I’m afraid that if we don’t pay attention, we will wake up one morning and realize that we’ve missed the larger, long term character building in our own lives that is needed to make the world a better place.

And the truth is, it’s a much more authentic process to facilitate a girl’s journey when I’m aware of my own journey. We want to model the process of learning, so that our leadership experience validates the program model we use. So that it inspires young women. So that our support is real. So that we’re truly doing our part to make this world a better place.

¡ Poco a Poco !

I just spent ten days in Guatemala working with a small school in a squatter community. There are many adventures on this annual trip, as American volunteers step with me into a new culture and the experience of shanty town living. There is a particular adjustment that is hard for us to make, and I see the struggle every summer with every group. The struggle stems from our cultural preference for efficiency and task completion when we set out to work. We have a plan. So we go to Guatemala to serve, and by golly, we are going to serve according to our plan. The intentionality is certainly good, but that American worldview doesn’t fit neatly into the Guatemalan context. Let me give you an example.

Tourism folks market Guatemala as the Land of Eternal Spring, with warm days and cool nights all year long. May through November is the rainy season, which doesn’t affect the temperature, but makes for a wet afternoon almost every day of our visit. So the construction plan needs to yield to the rainfall. Did I mention the arrival of materials? There isn’t a Home Depot down the street and only one person at the little school has a car. Concrete, paint and drywall comes on a truck. Eventually. So the clash between expectation and reality is often difficult when volunteers plan to work for four days, and really want to work eight hours on all of those four days. At dusk we often have a conversation with the locals that ends a smile and the phrase poco a poco.

“Little by little,” they say, which is as much a philosophy of life as an expression used to ease frustration. In a country with little infrastructure, corrupt government and extreme poverty, poco a poco invites an appreciation for each day’s effort, because any progress is good progress. That is a different perspective from our fast-paced, results oriented view of a good day. But I have come to learn than recognizing progress, at any level, helps to cultivate a sense of gratitude and relieve the tension of struggling with reality. Stress, after all, is mostly a perspective that whatever is happening is not good, or should be different. And in a different culture, or context, it is easier to see how little control we really have over reality.

I can’t help but wonder if the practice of a poco a poco mentality might be the best souvenir that anyone brings back from a visit to our little squatter community.

Truthful Living

The Quaker tradition offers time-tested suggestions for fostering truthful living. They include these four: (1) Listen “for the truth in the words of others,” (2) Speak the truth as you understand it with “cordiality, kindness, and love,” (3) Avoid “gossip, tale bearing, breaking confidences, or the disparagement of others,” and (4) Resist “temptations to falsehood, coercion, and abuse.” I’m not a Quaker, but I believe that adopting these suggestions would transform the communication patterns of our families and work places.

The idea of truthful living is more than truth in relation to speech; it includes good listening skills. Listening is noticing and appreciating the truth being spoken by others. It’s hard to hear the truth, sometimes, when we’re caught up in the behavior of the speaker, or the emotion attached to the message.  But listening is at the heart of wisdom and discernment.

Another detail that struck me in these suggestions is the awareness that I speak the truth as I understand it. Which means my perception, my interpretation, my analysis of the subject. When I know I’m simply speaking from my view of things, there is room for various forms of feedback, which in turn expands my understanding.

I looked up “disparagement” for you: it means speaking of another in a way that belittles or discredits them. We might just call that sarcasm or making a little fun. But is that truthful living?

Telling the truth doesn’t mean saying everything we think, of course. There is ample room in a truthful life for the silence of discretion, keeping of confidences, and the little pleasantries that keep social interactions flowing along. And words ring more true, and are heard more easily, when they are congruent with the life of the person who is speaking. You know that’s true.

Families or organizations that are concerned about truthfulness will be attentive to patterns of life together that influence truthful living. How do you model truthfulness as a parent? As a supervisor? As a CEO? What structures are in place to help us keep short accounts among ourselves? Where do we allow ourselves freedom to ask one another hard questions about important dimensions of our lives? What do we do that helps us learn to tell “tactful truths instead of reassuring lies?” Lots to think about.

Human Resources

I wonder if we might be experiencing a resource crisis. We hear on the news about the depletion of natural resources, but I’m thinking more in terms of human resources, and the crisis is the under-use of our talents and gifts.

Not that we don’t work hard or do a good job. Often people are proficient- really good- at something they are doing, but they don’t care much about it. We just do the work that needs to be done and wait for the weekend.

Other folks so enjoy what they are doing that they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. An hour of work feels like 5 minutes, because they have managed to connect who they are with what they are doing. The work resonates with them and is a source of energy, not an activity that steadily drains away energy like a dripping water faucet.

So, how do you connect who you are with what you do? I think human resources are similar to natural resources, in that they are often buried. So first, you must uncover them since they aren’t generally lying around on the surface. Or, maybe you already know your talents, but you don’t maximize them.  It’s hard to know when you take something for granted. The reason it’s hard to know is that you are taking it for granted.

But perhaps you haven’t done much inner mining, and you aren’t clear on the gifts you have to give. You default to familiar routine while those resources, those jewels, stay hidden below the surface.

John Gardner was an American author and social reformer who once said thattrue happiness involves the full use of one’s power and talents.”  I’m all for true happiness! It seems to me the first step is to uncover your talents and then begin looking for conditions or opportunities in which to use them powerfully. Or at least use them. The world is waiting for you to be you.

Every Day is a Good Day

“Every day is a good day for George,” says Margo. He walks out the front door of his house with a spring in his step like some kind of cartoon character. She should know- she lives with him. I wonder if he just wakes up that way, feeling like it’s gonna be a good day. I’ve woken up close to 20,000 times myself, and I can probably count on my fingers the mornings that I’ve skipped and whistled my way out the door. In fact this morning (#19,472) I walked outside and said to myself, “Good night, how can it be this hot this early in the morning!?”

If I had the attitude that every day was a good day, I would need to embrace the reality of the actual day, just as it is, and live through it in a way that makes it feel “good.” I tend to live through the “to-do” list on my calendar, and my day passes by as I check off the little boxes. That feels good, for sure, but what if I missed something because it wasn’t on my list? What if my focus wasn’t so much on the goal but on the journey, and I traveled along believing that it was a good day. What if I did that every day?

I’ve been through enough days to know that some are filled with inspiration and passion that wells up in my chest and brings tears to my eyes, and others are frustrating and unfair and confusing. Most of them, to be honest, are just kind of normal; not too exciting and not too bad, just going along doing my work and checking off those little boxes. I guess the only common denominator that could make each one a “good” day would be my attitude. I’d probably need to make that decision before I got very far from my pillow in the morning, and on some days, every few hours along the way.

When I was in college I wrote down this quote: Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.

Mary Jean Irion wrote that in her book Yes, World: A Mosaic of Meditation, and I have always loved it. George actually lives it. I’d like to do a better job of deciding that every day is a good day, just as it is. These people, just as they are. This particular place, just as I experience it. If George could talk, he’d probably say I just make everything way too complicated. How about a little less ego and a little more love? So I’m deciding that today, this very normal day, is indeed a good day.