Category Archives: Your Leadership Story

Inner Simplicity

It seems like a busy time of year to be talking about inner simplicity. There is nothing simple about orchestrating the gift giving, keeping track of the social events and managing those end-of-the-year school projects. Did I mention baking?

One of the ultimate objectives of attaining inner simplicity is being able to live in the present moment. Not just survive, but actually breathe and engage. That’s important because life is just a continuous succession of present moments. Most of us spend an inordinate number of our moments regretting the past, fidgeting in the present, or worrying about future. We miss a lot of life that way.

Here is a simple activity that I’m fond of doing because it brings me to a place of peace. Before I go to bed at night I often step out the back door. If it’s summer time I might walk into the backyard, if it’s winter time I only linger on the steps. Some days I just poke my head out the door. What I want to do is see the sky. I want a silent, meditative moment with the night sky.

You could also invite your family members out the back door one night. Have a breath of fresh air and stand together, silently gazing at the stars. A moment of simplicity. It also works with friends in the parking lot after dinner, or with girls in the middle of a giggly evening activity.

These days Orion is just over the Tulip Popular tree to the right. In the summer I see the Big Dipper over my neighbor’s house on the left. It’s just a simple moment that puts perspective on my day.  And any moment can change your life- you just have to be there.

Wow, did you see that?

Have you ever been to a conference or a workshop, settled into your place with your materials, a cup of coffee in hand, and the facilitator asks everyone to get up and move? It seems like such a huge task. I’m not resistant to the principle of moving–I know the value of conversation with different people in the room- but what about my stuff? Should I take my purse and my bag of materials? What about my little plate with the Danish and fruit? Are we coming back to this spot later? The things around me, my stuff, make movement difficult. We know we live in a materialistic society, encumbered by our belongings, but I’m thinking the same thing is true with my “mental stuff.” You know, all the thoughts that ramble around in my head that make it difficult for me to move.

Emotional movement is what I’m talking about. Picture a child, who sees the day as a clean sheet of paper waiting for a story to be written. She is energized by the promise of discovery and possibility. She is present and emotionally available. I don’t remember my six year old saying, “I think I’ll try to be curious today,” but I’ve had to say that to myself as an adult. I’ve “matured” into a limited, restricted, “reasonable” view of possibility. It’s hard to move into wonder. My mind is a busy, multitasking place, and there is no telling what I’ve missed in the moment, because it was too hard to shift emotional gears.

Like moving our bodies, it is sometimes hard to let go and move our hearts. Here is a challenge: let opportunity guide your emotional engagement. I don’t mean yell at someone when you feel frustrated. I mean notice the moment that calls for generosity, and then give a little. Expend some emotional energy for a stranger. Be wowed by beauty in nature. Soak in the sound of children’s laughter. What’s wrong with being in the emotional moment of wonder? My teenager did his homework!  The cashier made eye contact with me! What’s wrong with letting your heart show up on your face?

Vacation

I’m ready for a vacation. You know those days, right, when you repeat that old commercial slogan “Calgon, take me away…” (If you don’t know what I mean, ask someone who is older).

That idea of going “away” is what makes vacation so appealing. If you check Webster’s dictionary, you’ll see the definition of vacation as “freedom or release from work or duty, usually for rest, recreation or travel.” A second definition is “to vacate,” which means to cause to be empty or unoccupied.  And that’s what I want- I want my mind to be empty, unoccupied with the daily details that swirl around in there and keep me going. But if getting away from my daily life is a week at the beach each summer, how do I manage the other 51 weeks of the year?  What about today, when I could be packed and out the door by dinner if it were possible. I mean, I’m ready for a vacation.

Well, here is one thing that I’ve done, and I can vouch for it- take a one minute vacation.  If you’re sitting in a parked car waiting for soccer practice to finish you can take a one minute vacation.  If you’re near a bathroom with a lock on the door, you can take a one minute vacation. If you’re in place where it would be normal to nod off, and you can pretend to be asleep, you can take a one minute vacation.

Here’s how it works: get comfortable in a secure and quiet place where you aren’t worried about being interrupted. Close your eyes. Take a slow breath. Take a second, deep breath, so that your belly expands as you inhale. Relax your shoulders. Visualize yourself in a favorite place. Maybe on a white, sandy beach, swinging in a hammock- do you hear the surf crashing in the background, the seagulls calling? Can you smell the saltwater, the Coppertone on your arms? Feel the sun on your face, the sand between your toes. Take another deep breath. Sink into that hammock. What day is it? Who knows. And who cares?  Your mind will be happily emptying itself of the daily details.

This is just a one minute vacation, so take a final deep breath and open your eyes. Take the rejuvenated you into the rest of your day. You have an amazingly powerful imagination – use it!

Oopsie – Daisy

I’m fond of saying, “Life is messy.” It’s true, as far as I can tell, and those words come in handy when someone has just blown it. It’s a way of saying “I understand.” It can be hard to genuinely say, “Oh no! I just messed up,” so maybe acknowledging that life is just a messy business would help us own our mistakes.

Brian Andreas writes lovely, short dialogues with quirky characters, and one of my favorites is this one:

What are you good at?

I said & she said, 

Mainly life. I work best

with stuff that has 

a high tolerance for mistakes.

Life does have a high tolerance for mistakes… the earth doesn’t open up and swallow those who say, “Oops, you’re right, I made a mistake.” Most of the folks I know are pretty gracious when I’m apologizing. The truth is, I’m the one who has a low tolerance for mistakes- mostly my own.

The crazy thing is that to learn anything new, by definition I am doing something I can’t do very well. And when my focus is on being good as soon as possible, there is added pressure, which of course increases my mistake-making.

What if we agree that life is messy, and it’s understood that we’ll all be messing up. Here is how we can go about it:

1. Give yourself permission to be real. Human beings forget appointments, overlook details and blurt out embarrassing remarks. Rather than avoiding or glossing over the consequences, just own your behavior in an appropriate way.

2. When you are learning something new afford yourself a little grace. Think in terms of getting better rather than being good. Don’t compare yourself to other people; focus on your progress not perfection.

3. Sometimes in a messy situation the only way to come up with an answer is to take some creative leaps in the dark and be informed by the results. The trick is to reflect on the particular details so that you move on to new mistakes rather than repeating the same ones.

I suspect that as we are more tolerant of our own mistake-making, giving space for experience to develop, that we’ll be more patient with each other. What is the best lesson you have learned from a mistake?

Who Said It Was Easy?

Do you like romantic comedies?  When my daughter was a teenager we would watch movies together and I insisted that we see all the “classic” romantic comedies.  But about 30 minutes into the plot I would start my usual speech.

“You know, dear, that relationships are not really like this,” I’d say.

“I know, Mom,” my daughter would say.

“Because you don’t just meet a guy on Friday, sleep over on Saturday and then live happily ever after…”

“I know, Mom.”

“Well, it’s just my job as a mother to talk about what is real.”

“I know, Mom.”

You probably recognize that teenage tone of voice, but you also know I’m right. Relationships are not easy. With all the technology aimed at making our lives easy, all the self-help books and talk shows, you’d think we were managing conflict around here with style. In my experience, what is actually easy is to live on the surface of relationships in pseudo peace. What is real is below the  surface. Who wants to rock the boat?

Yet if you look around your extended family, your co-workers,  or your neighborhood you will find people that think and act very differently, and with whom you interact on a regular basis. Conflict is inevitable. My tendency is to go for the easy relationships and avoid conflict, but there is fear woven into my life when I live like that. Pseudo peace might be found out for what it is–fake! I am not showing up with authenticity, and I am giving the smallest effort possible toward building healthy relationships.

What if we viewed conflict as normal, not a bad thing, but just a part of being alive with other people around.  It simply means there is diversity in our office staff, in our Parent Teacher Association, in our yoga class, in our family. How about exploring the differences in each other? How about leveraging these differences toward something beautiful? How about celebrating the work of collaboration?

Well, it’s one thing to want to be authentic and quite another to start a conversation that you’re afraid might be difficult. Here is a little guide that has really helped me get started with the exploring part:

First I share my intention in starting the conversation: “I want to say this because…”

Then I state the observable facts without interpretation: “When I saw or heard…”

Now I add my feeling: “I felt…”

And my interpretation of the facts and feelings: “I thought, or I assumed, or I decided…”

And finally I invite a response: “How do you see this? What do you think about what I’ve said?”

And I totally listen without saying anything.

I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s real.

Trace it Back

Have you ever used the expression that someone has “pushed your button?” You know what I mean–that your response is an automatic reaction to the words or actions of another person. It’s almost as if we are free of responsibility for our response, which comes in handy, since we usually use that expression when our response is less than noble.

“Girl, I’m telling you she was pushing my buttons.”

Oh! Well in that case it’s fine to snap back, or go home and eat a quart of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. What can you do?

Isn’t it an interesting expression, though, this idea of a “button.” It sounds mechanical, like cause = effect without thought or exception. To react seems reasonable. Justifiable. Expected.

So, of course I started thinking about my own “buttons.” I remember an activity that used to be part of our leader training way back when; a way to uncover your values and how that shapes your leadership. It’s a reverse search, starting with those “buttons.”

Think about a room full of girl scouts, and ask yourself, after about 15 minutes what little thing will start making you crazy. If you can’t think of anything, stay in that imaginary room a few more minutes, or just be a little more honest. For example, I can tolerate creative chaos, or high volume, or chocolate for all three meals on a road trip.

But when a girl shirks responsibility or expects me to do something for her that she can do for herself I get my hackles up. So pinpoint something that pushes your “button” and then locate what that button is pushing against in you.  Trace it back. When I did that exercise I realized that I place a high value on honesty and responsibility. Not that I’m perfect in that department! But I learned to recognize why I react, and when I need to reframe my perspective. I can excuse being annoyed if I make it about a generation of entitled kids “pushing my button,” or I can redirect that emotional energy toward teaching something that I value. I’m the one having the reaction, right? So, it’s my job to do the inner work needed to take responsibility for myself.

And that is how we learn, I believe, to teach girls how to take responsibility when their “buttons” are pushed.

Integrity

My sister just endured a time share presentation in Hawaii, where she said the fellow was selling “value,” not a particular commodity. Since my sister prefers backpacking over resorts (in fact, she never flopped on the beach for one day during a two week vacation in Hawaii- can you believe it? Hiked the whole time) she didn’t quite see the value in owning a week of hotel time on Waikiki Beach.

We all value different things. And underneath those visible choices are personal preferences, priorities, and beliefs. And as I’ve aged what I value has changed. I’ve changed after years of reflective practice, once in a time of crisis, and sometimes in a spontaneous and unexplainable way.

Can you relate to that?  The familiar is now seen in a completely new way. Your values are shuffled like a deck of cards and a value that has been on the bottom of the deck for many years may now turn out to be the top card and become the guiding principle of your life from that moment forward. It might feel like a buried or forgotten element of yourself is retrieved and needs to be integrated into your current life. And now, instead of living life in reaction to what shows up in your day, you are intentional in your actions based on what you know you value. That’s called integrity.

Here is a simple way to think about what you value and how to integrate values and actions. The attachment below is a list of value “cards.” Print the page and cut out the 20 cards. Then spread them out on a table and put them in some kind of order. Follow your gut- don’t spend too much time debating. They are all good, but what you want to know is which ones resonate with you at this point in your life. Now take the top three cards and pick the one that feels the most inviting. On a piece of paper write that value, and then your definition. Now describe what that value looks like in the world. How does it show up? What impact does it have? Where are you likely to see it? Next, think about that value in terms of your real life (that is, not your intentions, but your daily walk). Where do you see this value displayed (per your earlier definition) in your life? Where would you like to see it? What people/environment/things will help that integration? What people/environments/things will hinder? What is the next step toward meaningful integration of your value and your actions?

If you want to share your process, we’d love to hear about it.

Float

During my teen years I taught swimming lessons at Big Ridge State Park. I loved walking down the grassy slope from the parking lot to the field stone wall that wrapped around the sandy “beach.” The clear blue lake water in that mountain cove lapped right up against the hardwood trees, all green and happy in the warm August months. And out in the middle was a floating wooden platform- a rite of passage, of course, to swim that distance and then fling yourself off into the “deep side” of the lake.

I loved it all, except the part about treading water. I didn’t mind teaching it, I just hated to do it. Still do. It just seems like a waste of time- all that energy and going nowhere.

But treading water is a great analogy for my life on those days when I’m expending a lot of energy and apparently going nowhere. Have you ever felt that way? A day when you can’t seem to finish, or make progress, or move forward? I’d like to swim to shore but I just can’t seem to get there, in fact, at some point I am almost too tired to even think about it. And then, somehow, that day turns into a week, a month and all of a sudden a year.

But how long can you really tread water? An unsympathetic person might say “Sink or swim, baby!” But I have another option: float. Chances are, once you stop all the effort you won’t actually sink at all. In fact, your body is naturally buoyant. You might not be good at it, but you can be still in the water.

The solution for being too busy is not always found in a course on time management. Like the peace of floating in the gentle rock of lake water, there is a mental peace that comes from clarity and purpose in your work. But you need space to discern which direction to swim, and whether the breast stroke or back stroke would be better. It’s counter-intuitive, but if you’re stuck treading water you just need to stop. Float for a minute. You can even float with a friend if that helps you figure out what to do. And when you’re rested and ready, start swimming to shore.

Help!

I’m not always good at asking for help. Are you like me? It’s easier to give than to receive–more familiar, anyway, or, if truth be told, simply more controllable. On the receiving end there is no telling what you’ll get.  Because if I do, in fact, ask for help, what I want is something that looks and feels like help to me. I guess I’m picky that way.

This is on my mind because we’ve started using new software on my job and so I’ve been asking for more help than usual; me and 1,000 other people. So here are two things I’ve learned from being on the receiving end that I want to remember when I’m on the giving end:

1. Acknowledge the cry for help. The person who needs help first of all needs to be validated in their request.  Don’t gloss over the concern or confusion with a cheerleader, company-line response.  Give space for the frustration or confusion. Don’t take it personally. Remember that being heard is an empowering experience.

2. Answer the question. This implies that you are listening to the person who is asking, whether or not you have heard the same question one hundred times.  Where, exactly, is the gap in their understanding? Resist the urge to jump right to the “fix,” without hearing the entire scenario. If you aren’t paying close attention to where they are stuck, and how they got there, then it’s likely your answer won’t be clear. Too much information is disempowering, even if it’s true. What you have to say can seem “above” the person, meaning it is so confusing that they assume an expert is needed, which they are not, and so they aren’t motivated to engage in finding a solution. Or your words can seem “below” them, as in not important or relevant, so they are not motivated to find the connection between your input and their problem.

Especially in the case of questions that don’t have easy answers, we need to offer help that supports the other person in their learning process. Believe in them while you toss out the life preserver. It’s only a matter of time until that ring will come your way.

Step Forward

Margaret Wheatley, in her book Turning to One Another, provides a definition of leadership that is so straightforward and simple. She says,

“In working with many people in very different cultures, I’ve learned to define leadership differently than most. A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation… everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, people can step forward to try and make a small difference.”

A leader is anyone willing to help. If that is all it takes, then there is no reason you and I can’t be leaders. Wheatley has four simple steps in the process: see something that needs to change, step forward, try, and envision a small difference.

Seeing something that needs to change isn’t too difficult. I usually have an opinion about what needs to be different! But recently I read this quote, which really made me stop and think:

The heights charm us but the steps do not; with the mountains in our view we love to walk the plains. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

I can envision making a difference, but am I stepping up? Am I leading?

I think it’s important to focus on the “small difference” that I can make. I am more likely to see every starving African child, which is overwhelming, than take action in my own town. But Wheatley simply says, step forward. Just try. Envision a small difference. Seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before… maybe in It’s Your World- Change It!

Tell me your story of stepping up. What did you try and how did it go? Did the experience help you encourage another woman or girl who saw a need, but was still walking the plains?