America – Who Gets to Say?

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Is the image of America changing?  If so, how?

If we are changing, are we becoming who we want to be?

What is America “becoming who it wants to be” supposed to look like?

Who gets to say?

Is there a difference between how we view ourselves and how others (around the world) are viewing us?

Does it matter?

Is America the beacon of the free world?

Are we hypocrites?

Are we both?

Who gets to say?

What is the global role of the USA?

Should the world expect anything from the USA?  If so, what?

Who gets to say?

What is the story we want told about ourselves inside our borders?  Around the world?

What does that work look like?

Who gets to say?

Should we care about the stories others tell about us inside our borders?  Around the world?

If so, what does that work look like?

If not, are we ready to face the consequences of those cumulative stories?

Who gets to say?

What does it mean for America to be America?

Is there an American ideal?

Is America on track for realizing that ideal?

Who gets to say?

Is America’s time as the dominant country in the world coming to an end?

If America calls itself great – and the rest of the world does not – what are we to do with that?

History tells us that all great powers will one day be replaced.

Is that happening to America now?

Who gets to say?

REOPENING – and Not Just Rearranging the Deck Chairs

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“I feel like my team is simply rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.”  This is a quote from an old friend who, years ago, was lamenting the decline of his small business.  He had begun the business just two years prior and after initial success, had hit a wall.  The company was losing money and his team was just not understanding.  No amount of new office furniture or updated cell phone plans was going to turn the tide.  The very frame of how they viewed their work had to change or their ship would soon be under water.

As the world begins to reopen I’ve been asked, “Do you think this COVID-19 season will significantly change how industry and community view their work?”  That’s a good question.  My answer is, “It depends on whether we get seduced to simply rearrange the deck chairs.”

As challenging as this season has been, it has indeed offered us a tremendous gift.  It has invited us to virtually stand outside of ourselves and wonder about how we might experiment with a more effective way.  A more effective way of doing health, of doing business, of doing community, of doing life.  But the seduction to return to the old way seems to be the low hanging fruit.  Surely the old way is the way it should be – right?

I’ve seen pictures of pollution heavy cities around the world that are now experiencing clear skies.  I’ve seen relatively motionless communities that are now bustling with added walkers and kids at play.  I’ve seen local ice cream shops, previously surviving on moderate business, with lines of cars now backed up through their parking lots and out into the main street waiting to order in the drive through.

Is going back to normal really the ticket for these scenarios?  And yet the old way is so seductive isn’t it?

I heard a term today – shape-shifting.  It was used to describe how, when we like things the way they are, we go to great lengths to keep them that way.  Yes, we might say we want – even need significant change.  But rather than allow the bigger change to happen we actually shape-shift to make sure that nothing really changes.  We may even go to great lengths to put on programs and shows to message that we are making big changes.  But when push comes to shove – even though we know there are certain areas of our ship that are sinking – there is no way we will allow the changes we say we want to take hold.  No way indeed.

So, in the midst of the reopening I offer you this…

  • What has the season of COVID offered you that feels like a solid move forward from life as it was before?  Where is the clearer sky for you?
  • If those things were to be able to continue after the “re-open” what would that be worth to you?
  • What will stand in the way of making sure our best COVID season discoveries become the new norm?
  • What do you need in order to not allow shape shifting to keep you from a better tomorrow?

Culture Development Gap

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The work of building a healthy and compelling organizational culture matters. Yet there remains a significant gap between the dream of a highly effective culture and the work of making it a reality.

Consider this quote from the book Primed to Perform, How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, Doshi & McGregor, P.251

“One organization we worked with spent around $1 billion per year on marketing. To carefully manage and optimize the tactical performance of that investment, they have about five hundred full-time people. This same company spends about $5 billion on human capital. When we asked them how many analysts they’d assigned to manage and optimize the adaptive performance of that much larger investment, they told us they didn’t have anyone.”*

What if more organizations, by virtue of more effective culture development, could foster an environment where their workers were not only more productive but energized by the work? What would that investment be worth? Where might we start?

Leadership Coaching Minute: Identity Matters

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Data tells us that reflecting on our identity (who we are and what we stand for) increases our sense of meaning. It clarifies our purpose. Therefore, as we do that work, we tend to engage much more deeply in the work connected with that purpose. But the seduction to “hurry up and get sh*t done” often has us deeming deeper identity work as too fluffy and time consuming. As a result we rush to the HOW assuming that’s the quickest way to greater productivity. After all, “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

And yet, the data says “no”.*

So…wonder with me a minute. How do these questions….

–         How do I maintain good personal relationships?

–         How do I spend time with my friends?

…invite us to a different place that these questions?

–         Why do I maintain good personal relationships?

–         Why do I value having friends?

Data reveals that those who navigate through the second set of questions (as opposed to only the first) find themselves unearthing meaning – and meaning unearths motivation. And this motivation finds us measurably more productive in the work than those who don’t.

So, I invite you to wonder with me…

Where is your life and work hungry for meaning these days?

What might be a more effective question to wonder about around that?

Rather than “how”…wonder about “why”.

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*Want more? See “Primed to Perform, How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation” , Neel Doshi & Lindsey McGregor, 2015, pp 145-149.

Help – I’m In Over My Head…or am I?

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Imagine you are on a small fishing boat in a lake.  You stand, lose your footing and into the water you fall.  As you hit the water there is a moment of confusion.  You hadn’t planned on this.  Being IN the water is NOT your norm.  Add to this that you are not a great swimmer.  You are fully clothed and shoed so your movements in the water feel a bit slowed and heavy.  Now you feel overwhelmed.  Panic feels close.

At a moment like this there are many systems that are at play inside of us.  Of the many we could focus on I invite us to consider two.  First, there is our mind, our thoughts – how we are making sense of the situation.  Next, there are our actions.  What others see us doing.  Our actions are based on our thinking – but they are taking their ques from our thoughts and feelings.

So – in a moment like this what might we see people doing?  Generally speaking, flailing is often used at a moment like this.  And that’s normal right?  We are surprised.  Maybe fearful.  Possibly full of anxiety.*  It could be new territory for us – our very lives might feel threatened.  So we flail.  And if that doesn’t work we simply flail harder.

As I speak with people during this season of pandemic this analogy seems relevant.  We were doing fine.  But in a short moment we have been thrown into the water.  We now find ourselves in over our heads with water logged clothing and no point of reference on how to handle such a moment.  We not only don’t know what to do – our feelings are screaming at us.  “Do something – quick!”  Our very lives (livelihood) are being threatened.

For those who are wondering – it’s normal to feel this way.  Yes – that’s what I said.  Normal.  It’s the way many of us would and are now thinking.

But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s effective.  Yes – I just said that too.

For the sake of brevity let me offer this.  How we process a moment is as important (if not more important) than how we act at that moment.  Why?  Because feelings/thoughts inform action.  Sometimes we are so quick to action that we take precious little time to wonder how our feelings/thoughts are driving those actions.  And when the unexpected surprises us – the process speeds up even faster – making it even harder.  But make no mistake our thoughts, assumptions and biases are silently and powerfully informing our actions – always…and unfortunately – not always in the most effective ways.

But when the water feels over our heads is it even possible to be aware of our thoughts?  Our assumptions?  Our biases?  As counter-intuitive as it may sound – yes.  And I’ll go further.  In this curious global season, when the water is absolutely over our heads, it’s a must – particularly for those interested in bringing more effective leadership.

So what now?  I offer these questions for thought…

  • Are you feeling in over your head? What’s your greatest fear?  What is it about this particular situation (water) that has you flailing? (Don’t settle for the easy answer (i.e. I need more money).  Go deeper (i.e. I may end up destitute).  What’s the bigger fear at play here?
  • Of all that you can’t control right now – what can you control? What might it mean for you to be more thoughtful and effective in the areas you do have control over?
  • If I were to be watching you be more effective in this time of crisis, what would I actually be seeing you do? How might you manage your thoughts and feelings in a way that make sure those actions are actually happening?

Remember, none of us planned to find ourselves in the water.  But now, all of us are wet.  Does it suck?  Sure.  But flailing may not be our best option.

What does it mean for you to be more effective right now?

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* Daniel Goleman calls this the amygdala hijack.  Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, 1995.

You Have Finally Become A Leader Worth Following: Leadership, Culture and Valorie Kondos

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This morning I got a chance to listen to the most recent TED Radio Hour Podcast.  The theme of the podcast was all about reinvention and one of the stories that really struck me was about Valorie Kondos.

Who is Valorie Kondos?

Valorie Kondos is the former head coach of the UCLA College Women’s Gymnastics Team.  As for her credentials – they are notable.  She led her team to 7 National Championships and was not only inducted into the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame but affirmed as the PAC 12 Coach of the Century.

Extraordinary – right?

Yet by her own admission, when she began coaching in the 90’s, she called her coaching/leadership style “pathetic – horrible.”  She says she was tough, mean and a bully.  More specific she said, she knew nothing about how to develop a culture.

In her story she tells about a day, a few years into her career, when her team called a meeting.  It turned out to be a two hour intervention about the gap between what the team felt they needed from Kondos and what she was currently bringing.  Thankfully, she took the input of her team and decided to make some changes – specifically to reinvent herself.

Listen to just a few of her thoughts she affirmed what was part of her personal reinvention:

  • It had been so much easier to dictate and give orders than to actually figure out how to motivate someone to want to be better.
  • Being a dogmatic dictator may have produced compliant little soldiers but it didn’t develop champions in life.
  • Winning no longer equaled success.
  • Valuing the human spirit matters. We CAN train champions at the highest level without compromising the human spirit.
  • Perfection doesn’t exist. Each day begins with “let’s define what success looks like today.”  Soft skills/life skills are inextricably linked to this daily success.
  • Creating a safe space for voices to be heard is critical.
  • Addressing the “elephant in the room” is part of the work.
  • The process matters.

Kondos shared that she knew she was making progress when, years later, one of her athletes came to her and said, “You have finally become a leader worth following.”

Wow.  What a powerful affirmation.

Kondos spends part of her time talking about what this culture shift offered her team on a much deeper and personal level.  There were members of her team that had been impacted by the sexual assaults of Larry Nassar.  I will not go into the details of her talk here but, in my opinion, her words are worth hearing (the link to the pocast is below).

Bottom line – culture matters in very direct, pointed and purposeful ways.  It’s not just about being nicer or patting people on the head.  Healthy culture creates the tone that directly connects people with the environment required to achieve their greatest potential.  And when they win…everyone wins.  Everyone.  Effective leadership does the work of defining and modeling that work.

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PODCAST LINK:  https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/     March 13, 2020 – Reinvention (Valorie Kondos story found between 14:50-27:15).

Becoming an Artist, Becoming Human

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“Becoming an artist is not empirical.  So it’s not about hard work.  I mean you have to put the work in but that doesn’t mean you’re going to make it.”*  These are the words of Amy Sherald.**

Indeed, becoming an artist is not empirical.

Neither is becoming human.

When I was young I was told that if I worked hard enough I could be anything that I wanted to be.  This perspective has both motivated and perplexed me over the years.  In the category of motivation it has fueled my gumption to not back away from sweat and stress as a means to make progress.  But in terms of confusion it has left me acknowledging a gap…

  • What does hard work look like? There are times in my life that I feel that I’ve worked very hard and the results have not gotten me what I thought I wanted.
  • Who gets to say what hard work is? I’ve had people evaluate my “hard work” as not enough.  What am I supposed to do with that?
  • What happens when I’m not sure who/what I want to be? What does hard work look like then?

As a response to my confusion I’ve heard many a noble response to my questions.  Most of them assumptions based on empirical frames.  Just keep following the formula.  And if you keep following it you can have all that your heart desires.

Is there some empirical piece that informs life and humanness – to some extent I’m sure there is.  But all of humanness is not empirical.  And, to the extent that I wish it were, it’s just not serving me well.  I am so in love with the technical frame of my existence – the cause and effect frame.  And yet, when my best efforts (cause) do not get me the results I desire (effect) it leaves me feeling confused and adrift.

I think this is why Amy Sherald’s thoughts strike me as poignant.  What if becoming human is partly an artistic endeavor?  What if, how I view the world and make assumptions regarding its worth are merely my own frame.  And what if my frame does not always coincide with the frame of the next person?  And, as a result, what if, no matter how hard I “work”, I don’t “make it”?

Ouch.  I’m not quite sure what to do with this.  But when I sit with it long enough, I find myself glad that all of life can’t be reduced to a technical formula.  Because empiricism alone removes the mystery of living – and that mystery is part of the wonder of humanness.

For me.  For right now.  The last part of Amy’s statement feels helpful.  You still have to put in the work but that doesn’t mean you’re going to make it.  So, why would I put in the work if I wasn’t sure that I was going to “make it?”

Indeed.

The only thing that I can come up with is that healthier art – healthier humanness – must find its worth – its success – in the soul and heart of the artist.  In my case – that’s me.  I have to choose what my work is.  What is worthy my best efforts.  And somehow – that needs to be enough.  Indeed – it must be.

But the critics are always with us aren’t they?  Out there (others) and in here (self).

For me, the unlearning and reshaping needed to not only reexamine old frames of life but to rethink and experiment with new ones is fearful, frustrating and often humiliating work.  But the work – my work – must be beautiful enough to me, apart from all the critics, to make it worth my best efforts.

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*”Sunday Morning”: The artist’s vision, March 15, 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sunday-morning-the-artists-vision-3-15-2020/

**Painter of First Lady Michelle Obama 2018 portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

PICTURE/ARTWORK : Amy Sherald

Seeing In – How Deeply Are we Willing to Look?

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Earlier this week a friend handed me a book.  This morning, this is what I read…

The limitation of many…begins with a lack of awareness, a failure to see the consequences of the choices they’re making in their own lives and in the lives of those they care about most. 

Awareness has multiple dimensions.  We typically ask our clients to consider it from three angles: How long is your perspective?  How wide is your vision?  And, perhaps most important,

how deeply are you willing to look? 

Taking a longer view requires moving beyond our instinctive focus on immediate gratification.  A wider view means regularly moving beyond our narrow self-interest to take into account the impact of our everyday behaviors on others. 

Seeing more deeply requires seeing in – the willingness to observe ourselves with unflinching honesty.

(This type of) awareness increases our knowledge, and knowledge enriches us.  The more we’re willing to see, the bigger our world becomes.  Learning to observe our feelings as they arise, rather than simply acting them out, allows us to make more reflective, intentional choices about how we want to show up in the world. 

Each of us has an infinite capacity for self-deception. 

We become skilled at denial because it helps us avoid discomfort.  “Our efforts at self-justification are designed to serve our need to feel good about what we have done, what we believe, and who we are,” explain Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in their wonderfully titled book Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me).  “To err is human,” they go on, “but humans then have a choice between covering up or fessing up.  We are forever being told that we should learn from our mistakes, but how can we learn unless we first admit that we have made any?”  

The fear of what we’ll see keeps us from looking at ourselves more honestly.*

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*Excerpt from: The Way We’re Working, Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz, Free Press, 2010, pp. 27-28.

Mindfulness…Working More Skillfully With Our Thoughts

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“The goal of mindfulness is not to stop thinking or to clear the mind.  Instead, the goal is to work skillfully with our thoughts, recognizing that thoughts are only one element of each moment.  Thoughts do not control us, nor are they facts.  They are simply experiences passing through the mind.  Mindfulness gives us the means to decide what to do with these thought experiences and how to respond.”

The Mindful Christian, Dr. Irene Kraegel

I was struck by this quote from a brand new book by Dr. Irene Kraelgel.  I know that I tend to see everything through the lenses of leadership but I am indeed convinced that more effective mindfulness is absolutely connected with more effective leadership.

So, I wonder…

  • How might it change things to not view my own thoughts as “facts” but merely as ideas or experiences?  What does that look like?
  • If thoughts do not control me, why am I so often seduced by them?
  • What tools might allow me to work more skillfully with my thoughts?  To wonder about them without feeling compelled by them?
  • What is it that keeps me from that?
  • What is it that has me declaring that all such work is silly, foolish or a waste of time?

On Story and Becoming Human

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As he spoke, his struggle with sexual abuse and addiction poured out.  His past felt dark and shady.  He was the person my mother and father had warned me about.  Worthy of pity?  Yes.  But not much else.  These were the others.  And yet as he shared his fragile and bumpy story this being at the microphone somehow succeeded in inviting me to reconsider something.  Not that he was perfect.  Not that he had made no mistakes.  But that he was simply real.  And by the time he was done sharing his story – in less than seven minutes – he was no longer the representation of all that was to be feared.  He became human.  Like me.

All of this happened last Friday at my local library.

Yep.  Twice a year Hutchinson Kansas produces what’s called Talk 20 Hutch.  It’s a low tech platform for individuals from our community to tell their story.  Using 20 PowerPoint slides – and 20 seconds of talk per slide – each presenter gets to share a story that tells about themselves.  This has been going on now for six years.  And what started with a local crowd of about 100 residents has now grown to over 400.  And we still meet in the local library.

I’ll admit it.  I do love a good story.  Especially stories that feel authentic and a bit vulnerable.  When I say vulnerable I’m not talking about syrup and scandal.  I’m talking about what feels real.  I’m talking about what feels closer to the earthy side of life.  That side that’s not so perfect or grandiose.  When stories have this combination they draw me in.  I see myself in them.  And when that happens I feel a sense of connection.  Again, not in a syrupy, drama driven way but in a way that says “You’re human too, just like me.”

This idea of being human feels curious to me.  It would seem like all people, by virtue of their existence, have been bequeathed with the title of human.  Heck, we call ourselves the “human” race.  Yet, strangely, each of us also seem to have been bequeathed with the capacity to look at those around us and declare them not human.  Yes, that’s what I said.  We can declare other human beings as something other than human – less than human – less than me.

Being declared nonhuman feels like a game changer to me.  But equally powerful is our ability to declare humanness.  Seeing others as humans feels like an invitation to sit with one another.  I may not agree with every way you view the world.  But when you become human to me, I choose to not loose site of our common connection.  I choose to believe that we are indeed seeking to navigate more effectively through this existence called life.  Again, we may not agree on what a win looks like there but we can still sit in the story together.

That sounds quaint doesn’t it?  Maybe even naïve.  But we all know better – right?  Monsters really do exist don’t they.  Monsters that are spreading a doctrine different from our own.  They are the representation of all we stand against.  If I give an inch to them they will prevail over me.  Real life isn’t about reaching, it’s about protecting.  It’s about vigilance against the transgressors.

Does that resonate with you?

If so, I want you to know that I think I get it…but with an important nuance.  Let me try to explain with a story…

As I understand World War 2 there was a moment when a hard decision had to be made.  A doctrine was marching around the world and that doctrine had perpetuated a military movement.  It was a movement that viewed certain beings as less than – non human.   As a Boomer child that narrative informed my young world view.  As a result, I felt quite emboldened to view the German people as the enemy.  Not only that, as I understood it, all Germans were Nazi’s.  And, as Nazi’s, they were my enemy.  The German people represented bad things.  They were not to be trusted. Even decades after the end of the war a version of that narrative still informed my world view.

And then…in my late 40’s I was thrown together, for an extended amount of time, with a small group of young German adults who had come to America to serve in some challenged communities in my town.  And as we worked together something happened.  Through hearing their stories and making some of our own together I was forced to reconsider the worldview of my youth.  These young adults were not the “enemy.”  These young people had names and personalities.  They were authentic and vulnerable.  They were human – just like me.

Did I now agree with the Nazi agenda and message?  No.  Actually, neither did they.  Did I still believe that the Nazi ideology was something to be vigilant of?  Yes.  But something had allowed me to separate an ideology from a human.  It was their story.  I am forever indebted to this group of bright young adults who, by their willingness to invite me into their story, transformed forever how I view the German people.

So – what am I getting at?  It just feels like, when we see one another as more human, the conversation seems to shift a bit.  And the story, our more vulnerable, authentic story, is a catalytic part of that.  Will it fix everything?  Probably not.  But it sure feels like an experiment worthy of some effort.  Something worthy of a bit more wonder.