About a year ago I was given the task of working in a community with high poverty. Part of my work was listening to the people of the community and learn what was on their minds. In one interview a single woman with children gave me an enlightening soundbite. She said (and I paraphrase), “There is no vision here. People have no sense of the future beyond this place. Kids don’t believe they will do any better or have any more than what their parents have…and their parents don’t believe it either. What they see around them is the extent of their vision. This is it.”
To those who don’t live in generational poverty that soundbite might leave you perplexed. That’s what it initially did to me. The idea that poverty could be more than about a lack of money – it could be about a lack of ideas – a lack of vision.
There are seasons where I feel walled in by my circumstances. Times that leave me cynical and stuck. Times where I would like to make progress but I don’t even know where to start. And even if I did I’m not sure that it’s worth the effort because the road to a fix seems so daunting. It just feels too hard. And for some reason – I just begin to feel like I’m all alone.
Sounds kind of dramatic doesn’t it? But maybe not so crazy.
This aloneness can be pretty pervasive when I am in the eye of the storm. In a world that surrounds me with stories of the BIG WIN it can be tough to get a healthy perspective on what it might mean to just take one healthy step forward.
I was watching one of my favorite TV shows last Sunday – CBS Sunday morning. One of the stories on the program was about a guy named Colin O’Brady. He had just completed an adventure called the “Explorers Grand Slam” – reaching both poles and the summits of the tallest mountain on every continent (7 of them). But this guy didn’t just accomplish this. He did it all in 139 days. A new world record.* It’s mind blowing isn’t it? In less than five months – mission accomplished. Drop the microphone. This guy has made it!
Do you feel inspired?
The problem for me is that IF Colin’s story represents “making it” – then my life, by comparison, leaves me feeling a bit underwhelmed. Now – to be clear – I’ve got no issues with Colin – nor his story. As a matter of fact – way to go man! Amazing! But Dude – the rest of us are just trying to make it through the day out here. Know what I’m sayin?
It took me a while to begin to wrap my mind around this (about 52 years as a matter of fact) but I’m beginning to realize that when I look at Colin’s adventure for some reason I kind of block out all of his struggle and just picture him at the summit of his life. Yes – Colin’s story includes struggle – I know it does. But for some reason my mind doesn’t process that. It only processes the ultimate triumph. He is a winner! Me – a bit less.
FAIR WARNING: I’m about to get all passionate and stuff…so please just hang with me.
Very few of us have the luxury of being able to view our lives in seven minute television soundbites that celebrate our victories. Quite the contrary. Many of us are still trying to figure out what we even want our story to be about – much less live it.
One of my life’s great passions is helping organizations, causes and people move forward right here. The exhilaration of helping organizations and people wrestle with deep questions of purpose and culture is about as good as it gets for me. This is my holy ground. Not because I feel like I have the magic answers or a bag of tricks – but because this day-to-day jumble feels like the stuff of real life.
When a nonprofit board wrestles with a renewed sense of purpose and engagement with their mission – that’s rich for me. When a person thinks deeply about what healthy next steps look like and risks an experiment to test something new in the uncharted waters of their future – its holy ground for me. This isn’t the stuff of program or slogan. This is the stuff of learning, experimentation and discovery. This is the hard work. This is the stuff worthy of our greatest effort – because it is what YOU have declared as valuable – YOU!
(I’m using exclamation points. Now you know I’m really getting wound up).
Who has the credentials to declare what is truly valuable in your life more than you do? And if it is indeed you – then whose work is it to make progress on it? It’s yours! In the same way, for those in organizational leadership – who has the credentials – the calling – to declare what is truly important, foundational and strategic for your organizations next steps? It’s you! Hey – I know it’s hard. I’m not picking on anyone – I have to do this work too. But it’s critical to remember that no matter who tells you differently – it’s not about perfection – it’s about progress. It’s about making one more strategic step in a direction that you, with the best of your ability, have determined to be the right one.
This is why the idea of “Improvisational Leadership” feels so relevant to me. It’s not a program. It’s not a seminar. It’s not “three easy steps.” It’s the stuff of life and struggle. It’s about doing the hard work of recognizing your worldview and declaring your values – and realizing that just because your neighbor doesn’t share either of those with you it doesn’t make them a bad person. So stop waiting for their approval or trying to convince them to change and just get on your way.
What if each of us thought harder about the tools of our trade and doing the work of broadening our skills with those tools? I’m not talking about a weekend retreat. I’m talking about the work of a lifetime and, in reality, isn’t that the timeline for all deeply purposeful stuff? A lifetime?
(Phew! End of sermon.)
So what now?
For me, I want to do the work that helps me improvise well. Not off some random riff – but off of a riff of my declared and articulated values – and built off of a worldview that I recognize impacts me. And God willing – with a lot of practice – I’ll not only keep accumulating good tools but I’ll get better at using them. Not just for my sake but to encourage everyone around me who is on this improvisational journey as well.
I look forward to jamming with you along the way.