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Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 1M ago

There are times when I might unknowingly frighten or intimidate another person. And there are times when another person might also unknowingly frighten or intimidate me. This awareness causes me to think about human disconnections, how they arise and how we must address them, for all too often, unaddressed, they move us backwards towards becoming strangers to one another. If the first stage of a relationship is to be far from one other and then get to know each other and become closer, later stages may show us falling away until we are estranged.

Often we don’t know what is behind these movements from far to near and near to far, but I suspect there are tiny signals in our everyday communications which we are always in the process of interpreting — and, sometimes, maybe all too often, misinterpreting. We can become so intolerant of not knowing what’s going on with one another that we are apt to make up all kinds of stories, especially when those slippery things called motive or intention or agenda are involved. I think I know you but do I? Perhaps this is one of the reasons in workplaces, where power differentials and organizational silos amplify our need to understand the signals, a paranoid tilt can so easily set in.

The wondering, the projection, the process of assumption and belief and bias that we bring to such situations leads us in two directions. One is toward the comfort of certainty, even if it is a negative certainty. The other is a desire to transcend the fear, to change or rebuild things even as little sparks of fear keep flying. We battle within ourselves about which is the better course.

When I’ve been in the honored place of facilitating as two people try to tell one another the truth in order to overcome an estrangement of some kind, it is always about these little sparks. “When you challenged me about whether I made the right decision…” “When you hurried from the restaurant so that we didn’t walk back to the office together…” and so on. And then the explanations, human and sometimes even endearing: “When I challenged you, it was a bad way of saying I was feeling insecure …” “I hurried back because I felt embarrassed about what I’d said earlier….” The misunderstandings, elucidated, return the sense of safety by actively explaining the sparks. The explanations help remind us we are still decent people and have a vulnerable, human side in common.

Having gotten one’s truth into the open, a participant might then suggest, “Oh, I see, so that’s what’s been going on!” even if it’s just through the visible relaxation of his face or the wordless look of relief in her eyes.

Perhaps the larger canyons of difference, between political partisans, members of different racial groups, different religions — perhaps something structurally similar is going on but we have little actual experience and no actual knowledge. We may not be ready to solve even the smallest differences between us, and so we need practice — we need it very badly.

We cannot know exactly where another’s experience of fear might be and how it feels. When I feel it myself, it seems to be the flicker of a moment when I no longer exist — there’s just terrifying void. The brief and instantaneous blotting out of self — the shock — and my quick desire to cover it up is often followed by recriminations, humiliation, the desire to find and expose the negative motives and incompetence of others. How quickly I grab for the blanket of the injured! It is what might be called, the mean turn, given that meanness by all accounts is an outcome of intra-personal fear. We are afraid of the nothingness and the terrifying things that might emerge.

It’s plain then why people often don’t want to address their conflicts. And, yet, this is also most often a mixed feeling. We are pulled to find and meet each other, even as an estrangement continues. Ultimately, this pull is why there is hope. The ground beneath us may be our only commonality, yet we do want to get over it, to meet again, to experience another kind of human redemption instead of running away.

This is why personally, when I’ve suffered the mean turn, by my own or someone else’s hand, I like to go back to the garden to figure out what yet I can do, finding the place where I can come back to myself, where the beauty of the flowers remains unscathed and a quiet stream still flows gently from its source.

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Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 1M ago

It often seems plain that the problems of organizations are really just the problems of us unwilling to go deep enough. Deep enough into seeing things from others’ perspectives (whether customers or staff or peers) and deep enough into our own “stuff,” as well — the stuff that gets in the way of effective leadership. In such a world, which has become fundamentally insensitive, everything is viewed as a product, even us the “producers.” Redundancy of the work, pressures for certainty and results along with a fantasy level of control all mitigate against a deeper form of the learning that we need.

Our proclivity, it seems, is to discard the tender work of interpersonal risk and intrapersonal vulnerability — there isn’t time for it and our days are hard enough and long enough as it is. Isn’t there a way to achieve our goals without seeing our own faces (and fates) in the mirror every time we turn around? Business decisions come daily thick and fast. We accept our small daily humiliations as a cost of simply keeping a place in the machine.

Click to enlarge

And yet there is another side of us that yearns for its chance, its own sensitive sanctuary, that yearns for retreat “into a quiet corner of Unconsciousness,” a phrase I’ve pulled from an essay about cha-no-yu, the Japanese tea ceremony. By this Unconsciousness, the essay’s author, D.T.Suzuki (one of the first teachers of Zen Buddhism to the West), does not mean a state of dreamless sleep or coma. That would be more like the over-busy state of many organizations today and where I started with “not deep enough.” To the contrary, this Unconsciousness represents an inward penetration of deeper parts of our hearts and minds, the source and homecoming of our reflective spirits.

Suzuki is talking about the very gift we fail to give ourselves, time to sit quietly, not necessarily in some formal practice of meditation, but simply to be present and to allow deeper spaces and insights to reveal themselves as they will.

Suzuki explains: “The tea-drinking…is not just drinking tea, but it is the art of cultivating what might be called, ‘psychosphere,’ or psychic atmosphere, or the inner field of consciousness. We may say that it is generated within oneself, while sitting in a small semi-dark room with a low ceiling, irregularly constructed, from handling the tea bowl, which is crudely formed but eloquent with the personality of the maker, and from listening to the sound of boiling water in the iron kettle over a charcoal fire. Let time pass for a while, and as one feels more composed, one begins to notice another kind of sound coming from outside the windows. It is the water dripping from a bamboo trough that conducts it from somewhere on the mountainside.”

If you can feel, even from this small passage, that process of slowing down, of going deeper into the recesses of your own awareness, then you know something of the state of mind needed to consider the “problems of organizations” I have called out in the first lines of this post. All too often we are threatened by this space instead of welcoming it. We pass judgment on it or even try to discipline it out of our worlds because it leads to painful memories of past mistakes or suppositions of wasted time and laziness. Yet if we are to have the strength to deal with the dilemmas that press relentlessly on us, don’t we need quietude and our share of tranquillity to achieve real insight into the problems in which we are implicated, that ensnare us and have inadvertently created for ourselves? We need time to reflect in order to learn, not an interiorized set of whips to help us “hurry up.”

And isn’t this tranquil place, this serenity also the place for a different kind of dialogue with others, one without the barriers of organizational caste and status and political machination? Who knows how the conversation might turn if we were not in a contest for who first can come up with “right answers” but could allow them instead to arise out of a mutual wish to actively transcend ourselves?

So when I say, “not deep enough,” I do not mean a judgment about the need to work harder or think harder and quicker or steeling ourselves for the pain of looking at harsh realities when we finally get off the merry-go-round. Nor is this some justification for a ritual form of procrastination. Nor is it a mere daydream while staring out the window.

I do mean that in a world that is too hard, too fast, too politically fraught and morally ambiguous, too manipulative and demanding, we need our “tea houses” more than ever — wherever and in what ways we can find them — to rest our brains while cultivating our minds and hearts, our psychospheres. Only then can time slow down enough for genuine clarity to emerge and the space for richer understandings begin to appear.

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Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 3M ago


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Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 3M ago

Perhaps there is only one important leadership question: “What are you called to?” Finish that question anyway you like — what are you called to do, what are you called to be? Either way the word, “called,” implies a certain kind of intuitive depth, a certain way of being.

So much of the attention seems to go to finding this “calling,” to discover passions from which we might still be disconnected. But I say, you are already following your passions. You are already being you. The answer is already there. The tougher aspect is whether you are living this calling as fully as you might, something that relies on how much you are aware of it operating in your life and how well you are turning your fate into your destiny.

Snowstorm, Click photo to enlarge

And by the way, this isn’t just a question for individuals. It’s also a question for teams, for whole organizations, for society at large. What are we called to? is just as essential an inquiry. Are we called, for example, to compete or to collaborate? To include or exclude? To serving and supporting each other or to self-interest? Are we called to express larger values, such as justice or empathy, or really not so much?

Too often we try to figure out how to describe the call in order to get buy-in from others, to make it someone else’s call as well, perhaps. Of course, this is impossible because following a calling is a choice, not an imposition. It is not more valid because we’ve decided to hold others accountable to it. For an organization, for example,all the work to clarify mission, vision, values, strategies is like that. For some the implied, underlying call that can never be fully explained in words catches fire. For others, the exercises merely lead to literalism or cynical compliance. The true call, the full call is beyond the means used to establish an organizational purpose statement. The true call is simply felt, simply known as true. Everything else is only what are you assigned to, not what are you called to, not who you are, not your team or your company.

And here’s the thing. A calling isn’t just an easy or painless path, not if it is real. It will inevitably bring up the places the calling hasn’t yet become operative, the places where the suffering is. If your calling is to bring beauty into the world, you will often build your work from what is ugly. If your calling is to bring people together, you may constantly find your own and others’ estrangement. If your call is social justice, you’ll have to work with others and the parts of yourself that don’t believe in it. This is because a calling is a fundamentally redemptive, transformative act, one aimed to release diamonds from coal, but not without pressure, not without the darkness of the stone itself, which is always there near you and even inside you.

Calling takes people to the very edge of their being and then hurtles them over that edge to see what kind of wings they learn to spread. This is where the portion of divinity that belongs to the human begins. Anything less is a form of existential hesitation, a partial life governed more by safety than by that most hoped for precious gift called meaning.

Dungeness River, Click photo to enlarge

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Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 4M ago

Of many words that define good relationships with others, such as trust, respect, care and understanding, the word dignity often seems to have a lesser place. Yet what word better defines the need we experience in society today? It is almost taken for granted that we live in a world where people can expect not to be treated with dignity, but to have their basic worth as human beings questioned. On one side, this may come from a consumer- and object-centric view of happiness that equates material success and physical attractiveness with a sense of personal worthiness, and on the other we are faced with partisan politics based on contempt, insults and superiority to anyone who is not like us. In such a baffling world of commoditization, stature comparison and brutal tribalism, the underlying value of the person, the human being, is not just lost; it is murdered.

In her extraordinary 2011 book, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, Donna Hicks describes dignity as different than trust or respect. Dignity is about treating ourselves and others well and valuing all people based on our essential humanity. Her thoughts have greatly influenced what I have written here.

Treating others with respect, she writes, may be problematic at times because it raises the question of whether the respect has been earned. Treating all others with dignity, by comparison, does not depend on whether others have earned respect. Respect is more an extension of dignity based on actions and also on personal biases. So even though we might not respect someone, we can still treat that person with dignity. Hicks’ definition also means that a “dignity violation” occurs whenever a person feels he or she has not been heard and valued in this most basic human way. A violation is often about having one’s experience and personal truths denied as inconsequential by others, which leads to wounding and in turn to defense, survivalism, the need to strike back, and both inner and outer wars.

Mural, Mission District, San Francisco (Please click to enlarge)In a world where the notion of human beings having innate value is in deep question, our work must be one of restoration and renewal. We can choose to treat each other well or we can create the wars that are as destructive to ourselves as they are to anyone else. These wars do not have to be physical wars, they can be any emotional war where an “us” vs. “them,” or “me” vs. “you” is involved.

Making the choice everyday to treat ourselves and others with dignity can be some of the hardest work we do. I know I’m fine as long as things seem to be going along well. But when I feel offended it becomes a different story. When I believe my dignity has been hurt or questioned by someone else, it is not such an easy task for me to get emotionally unhooked and to recover. It still takes time, sometimes a lot of it. I still must consult the better angels of my own character. I still put on a mask of everything being okay while inside, if I listen with an open heart and become vulnerable, a small child is crying. His angry tears sweep him backwards through every previous violation of his dignity. If you ask him, he will tell you all the stories. The point is he’s alone again, wondering why such things ever happen, wondering what his value is.

I don’t think this process of “taking things personally” is different from others. I know it is not all of me. I know it is not the most fundamental truth of who I am. But I also know when I’m not lying to myself or other people that external validation is still very much a need for me — even though it’s not “supposed” to be for a special adult like myself.

And who knows, in the quest for that validation, how many times I’ve unconsciously violated others’ dignity, too. Who knows? Who knows how much damage I’ve actually done. I’ll need your feedback to know.

Do you see how this works and what we, in this society are doing to each other and to ourselves? If we don’t reclaim our own humanity, then the commoditization and stature comparisons and the horrible and brutal tribalism of the times will erode us inside and out. In this work, I suggest that we start with the simple act of trusting our higher angels, meaning the part of ourselves that is able to stand back from the scene rather than getting sucked down by the undertow of external validation through tribe and stature — as if either could actually shore up our final worth.

We’ll have to do a radical thing — to think for ourselves, without thinking that thinking for ourselves somehow makes us better or superior. We’ll have to cash in all false humility. We’ll have to step back from our beliefs and assumptions about who is to blame. We’ll have to consult those angels every single time the feeling comes up that our dignity’s been jeopardized. Because the deal is that our dignity in the end really can’t be taken away from us by anyone, except through our own illusions, and also because the simple fact is that we need each other. We need each other for our dignity and humanity to blossom, our best listening and love, insight and support and feedback in the face of tough times and our own disbelief in ourselves. We need our very best help to one other, and to that inner child, if we are, in fact, ever truly to grow up.

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Over the years, working with both individuals and teams, the challenge recreates itself again and again: we fail to talk to each other about each other. We’d rather handle whatever difficulties we face in our relationships at work in almost any other way. “Separate the problem from the people,” says the guru, yet I’m here to say there are times when the problem is the person — in the sense that it is his or her behavior, actions, or statements that create “unproductive circumstances,” if not outright pain. Even worse, this “person” might be you. In organizations of all kinds our penchant is for talking about people behind their backs rather than to them and this generates a whole class of business performance problems that are more or less impossible to resolve. We want to trust and to be trusted, we tell ourselves, but that’s actually less true than we simply do not want to deal with trust issues at all.

I cannot tell you the number of times in my work someone in private has shared a perspective on a coworker that is negative, a theory of the other party’s self-interests or caustic nature, for example, their incompetence or unreliability, yet when given the straight up opportunity to tell that truth will not do so directly. It comes out all hedges and excuses. “Well, it’s better this week” or “I’m not angry with you. I’m just a little frustrated with the system” or “It would be great if we could talk more often” are a few of an unlimited number of coded statements that mean “I think you’re incompetent and should be fired” or “I went home and was mad for hours and hours about your sexist behavior” or “I wouldn’t trust you farther than I could spit.”

And then, too, I’ve listened to all the defensive reasoning about why we can’t be more “honest” with one another — like fear of repercussions, the cynical belief that it won’t do any good or the supposition that “it will just make things worse” — that seals us away permanently from the act of real, vulnerable, problem-solving among people.

The point is that we don’t really know how to talk to one another about each other in a way that is humane, that accepts defensiveness, that actually works. We’d rather believe that if only everybody followed their job description, played their role, did what they are supposed to do and stayed in their silo, following the decision-making protocols and the values on the walls or whatever other unspoken ground rules the company had set up, everything would get done just as it should. The idea of actually talking to each other about each other in order to bring people closer together never actually seems to be considered. If people do try to talk, the makeshift mask of honesty people exhibit too often quickly turns into a judgment fest that just makes people feel crazy.

When these embedded conflicts reach a pitch where somebody calls in a facilitator or coach like myself, what I find is that the stuckness isn’t because the roles aren’t clear enough or the values aren’t on the wall or that how decisions get made hasn’t been clarified. Oh, problems with those things may be involved and absolutely may be worth addressing, but I also contend that’s not likely to be enough. No, the deeper down real issues are the challenge, the issues that have to do with who we are as people, our private subjective selves, especially those judgments.

The real issues more frequently are about our negative views of one another, views that create ongoing anxiety and anger. My negative assumption that you are incompetent drives my desire to “teach” you in such a way that you see me, unsurprisingly, as patronizing. Your negative assumption that I am only out for my own interests drives me to argue constantly and annoyingly for them. We don’t think to break it down according to the needs people have and find ways to meet as many of those needs as possible, including intangibles such as positive regard, belonging and recovery from our misunderstandings and seeming betrayals.

Our common excuse is that we fear that we will hurt each other, so we hold back talking about the very beliefs that we know will hurt each other. We do this “holding back” in a way that leaks, unfortunately, thus guaranteeing we do hurt each other. The hurt creates anxiety and the need to protect our sense of who we are. We feel misunderstood, wronged.

How on earth, then, can we untangle the mess?

Think, now — instead of the fantasy put-downs and one-ups that win control and our exoneration through clever “gotchas” — think of a conversation that actually enables us to talk to each other from the heart. Imagine that this is an act of humanity that brings us together rather than a confrontation that drives us farther into our psychological corners. How, as an alternative, would we think about compassion, about kindness? About barriers? Imagine if our honesty was genuine, that it was not about lying to each other or ourselves, about covering things up, such as the hurt we felt or the fear. What could that look like?

If you can imagine this, then you also can ask, “How would we create such a conversation with the people who matter, who must be involved?” This means the people who are the problem, not just the ones who like to talk about those people in their absence. You could ask, “What would that demand of us? How would we behave, talk, care for each other in such an environment? Could we do it? How would we handle the emotions, the anxiety, the frustrations? And you could especially ask “Who would we need to be in order to pull this off?”

Our problem all too often is failing to ask that last question in any meaningful way. Instead, we spend way too much time fantasizing about who the others should be, and it just doesn’t help. We don’t even take the time to consider deeply how best we can invite others to be real with us. Instead we stay angry at them for doing what we do, which is to not honestly disclose what’s in our hearts.

I think we have to spend time with that question of who we need to be, awhile anyway, at least until we’re ready to act in faith and take the plunge, knowing we can’t know everything, including in the end even who we truly are.

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Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 1y ago

Not long ago my friend, Ed Batista tweeted that he felt inspired by how I had connected leadership to psychological wholeness in a recent post. That was very kind, and it also planted a seed.

I’ve written before about what I think wholeness is for leaders, but looking back to that 2011 post, I was disappointed — which is a sign, hopefully, of my own growth and development. Wholeness is a far bigger, richer topic that I was able to convey, so in this post let me try to add a little more of what I think wholeness is, especially for those in leadership roles. If you know Frederic Laloux’s 2014 book, Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, you may already be familiar with the term, as Laloux uses it extensively to help describe certain humanistic and spiritual practices of cutting edge workplaces. I highly recommend it.

The way I think of wholeness is as a kind of energy, already in ourselves, that draws us toward psychological health and well-being. Smart people in leadership roles, feeling the effects of ‘exposure,’ of living in an organizational fishbowl may begin to sense that their effectiveness has less to do with what they know technically than who they are as human beings and how this is expressed through what they do. Although at one level they may know their jobs very well, at another they recognize that they’ll need more than management processes and authorities to be truly effective. They must use their energy to grow as human beings if they want to address the complex human/systemic dilemmas thrown at them by modern organizations. Of course, wholeness isn’t just about organizational effectiveness. It quickly bleeds over in a question of a leader’s personal identity. It is the ongoing story of the person — a story that never stops unfolding during her or his life.

Traditionally, wholeness is linked to integrity, but our ethical foundations are only part of what wholeness means. It is more about bringing together conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves, our quest to “integrate” in a larger sense. This means that it also has something to do with the resolution of inner conflicts, and the acceptance of them: our ability to truly and fully live with ourselves instead of causing ourselves (and others) suffering by fighting inner voices and demons. It means waking up parts of ourselves that we’ve neglected, positively or negatively. It means seeing our own radiance and the shadows caused by that radiance.

The fads of the day can productively highlight some of the qualities of wholeness, but these are often culturally shaped. These days, qualities like resilience, creativity, positivity, mindfulness, openness and appreciation for differences show up as key qualities of whole people, whole leaders. As a consequence there is a horde training programs that purport to give us ways to fulfill these qualities. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but wholeness implies more, especially a willingness to ‘do one’s personal work’ on the particular patterns of our thoughts and behaviors that interfere with a meaningful life. Many of us struggle with receiving feedback about those patterns of personality and temperament. We become defensive. We push back on the need to grow. We defend our status quo. Yet if we develop a more conscious interest in our own wholeness, we’ll begin to be open to more information about those patterns, where they came from, why they are there, and what impact they truly have on ourselves and others — and we’ll be able to address them. Surely, this is not all comfortable work, as a person interested in personal wholeness naturally feels his or her ego and learns to own the challenges that ego creates — whether it’s the need to seen as ‘right’ or ‘smart’ or ‘authentic,’ or a million other variations of self-image to which we all too easily become enslaved.

In fact, I would say that when we really start focusing our attention on wholeness, we can see how a great deal of the problems of individuals, teams, organizations and society at large are caused by the false means and medicines that people use to try to achieve wholeness unconsciously. We all know what those methods and means are — from focusing on personal stature, competition, excessive wealth and power, moral superiority to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and other self-defeating behaviors. And we are darned clever in the variations on these themes.

True wholeness penetrates — and reveals — the heart and soul of a person. It’s one thing to say, well, let’s all study ’emotional intelligence’ — or more likely say, “my managers need training in emotional intelligence.” It’s quite another to own my unexpressed personal anger or address having been conditioned by my family to think of myself as ‘selfish’ or ‘inadequate,’ or to struggle with the ‘reactivity’ I express that leaves others feeling discouraged and distant, and makes me feel ashamed. My inner work as a person is unique. It defines who I am to me. It defines how I want to lead and who I really am as a leader.

Wholeness is not just about everybody going to therapy (although more of us leaders could). Ultimately, I believe, it’s about the understanding how in teams and organizations and society at large we can help each other grow — if only we have the collective courage to acknowledge our personal paths and challenges. Taking the risk to disclose opens us to discovery and help and reassurance that we are not alone. If we do take that risk, wholeness also begins to expand to mean being part of a story much bigger than us — one that has been waiting all along.

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