Loading...

Follow Unfolding Leadership on Feedspot

Continue with Google
Continue with Facebook
Or

Valid


Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 2d 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.

RSS and email subscription, occasional Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of the front page.

Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.

Read Full Article
Visit website
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

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.

RSS and email subscription, occasional Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of the front page.

Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.

Read Full Article
Visit website
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 8M 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.

RSS and email subscription, occasional Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of the front page.

Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.

Read Full Article
Visit website
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 9M ago

Since I began this weblog in 2004, I have occasionally been asked why I include images of nature with many of my posts. How, for example, do pictures of the sea relate to a post on fairness or ones of a river connect with writing on self-worth? Not every post has photographs of nature, but most do. So what are they for?

When asked, I usually give the answer that I am trying to create a certain feeling of sanctuary that helps readers slow down to absorb writing that is often longer than what is recommended as “best practice” for blogging. I imply I want to establish a sense of place to meditate on the topic I am posting about.

But there is actually another reason — which is pain.

Specifically, it is so painfully difficult to communicate everything in words. I would argue it’s hard to communicate much at all, really, of the most important stuff, the stuff of the heart’s most private experience, the stuff of who we truly are and our unreason. This is why sometimes I resort to poetry; not that I’m any good at it. It’s just that words are always — and especially around the heady topic of leadership — eminently arguable and too often an intellectual game. An image is less than that — and also more. That wild flowering rhododendron down in the nearby swamp has something to say that is not some heuristic conjecture. It is instead a transitory nuance, one that captures us with beauty. It is the sum of us, a vibrant fact that holds memory and will and loss and asks us to be ever sensitive to what came before us and what will come after. In that flower you may see the innocence of the world as it began, more bittersweet by the day as the earth heats up and those in power actively work to create further illusion and ignorance, absurdly pulling up stakes on our commitments to the earth while embracing autocracy over any meaningful definition of human community.

We forget that nature mirrors us back to ourselves. There are many times when what I want to do is simply hold up an image of a forest or a waterfall. Just hold it up and say, “Look! Here is the medicine for the world, useful for the repair of relationships, for the inner recognition of ourselves that we all need. Here are our possibilities, our fresh start.” My grandfather, who was an artist, a water colorist, used to say that if you want to know what colors go together you simply need to look to nature. I would go farther. If you want to know what feelings go together, what reflections, what inner freedoms you need, what worthiness, what fairness, look deep into the arrangement of stones in a meadow, or sit quietly next to a glacier waiting to hear the ice crack, or drink from a stream that runs over granite and lends the water its own subtle, mineral taste.

Once you have experienced and felt those natural things, the chaos of our oh so poorly constructed societal and workplace realities stands out strongly. As I write I find myself in pain for the lack of insight we all seem to share. How dumb we are, really. I am in pain for my children and all the other young people of the world from whom we in this generation are stealing life.

I want to hold that picture of the river up, that clear river that you can still drink from, and say, “Look!” and “Taste!” I’m not just pointing to some broad, social experience of disconnection. It is personal. It’s here and now in the ways we treat each other every day. I see it in my clients and friends, in the experiences of anxiety and stress, in the lack of trust, in the anger and sadness, the push of work cultures that are little more than cruel to human beings, and no more productive for all the negative assumptions about one another that fly out of our mouths.

Nature isn’t, after all, just a collection of plants and animals. It is magic, yet now because we are less afraid of it, we seem to discount the inner energy that once nourished us. Do you think the blossom in this image is so powerless? Less powerful than say, love? Do you think because you only have five senses that you can experience all of what nature is that surrounds you and is inside you? That you are?

Do you get it? If so, then you understand why I post these pictures. They say what I’ve never found words for that might yet help us save ourselves.

Click on the image to make it larger

RSS and email subscription, occasional Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of the front page.

Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.

Read Full Article
Visit website
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Unfolding Leadership by Dan Oestreich - 10M ago

The very word, “unfairness,” if you slow down and let it sink in with you for a moment, is like a needle touching a wound. You may feel your stomach tighten, the product of a primary social threat. As the last term in David Rock’s famous SCARF model, it represents one of the most potent sources of pain the human brain knows, while it’s polarity, fairness, turns out to be even more important to people in some circumstances than money.

We do seem to be living in a time when unfairness is on the rise as a facet of our culture, mirrored by increasing moral outrage. Whether it’s the war on the poor or the privacy rights on the internet, the unfurling of white supremacy, the threatened loss of health care or attempts to undermine environmental protections for capitalist gain, these issues, all of which represent a broad failure of care for others, add needle after needle to the wound and create an ongoing sense of threat.

As an organizational consultant, I am concerned not only about our society, but also about how legitimized unfairness increasingly becomes a norm at work, as well. What happens in society seeps into organizational life. We’ve all heard the homily that “life is not fair.” (Get used to it, Snowflake). But this is different. This is about giving wild permission and assent to those who treat others unfairly as a means of personal and political achievement, who use unfairness as their success formula. Whether that’s a matter of ideology, greed, competition or merely a power play hardly matters. I’m thinking here of Wells Fargo’s misbegotten culture of unattainable sales goals leading to ethical infractions and retaliation against employees who called the ethics hotline. I’m thinking of United Airlines very stupid blunders in the name of unseating paying passengers. I’m thinking of Bill O’Reilly’s ouster — not for sexual harassment — but for being found out by the New York Times and losing lucrative sponsorship dollars. The broader culture mingles and informs organizational cultures and vice versa. As Shane Ryan expresses it, “You’re Not Mad at United Airlines; You’re Mad at America.”

Needle after needle form the backdrop, a reflection of a larger system and culture. And then something happens in your world at work. You get cut off unfairly by a manager in a meeting. You take home work over the weekend that someone else really ought to have done. A project you worked hard on, executed beautifully, gets criticized, mostly for what seem to be political purposes. You are warned that performance expectations are rising in the face of impending layoffs that seem to be for no good reason. Someone else is promoted into a job you believe you should have been selected for. The sense of unfairness gathers and gathers, creating inner pressure to do something, but then, even more unfairly, you know if you try you’ll likely be labelled a ‘problem child’ or worse. So you suck it up and take it home (while complaining in the background), all in the name of surviving unfairness so you won’t lose your job.

Encountering clients in this fix, there’s a lot to talk about. Unfairness is a terrible thing and goes deep, touching off parts of our personal histories we’d prefer not to revisit. Old pain from moments of betrayal. Points of personal rejection or weakness. Ancient anxieties, guilts, depressions. And sometimes dealing with the belief that this is really our own fault, not noticing as we bend over backwards to be fair to others how we are drinking the very poison that will end up later in the body as passive-aggressive resentment and stress.

Assuming that the client doesn’t want to quit outright, I find myself pointing in three directions, encouraging the client to make some choices: 1) get unhooked and “let the system be the system;” 2) fight back authentically; 3) lead through a combination of the two. Of course this oversimplifies the client’s circumstances, but in doing so we can explore together the difference between what should happen and what can happen.

1. Unhooking and “letting the system be the systm.” Being hooked means living the unstable ground of one’s own negative emotions, inflamed perceptions and private judgments, brooding about what to do. Getting unhooked emotionally means challenging the internal judgments and stories that come with what is unfair, letting go of the sense of impotence that leads to rage. It’s about not letting the unfairness drive unconsidered revenge, competition, and self-justification, however civilized or polite or elegant the form. However, this is also more than just “picking your battles” or so much Goosfraba. It’s an opportunity to step back in a meaningful way to reflect deeply about what is under your skin and why. There may be times when reflection is enough to rise above the situation and salvage what’s really at stake, which is your integrity. Not getting a promotion you want is tough, for example, especially when the promotion seems political, but better to step back and consider before actively — or unconsciously — undermining the person who got the job.

2. Standing up to fight. Fighting back authentically means you are not pretending to go along with something that violates you. It’s one thing to accept the fact that somebody else got the job, and this is a political decision — it’s quite another when “political” is actually code for discriminatory or something else that so deeply offends your personal sense of integrity and is so compromising that failure to act is self-destructive. The challenge is translating the offense into action in a way that helps transform muddled hurt into a clear passion for change. Fighting fairly means calling out unfairness openly, actively attempting to influence those who perpetrate the unfairness, and acting to disrupt the system while not operating in an unfair or hidden way yourself. It may involve resistance, but not violent resistance (which would indicate you are still hooked). The rightful name for this approach is “personal advocacy” and there are consequences that go along with it.

3. Leading. Leading is advocating for fairness as a cause that extends well beyond yourself. This means both that you are unhooked and able to fight fairly — and the issue has become meaningful to your overall larger life purpose and destiny. Moreover, your way of transforming hurt to passion, your method of standing up to fight, your presence inspires. Because it does, you elicit the support of others and give them confidence to stand up, as well. To lead means gathering others to the cause. Often that has something to do with the way you hold and express a vision and your personal willingness to take calculated risks in the name of “what is right.”

Considering these three routes to dealing with unfairness naturally leads to three straightforward questions around the unfairness you face:

“Can you unhook?”

“Are you willing to fight back?”

“Do you want to lead?”

Depending on how risky the issue, many want the first, not everyone wants the second enough to act, and only a few truly are called to the third.

Your own integrity must be your guide in answering these questions. If you can’t unhook, I’d encourage looking at your alternatives closely and what the impact of that is on your mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health.

If you are not willing to fight back, I’d encourage you to look at your level of collusion in a system that may be perpetrating unfairness.

And if you don’t want to lead, I’d ask why not.

There is risk in all of these paths, and risk in failing to follow through with them, too. To me there is no dishonorable choice if one is truly conscious and intentional about it. You don’t have to unhook, fight back or lead. All of that is your choice and your challenge.

There’s a story about these dilemmas that comes to mind. An environmental activist gets an audience with the Dalai Lama. He asks, “Dalai Lama, how do I go about saving the earth?” The Dalai Lama’s reply was simple, “Not with anger.”

I think we have to ask ourselves these three questions rather deeply, and if we are not ready, what inner and outer work we have yet to do.

RSS and email subscription, occasional Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of the front page.

Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.

Read Full Article
Visit website
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

During my career as a leadership consultant and coach I’ve listened many times as a client leader has admitted some self-perceived failing. Jerome’s heartfelt “confession” was one of these moments. He sheepishly told me there was someone who reported to him who intimidated him, a manager who seemed to be “much faster intellectually” and “more aggressive” than he was. Jerome said it caused him to retreat from the manager and “to reduce his own influence.” “I can’t ask him to change course on anything without a debate that turns into a fight,” Jerome told me, “and he is much better at fighting than I am. I can’t match wits with him and win.”

Jerome knew withdrawal was not the right approach, and so this perceived intelligence and aggression gap caused him pain. Jerome, after all, had years of experience as a manager and was not typically insecure, nor particularly controlling. To the contrary, he much preferred using persuasion over position power to accomplish team goals. But this also could lead to problems. If someone wasn’t open to influence through persuasion, he was stuck.

I saw Jerome’s acknowledgement of his dilemma as a sign of courage rather than weakness. After all, in our American culture this inability to “match wits and win” all too often is an unspoken requirement of leading. His openness flew in the face of that culture because of his emotional vulnerability. I remember him emphatically asking at the end of his description of his opponent, “But what should I do with someone who is smarter, emotionally stronger and faster than I am? How on earth can I manage him?”

My impression is that this particular feeling of inadequacy around not being able to match wits is more common than people would like to think, and the truth is Jerome’s question isn’t all that easy to answer in a generic way. It’s bigger than simply offering techniques to deal with bullies. It goes deeper into the perceptions and self-beliefs of the leader and calls up an even more basic question of what leadership is. I’m not talking about a standard dictionary definition that lists activities like creating a vision and motivating people to meet it. Rather, I’m pointing to the deeper dive needed to find a hard-won personal answer, the kind that as a product of experience includes successes and mistakes and an ongoing discipline of reflective self-observation. It is a person’s search for a soulful, living definition of leadership that is unique, practical and wise.

To me, this search for a more individual, living definition of leadership is where truer forms of influence and impact have always begun. If this is so then there are as many kinds of searches related to defining our leadership as there are people able to acknowledge and face their problems. For example:

A leader struggles with knowing what he wants from his high level administrative job. He is so caught up in the perfectionistic shoulds of his role, fulfilling his boss’s and his customers’ desires that there is no time for him to look after his own needs. In our coaching work together he repeatedly defers and deflects opportunities to learn more about what he desires for himself, and so he stays stuck in a state of quasi burnout, unsure how to keep up with the endless obligations to others that he consistently places first.

Another client leader struggles with taking on an expanded role in a new organization after leaving a job where he was caught up in financial scandals and disgrace. He wants to know how to go about this new beginning with energy, able to meet and confidently guide a new team. Yet, he has not yet determined the message hidden inside what he calls his “fall” and worries it will affect his performance. He must find a new definition of leading but, given his besmirched past he is unclear where to look for it.

Yet another leader wants to understand the negative feedback about her that has been passed along to her boss by one of her own reporting managers. The leader is in the push-pull of her own temperament: on one hand sincerely wanting to understand the feedback and on another critical of the manager who bypassed her and reported the negative information up the chain. She must find a way through the rocky passage of her own conflicted emotions. She, too, must find and live a new definition of her leadership.

Caught in these dilemmas of everyday personal experience, we may not notice that these challenges are our greatest teachers precisely because they are about leading ourselves – and they are often uncomfortable. Like the client who doesn’t feel smart enough, we want to know what to do to get out of that discomfort as quickly as possible. We want reliable methods and models, recipes, measurements and check-lists. We want clear ways to escape from murky situations, wielding a sharp knife to cut through every Gordian knot. We want expertise and how-to’s, a set of clear steps. (Isn’t there a seminar or workshop?)

Yet that’s not likely. There’s never going to be perfect, all-encompassing answer to the question posed to me one day by a participant in a large training session. Early in the conversation, she raised her hand and said she “just wanted to know what she was supposed to do as a leader.” “I’m sorry to be blunt about this,” she said. ”But just tell me what it is and I’ll do it! Can we get to that sooner rather than later, not take a whole day of my time to get to it?” As if there could ever be a final formula, a set of known activities and attitudes that might qualify.

Others laughed nervously waiting for my reply to the blunt participant. I chose to tell her that day that her hunt would have little value unless she slowed down to pursue it more personally, not asking, “What do I do” but asking instead, “What is my leadership about,” and in the end, “What am I about?” Questions no one could ever answer but her.

Another example of this all too common “just tell me what to do” demand for a formula is when people – again often at workshops — have wanted to know how to deal with this or that type of person. For example, the challenging staff member who is sarcastic, who seems to undermine the power of the boss through a tough edge of questioning cynicism. People want to know the tricks for dealing with someone like this. They want to know what to say to shut this person down or turn them around, as if this associate is a Rubik’s Cube that needs to be twisted in a particular way. They want a magic phrase or ritual; in effect, a technique to compete with and then gain control of the “negative” person.

How many times I’ve had to learn not to try to provide a formula or technique! (If I do, inevitably the questioner responds, “I’ve already tried that and it doesn’t work!”) I’ve learned to ask instead about being, often quietly, to balance participants’ obvious eagerness for answers. “Within the limits of your integrity,” I ask, “who will you need to be to effectively work with this person?”

The answers then must reflect the person who is asking, the person of the leader, not the transactional nature of what a leader does. When people get that shift, they often know the answer to their question. “I would need to be more assertive” or “I would need to be patient,” or “I would need to listen and connect,” or “I would need to befriend him.” The answers that emerge mean that whoever I am, I now must live my leadership outside my current set of assumptions and comfort zone, becoming and being a little different than I was yesterday. It’s not about changing or growing the other person. It’s about growing me. And in turn “growing me” means I need to understand as much as possible about my own life history, behavioral preferences including past and present relationships, my own acquired beliefs and values, my dominant biases and temperament, my subjective world, my being.

The moment we focus on being rather than doing, this Other Person becomes our Buddha and therefore our teacher. We can’t get farther down the road without positively facing this person and this situation. Jerome’s question about “what do I do” suddenly transmutes into who do I need to be to work with this person effectively? The answer may be simple or complex to him, but it probably involves personal change, standing up in his own skin, and some risk. Perhaps, Jerome will decide that he needs to get real with this manager, which means to him that he must reduce his timidity and defensiveness and be willing to authentically fight it out with his smarter, more aggressive manager. Perhaps it will be something else a little less demanding. But one way or another, he then has an idea how to proceed for himself. It’s not everybody’s path, but it is his and he will learn from it. The lesson is clear: articulate who you feel you want or need to be first, then decide what to do.

In effect, our desires for more transactional and impersonal forms of learning keep us distant from the emotionally engaging leadership problems we need to personally address. This distance may seem desirable because of the illusion that leaders are people without such emotional problems. Therefore, if we don’t know how to solve them quickly, then – so goes the unspoken definition of leadership — we are not doing our jobs; we are not the accomplished people we are supposed to be. This may well be another version of the old stereotype of the omniscient, all-powerful, teflon leader rearing its head. Using the vocabulary of Harvard’s Ron Heifetz, this is the leader we like to imagine who can solve all technical problems. Unfortunately, it turns out, this is also the intellect-focused leader who does not adapt well to non-technical challenges that naturally demand tolerance for a passage through insecurity.

Even more unfortunately, when we discover that easy, concrete answers to complicated personal leadership dilemmas are not forthcoming — when we discover that we don’t know what we don’t know — we all too easily close ourselves up in denial or escapism. We don’t want to feel the guilt, shame, embarrassment and disappointment of not living up to a rose-covered, illusory sense of what leadership is supposed to be, of what we are supposed to be. We don’t, again using Heifetz’s language, use an adaptive approach – which is naturally more humble and open. Of course, in separating ourselves from our emotions we also separate ourselves from the deeper emotional learning that is available. And too often, we turn to blaming others and rationalizing for consolation as we try to stay in our heads rather than venturing too far into the more dangerous forests of an open heart.

As an example of this depersonalized, perfectionistic view of leadership, I remember a group discussion on Linkedin that asked members to describe the difference between leadership and management. There were literally a thousand comments from thoughtful people attempting to distinguish the two in a meaningful way. “Management is about doing things right; leadership is about doing the right thing,” etc, etc, and again and again. It seemed to me that commenters were competing to express just the right nuance and find the perfect last word. I couldn’t agree more with consultant and writer, Jesse Lyn Stoner, who calls discussions of this kind a “boring debate.” The conversation on Linkedin became no more than a long record of many individuals’ reductive thinking. It seems to me that many would much prefer knowing what leadership is conceptually to being faced with learning about the unknown parts of themselves.

A place to begin our work – and a counterpoint to the Linkedin discussion — is to consider our daily, lived experiences and adaptive challenges – stuff that’s happening right now, that’s problematic and personal. And especially the stuff that involves complicated power dynamics and group encounters.

Here’s a story that exemplifies the challenge. It’s about a hospital a few years ago that was dealing with a declining census – meaning that the number of beds filled on a daily basis had been going down slowly but continuously for some time. Every month the senior team got together to talk about the census. The CFO would bring a prediction of further decline in the numbers for the next month that would be hotly debated and ultimately rejected by the team. Yet month after month the CFO’s predictions were borne out and often the census was even lower than he’d anticipated.

The team argued more about whether to be pessimistic or optimistic than the real numbers and the continuing negative trend line. What mattered more to the members was the conflict in the team between the “doom and gloom” faction, so named, and the people who thought the census problem was only a temporary slip for the organization. Eventually, after months of the senior team members arguing among themselves, the Board had to intervene because the hospital was clearly racing toward the edge of a financial cliff. The senior team ended up terminating a third of the organization’s managers and many other staff, a dire result that might have been prevented had the team dealt with reality earlier. And what was that reality? That the team members had a problem they didn’t know how to solve and so got into a continuing dispute about whether the problem even existed.

This is why the leader who confessed he wasn’t as smart as one of his managers was courageous in doing so. Had the hospital leaders humbly – vulnerably –acknowledged they were facing a problem they didn’t know how to solve instead of arguing with each other about the problem’s existence, they would have been much better equipped not only to address their situation but also to grow in their leadership. When they could not figure out what to do they deflected, stopped learning, and stopped leading. And this seems to me to be the direct product of a mischaracterization of leadership as being primarily about knowing what to do – which tweaked their collective ego — rather than about who and how to be in a time of ambiguity and crisis.

What’s abundantly clear with the hospital team is that no one led. Leading would have required mastery of a higher level capacity to call out the failing dynamics of the team. It was like they were stuck in the ruts of a Linkedin discussion about leadership vs. management — while the building around them was burning to the ground. No one asked, “Who do we need to be to address this situation (of internal discord) given the cliff we may be approaching?” You may well ask, where was the CEO? Wouldn’t framing that question have been his job? But if you do linger in this criticism, I suggest you may have missed the point. It’s anybody’s and everybody’s job, and all the time.

This is also why, when I think of leadership I don’t find myself considering much about formal authority, overall structure, role clarity or organizational theory, about the next faddish discipline, such as Agile or Lean, or the political sensitivities that often dominate organizational life. More often, my thoughts about leading turn to the unacknowledged problems and the unacknowledged people and the open-ended, vital mystery of what it means to be of influence, to be people whose self-knowledge and relationships, capacity for discernment – whose psychological wholeness — is vital to the forward motion and culture of an enterprise. My thoughts turn to the “anybody,” at any level, in any role who sees when the emperor has no clothes and is willing to reveal the facts of what’s happening, including revelations about one’s own collusion in the denial or the fantasy; the “anybody” who by virtue of being can bring us together.

Ultimately, what I think about as being can’t be contained in any formula. Only later, after the fact, after the meeting, after a decision has been reached might someone say, “she led” or “he led.” When people experience being, a shift of energy naturally occurs that attracts, galvanizes, aligns and clarifies.
This is not, by the way, reducing leadership to charisma, defined as a certain ineffable charm that inspires the devotion of others. The “anybody” way is the polar opposite: the conscious and intentional awakening of a person that may end up serving as a model for others. The charismatic leader is always separate, distant, unique and, by definition exudes some unattainable quality of confidence, often with the narcissistic power message that “I am special.” By comparison a leader expressing his or her being inspires us to become more of ourselves because of the nobility of spirit and sense of wholeness being shared. The charismatic leader tempts us, seduces us. It’s as if leadership were an easy path to a palace where all our problems are solved. But, of course, that’s not possible. That’s what’s called a projection. By comparison, the leader who expresses that nobility of spirit calls us only to find our own way, our own deep acceptance of ourselves.

A friend who is also in the business of leadership consulting said brilliantly one day that “talking about ‘leadership’ in the end is just an excuse to talk about what’s important.” Implicit in her words is this notion of being, and that we spend an awful lot of time talking about what’s unimportant and not getting to the real stuff, the places where meaningful communication happens among people. When that does happen, including honest exploration of problems, undone tasks, bad relationships and a host of other topics, being is there, even as we may be scared by the conflicts we are attempting to resolve. Such conflicts – our “dangerous opportunities” — might be as simple as calling out the obvious but unspoken dysfunction of a team meeting or taking the risk to break the interpersonal ice with someone who’s been a foe, or asking the sensitive question that has been waiting for a brave soul to ask it. As a client once said to me when explaining this effect, “I know we’re talking about the right stuff when my chest starts feeling like a block of wood,” meaning that she felt it became hard to be herself and speak freely. The antidote is the understanding that being is the state of being unblocked – indeed, unblocking what we need to talk about and need to deal with, putting down the block in favor of what’s real.

All of this is to say that our best definitions of leadership are not generic, impersonal, abstract or transactional ones, not “how to’s,” but personally transformative ones; ones that are lived, not just written down someplace in the notes we took once took at a workshop or placed in the margins of a book. Apropos of these things, the Persian poet, Rumi, wrote hundreds of years ago:

“There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information and from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through the conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.”

We have these two forms of intelligence to rely upon, as Rumi eloquently defines them. So much of our misunderstanding of what leadership is comes from over-reliance on the idea that if we only knew enough we could solve every problem. We would know what to do and do it ourselves or tell others how to do it. But the truth is far, far more complex. Our “plumbing-learning” isn’t nearly enough to reveal the heart and soul of our own greatness nor the genuine leadership the world needs us to express.


RSS and email subscription, occasional Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of the front page.

Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.

Read Full Article
Visit website
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Michael Meade, mythologist and storyteller, says there are three layers of human interaction:

“If the First Layer of human interaction is the common ground of manners, kind speech, polite greeting, and working agreements; if the Third Layer is the area of deeply shared humanity, the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, of the underlying, fundamental oneness of human love, justice, and peaceful coexistence; then the Second Layer is the territory of anger, hatred, wrath, rage, outrage, jealousy, envy, contempt, disgust, and acrimony. It is the Via Negative, the field of Conflict, the plain of Discord, the hills of Turmoil. And, the Second Layer always exists between the First Layer and the Third.”

You can find this quotation and a more complete explanation in Meade’s poetry anthology, co-edited with Robert Bly and James Hillman, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.

I use this model in my leadership work frequently because it so ably defines the quest, common to human communities, to reach the Third Layer. As important, it does so in a way that ennobles the Second Layer — that painful passage through the darkness of genuine conflict and negative emotions. Meade’s work suggests that conflict is inevitable if we want to really experience and act on the deeper human universals, the rich values worthy of guiding relationships, from one-on-one partnerships to a whole society. His model shatters the illusion that somehow we reach the ground of a better world without experiencing the worst of it, without an exhausting struggle, maybe even a vicious fight with each other over the nature of reality. He reminds us that the struggle is worthwhile because it reveals the cornerstones of what it means to be human.

The struggle is what we do, it’s what we have to do, and all the First Level pretending in the world will not let us escape from the demand to discover again the absolutes we are meant to share. The Second Layer is unquestionably torturous: chock full of our insecurities and illusions, inhabited by scapegoats and causes for blame, loaded with power struggles and wars in which all sides are “right” and “good” within the limits of their thinking it is so. The Second Layer is a tightly knotted cloth of threats to our status, our sense of certainty, our autonomy, our desired relationships, and sense of fairness, to use David Rock’s SCARF model to describe what is at stake: our familiar and most preferred identities.

Further, Meade points out that just because we’ve touched the universals before does not mean we can easily find them again. We must go through the Second Layer repeatedly. He writes,

“Here’s the bad news: The Third Layer is constantly moving its location; it’s not to be found today where it was yesterday. We can go through the motions, exactly repeating everything that previously got us to the state of peace, love, bliss; and we get nowhere. We return to places where we fell deep into love and find the view obscured by a new factory; the romantic restaurant has been replaced by a fast-food joint. We bow in all directions, say the prayers just as before, but there’s no sense or sight of god; we come up empty. The Third Layer is mysterious, unpredictable, leaves no forwarding address.”

It’s clear our current political strife is part of a Second Layer phenomenon and we can legitimately ask: is it really 1984, as many would claim? Well, in some way it surely must be — the metaphor is too apt. We are directly experiencing that “never ending fight” about just what we mean by “truth, justice, and the American Way.” In using the catch phrase of a superhero — one who stands for good — I in no way want to diminish where we are in the real struggle, nor am I tacitly encouraging a slide into any passive form of fantasy and moral relativism.

To the contrary, it is clear we have a long fight on our hands and in the most public way possible. We will have to collectively find our way through the darkness, the anger and broken illusions, right back to discerning whether truth exists anymore among the biases and the lies, and if so why truth is so vital anyway. We have to find out what justice means — again and from the core — and learn new ways to defend its value. And we’ll have to find out if there is something, anything, especially important about this “American Way.” We urgently must rediscover that, before we help burn down the world in the name of giving evil a chance. This is our “superhero” work, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, the hour is late and the danger is high. And I believe this is the exact episode in which the powers we’ve projected onto our superhero from the 1930’s must finally be reclaimed. We can wait no longer. It’s us stepping into the phone booth now, nobody else, in order to defend a Third Layer value called decency — which is what Superman stood for, right?

So I say, let’s have a really big fight — a meaningful and powerful one, one that really gets to the essence — about the nature of decency as human beings and how to truly self-govern in its name.

RSS and email subscription, occasional Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of the front page.

Pinterest users, you can pin pictures from this weblog via this Board.

Read Full Article
Visit website
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Separate tags by commas
To access this feature, please upgrade your account.
Start your free year
Free Preview