Leadership Library Review: The Choice: Embrace the Possible

June 2018

The Choice: Embrace the Possibleby Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Scribner, 2017)

What are the big take-aways?

The Choice is a memoir, a call-to-vocation and a how-to guide to freedom from self-limiting beliefs.  It describes Dr. Eger’s survival of the Holocaust as a teenage Hungarian Jew at Auschwitz and her life journey following that experience: marrying and starting a family, immigrating to the U.S., pursuing many years of education, and establishing her psychology practice (which she still maintains, in her nineties).

A mentee of Viktor Frankl’s, Dr. Eger consults for the U.S. Army and Navy on resilience and PTSD. Much of her autobiographical story in The Choice is bookended by a dramatic narrative about a particular encounter she has with an Army captain who – unbeknownst to her – carries a gun to his appointment at her office.  This incident illuminates the ultimate message of the book: freedom from “jail inside the mind” is a choice, and the choice is ours.

Why do I like it?

One of the things I admire most about The Choice is that it delivers a type of satisfaction I wasn’t expecting at all: it’s an enticingly suspenseful and deeply engaging page-turner.  I liked reading it.  I had a hard time putting it down, and when I did, I kept looking for the next opportunity to pick it up again.  Of course, as anticipated, the book is also terrifying, heart-breaking and grim.  Yet those aspects are strangely balanced by Dr. Eger’s vivid memory, clear voice and astounding ability to recount her brutal tale with an uncommon gentleness and generosity of spirit.  She holds herself and others with extraordinary care.  It is enlightening and reassuring to be enfolded in her compassionate presence, even as a reader.

I also liked The Choice as a book about leadership, which it is – in my opinion – because of its universally relevant emphasis on what Dr. Eger refers to as “the most important truth I know” (on page 271):

[T]he biggest prison is in your own mind, and in your pocket you already hold the key: the willingness to take responsibility for your life; the willingness to risk; the willingness to release yourself from judgment and reclaim your innocence, accepting and loving yourself for who you really are – human, imperfect, and whole.

In my formal leadership coaching and consulting practice, as well as in my informal quest to personally understand what it means “to lead my life,” I have come to view leadership quite simply as this willingness – this choice – to take responsibility.  Taking responsibility sounds so easy (can’t I just say, “I am responsible for…”?), but every full life requires extraordinary courage: to take risks, to learn from mistakes, to grow into larger perspectives of heart and mind, and to come to terms with events and ideas and parts of ourselves that we have deemed unacceptable.

In what situations would this be useful?

Lest you wonder whether this is a a maudlin survivor story or perhaps an over-simplified prescription for self-help, I assure you it is neither.  It is a refreshing, mind-expanding and graceful demonstration of what the leadership of “taking responsibility” – and especially taking responsibility for self-forgiveness – looks like in real people.  In that way, it is a beautiful and useful gift, no matter who you are or what situation you find yourself in, because each of us is at the very least the leader of our own life.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Many of the themes (e.g. liberation) and sensations (e.g. lengthy periods of equanimity) I noticed while absorbing The Choicereverberated among those I experienced when reading The Book of Joy, which I reviewed in this blog a couple of months ago.  I heartily recommend both books for the paradoxically elegant complexity they offer in role-modeling how to make meaning from some of the most disordered, mysterious and difficult truths about humanity.

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Leadership Library Review: Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems

May 2018

Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems edited by Phyllis Cole-Day and Ruby R. Wilson (Grayson Books, 2017)

What are the big take-aways?

The beauty of this book is that the editors have taken the time to put together an extraordinary compendium of exactly the kinds of poems that encourage three mindful ways of being that I consider best practices of resilience: slowing down, spending more time with nature/natural imagery, and emphasizing gratitude.

The editors explain (p. 18):

The act of reading a poem – any poem – can…become an exercise in mindfulness. And our experience of the poem is magnified when its subject is particularly mindful.  The poem might demonstrate what mindfulness is, recount an experience of it, or offer advice on how to practice it; perhaps it fleshes out a mindfulness theme, such as acceptance, impermanence, non-clinging (“letting go”), compassion, or the unity of all things.  Such mindfulness poems inspire us to live better, and to make our world better; at the same time, they grant us a taste of being good enough, just as we are, in this world, just as it is.

These practices promote the resilience required to nurture an essential quality of effective leaders, which is the ability to accept reality and to work creatively with “what is” rather than to deny undesirable facts by wishing things were different.

Why do I like it?

I like The Poetry of Presence because some of my favorite poets for leaders are represented in this delectable collection: Mary Oliver (“When I Am Among the Trees”), Lucille Clifton (“blessing the boats”), David Whyte (“Sweet Darkness”), Rumi (“A Community of the Spirit”), Naomi Shihab Nye (“Sifter”), Denise Levertov (“A Gift”) and John O’Donohue (“Fluent”), among others.  Plus, the book includes dozens of poets I’ve never heard of whose work I now adore, such as Richard Schiffman (p. 199):

“Smart Cookie”

            after Wallace Stevens

The fortune that you seek is in another cookie,

was my fortune.  So I’ll be equally frank – the wisdom

that you covet is in another poem.  The life that you desire

is in a different universe.  The cookie you are craving

is in another jar.  The jar is buried somewhere in Tennessee.

Don’t even think of searching for it.  If you found that jar,

everything would go kerflooey for a thousand miles around.

It is the jar of your fate in an alternate reality.  Don’t even

think of living that life.  Don’t even think of eating that cookie.

Be a smart cookie – eat what’s on your plate, not in some jar

in Tennessee.  That’s my wisdom for today, though I know

it’s not what you were looking for.

In what situations would this be useful?

As I’ve mentioned in this blog previously, almost all leaders I know – including those who are simply leaders of their own lives – need to slow down, pause for reflection and ponder the paradox of their consequential insignificance much more than they do.  Poetry is one way to slow down, pause, be present, listen and observe.  Indeed, our call to leadership often comes (formally or informally) as “poetry” from a truth-telling core inside ourselves where our vision meets our unique talents. I have several colleagues, as well as coaching and consulting clients, with whom I regularly trade poems in order to address moments in life when only metaphor can fully capture certain universal, crucial, semi-conscious truths.  As David Whyte says, poetry is “language against which we have no defenses.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For further poetic insights into the mysteries of leadership, loss, hope, denial, love relationships, growth, vulnerability and “beautiful questions,” I highly recommend this stunning interview of David Whyte by Krista Tippett for the On Being radio program: “The Conversational Nature of Reality.”  Also, I found a few more poems by (“Smart Cookie”) Richard Schiffman here, and particularly liked “Alone.”  To hear gorgeous pieces recited aloud by various contemporary poets, check out On Being’s Poetry Radio Project.

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Leadership Library Review: Leadership Purpose

April 2018

Leadership Purpose

What are the big take-aways?

My state’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, said in a recent statement he plans to sign the new gun laws that were just passed at the end of March by the Vermont legislature:

Vermont is currently one of the healthiest and safest states in America. However, as tragedies in Florida, Las Vegas, Newtown and elsewhere—as well as the averted plot to shoot up Fair Haven [Vermont] High School—have demonstrated, no state is immune to the risk of extreme violence…. As Governor, I have a moral and legal obligation and responsibility to provide for the safety of our citizens. If we are at a point when our kids are afraid to go to school and parents are afraid to put their kids on a bus, who are we?

Regardless of the substance of the laws (which impose restrictions that I happen to support), Phil Scott’s thoughtful, locally counter-cultural and nationally counter-partisan response to the February arrest of a would-be school shooter is perhaps exemplary of leadership purpose.  Deciding to sign this legislation must have been a difficult stance for the Governor to take, but he described himself as “jolted” by the Fair Haven plot and – following a period of personal deliberation and public discussion – he chose to act.

UPDATE: Read and/or watch Governor Scott’s speech upon signing the three pieces of gun-related legislation on April 11, 2018 here.

Why do I like it?

Governor’s Scott’s decision requires guts, and I admire his courage.  With a little over 620,000 people (and still just the one 802 area code), Vermont is a Second Amendment-embracing state with a vibrant hunting tradition and a strong libertarian streak – all of which I respect – and it’s not surprising that the Vermont legislature’s debates on this issue have been so fraught they’ve made national news.  (Although, notably, not to the extent of the state’s debates over the civil unions law of 2000.)

I imagine there are massive, multi-faceted pressures on every Republican leader in the current political climate to leave loose gun laws alone.  In the midst of these forces, muddied by the intense media cacophony, how does a leader listen to both head and heart in order to find his own way forward?  One possibility is to reconnect with and clarify his leadership purpose, especially in light of new information or a greater depth of understanding.  And how does one do that?  A leadership coach like me might ask: For the sake of what do you serve in your role?  What does your head say, and what does your heart say?

It’s possible Phil Scott was answering questions like these within himself when he declared he would sign the gun reform law.  He declared, “As Governor, I have a moral and legal obligation and responsibility to provide for the safety of our citizens.”  To me, that sounds like a purposeful combination of head and heart.

In what situations would this be useful?

Being able to reconnect with and clarify your leadership purpose will serve you well at any time, and particularly in moments of crisis, transformation or indecision.  Here are a few leadership coaching questions that might be useful in these types of situations:

  • What are your top three – or maybe five – core values? How do you embody them in your leadership?
  • What is your leadership purpose?  For the sake of what do you do your job? What brought you to this work in the first place?
  • How would you fill in these blanks: “I am committed to _________ for the sake of _________.”
  • How does your head inform your heart? How does your heart inform your head?
  • The future is calling you to do… what?

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Here is the list of books and workbooks I most frequently recommend to emerging and veteran leaders who are exploring leadership purpose:

  • The Discover Your True North Fieldbook: A Personal Guide to Finding Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George, et al. (Jossey-Bass, 2015)
  • Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life by Kevin Cashman (Berrett-Koehler, 2008)
  • Appreciative Leadership by Diana Whitney, et al. (McGraw-Hill, 2010)
  • Seasons of Leadership: A Self-Coaching Guide by Susan M. Palmer (Red Barn Books, rev. 2015)
  • Finding Your Purpose by Barbara Braham (Axzo Press, 2003)
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Leadership Library Review: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

March 2018

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World featuring His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams (Avery, 2016)

What are the big take-aways?

On the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 8oth birthday, two of the world’s most inclusive (and heroic) spiritual leaders met in Dharamsala, India for a 5-day discussion on the nature of joy, its obstacles and its pillars.  The Dalai Lama has lived in exile since his harrowing escape from Tibet in the uprising of 1959, and Archbishop Tutu survived South Africa’s violence and oppression before chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990’s.  As the book jacket describes these men, “[d]espite their hardships – or, as they would say, because of them – they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.”

Why do I like it?

I like the paradoxical depth, complexity and simplicity of the discussions in The Book of Joy.  In their conversations as recounted in the book, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu gladly share the “secret” to happiness, which is that it is already within us.  Happiness is accessible in our own minds and hearts when we are able to respond to things that occur in our lives with “mental immunity.”  The Dalai Lama explains (pp. 83-84):

“Mental immunity is just learning to avoid the destructive emotions and to develop the positive ones.  First, we must understand the mind – there are so many different states of mind – the diverse thoughts and emotions we experience on a daily basis.  Some of these thoughts and emotions are harmful, even toxic, while others are healthy and healing.  The former disturb our mind and cause much metal pain.  The latter bring us true joyfulness…When we understand this reality, it is much easier to deal with the mind and to take preventive measures.”

In other words, we get stressed out and suffer when we try to control impermanent things that are not subject to control.  Suffering is eased by acceptance of this reality.  Acceptance of reality takes a lot of practice.

This is also true of leadership in general, just as it has been in how these two men have led their lives and their communities, as well as how they have offered guidance by example beyond their own spiritual traditions.  In my view, the abilities to foresee rather than control change, and to take action as frequently as possible from an acceptance of – rather than a resistance to – reality, are the foundations of ethical and effective leadership.

In what situations would this be useful?

We are reading this book right now in my current Leadership Book Group, and we just discovered at our last meeting that most of us are recommending this book to many people.  I find myself mentioning it to folks who are experiencing personal or professional setbacks.  The Book of Joy is a balm; the sorrow and the joy of the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop are surprisingly relatable, and they describe their strategies for working through everyday struggles (e.g., fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, grief, despair, loneliness, and envy, and dealing with illness and death) in terms that are clear, accessible and actionable.

One of my favorite aspects of the book, which I loved in its entirety, is a 40-page guide to “Joy Practices” tucked into the back of it.  If you are interested in starting or expanding your toolbox of ways to grow your mental immunity, this section of The Book of Joy is full of varied, lovely and practical techniques.  Embedded within them are many wonderful coaching questions.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

What comes up for me first – for a variety of reasons – is Robert Greenleaf’s timeless essay, “The Servant as Leader” (previously reviewed here).  Also, because Douglas Abrams (and the Dalai Lama) bring so much illuminating neuroscience into The Book Joy, another pairing I would recommend is another favorite of mine, Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson (also previously reviewed in the Leadership Library.

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Leadership Library Review: Design Thinking

February 2018

Design Thinking

What are the big take-aways?

Design Thinking is a strategy for solving adaptive challenges by embracing the unknown through a structured five-step process. I have recently encountered Design Thinking in several contexts, including in the MiddCORE program sponsored by Middlebury College’s Center for Creativity, Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship – where I taught leadership development as an Alumni Mentor a couple of weeks ago – and by participating in a superb Vermont-ATD workshop that offered an introductory hands-on experience of the method’s five steps (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test). Also, Design Thinking was the centerpiece of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, which I reviewed for this blog in December.

Why do I like it?

First of all, from what I can tell by experiencing a Design Thinking process from start to finish – even in a super-abbreviated form like the Vermont-ATD workshop I attended – it can be a lot of fun!

What I also like about Design Thinking, in my capacity as a leadership development specialist, are a couple of other things that deeply resonate with the way I do my work: (1) how the Design Thinking process leverages powerful questions, human instinct, the inherent creativity of play, and the benefits of judgment-free experimentation (an approach sometimes called “safe to fail” or “fail forward”); and (2) how applicable the method is to social change projects, because it so thoroughly subverts the dominant problem-solving paradigm by intentionally making the “user” (customer, community member, beneficiary, etc.) the designer. I am captivated by the connections; i.e. that both of these aspects of Design Thinking are what leaders – and leadership coaches – already do intuitively when they take constructive risks for the sake of transformational change.

I also like the emphasis on the (literal and/or imaginary) three-dimensional element of Design Thinking, especially in the steps of prototyping and testing. Even in the brief 90-minute workshop I took, we did a lot of drawing and building crude mock-ups of our ideas using the provided buckets of simple materials such as Legos, tape, construction paper, Play-doh, pipe-cleaners and stir-sticks. It was eye-opening that this worked as well for abstract human-behavior concepts as it did for tangible products.

In what situations would this be useful?

As I understand it, the purpose of undertaking a Design Thinking process is because you are in the situation of confronting a chronic and/or brand new and/or heretofore intractable problem and you need a completely fresh approach to resolving it.

According to the Design Kit website at IDEO.org, Design Thinking has been successfully used to create products, services, architecture, community development projects, social- sector and for-profit enterprises. I was particularly intrigued by the case study called Asili, a “sustainable community-owned health, agricultural, and water business in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

A terrific book to pair with Design Thinking would be A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library. It provides pragmatic guidance for discovering, (re)framing and experimenting with the kinds powerful questions that create transformative results.

Another interesting pairing might be the materials – such as the workbook – posted on the website of “Humor: Serious Business,” a course offered last spring by the Stanford Graduate School of Business “about the power (and importance) of humor to make and scale positive change in the world, and also – surprise! – to achieve business objectives, build more effective and innovative organizations, cultivate stronger bonds, and capture more lasting memories.” (I noticed that it was actually a couple of folks from IDEO who taught the curriculum segment on “How to Design for Levity.”)

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Leadership Library Review: Women & Power: A Manifesto

January 2018 

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard (Liveright, 2017)

What are the big take-aways?

“When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice,” observes Mary Beard in her Preface to Women & Power (p. xi).  She ought to know; not only is Beard a classics professor at the University of Cambridge (this slim volume is based on two lectures she gave in 2014 and 2017) but she is famously the recipient of horrific misogynist commentary by online trolls, including death threats, attempting to silence her.  They don’t work.  As Parul Sehgal reports in this recent New York Times review:

Beard responds, sometimes with fire, sometimes with kindness, sometimes with a bawdy joke. The men back down more than you’d predict and, sometimes, unexpected friendships are struck. One of her harassers took her to lunch to apologize. She later wrote him a college reference.

Women & Power is a superb history of the origins in Greek and Roman culture of the West’s continuing refusal to fully allow women’s voices into spheres of public power; that said, it does not address questions of leadership in ways I had hoped.  In her Afterword, Beard explicitly acknowledges, “I would like to try to pull apart the very idea of ‘leadership’ (usually male) that is now assumed to be the key to successful institutions, from schools and universities to businesses and government,” “[b]ut that is for another day” (p. 94).  I look forward to it!

Why do I like it?

Despite Beard’s choice not to conduct the above-mentioned leadership analysis that I had anticipated, I still like this book as a resource for leaders.  I enjoy history and politics and I’m personally and professionally fascinated by gender issues – all of which have only been heightened by the current dynamics of the #metoo movement – so the book is captivating and timely for those reasons.  And Beard is a vivid, engaging lecturer whose points are frequently illuminated by startling ancient imagery which she convincingly argues is still very much alive and operative in our modern world.  For example, Donald Trump’s campaign explicitly used the analogy of Perseus (the slayer of monsters in Greek mythology) decapitating Medusa in its paraphernalia against Hillary Clinton.  Beard writes (p. 79):

You could buy it on T-shirts and tank tops, on coffee mugs, on laptop sleeves and tote bags (sometimes with the logo TRIUMPH, sometimes TRUMP).  It may take a moment or two to take in that normalization of gendered violence, but if you were ever doubtful about the extent to which the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded or unsure of the continued strength of classical ways of formulating it – well, I give you Trump and Clinton, Perseus and Medusa, and rest my case.

Beard points out that this same Medusa imagery has been similarly used against British Prime Minister Teresa May.  She also presents evidence (pp. 54-62) of how of public power masculinizes women who do have it, from Aeschylus’s fictional anti-hero Clytemnestra (from the Greek drama Agamemnon, 458 B.C.) to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  “[O]ur mental cultural template for a powerful person,” Beard concludes, “is resolutely male” (p. 53).

In what situations would this be useful?

Women & Power is useful for expansive historical context, especially in light of current events in the U.S. and beyond, even though the book is based on lectures delivered prior to the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault revelations that kicked off #metoo.  This book provides interesting, probative and substantial background to the tumultuous moment we find ourselves in, especially in American politics, entertainment, news media and other industries.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

When I think about women, “feminine” gender identification, power, and leadership right now, what leaps to my mind is the spectrum of workplace attitudes and behaviors that range from unconscious gender bias to discrimination and sexual harassment.  If you’re a leader who’s interested in any of this, I recommend:

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Leadership Library Review: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

December 2017

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (Knopf, 2016)

What are the big take-aways?

This book offers the key insights, exercises and recommended thought habits from the “Designing Your Life” curriculum that a pair of Stanford design educators have taught for years in their Life Design Lab.  Its underlying premise, which arises from the disciplines of engineering and innovation, is that we cannot “think” our way forward in life; instead, like designers, if we want to move forward we must “build” our way into the future.  How do we do that?  By harnessing the generative power of curiosity, proactively embracing change, making prototypes, reframing beliefs and challenges when we get stuck, and approaching life design as a collaborative process that one does not undertake alone.

In addition to the approaches and activities of life design, the book also offers super-practical advice on conducting a job search (see chapters entitled, “How Not to Get a Job” and “Designing Your Dream Job”).

Why do I like it?

I like Designing Your Life because I agree with the authors’ underlying philosophy.  On page 32, Burnett and Evans say their “goal for your life is rather simple: coherency.  A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect the dots between three things:

  • Who you are
  • What you believe
  • What you are doing” [their emphases].

For followers of this blog, you will recognize that what they are referring to as “coherence” is what I often describe as “leading an integrated life.”  The book offers a process for helping the reader engage with her or his values, strengths and energy in order to lead a well-aligned life in which each dimension (home, work, family, community, spirit, etc.) supports the others.

I also like it because, in my leadership coaching practice, I’ve noticed a dearth of career resources that share a bunch of tools in an intentional progression that speak to both (a) people who are already basically satisfied with how their lives are structured and are just looking to kick things up a notch, as well as (b) people who are in the midst of a significant transition – whether of a type and time of their own choosing, or not – and embarking on a potentially major life change.

Last but not least: I like their focus on fun, play and happiness.  Specifically, their reframing of “happiness” resonates with me: “Dysfunctional belief: Happiness is having it all.  Reframe: Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need” (p. 174; authors’ emphases).

In what situations would this be useful?

While I have already begun mentioning Designing Your Life to all my clients and friends who I know are contemplating a career change or are already in one, I would especially recommend it to two audiences in particular:

  • young people (e.g., in their 20’s) – fresh out of undergraduate or graduate school and/or menial jobs – who are considering their first meaningful career move; and
  • veteran professionals who are perhaps contemplating their “third act,” a late-career transition or an entirely new type of (paid or volunteer) work in lieu of retirement.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

If you’re in the latter category above, you might want to check out a book about personal reinvention called The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009).  Note: It is about human development and narrative, not about conducting a job or career search.

For both categories above, I believe that cultivating a new mindfulness practice or deepening an existing one can accelerate any life transition process.  There are some very effective guided mindfulness meditations of various lengths – starting at just three minutes long – available to stream for free online.  One audio site that I like is UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.  Also, “there’s an app for that!”  Here’s a recent news article that ranks popular mindfulness apps.

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