Leadership Library Review — “Proud AND Critical: And-Thinking Applied to Critical Race Theory” by Barry Johnson (Polarity Partnerships, September 2021)

October 2021

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright…./For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.    – Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

What are the big take-aways?

In his brief article “Proud AND Critical,” Barry Johnson, the originator of “polarity thinking,” puts his finger precisely on the fact that one’s love of country – one’s patriotism and pride – need not be affected in any way whatsoever by also recognizing how our country does and does not yet live up to its ideals.  “Being proud and motivated by our county’s ideals of ‘liberty, justice and equality for all’ comes with it a constant vigilance to live up to those ideals,” he asserts.  In other words, when it comes to the current controversy over critical race theory (i.e., the legal, social, etc. history of African-Americans in the United States), Americans have the choice to make a elevating move: we can apply an AND rather than do an OR.  We can both be proud of our nation AND act on the gaps between its aspirations and its realities. 

Why do I like it?

Paradoxically, it’s whether we are able, as a citizenry, to hold this AND that actually becomes the win-OR-lose proposition!  Johnson observes, “When we assume that we must choose between being proud of our country Or critically comparing our actions to our words and addressing any disparities, we create a false choice in which our country loses regardless of the choice.” 

I like Johnson’s message because, as part of my leadership philosophy, I believe in a fluid view of history that is informed by as many perspectives as possible as they are uncovered or emerge.  I favor seeing history as a panoply of continually-widening vistas into racial and gendered and ecological and infinite other data points, which cumulatively offer an ever more complex – and provocatively confounding – web of the past, for the sake of exposing present-day patterns.  When our triumphs, traumas, declarations, denials and assumptions are illuminated, they can then be consciously explored, integrated and – if we so choose – transmuted into healthier life-affirming systems. 

To my mind, the essence of Johnson’s piece is that the existence of myriad contradictory narratives does not invalidate anyone’s individual truth, AND our society can only thrive on its fullest scale, together, in our whole collective truth: this is not a zero-sum game!  As the leaders of our lives, what we can do is talk to ourselves about ourselves in self-compassionate ways that enlighten and include everything. We can choose to tell a grand multi-dimensional story about our evolving culture that is much larger than our incomplete, fixed and conflicting smaller ones.  We just have to nurture the courage within us (and role-model the vulnerability for each other) to inhabit the AND, which is another word for love.  “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.” 

In what situations would this be useful?

If you are, like I am, thoroughly (re-)galvanized by the racial justice movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder AND shocked by the prevalence of violence – toward others as well as self-inflicted – which plagues white men in America, Barry Johnson’s approach to polarity thinking (and that of his protégé Kelly Lewis, in her collaboration with Brian Emerson), can be transformative.  While I struggle to make sense of what is happening in the United States right now, for reassuring guidance I turn again and again to John Lewis’s idea of “love in action,” and all kinds of other phenomena that also shine light – to me, by me, through me and “as me.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

There are endless sources of light, of course, but what Barry Johnson’s piece about critical race theory brings to mind is the prophetic life of James Baldwin, whose biography and writing I’ve been studying lately. Being a queer African-American intellectual and citizen of the world during the Civil Rights era, Baldwin’s very existence was a mirror he held up to many willfully-emblinded systems in our country, which he did at his peril out of love for America.  Nearly 60 years ago Baldwin wrote presciently about the prescription for resolving the problem of our racialized society: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” 

Although he died in 1987, Baldwin foresaw what could happen if a critical mass of Americans in the heat of our present moment is unable to muster enough self-accepting, courageous responsibility to be the light rather than the flames:

Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

May we merge mercy with might, might with right, and change the history of the world.

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Leadership Library Review — “Waking Up” with Sam Harris: Introductory Course

September 2021

The purpose of meditation isn’t merely to reduce stress or to make you feel better in the moment—it’s to make fundamental discoveries in the laboratory of your own mind.”  –Waking Up website

What are the big take-aways?

Writing this post at the close of August, I am on Day 13 of the 30-day free trial of the Waking Up introductory course, and I love it.  A long-time meditator using a variety of techniques, I was in the mood over the summer to unlock a new set of practices from a different approach (plus, Jim Dethmer mentioning Waking Up in his blog didn’t hurt…), and I’m delighted I tried this one.  As a tool for leaders, Waking Up is a resource I’m already recommending to my coaching clients.  (And what is executive coaching but a co-creative process of making fundamental discoveries in the laboratory of your own leadership?)

Why do I like it?

More than a series of guided meditations for beginners – which, after a dozen years, I certainly still consider myself to be! – this course also includes huge amounts of excellent content in the forms of Q&A about meditation, lengthy Conversations with contemporary teachers (from Radical Compassion author Tara Brach to poet David Whyte, etc.), and short Lessons by Sam Harris himself.  The website is divided between Theory and Practice, and each is a treasure trove.

I like Harris’s intellectual-yet-well-grounded vocal presence, and in addition to doing the daily meditations (though not every day, because I’m pacing myself), it’s been interesting to learn about his own path of awakening.  For example, Harris describes his decades-long quest to understand the mind in his lesson on “Gradual vs Sudden Realization” in the Mysteries & Paradoxes collection.  Also, I appreciate his depth of exploration with the Conversations guests as well as the quality of wisdom shared in other sessions (an early favorite of mine is Joseph Goldstein on “Transforming Negative Emotions”). 

In what situations would this be useful?

The Waking Up introductory course would be useful for anyone inquiring about meditation practices in general and/or the nature of consciousness and/or freedom from egoic self.  It’s worth noting that I experience Waking Up as having a cerebral and masculine orientation, including – but not solely – due to the fact that the majority of featured practitioners and theorists are men and white.  To me, in terms of Waking Up’s effectiveness, these are overall neutral aspects of the course, but I could imagine other users having a different response to them.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Based on the same Jim Dethmer blog post mentioned above, I’ve also recently begun reading Loch Kelly’s book, Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness (Sounds True, 2015) and accessing some of Kelly’s other material, all of which has proven immediately applicable and useful.  Kelly happens to be featured in both the Theory and Practice sections of the Waking Up website.

Another practical “how-to” book with a Buddhist – and, arguably, feminist-leaning – take is the late Kathleen Dowling Singh’s Unbinding: The Grace Beyond Self (Wisdom Publications, 2019).  Hear her thoughts about how simple, and even mundane, the awakening process can be in this lovely interview with Kate Ebner on Inside Transformational Leadership.  For a more socially-conscious angle on collective waking-up, I highly recommend Krista Tippett’s stunning On Being dialogue with the queer African-American Zen Buddhist angel Kyodo williams entitled, “The World is Our Field of Practice.”

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Leadership Library Review — “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are: A Memoir” by Ursula M. Burns (Amistad, 2021)

August 2021

“I could run this place, I remember thinking.” – Ursula Burns

What are the big take-aways?

This engrossing memoir by the former CEO of Xerox, and the first African American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, is ultimately a story about how the personal and professional philosophies of an authentic leader are forged.  The book jacket says it best: “Candid and outspoken, Burns offers a remarkable look inside the C-suites through the eyes of a Black woman – someone who puts humanity over greed, and justice over power.  Empathetic and dedicated, idealistic and pragmatic, Burns demonstrates that no matter your circumstances, hard work and leadership can change your life – and the world.”  Not an overstatement.

Why do I like it?

Born into poverty but with a single mother rigorously devoted to her children’s safety and advancement, Burns survived the bullies of her New York City public-housing neighborhoods and the brutal punishment of the nuns supervising her parochial education to eventually discover her gifts for math, science and writing at Cathedral High School in Manhattan.  Having been admitted to Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, City College and Brooklyn Polytechnic, she chose Brooklyn Polytechnic (now New York University) for the practical and financial advantages of her HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program) eligibility there.  Her major was mechanical engineering, a field in which she immediately encountered racism as a student: “It wasn’t that they were mean to me (they weren’t); they just couldn’t comprehend how a Black girl could be as smart as or, in some cases, smarter than they were” (p. 101).  Burns’s career at Xerox began with an internship during her junior year in college, and she started working full-time for the company in 1981.  She became the CEO of Xerox in 2009 (a job handed off to her by another ground-breaking woman, Anne Mulcahy).  Xerox is also where Burns met her complicated, beloved and career-supporting husband, Lloyd, who retired to take care of their kids.

Who wouldn’t love that story?  And not just because it’s inherently inspiring for any number of reasons, but I also loved it because Burns’s narrative voice is frank, incisive, relatable and unsparingly “warts-and-all.”  Her intense journey – and the surprisingly gripping corporate tale of Xerox – through the 36 years she spent there is captivating and (for someone like me who’s less familiar with the visceral insides of for-profit global enterprise, especially in the manufacturing industry) quite educational.  Secondarily, it’s an ode to what the research of Zenger and Folkman has uncovered about gender and leadership: “Women are perceived by their managers — particularly their male managers — to be slightly more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of the organization. That includes the traditional male bastions of IT, operations, and legal.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Where You Are Is Not Who You Are is an engaging, almost conversational autobiography about authentic and inclusive leadership, which – in its thoughtful descriptions of how to navigate many key polarities in business and in life – could serve anyone’s development.  Although I imagined I’d be recommending this book to women clients and clients of color, the first person I found myself mentioning it to (before I even finished it) was a white male leader of an engineering college at a big university who’s creating new diversity initiatives. 

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

I recommend Daphne Jefferson’s Dropping the Mask: Connecting Leadership to Identity (New Degree, 2020), which happens to cite Ursula Burns as an example early in the book.  While geared toward leaders of color, especially Black women, Dropping the Mask is a comprehensive exposition of what makes any authentic leader – a person who owns and capitalizes on the whole of his or her unique life experience to purposefully influence others – so effective.  It nicely knits together a number of my favored leadership research interests, such as neuroscience, emotional intelligence, story-telling, communication and self-authorship.  

Relative to race and Covid-19, for leaders considering whether or how to go “room, Zoom or hybrid” at this stage of the pandemic I recommend this Washington Post article about African American women in the workforce and why some are not eager to return to the office.  (And if, for any reason, you yourself are seeking to work remotely, here’s some quick advice about how to negotiate a long-term arrangement.)

For a less conventional pairing – i.e. an audio-visual treat, arguably about (and itself an act of) African American leadership, authenticity and joy – I suggest the enlightening and exuberant new documentary, Summer of Soul (currently in some theaters and streaming on Hulu).

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Leadership Library Review — “The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward” by Kevin Cashman (Berrett-Koehler, 2012)

July 2021

All real change begins with self-change; pause is a catalyst of self-change.

– Kevin Cashman

I loved Cashman’s previous leadership handbook, Leadership from the Inside Out, which I previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library and wrote about again a few years later when the author added a new chapter in the revised edition on “Story Mastery.”  I hadn’t read his subsequent publication, The Pause Principle, until I was recently inspired to do so by my friend and colleague Dr. Ruth Zaplin, who supervises some new coaching work with federal employees I’m starting this summer in American University’s Key Executive Leadership Programs.  Note: The Pause Principle strikes me as particularly timely reading for addressing widespread burnout during this quasi-post-pandemic phase of Covid-19 in the U.S.

Pausing, Complexity and Adult Development

At its core, Cashman’s “pause principle” is an inside-out leadership orientation toward navigating complexity in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environments in order to prevent overwhelm.  “The greater the complexity, the deeper the reflective pause required to convert the complex and ambiguous to the clear and meaningful.  Pause helps us to move from the transactive or hyperactive to the transformative” (p. 26). 

There are “pause points” peppered throughout the book, providing coaching questions, reflection prompts and easy practices designed to offer increasing perspective, awareness and self-actualization.  Considering the emphasis on various forms of mindfulness in the leadership work of (among others) Jennifer Garvey Berger, Robert Kegan, and Joiner & Josephs in Leadership Agility, I believe the consciousness-raising benefit of the pause principle is likely an adult development accelerator.

Indeed, the distinctions Cashman repeatedly draws throughout the three central chapters (on pausing for personal leadership, for growth of others, and for growing cultures of innovation) between the skills of “management effectiveness” and “leadership excellence” strike me as intrinsically developmental.  In my opinion, Cashman’s differentiations between management and leadership capabilities largely track the transformation from the socialized form of mind (at which things we perceive about ourselves come from external perspectives of other people or worldviews or our professional expertise) and the self-authored form of mind, which Berger describes as showing up this way in a recent article: “someone who is strongly guided by a purpose she sets for herself, who takes responsibility for her own actions and emotions and holds you responsible for yours, and who can name and reflect on (as well as edit and redefine) the values that shape her actions” (i.e., she authors her own perspective internally). 

One powerful example from The Pause Principle of how Cashman’s leadership-to-management shift manifests as developmental comes from the chapter on character, authenticity and integrity entitled, “Pause to Grow Personal Leadership.”  The author asserts on page 49 that “[m]anagers create processes and control mechanisms to regulate and enforce ethical behavior” while “leaders embody character to inspire ethical behavior in others.”  The former is a knowledge-based response to outer standards (socialized), whereas the latter is a whole-person expression of internal direction (self-authored). He follows this on page 53 with a chart listing the elements of “leading by coping” versus “leading in character,” which reads much like similar frameworks propounded by subsequent thought leaders whose models also smack of the developmental move from socialized to self-authored.  (Brene Brown’s comprehensive delineation between “armored leadership” and “daring leadership” in Dare to Lead leaps to mind as just one example.)

Beyond Developmental

There is much else that I appreciate about this book, but readers of this blog will not be surprised that one other subject I found especially captivating in The Pause Principle was Cashman’s provocation to an inherently spiritual mode of operating in complexity.  He terms it “transcendent leadership,” which acknowledges the existence of something vaster than ourselves (as evidenced by phenomena such as peak experience, the zone, flow, presencing, or non-doing in meditation: for details, see page 70).  The manager/leader contrast he draws here is this: “Too often, managers are Human Doers using energy and action to spend themselves in the pursuit of goals, whereas leaders aspire to be full Human Beings seeking the renewal of transcendence to re-create themselves and others in pursuit of service-filled purpose.” 

Bottom Line

It is my lay-person’s understanding that the psychology of adult development research shows the ability to wholly inhabit the paradoxical Doing and Being polarity requires at least a self-authored form of mind.  (In Kegan’s theory, there is one more form of mind beyond self-authored, called self-transforming.)  And I hypothesize that Cashman’s characterization of “service-filled purpose” probably requires self-authored sense-making, too.  Therefore, The Pause Principle might be frustrating for some of Cashman’s “manager” readers, but because of the book’s constant integration of thoughtful reflection practices, if the reader seriously works the program I believe it could provide the inspiration, perspective-stretches and scaffolding needed to support the kind of transformational change within leaders for which Cashman paused to write this book.

Recommended Pairings

For more leadership practices that support navigation of VUCA conditions with an explicitly adult development lens, I highly recommend Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnstone. 

If you are looking for cutting-edge perspectives on authentic leadership, based on a fantastic presentation by the author I attended last week I would recommend Daphne Jefferson’s Dropping the Mask: Connecting Leadership to Identity (New Degree, 2020). While geared toward leaders of color, women, and their white male colleagues, Dropping the Mask — which is now on my nightstand — sounds like it offers practical wisdom for everyone.  For other relatively recent books about the intersections between leadership values, authenticity and purpose, I recommend the following (ideally in this order): Discover Your True North Fieldbook: A Personal Guide to Becoming an Authentic Leader by Bill George, et al. (Wiley, 2015); Leading from Purpose: Clarity and the Confidence to Act When It Matters by Nick Craig (Hachette, 2018); and Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness and Trust by Edgar Schein and Peter Schein (Berrett-Koehler, 2018).

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All Play

June 2021

The Antidote to Shame

“Playfulness and connectedness are antidotes to shame” declares the warm, savvy and spacious team at Pacific Integral, whose enlightening course on “Emergent Leadership” I participated in this spring.  While Pacific Integral’s assertion resonates completely with me (as a person who has basically resolved all her remaining body-acceptance issues by dancing mischievously in her friend Megan’s disinhibiting Zumba classes), their basis for this precise notion is unclear.  My internet search for “play is the antidote to shame” yielded only one directly relevant piece from a few years ago in an old opinion series at the Huffington Post

That said, I’ve heard sociologist and leadership expert Brene Brown discuss the links between vulnerability, shame and courage in her research for years, and Brown’s formula for eradicating shame is empathy (explained succinctly to Oprah Winfrey here).  Empathy’s effects are not unrelated to the benefits – such as a sense of wholeness and belonging – that we derive from play, but to my mind empathy is qualitatively different.  For one thing, we can source play for ourselves. When we are playing we are joyful, spontaneous conduits of emergence, immersed in what we’re doing, liberated from our fear (of failure, of looking stupid, of being judged, etc.).  Effective leaders understand that play is a positive disruptor, allowing good stuff to channel through us into existence.  If leadership – from the smallest local grassroots movements to the juggernauts of global private enterprise – could be redefined as a form of play, the whole world would transform into a healthier place: a nimbler humanity would have the perspective to address intractable conundrums by taking its darkness seriously while holding it lightly.  

The Lever of Transformation

Transformation in any system always begins with self-transformation inside an individual (who, by the way, can be situated anywhere touching that system).  My professional philosophy aligns with the folks at the Conscious Leadership Group, whose Commitment #9 of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership is about navigating play and rest “above the line” in an open, curious stance of learning: I commit to creating a life of play, improvisation, and laughter. I commit to seeing all of life unfold easefully and effortlessly. I commit to maximizing my energy by honoring rest, renewal and rhythm.  [Their emphasis.]  The “below the line” manifestation of this commitment is the following closed and defensive stance, primarily concerned with being right [my emphasis]: I commit to seeing my life as serious; it requires hard work, effort and struggle. I see play and rest as distractions from effectiveness and efficiency. 

We can’t be the generative fonts of imagination, innovation and experimentation that are necessary to our planetary flourishing if we are frenetically grasping at illusions like stability, certainty, simplicity or being right.  Imagine what possibilities could be unleashed if you, your team, your family, your workplace, your organization, your community and our society were “committed to creating a life of play”!  Having evolved our primate playfulness not just for survival (check out this gibbon’s territorial improv act) but for social, problem-solving – and even culture-building reasons in the example of bonobos – it seems that we homo sapiens pop out of the cosmos as newborns with a universal innate sense of humor.  (Otherwise, how could these tiny babies respond with such hilarity at their father’s antics?)  As we grow up we may get out of practice, but play is an ever-present living resource within each of us, always inviting a change in consciousness.

The Shift

Erica Schreiber of the Conscious Leadership Group describes in her blog post, “When F*cked Is Funny,” how she uses humor – and a particular song – as her shift move from “below the line” to “above the line.”  Do you use humor or play to change your consciousness?  If so, what’s your shift move?

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Returning to the Office: Whether, When and How?

May 2021

“[Microsoft] plans to remove restrictions only once the virus acts ‘more like an endemic virus such as the seasonal flu,’ an executive wrote.”

In the U.S. and some other parts of the world where Covid-19 vaccines have been available for a few months now, we’re approaching a strange, exciting, anxious and complicated moment: What exactly can we start planning to do now, and when?  Specifically, my leadership coaching clients and organizations with non-essential workers are grappling with the question, How do we plan a safe return to the office?

One of my immediate instincts as a coach is to offer my clients’ inherent wisdom right back to them, and in this case that’s easy to do because I captured the biggest pearls in this blog last April!  As it turns out, the “Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic” during the emergent transition to lockdown tend to mirror – like bookends – much of what the experts are saying now about the back-to-office transition, only in slo-mo and with these three additions:

Thoroughly inquire about the myriad ways you, your colleagues and your organization are very different than you were before Covid-19 arrived. 

We’ve all been transformed – in fundamental, even sacred ways – by our “liminal experiences” of the past year and we are not the same people we were in the spring of 2020.  How do these changes, collectively, affect your organization’s culture and thus inform your design of practical teamwork-supporting plans for whether, when and how to return to the office?  (Check out this short summary of a recent Harvard study showing that 80% of workers do not want to return to full-time office life; and most of those who do want to come back to the office are parents.)  Most organizations in my clientele are already experimenting with hybrid arrangements. What leadership and management strategies will offer you and your employees psychological safety in a hybrid re-opening phase?  (As for physical safety, Google may be showing us the future of office design for long-term hybrid workplaces.) How does your own state of consciousness about leading through this in-between time determine what’s possible for the organization as a whole?

Clarify what the pandemic revealed to you and your organization that you want to keep, and commit to it now.  Make “live lightly” one of them. 

Covid-19’s disruptions to American culture starkly illuminated gaps and subverted our assumptions to the extent that they actually provide a blueprint for societal-level change.  Of course, this it true on organizational and individual scales, too.  For example, many of us have experienced (welcome or unwelcome) opportunities to recapture our “beginner’s mind,” recalibrate our priorities in life, percolate on creative projects, (re-)turn to poetry, and deepen our accountability for racial equity.  What have been the pandemic’s “silver linings” for your organization, your team, and for you?  What have you and your organization learned so far during Covid-19 that you intend to keep, and how will you invest in those commitments with sufficient time, money, energy and attention?  Now that you know how much of an illusion “control” can be, what agility practices will you and your organization employ to “live lightly,” as Jim Dethmer of the Conscious Leadership Group describes it

Cultivate even more (self-)compassion and empathy.  

We are all really tired at this point, and for good reason!  So cut yourself some slack, and cut plenty for everyone around you, too.  Many of us are “languishing” (the “neglected middle child of mental health” between depression and flourishing), even if thus far we have fared relatively well in the pandemic.  And then there are those of us who have not fared well, financially or in health or career or family life – and those who have lost loved ones – particularly in the BIPOC populations disproportionately affected by Covid.  With self-compassion and empathy for others, keep learning about how to maintain well-being in response to the trauma that perhaps you and almost certainly your colleagues of color are going through (in terms of Covid, yes, and also the trauma surfacing amidst the movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder).  Continue expanding your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts and working on your own antiracism.  In DE&I and in everything else, seek to balance accountability with forgiveness in a way that serves the purpose of growth-oriented learning, both your own as well as others’. 

Additional Resources:

  • This is a nerve-racking time, and I recently absorbed some new information about how to view anxiety as a habit that can be unlearned.  In this podcast interview of psychiatrist Jud Brewer by Ezra Klein, I was struck by the role of curiosity in unlearning anxiety, and I also thought it was interesting that research is revealing a mental “flavor” shared by curiosity and kindness.
  • Consider taking the Intercultural Development Inventory®, or IDI®, “the premier cross-cultural assessment of intercultural competence that is used by thousands of individuals and organizations…[to build the competence] to achieve international and domestic diversity and inclusion goals and outcomes.”  Inexpensive for what you get, in my opinion, the inventory is administered like any other web-based instrument, and includes a live debrief session with a certified IDI practitioner.  I found my IDI experience to be accurate and inspiring (even though the assessment showed I have a very long way to grow to get where I want to be in terms of how I handle my encounters with cultural difference).
  • Contemplate this reflection by the late African-American activist and writer, Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
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Leading in the Bardo

April 2021

The rupture of bardo inevitably leads to whatever is next…Impermanence is not just an illuminator of loss. It is an illuminator of newness, the ever-unfolding present moment and its creativity.  –Pema Khandro Rinpoche

Springtime as Bardo

At this transitional time of year in the northern hemisphere, lots of hibernating mammals, amphibians and other animals who have been in a torpid or frozen state – entombed/enwombed for many months – are stirring, as if resurrected.  They bust out of their dens or logs or mud reborn in hunger and, in many species, with offspring to feed.  Soon baby birds, looking like impossibly fragile miniatures of their dinosaur ancestors, will use up all their remaining energy to hatch from their confining eggs, just to initiate the next struggle for survival. 

Buddhists note that the bud is destroyed by the flower!  To me, spring is a confusingly ambivalent season of freedom, devastation, grace, turbulence, sweetness, peril and the transformative paradox – spiritually acknowledged at Passover and Easter – of what I will call “sacred violence.”  A couple of days ago my husband and I happened to observe the brief moment when a small long-tailed weasel slipped into an invisible vole-hole amid the straw on our back hill and efficiently popped out the other end, making off with its dead occupant clamped in her jaws; likely food for the weasel’s own litter.  

Leadership in the Bardo

For experiencing visceral attunement with the eerie edges between death, closing, rebirth and opening in the cosmic life cycle, springtime is – to my mind – the most poignant season.  Noticing these edges can be a powerful practice for leaders because leadership is, itself, a succession of bardos.  What’s a bardo?  It’s a Buddhist term for what exists after one thing has ended and a new thing has yet to begin.  Pema Khandro Rinpoche explains in “Breaking Open in the Bardo”:

The Tibetan term bardo, or “intermediate state,” is not just a reference to the afterlife [the phase between death and reincarnation]. It also refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives. In American culture, we sometimes refer to this as having the rug pulled out from under us, or feeling ungrounded. These interruptions in our normal sense of certainty are what is being referred to by the term bardo. But to be precise, bardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us.

Intermediate or liminal states happen non-stop in leadership, actually, because continuity is an illusion and disruption is constant.  A practice of acknowledging and breaking open in the relentless stream of bardos serves a leader well: it can bring to her – paradoxically – a stillness of interior presence amidst all the outward action.  Such presence, in turn, offers her sufficient space for the curiosity of mind, largeness of heart, and embodiment of perception that allows her to sense what’s emerging externally and choose whether or how to make a move.  Moreover, Otto Scharmer of MIT and co-founder of “U Theory” frequently quotes CEO of Hanover Insurance Bill O’Brien as observing: “The success of an intervention depends on the inner condition of the intervenor.”  Leaders are always encountering potential thresholds of intervention.  The late poet John O’Donohue put it this way: “a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and I think that very often how we cross is the key thing” [my emphasis].  I believe cultivating our how – our who we are in disruption – is leadership self-development, in a nutshell.

Arguably, leaders co-create reality by sensing and observing as we move from threshold to threshold, across boundaries, into the unknown.  Ambiguity can be our friend.  Bardos – interruptions, in-between states, or what William Bridges names “neutral zones” – are as available every second of the day and night all our lives as heartbeats, waiting to be leveraged by our awareness.  And (to reiterate observations from prior blog posts), the direction in which a leader consciously chooses to look at any given moment determines where energy is invested in the organization, when vision becomes realized, and even how the future is made.  In addition, the “eyes” with which a leader sees the emerging future (eyes of love, eyes of fear, eyes of sadness, eyes of generosity, eyes of anger, or eyes of compassion, etc.) will similarly determine the tone and the potential for what is possible.

Hover in the bardo of absorbing that idea: The eyes through which a leader views unfolding circumstances allows for what actually unfolds.  With what eyes are you crossing the threshold into your next moment?

Additional Resources

  • Otto Scharmer’s presentation, “Innovating in the Face of Disruption: How to Lead from the Emerging Future” (12/15/20), and/or his book The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications (Berrett-Kohler, 2018). Scharmer asserts, “There is no such thing as the future…The future is emerging from the quality of how we respond in the disruption of the current moment [my emphasis].”
  • “The World is Our Field of Practice,” an “On Being” interview with African-American Zen Buddhist cleric, angel Kyodo williams.
  • Notice the easy-to-spot bardos in your daily existence, and consider the implications of how you view them.  Here are just a few examples: passing through doorways, gates and other literal thresholds; that wonky state of consciousness between sleeping and waking; a global pandemic; twilight; waiting for the doctor to call with test results; a slumbering puppy; a rain delay during a baseball game; the shift from fully sitting in a chair to fully standing up; a cocoon or chrysalis. The photo below that I took from my back door on this post’s publication date prompts wonderings: Is this a picture of late winter or early spring?  Is it raining or snowing?  Where does field become forest become cloud?  In the trees, where is the snow line?
This is the view out my back door in Montpelier, Vermont on the afternoon of April Fool’s Day, 2021.
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Leadership Library Review: Three Excellent Resources for Understanding Race, Caste and Antiracism

March 2021

What’s the problem with being “not racist”?  It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist but neither am I aggressively against racism.”  But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle.  The opposite of “racist” is not “not racist.”  It is “antiracist.” 

– Ibram X. Kendi

Since the assassination of Trayvon Martin, I have been intentionally awakening to my unconscious biases and my racism, and seeking ways to hold myself accountable as a white person (and as a white leadership development specialist) for continuous growth on this uncomfortable lifelong journey.  After the murder of George Floyd, I began doubling-down on this commitment, including in professional offerings and in the Leadership Library. In recent months, three resources have been particularly meaningful, and I highly recommend engaging with them, ideally in the following order:

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020)

While I was astonished by the breadth and depth of Wilkerson’s previous masterpiece about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns (Vintage, 2011), I admit its lengthy story-telling style was a slog for me.  However, this was not the case with Wilkerson’s latest exploration of the infrastructure of inequity, Caste, which I found to be crisp, powerful and persuasive. 

In this book, Wilkerson argues convincingly for a comparison among the caste hierarchies of India and specifically the social condition of the Dalits (“Untouchables”); the American enslavement – and then the deliberate, legally-sanctioned terrorization and oppression of – African Americans; and Nazi Germany’s research on the American example as inspiration for its persecution of Jews.  Wilkerson quotes historian Eugene DeFriest Betit’s Collective Amnesia: American Apartheid: African Americans’ 400 Years in North America, 1619-2019 (Xlibris, 2019) regarding how Hitler “especially marveled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’”  To my mind, the most effective section of Caste is Wilkerson’s organization of the comparison material into “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” although the entire book is incredibly compelling.  Distinguishing between race and caste, Wilkerson demonstrates clearly and thoroughly that human cultures have known from ancient times what policies and practices create infrastructures of inequity.  While the book is a call-to-action, it only nods to possible solutions, such as reparations, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation processes. Drawing different distinctions than those in Caste, Ibram X. Kendi’s book offers more detailed, start-where-you-are recommendations.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (One World, 2019)

Opening with the brilliant “My Racist Introduction,” Kendi offers transformative definitions of racism and antiracism which – potently – leave no room in between for claims of “not racist.”  In Kendi’s philosophy and ethics, ideas and policies are either racist or antiracist.  There is no escapism into fuzzy leeway; there is no “I’m not racist.”  As Kendi says, “this book is ultimately about the basic struggle we’re all in, the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human.”  In fact, part memoir and confessional, this book leverages Kendi’s own story of developing racial consciousness as he grew up, then adopting anti-white racism for a time, before “finding and turning down the unlit dirt road of antiracism,” while simultaneously tracking a well-researched legal, cultural and scientific history of racism in the United States.  It’s an impressive and provocative combination.

For me, grappling with my racism in a mindful effort to be more antiracist, How to Be an Antiracist offered the distinctions and examples I needed in order to liberate myself from perceived limitations – including a lack of authority on “diversity” as a white person – so that I could take action.  Kendi describes why previous attempts to solve racism haven’t worked, and why new antiracist policies are needed:  “Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power construct), of racial history as a singular march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest) – all come together to produce solutions bound to fail” (p. 201).  Not unlike Wilkerson, he argues that the history of racist ideas “is the history of powerful policy-makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies” (p. 230).  My reflections on the implications of this framing have empowered me to begin formulating personal and professional antiracism policies (Kendi defines antiracist policies in the final chapter, “Survival”) and acting on them.

Be Antiracist: A Journal for Awareness, Reflection and Action by Ibram X. Kendi (One World, 2020)

I am grateful to have Be Antiracist to support my continuing self-examination and growth.  As the jacket of this rich, disturbing and compassionate workbook states, “The heartbeat of antiracism is confession.  It is self-reflection.  It is constantly declaring the moments we are being racist and celebrating the moments we are being antiracist.”  Following the  progression of chapters in How to Be an Antiracist – but certainly usable as a stand-alone resource – the journal advances the explorer through a succession of (at least for me) scary and illuminating prompts.  A simple yet poignant one that I am still contemplating is, “When did race come for you?  Describe in detail your earliest memory when you saw the world through a racial lens.” 

Complementary Nuggets

With thanks to the racial discussion groups that my coach training program at Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Learning have been running since 2016, which introduced me to these pieces, here are a few smaller, complementary nuggets:

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Lift Up Your Mojitos: Dessa’s “Who’s Yellen Now?”

February 2021

She’s the first that’s led

The Council of Economic Advisers, Tresh and the Fed,

She needs a three-sided coin that always comes up heads

To put the triple crown down when she goes to bed

Janet Yellen’s back!  In 2017, the 45th president decided to replace her as Federal Reserve Chair because – and I’m not kidding – he thought she was too short for the job.  But Yellen is “qualified as ffff —” for an even bigger role, and on the day then-president-elect Biden announced his intention to nominate Yellen for Treasury Secretary, the stock market shot up over 30,000 for a new record.  She was sworn in last Tuesday and has already begun briefing the new president on the economy.

National Public Radio’s “Marketplace” show reports that when Biden made his announcement back in November, he said, “We might have to ask Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical about the first secretary of the treasury, ‘Hamilton,’ to write another musical for the first woman secretary of the treasury — Yellen.”  So “Marketplace” asked the rapper Dessa, a member of the hip-hop collective Doomtree and a contributor to “The Hamilton Mixtape,” to imagine a Miranda-style song about her.  That was the stimulus and “Who’s Yellen Now?” was the response.  (It’s worth noting here that the “Hamilton” was also an inspiration for phenom Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Day poem, “The Hill We Climb.”)

There are a lot of things I love about “Who’s Yellen Now?” and one of my favorite lines (which is an admittedly ironic one, in light of the title’s double-entendre riff on Janet’s name) is “…here comes Yellen with that inside voice/Never mind the mild manner, policies make noise.”  I like this actions-speak-louder-than-words message, combined with the point that a louder voice isn’t necessarily more effective or more powerful, including when it comes to certain domains of governmental responsibility such as money, jobs and economic growth.  Overall the lyrics acknowledge gender stereotypes with a nod toward balancing embodied “feminine” approaches to leadership with traditional “masculine” ones.  The potency of this balance, which led Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman to suggest in 2019 that women may be better leaders than men, has recently been underscored by their new research conducted in the context of Covid-19.  The big take-aways:

Perhaps the most valuable part of the data we’re collecting throughout the [Covid-19] crisis is hearing from thousands of direct reports about what they value and need from leaders now. Based on our data they want leaders who are able to pivot and learn new skills; who emphasize employee development even when times are tough; who display honesty and integrity; and who are sensitive and understanding of the stress, anxiety, and frustration that people are feeling. Our analysis shows that these are traits that are more often being displayed by women.

I bet a woman rapper and former record executive like Dessa understands this as well as anyone, and it sounds as though she found an unlikely hero in Yellen while learning about her in order to write the song.  “I read a lot about her to make sure that she was somebody who I’d like to send up,” Dessa told “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal, “and it was really exciting to become a fan of Janet Yellen.”  She added, “The three of us who worked on this song …I don’t think we’ve ever had so much fun…It was like, how do we get out of this normal rap game and into this [cabinet] appointment niche because it was so much fun to write.”

I join Dessa and her collaborators in lifting up a metaphorical mojito to Janet Yellen “managing the mint” as the first woman to hold the title of Treasury Secretary in its 231-year-old history!  (Complete lyrics to the song are below; click on the title and scroll down for the link to hear Dessa perform it.)


Vocals and Lyrics by Dessa

Production by Lazerbeak and Andy Thompson


 Oooo, who’s Yellen now?

 Who’s Yellen, who’s Yellen now?


 Doves on the left

 Hawks on the right

 Crosstalk in the flock tryna fight mid-flight

 But here comes Yellen with that inside voice

 Never mind the mild manner, policies make noise

 She’s 5-foot nothing, but hand to God

 She can pop a collar, she can rock a power bob

 Bay Ridge represent!

 Brooklyn’s in the cabinet!

 Damn, Janet, go and get it —

 Fifth in line for president!

 She knows the kinda stimulus it takes to pass a buck

 I heard she called the housing crisis 

 She’s qualified as ffff —

 It only took a couple centuries

 The first female secretary of the treasury


 Don’t want no tax evasion

 Forgers faking

 In her treasury

 Trying for higher wages

 For the nation

 Less disparity


 Watch your step, there’s busted glass

 Janet broke another ceiling

 You can bet your brass

 That the Lego guy is leaving

 Last check to cash

 — ‘Scuse me, Janet has a briefing and a flight to catch

 And Janet

 She’s the first that’s led

 The Council of Economic Advisers, Tresh and the Fed,

 She needs a three-sided coin that always comes up heads

 To put the triple crown down when she goes to bed

 Call the decorators

 New boss in the office

 Spenders and the savers

 Watch the confirmation process

 We got to meet her

 Now let’s let her settle in 

 And lift up your mojitos —

 ‘Cause she manages the mint

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Leadership Library Review — “Beginning” in “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words” by David Whyte

January 2021

A collection of short essays that is astounding in its loveliness and profundity all the way through, Consolations (Many Rivers, Rev. 2019) is one of those books that can always speak to me at any moment – as the curator of my memories and as the ancestor of my future self – and offer something fresh.  Each time I crack it open, different words call to my latest unfolding wondering or to my current search for elucidation on one thorny subject or another (Forgiveness, Genius, Naming, Rome, Courage, Denial, Pilgrim, Hiding, Maturity…). 

Perhaps the most practical – and maybe the longest – sentence in the entire book is at the ending of “Beginning” (p. 31):

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we could ever imagine, that in fact we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: just picking up the pen or the wood chisel, just picking up the instrument or the phone, which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities to be safely clouded by fear, why we want the horizon to remain always in the distance, the promise never fully and simply made, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.

Certainly a Beginning – that tiny yet momentous act of transforming the impossible into the possible with our mere mind – is risky and even perilous.  It is radical and subversive and magical, and we know it.  How incomprehensibly powerful we are – and how terrifying that is!  Also, as a leader it can seem as though everything you believe yourself to be, and what you believe you are seen to be by others, is at stake in starting something new. This is why understanding one’s less productive habits around Beginnings (e.g., the tendency to fudge or hedge them, to speak vaguely or with mixed messages, to move too slowly, or to ask others to dive in without getting your own feet wet, etc.) is an essential self-awareness practice of effective leaders.

One productive habit that I encourage my clients to develop around risk-taking is to frame the risk as an experiment: the purpose of experimentation is to gather data, and any information that results is therefore useful.  The experimental mindset mitigates our culture’s seductive pressure to quickly declare judgment (succeed or fail, lose or win, good or bad) and offers us instead the more generative and energizing invitation to learn, play and adapt.  That said, there are times in our lives when contemplating Beginning is so frightening that the only truly motivating question that remains is, “What’s at risk if you don’t take the courageous step?” As Brene Brown points out, there is no courage without vulnerability, so vulnerability is necessary to Beginning, too.  Fortunately, Vulnerability is another word Whyte rhapsodizes – particularly poignantly – in Consolations (although it’s even more devastating to hear Whyte read the mini-essay aloud in his own voice).  He also takes on Courage, which he defines on page 49 as “the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future.”

Further Resources

For more on David Whyte’s poetry and philosophy, I recommend his breath-taking interview with Krista Tippett for On Being, “The Conversational Nature of Reality,”  which I reviewed a few years ago in this blog.  To deeply explore the theme of Beginning in a live online forum with David Whyte, check out “Start Close In,” a webinar series he is offering for three consecutive Sundays this month, starting on the 10th.

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