Leadership Library Review: Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic

April 2020

Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic

Over the past three weeks I have been astounded, heartened and elevated by everything that my leadership coaching and consulting clients are teaching me and – and insofar as I am a “node” connecting all of them – that they are teaching each other about developmental leadership during the Covid-19 crisis.

Between the wisdom I’ve culled from them, plus a few other resources, I’ve synthesized below seven basic best practices for deepening leadership presence and increasing adaptive capacity throughout this challenging period.  I offer them as a checklist of reminders to support your work in the midst of the uniquely unpredictable weeks ahead:

  1. Stay well, and stay open. What remains as true as ever in a pandemic, as at any other more normal time, is that effective leadership starts with your effectiveness at leading your own life.  In a moment like this, it begins with you doing everything you can to stay healthy in body and mind (see a list of 12 strategies here) so that you can be of service to others over the long haul.  Focusing on your wellness – especially sleep, nutrition, exercise and spending time in nature – will keep you open, agile and in a strong growth mindset (explained here).  (And if you are now working from home with kids, I recommend the “Well-being Resources for Parents” series from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.)  Every single one of us must stay as creative as we can these days because when we are reactive, our past experiences are actually what’s driving our decisions, and by definition the past does not necessarily apply in our unprecedented circumstances!  We make our best decisions when we’re self-aware, resilient and “above the line.”
  2. Feel your emotions. It is normal and expected that we will all have feelings of fear, overwhelm, anger, sadness or inadequacy – or a combo – throughout this crisis.  Personally, as well as professionally.  To some extent or another, we are each grieving, too. Try not to judge these natural human emotions, and allow yourself to feel them.  Most often, they are signals to slow down.  As a leader, you can slow down by delegating more of your responsibilities to colleagues in order to free up psychological space for yourself; e.g. show your teams that you believe in them by – at least temporarily – handing off important work to them.  You can also slow down by: reaching out to trusted colleagues, friends or support professionals for candid conversations; meditating, using mindfulness apps or listening to short guided breathing or body scan meditations; playing music that centers you; doing a few yoga poses; and whatever else works for you.  And sometimes you can slow down just by literally slowing down!
  3. Adopt three simple habits. Eminently applicable right now are Jennifer Garvey Berger’s three “simple habits for complex times” (my review of the book by that title is here). The three simple habits we can bring to every meeting or interaction that help us navigate complexity and uncertainty are: (1) asking different questions; (2) taking multiple perspectives; and (3) seeing systems.  These simple habits are useful both at work and at home.  You can hear Jennifer explain them in this podcast interview, and you can watch her describe specific frameworks, models and tools in these very short YouTube videos.  If what we are experiencing right now is propelling us into a “new normal,” the sooner you adopt these habits, the better prepared you will be for the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) conditions ahead.
  4. Communicate well and frequently. There are some best practices of verbal and nonverbal communication for leaders during a crisis.  Most importantly, be authentic; you’ll lose essential credibility if you come across to your staff and stakeholders as fake or as projecting some sort of different persona.  If it feels true to you, and if you can remain calm and confident while you do it, be honest about your own feelings about the pandemic.  To the extent you are able, openly empathize with others, their situations and how they are being affected.  Share facts bluntly: don’t attempt to sugar-coat them, and update critical information as soon as it becomes available.  When there is good news, share that, too.  In times of rapid change, you cannot “over-communicate” with your teams.  (If you’re looking for a role model to see what this looks and sounds like, a leader who is superb at crisis communication is New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo.)
  5. Try new techniques for transformation. Employ the transformative power of navigating particular polarities (i.e. seeming opposites – which are actually two interdependent parts of one larger whole – that can be leveraged for success over time, explained further here).  One relevant example is managing the polarity of realism and optimism: e.g., once your agency’s emergency and work-from-home measures have been taken, begin spending time on a regular basis identifying some of the unexpected opportunities presented by this crisis.  Another polarity is engaging in short-term thinking and long-term thinking: e.g. planning small short-term goals that give everyone an immediate sense of progress, while also designing do-able experiments that might generate surprising innovations for both the present and the future.  Keep asking questions like: What are we observing?  What are we learning from what we see?  What assumptions do we notice we’ve been making up until now that – as it turns out – may not be true?  What can we explore doing with this new information?
  6. Forgive.  Remember that accountability and forgiveness go hand in hand, because they help cultivate a healthy culture of psychological safety (Dan Harris discusses several aspects of psychological safety with Brene Brown in this podcast.).  A crisis will offer you extra practice at forgiving yourself, and at forgiving lots of other people.  Even the smartest, most competent and conscientious among us are inevitably going to (continue…) making mistakes, oversights and outright failures.  This is OK.  When we are acting in good faith, what matters is not so much the mistakes we make, but what we do when we discover them.  As best you can, get curious rather than judgmental about what happened, regardless of whether you made the mistake or someone else did.  If it’s yours, take full responsibility, apologize sincerely, describe what you’re learning, and explain what you’ll do differently going forward.  In either case, forgive one another, get behind the new plan and move on, so that productive teamwork can resume in a psychologically safe atmosphere.
  7. Take constructive risks. FYI, one mistake you really can prevent is tying yourself into knots in a futile bid to avoid making any mistakes at all.  These are times for taking calculated, constructive risks.  “Wins” are only declared in retrospect!  Be gentle with yourself and others, such as in the ways described by the very-down-to-earth meditation teacher Sharon Saltzberg in this 20-minute episode of “10% Happier LIVE” (a 3 p.m. ET daily mindfulness break, which I highly recommend).  When in doubt: trust your heart first, then refine with your head, and be bold.

Here are a few leadership coaching questions, if welcome and resonant:

  • What is nourishing your heart (your love, your courage, your gratitude) these days? How could you make room to savor those things even more?
  • What are you noticing right now about your leadership (at work and at home)? What strengths of yours are surprising you?  How could you further lean into them?
  • With what noble qualities did you “show up” as a leader (at work and at home) today? How do you intend to show up tomorrow?
  • What would you most like to be able to say about your leadership when you look back after this crisis period of the pandemic has passed?
  • What clues are you gathering now about who you will be as a leader in six months, or a year, or eighteen months, etc.?
  • Who are you becoming, as a whole multidimensional person, and as a global citizen in this interconnected world?

I wish wellness, ease and strength to you and your loved ones and your colleagues – near and far – throughout the Covid-19 crisis and always.  May you be in good health and resilient spirits as you continue making meaningful contributions to those who so profoundly benefit from your leadership.  –SMP

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Leadership Library Review: “Understanding the Leader’s ‘Identity Mindtrap’: Personal Growth for the C-Suite”

“Understanding the Leader’s ‘Identity Mindtrap’: Personal Growth for the C-Suite” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Zafer Gedeon Achi (McKinsey Quarterly, McKinsey & Company, 2020)

What are the big take-aways?

Followers of the Leadership Library may remember last year’s review of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity by Jennifer Garvey Berger, in which she names five “shortcuts” that we have all naturally developed, to some extent, in order to move through our busy days in a complex world.  These shortcuts serve us up to a point, and then they become limiting and get in our way as leaders if we do not commit to unlocking them by expanding our self-awareness.  One of the shortcuts that can become a mindtrap is ego: “shackled to who you are now, you can’t reach for who you’ll be next.”  (The other four mindtraps are: simple stories, rightness, agreement and control.)  In this McKinsey Quarterly article, Berger and her colleague Zafer Achi rename the ego shortcut as the “identity mindtrap” and outline how vertical development (a.k.a. adult development) theories “offer us a map of the terrain where our growth potential plays out.”

Why do I like it?

First, the authors cite research that says “most of us tend to believe that we have changed a lot up to now but won’t change much in the years ahead. Yet we tend to express this belief at any point in our lives when we’re asked about it”!  This is powerful information.  It means we tend to attach ourselves to, and defend, the identity we have now instead of “growing into the person we might become next.”  That is why it is a trap: we get stuck in certain patterns because we think that’s just who we are, when more than we imagine might be possible for us.  The identity mindtrap often triggers the other four to kick in, as well, when we respond reactively to a perceived threat to our cherished idea of who we are.

Second, Berger and Achi provide an excellent mini-guide to the four stages of vertical development, called “forms of mind” in Robert Kegan’s framework.  The forms of mind are sequential and cumulative phases of psychological growth, “much as a tree grows new rings.  And like tree rings, our older ways of making sense of the world do not vanish but remain within us, where they may, occasionally and unbidden, shape our behavior.”  The descriptions of what our sense-making thoughts and behaviors look like at the four forms of mind (i.e. self-sovereign, socialized, self-authored and self-transforming) are succinct but not oversimplified.  They offer enough information about the key characteristics of each stage of development for you to create a working hypothesis of where you might be on the developmental spectrum, if you’re interested.

In what situations would this be useful?

The third reason why I like this article so much is that it culminates in “three questions to help you grow.”  These three self-coaching questions are useful in any leadership situation, at home or at work or in any other dimension of life: (1) Why do I believe what I believe?  This question encourages us look at the origins of some of the beliefs we have which we might be confusing for the truth.  It asks us to examine the supporting evidence for our beliefs.  (2)  How could I be wrong?  As a leadership coach, this question is a favorite of mine (for myself and for my clients)!  It is meant to open us up to consider other possible ways of seeing the world and recognize that multiple truths can exist simultaneously.  The authors comment that “[w]hen used in the right way, this question is a high-energy packet of developmental goodness.”  Yes!  And: (3) Who do I want to be next?  “If we have a sense of this new person we are growing into, it will be easier to spot – and avoid – the identity mindtrap.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

While it focuses primarily on the mindtrap of “simple stories,” there is a wonderful interview of Jennifer Garvey Berger about the book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps on Amiel Handelsman’s podcast, The Amiel Show.  Jennifer Garvey Berger’s other leadership development books are Changing on the Job (which is what made me such a fan of hers, starting many years ago) and – my favorite – Simple Habits for Complex Times.  For more about Kegan’s theory of adult development, I highly recommend Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in You and Your Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Harvard Business Press, 2009).

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Leadership Library Review — “Vulnerability: The Key to Courage” Interview of Brene Brown by Dan Harris (“10% Happier” Podcast, 2019)

“Vulnerability: The Key to Courage,” Interview of Brene Brown by Dan Harris (10% Happier Podcast, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

While the word “vulnerability” makes many people cringe, social scientist and leadership researcher Brene Brown asserts, “There is no courage without vulnerability.”  Stereotypically super-tough leaders who have been trained by Brown, such as Navy SEALs and NFL players, agree with her.

Why do I like it?

Brown defines vulnerability simply as the emotion we feel when we are in the midst of uncertainty, risk or emotional exposure.  (Vulnerability does not “equal” personal disclosure, which is a common misconception.)  Brown explains that as kids we learn to deal with emotional pain and the fear of it by “armoring up” using strategies like control, cynicism and perfectionism.  When this no longer serves us as adults (Brown tells the story of how she herself endured a breakdown over her perfectionism several years ago), we can operationalize vulnerability by developing the courage to stay with challenges and problems rather than immediately switch into the self-protective mode of trying to fix or control things.  Interestingly, sometimes vulnerability is actually more about setting strong boundaries than anything else.

In what situations would this be useful?

This information about vulnerability being the key to courage is actionable in all kinds of day-to-day leadership situations (in organizations, on teams, at work, at home, in friendships, etc.).  Brown describes a leader who believes in vulnerability as someone who does not punish failure or imperfection.  She says a courageous leader encourages innovation and creativity by establishing (and, I assume, modeling) the psychological safety that allows for unarmored uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.  “What gets in the way,” she observes, “is giving in to the fear” and armoring-up.

For example, leaders, managers and supervisors often feel vulnerable when giving tough feedback, even though they are the ones holding the status power.  They fear they will deliver the feedback poorly and/or hurt people’s feelings and/or get a reaction that makes them feel uncomfortable, so they are vague or hold back.  I agree with Brown that managers need to develop the courage to offer compassionate, hard feedback: “clear is kind; unclear is unkind,” she says.  This requires a willingness to be vulnerable.  Brown explains that learning how to feel uncomfortable, and breathing through the (often literal) pain, is something our culture doesn’t teach very well and we as a society need to learn more effective strategies for how to handle what she calls “the physiology of vulnerability.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

I really liked Brown latest book, Dare to Lead, which defines the ways “daring leadership” is effective, in contrast with “armored leadership.”  The heart of the book is a section entitled “Rumbling with Vulnerability” containing segments with headings like “The Call to Courage,” “Shame and Empathy,” and “Curiosity and Grounded Confidence.”  (If any of those words excite, intrigue or trigger you, then I particularly recommend this book!)  For another approach toward much the same stuff, check out The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership (I love the book, but you could start with the handout of the same name at this website).

For a looser, wider-ranging conversation with Brown about this topic, listen to her fun and fascinating interview with Russell Brand, entitled “Vulnerability and Power,” from Brand’s “Under the Skin” podcast.  It’s a rollicking exploration of addiction, recovery, politics, leadership and spirituality, much of which is about practicing the courage to hold boundaries in everyday life (e.g., marriage, parenting, friendship, work and sobriety).

 

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Leadership Library Review: “Love in Action”

January 2020

“Love in Action,” Krista Tippett Interview of Congressman John Lewis (OnBeing.org, updated 1/26/17)

What is the relevance of this particular “On Being” episode at this moment?

I want to open 2020 by honoring Congressman Lewis and by lifting up the practice of “love in action” he described to Krista Tippett in this interview, which originally aired in 2013.  Born in 1940 in rural Alabama, John Robert Lewis – one of the “big six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement – has been serving Georgia’s 5thcongressional district since 1987.  Lewis was a Freedom Rider, organized sit-ins, and in 1965 led the first Selma march over Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as Bloody Sunday.  An advocate of nonviolence, he was beaten viciously and jailed many times.  Congressman Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last month, following a routine check-up.

“Love in action” is needed as much as ever right now, with our polarized culture collectively stepping into this fraught presidential election year under the cloud of an impeached incumbent.  By my understanding, “love in action” is an internal growth process by which each of us can, as the leader of our own life, approach the world inhabiting a radical stance of loving.  We can intentionally cultivate – and “be” – love in action via myriad pathways.  (For example, during the Civil Rights movement, activists studied and then actually trained themselves extensively in the practice.)  Congressman Lewis says, “It’s a way of being, yes. It’s a way of action. It’s not necessarily passive. It has the capacity, it has the ability to bring peace out of conflict. It has the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right. When we were sitting in, it was love in action.”

The heart of my blog entry this month will simply be the following excerpt from Congressman Lewis’s interview with Tippett, regarding his view of the entire Civil Rights movement as a work of love:

Ms. Tippett: So here’s a line from your book Across That Bridge: “The Civil Rights Movement, above all, was a work of love. Yet even 50 years later, it is rare to find anyone who would use the word ‘love’ to describe what we did.” What you just said to me illuminates that. I think part of the explanation of that is the way you are using the word “love” is very rich and multilayered and also challenging, challenging for the person who loves.

Rep. Lewis: Well, I think in our culture, I think sometimes people are afraid to say “I love you.” But we’re afraid to say, especially in public life, many elected officials or worldly elected officials, are afraid to talk about love. Maybe people tend to think something is so emotional about it. Maybe it’s a sign of weakness. And we’re not supposed to cry. We’re supposed to be strong. But love is strong. Love is powerful.

The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometimes and say things like, “Just love the here outta everybody. Just love ‘em.”

Ms. Tippett: Love the here out of them. Yeah. [laughs]. Gandhi was such an important figure for you, for all of you, for Dr. King as well. I also think that may be a little bit lost in our collective memory. I think it’s important to remember that, the very rich spiritual lineage that you were all drawing on and became part of. I was really struck by you. You often refer to one of Gandhi’s important terms, satyagraha.

Again, in terms of breaking open this word “love” out of the kind of superficial ways we talk about it, or nonviolence in a superficial way, the definition of that that you give is “steadfastness in truth,” “active pacifism,” right? Revolutionary love is another way to think about that. Not just an external stance, but a fundamental shift inside our own souls. It’s very powerful. It’s not the way — certainly not the way I hear people talking about public life or political action now.

Rep. Lewis: I think all of us in life, not just in the Western world, but all over the world, we need to come to that point. We need to evolve to that plane, to that level where we’re not ashamed to say to someone, “I love you. I’m sorry. Pardon me. Will you please forgive me? Excuse me.” What is it? Have we lost something? Can we be just human and say, “I love you?”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For another “On Being” episode about practicing love in action during the Civil Rights movement and how it relates to perplexing dynamics in our contemporary culture, I recommend Tippett’s profoundly inspiring interview with Vincent Harding, “Is America Possible?”

In a dramatically different tonal treatment of nonetheless similar themes, consider this fun and fascinating conversation, entitled “Vulnerability and Power,” between Russell Brand and Brene Brown from Brand’s “Under the Skin” podcast.  It’s a rollicking discussion of addiction, recovery, politics and spirituality, much of which is arguably about practicing love-in-action in everyday life (e.g., marriage, parenting, friendship, work and sobriety).

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Leadership Library Review — Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation

December 2019

Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation by Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis (Paradoxical Press, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

A “polarity” is a pair of apparent opposites that are actually two equally valuable, interdependent parts of one dynamic whole.  A few of my favorite examples of leadership polarities are these pairs of competencies: well-grounded and visionary; authentic and politically savvy; confidence and humility; reliability and constructive risk-taking; doing and being.

The authors’ formal definition of polarities (p. 3) is that they are “paradoxical situations in which two seemingly opposite yet interdependent states need to coexist over time in order for success to occur.”  And these tricky paradoxical situations are what Emerson and Lewis explore throughout this spectacular little handbook: how to spot, map out, navigate – and, importantly – leverage polarities to our benefit (as individuals and as organizations and other collectives).

Why do I like it?

I like that the authors’ writing style itself navigates a polarity beautifully: it uses clear, simple language to convey knotty, complex concepts!  I also like that the book provides a number of useful examples that are realistic and relatable in terms of the frequency with which we encounter them in life and especially at work, such as the polarities of candor and diplomacy, collaboration and competition, structure and flexibility.  The book explains how to identify whether a dynamic is a polarity to manage, a problem to solve, or a combo; how polarities work; and how to use the authors’ Polarity Navigator for gaming them out as an action-planning tool.

If you are already familiar with the popular-for-good-reason polarity management model originally postulated by Barry Johnson, and are wondering whether Navigating Polarities has anything new to offer, it does.  Its Polarity Navigator tool is what distinguishes Emerson and Lewis’s approach; it “builds on Johnson’s sensemaking map by incorporating…the thinking of Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer, Brene Brown, and Smith and Lewis” (p.51).  In the Polarity Navigator, Emerson and Lewis add a mapping component for embodying a “Transformational Third Way” by integrating and transcending the poles while acknowledging the risks and vulnerabilities associated with the Third Way.  So, the four-part process begins with (a) naming the poles, (b) listing each of their benefits and over-uses, and then (c) moving to the space on the Navigator “where we can honor the differences between the poles, hold and reintegrate both, and eliminate neither” (p. 67), balanced with (d) thoroughly recognizing what feels risky about the Third Way.  If this description sounds complicated, it will appear much more straightforward when you view the elegant graphics in the book.

In what situations would this be useful?

In my experience, if a leadership or organizational issue that’s treated as a problem-to-be-solved keeps arising repeatedly in short- or long-term cycles, it might be a polarity; as might be a decision-making tension or dilemma that becomes a chronic, paralyzing condition.  Polarities almost always show up in a major organizational change effort (e.g. in a merger or a restructuring or a cultural transformation, you might notice this polarity: investing in the core business and supporting continuous innovation).  In Navigating Polarities there is a list on page 124 of the “places to look for polarities,” which include: From-To Situations; Too Much of a Good Thing; Opposite Arguments; Fear of Taking It Too Far; Threat of Losing Identity; The ‘Other’ As Villian; The Energy is Stuck.  In these cases, this handbook will be useful.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Given my appreciation for several of the thought leaders whose ideas Emerson and Lewis mention weaving into their process – beyond Barry Johnson’s ground-breaking work – I’ll recommend my favorite books by them: Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey Bass, 2011); Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy (reviewed here in the Leadership Library) and Brene Brown’s latest, Dare to Lead (also recently reviewed in the Leadership Library).

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Leadership Library Review: The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

November 2019

The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss (Penguin, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

In 2020, Americans will celebrate the centennial anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which granted women citizens of the United States the right to vote.  The Woman’s Hour focuses – with breathtaking journalistic detail – on the screwy, fast-paced, shameful and marvelous process that took place in Nashville over a few weeks in the summer of 1920 which led to the Tennessee becoming the 36th and final state needed for ratification.  There are definite winners and losers in this story, as well as lots of profiles in courage and grit and tenacity, but in my view – given the naked racial bigotry in which every major actor traded at one time or another – there are few genuine heroes.

The big take-away for me was a renewed sense of profound dismay that, a century later, and there still is no federal Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing equal legal rights to all American citizens regardless of sex.  (One of the authors of the ERA, Alice Paul, figures prominently in The Woman’s Hour.  The original ERA was introduced to Congress in 1923, and didn’t go anywhere.  It was reintroduced in 1971, when it was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1972 it was approved by the U.S. SenateIt lives in limbo to this day.)

Why do I like it?

Somehow, Elaine Weiss makes what could have been a soul-sucking legislative procedural account into a genuine nail-biter, even though you know the outcome.  Weiss describes the main characters, their cultural context, the scenery and the personal and professional stakes of the drama in Nashville (and beyond) in compelling detail, and from multiple perspectives.  As the reader, what you cannot fathom – while Weiss deftly unspools the bizarre thread of events – is exactly how the women and men who devoted their lives, careers and political destinies to the Cause will finally prevail.

The other thing I appreciated about The Woman’s Hour is what a stunning reminder it provides that the struggles for civil rights for minorities and women, and true universal suffrage everywhere in America, are not only ongoing but still echo precisely the same underlying misogynist, racial, regional, and damaging partisan dynamics (across the political spectrum) with which they reverberated a hundred years ago.

In what situations would this be useful?

This book gives the reader valuable perspective on post-Civil War American history, southern U.S. political and cultural history, African-American history, early 20th-century presidential history, and the roots of the League of Women Voters, the Civil Rights movement and modern activism against voter suppression.  If you’re a leader who locates yourself in any of these contexts, The Woman’s Hour will offer powerful insights.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

There are several significant exhibits going on right now in our nation’s capital commemorating the adoption of the 19th amendment ahead of the upcoming centennial.  While visiting D.C. on business in September, I was glad I carved out time to view the documents, artifacts and film footage on display at the Library of Congress in a superb collection entitled “Shall Not Be Denied.”  The exhibit features a magazine cover reproducing “The Woman’s Hour” poster, explaining:

Five thousand artists entered a poster contest held by NAWSA to launch their 1917 campaign. New York illustrator Edward A. Poucher won the $250 first prize, drawing inspiration from Carrie Chapman Catt’s rousing 1916 convention speech challenging suffragists to abandon their complacency. In an obvious reference to women yielding to “The Negro’s Hour” after the Civil War, Catt declared that “The Woman’s Hour has struck.”

Two other national museums (and their websites) featuring the suffrage centennial include “Rightfully Hers” at the National Archives, and “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence” at the National Portrait Gallery.

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Leadership Library Review – “The Black Swallowtail” by Mary Oliver

October 2019

“The Black Swallowtail” by Mary Oliver

What are the big take-aways?

Last week, I celebrated the 10th anniversary of my business by hosting a party in Montpelier for local friends and clients of my leadership development practice.  It was a lively occasion in which I was able to express gratitude to my clients and colleagues, here and around the globe, for a decade of honoring human growth – including, of course, my own!  One of the guests, whom I have known for about a dozen years and worked with in several different capacities (as is often the case in intimate Vermont), had written me a heartfelt note into which was tucked this quietly dazzling poem:

The Black Swallowtail

The caterpillar,

interesting but not exactly lovely,

humped along among the parley leaves

eating, always eating.  Then

one night it was gone and in its place

a small green confinement hung by two silk threads

on a parsley stem. I think it took nothing with it

except faith, and patience.  And then one morning

it expressed itself into the most beautiful being.

– Mary Oliver

By using this unsentimental version of the caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor, the poem underscores how mysterious and fragile and unstoppable the natural process of transformation truly is.  Supporting change and transformation in other humans is the business I am in, even while I am being mutually transformed by that work.

Why do I like it?

I believe that we are all leaders: we are each the leader of our life, at the very least.  In my interpretation of this poem for the purposes of the Leadership Library, the simplicity of its analogies to leadership development – on any scale – are rich and powerful.  Are we not, every single one of us, both interesting and “not exactly lovely”?  Are we not all living snugly within the confines of an identity structure of our own making (though we’re mostly unaware that we’re building it, and why), and aren’t we constantly grappling with a vague consciousness that it’s hanging by a thread?  Isn’t the most we can do is bring faith and patience to the possibility – perhaps more accurately, the inevitability – that our “confinement” will somehow end one morning, allowing us to become who-knows-what?  Our next expression, that’s what: whatever that may be!  I like that Mary Oliver describes it as a “beautiful being.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Currently, I have a particularly large number of clients going through significant personal and professional – e.g., biological, social, strategic, financial and spiritual – transitions right now.  Some of the changes are rather confusing and intense.  “The Black Swallowtail” is useful as a reminder that change is simply what happens when time passes, and that transformation is fundamentally nature’s way.  From this perspective, every moment is an emergence, and faith and patience are the most effective strategies for rolling with it.  “You can’t push a river,” and if you try, you’ll exhaust yourself.  Nor can you avoid transformation; it doesn’t care if you ignore it, because it’s always coming for you, regardless of your attitude.

However, the perpetual opportunity is to choose to make meaning from it; perhaps faith is the crux of this.  As the sociologist and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, Parker Palmer (no relation), observes in Healing the Heart of Democracy and elsewhere: heartbreak is unavoidable but we can influence whether the heart breaks open or breaks apart.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Mary Oliver died earlier this year at the age of 83, and her final collection of self-selected poems is a stunning volume entitled Devotions (Penguin, 2017).

I heartily recommend Krista Tippett’s “On Being” interview with Oliver, “Listening to the World.” Consider pairing it with the episode featuring poet David Whyte, “The Conversational Nature of Reality,” previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

For basic information about the Black Swallowtail butterfly, papilio polyxenes, here is the Wikipedia entry.

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