Understanding Implicit (Unconscious) Bias

July 2020

Understanding Implicit (Unconscious) Bias

As a self-described progressive white, middle-aged woman I was initially taken aback by the results of the three Implicit Association Tests I took a few years ago at Harvard’s Project Implicit website which revealed my moderate racism, moderate ageism and moderate sexism.  These results were disappointing but – as a moderate product of my white, affluent suburban upbringing within a wider racist, patriarchal and youth-valorizing culture – I also had to admit they made intuitive sense, and I decided to use my test results as motivation to learn.

I became especially interested in the neuroscience of implicit bias (everyone’s brains have it – we can’t help it!) and began investigating strategies for bringing more of my unconscious biases into my conscious awareness, such as intentionally noticing what I notice; naming and challenging my underlying assumptions; and coming to grips with the fact that, like most humans, I tend to see what I expect to see (called “confirmation bias”) and I can choose to let go of expectations and get curious instead.  As a leadership coach, I am habitually asking myself and others “What is the story I am telling myself about this person/situation/issue?” and employing Jennifer Garvey Berger’s two favorite transformative questions: “What do I believe?” and “How could I be wrong?”  These can all be helpful to uncovering some unconscious bias if you’re willing to be honest with yourself about the answers.  It takes humility and persistence to undertake the life-long process of mitigating unconscious bias.

My Learning Path So Far

While my process of racial awakening was originally catalyzed by the assassination of Trayvon Martin in 2012, it was in 2016 that I began educating myself in earnest about implicit bias with podcasts (like the fascinating On Being interview of Mahzarin Banaji by Krista Tippett, “The Mind Is a Difference-Seeking Machine”), attending a workshop on the topic given by Karen Richards of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, and reading articles about how leaders can leverage this research to build more powerful organizations (such as this CDO Insights white paper from 2008, although up-to-date equivalents would be this guide to “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Recruitment, Hiring and Retention” published by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and this impressive collection of deeper-dive papers called What Works).

As time went on, I also checked out articles and videos by Robin DiAngelo – e.g., “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism,” and this 22-minute video presentation entitled “Deconstructing White Privilege” – whose explanations of these concepts I responded to deeply.  (I also read Debby Irving’s Waking Up White, a memoir about how Irving raised her racial consciousness, which didn’t especially resonate with me.)  I enjoyed Stacey Abrams’ inspiring “handbook” for navigating unconscious bias and systemic racism as a black, indigenous, person of color or LGBTQ+ leader, Lead from the Outside.  The most potent book I’ve ever read about racism, unconscious bias and race-as-construct is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ profound and devastating Between the World and Me.  It’s written in the form of an expansive letter to his black son, whom Coates advises: But do not pin your struggle on [white people’s, or “the Dreamers”] conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field of their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”  In 2017 I visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which lent the gravity of innumerable tangible artifacts to my struggle as a Dreamer to understand the stage where Dreamers have painted ourselves white.

“The Person You Mean to Be”

There are now a lot of books about implicit bias (here’s a list of 31), and I recently asked a friend of mine – an academic who runs a big university’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) certificate program – to recommend one that I could read for my own development and which I might integrate into my leadership coaching, training and consulting work.  She suggested Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias (Harper, 2018).

I liked it.  It is an accessible account of recent research on implicit bias and systemic inequities (Chugh uses concepts like “headwinds” and “tailwinds” to demonstrate economic and other ripple effects across generations of families of different races).  She compassionately explains the emotional dynamics of discovering our biases, racism and microaggressions and how to shift from being a conceptual “believer” in change to becoming an engaged “builder” of change.  Two of the most impactful chapters for me were “Look Out for These Four ‘Good’ Intentions” (i.e. savior mode, sympathy mode, tolerance and difference-blindness mode, and typecasting mode), and “Be Inclusive,” which is an enlightening and well-rendered – if too short – description of what inclusiveness looks like and feels like, particularly at work.  The book also discusses how to engage as a bystander, as an educator, and as a person who offers meaningful support to others.

Related Resources

The next step on my learning path is to learn more about anti-racism.  I attended a webinar with Ibram X. Kendi yesterday that addressed some of my basic questions about what anti-racism is, and his book How to Be an Antiracist is on my reading list this summer.

Also, while Sebene Salassie is clear in episode #252 of 10% Happier that “You Can’t Meditate This Away (Race, Rage and the Responsibilities of Meditators),” she posted a very interesting meditation called “See Through Unconscious Bias” on 6/12/20 at the 10% Happier website (scroll way down).  On the topic of meditation, I just discovered an app for black, indigenous and people of color called Liberate whose tagline is “Meditation. By Us, For Us.”

 

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To What Leadership Opportunities Are We Awakening?

June 2020

To What Leadership Opportunities Are We Awakening?

The pandemic news is tough; it’s relentless, emotionally exhausting, and carries more information and questions and implications than our brains can comprehend.  Anxiety is a natural response to such extreme incoherence and unpredictability (I recommend this excellent article about strategies for “Leading Through Anxiety”), as is sadness, even if you have not been sick or suffered losses of loved ones from the virus.  When it comes to handling the overwhelming big picture, my practice is to gently redirect attention away from everything I cannot do and toward the advice to “lift where you stand.”

One of the places where I “stand” is with those among us who are awakening to exactly how unwell our collective global life had become prior to the pandemic.  We are opening our eyes to how profoundly we’ve been sleepwalking through harms caused by fear-based zero-sum constructs – economic, racial, educational, etc. – that were invented in bygone eras to perpetuate illusions of control.  Covid-19’s disruption has suddenly delivered us to the edge of a precipice at which the breathtaking emptiness of our profit-centric systems is revealed.  What life-centric possibilities can we see from this shocking vantage point, from which there is no retreating?  If we were to take the courageous leap to abundance-based systems, what could life be like on our planet in 5, 20, or 50 years?

 

Who Actually Approaches the Pandemic This Way?

The psychologist and developmental theorist Robert Kegan sees the transformative potentials of the pandemic for humanity, and I stand with his belief that “[w]e were a sick world before the virus.  The systems we have created – which in many ways have been an enormous advance in human evolutionthose systems are clearly not able to solve our current problems.  The virus has the potential to show us even more deeply that we are first of all members of one single vulnerable species on one single fragile planet.  The more that we come to experience that, the bigger is the transformative potential – that these systems, valuable though they may be, are just constructions.”  While this transformation, if it happens, will take generations, it’s already underway in some pockets now.  Check out the Hawaii legislature’s economic recovery plan, which is seizing the opportunities of the pandemic to build a new system based on upgraded (i.e. more pragmatic, equitable and life-promoting) assumptions.

I also stand with David Cooperrider, founder of the Appreciative Inquiry theory of positive organizational development.  He, too, sees the transformative potentials of transcending the pandemic’s polarities by applying Appreciative Inquiry in a Broken World: “It’s in times of disruption that the best in human systems can burst forth…Values can be lived, come alive, instead of merely espoused. Moreover, while it may seem a luxury to talk about enterprise improvement, betterment, innovation, and positive organization development during a major dislodgment like this, that’s exactly what leaders need to do…[F]or the long-term, we know this from years of research: corporate cultures are almost totally tested and forged in the crucible of crises, during the most challenging times of external adaptation and internal integration.”  At the preceding link, Cooperrider offers a detailed process for using Appreciative Inquiry to design your own organization’s Covid-19 response.  For one example, if your organization hasn’t yet done so, it could act on the business case, the leadership case and – most importantly – the moral imperative to transform into an enterprise where people of color and women flourish.  The organization could start by making concerted efforts to support employees of color in the pandemic, studying – or revisiting – the issue of implicit (unconscious) bias in the workplace, adapting its diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts to the current crisis and implementing the latest DE&I recommendations from studies such as What Works.

Aligning Yourself as a Leader

In his expansive piece in Yes! magazine, “The Light at the End,” Nafeez Ahmed observes: “Within just a few weeks – faster than the blink of an eye in geological time – a tiny, microscopic entity brought the global monolith of human civilization, the captains of industry, the might of the world’s militaries, the financial juggernauts of money and manufacturing, to their knees….You and I are now faced with a pivotal life choice for what comes next, what we devote ourselves to, where our alignments lie, what our real commitments are. This choice will make history.”  As Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen says, “I want future generations to look back on us and say, ‘Look how hard they tried,’ not ‘Look at how blind they were.’”

To what or whom are you choosing to align yourself as a leader?  What is one small step you could take today to demonstrate that commitment? 

Recommended Resources 

Sources of inspiration to encourage your next steps might be:

  • Rest and renewal. As we come to terms with the chronic reality of Covid-19 and the long slog that lies ahead of us in “the new abnormal,” we must counter-balance the intensity of the past few months – especially for leaders who have been working from home with kids! – by taking some time off.  It’s OK, and in fact necessary to our health and effectiveness, to have fun.  Summer in the northern hemisphere is the perfect time to take breaks from the pandemic by riding bikes, picnicking, making outdoor art, camping, going to drive-in movies and all other activities that allow us to play together, safely apart, lifting spirits.
  • “The Other Side of the Pandemic,” an interview of angel Kyodo williams, Zen priest and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, on Dan Harris’s “10% Happier” podcast.
  • Note: As I finish drafting this blog post, George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police has sparked protests across the U.S., making wisdom like williams’ even more urgent for this moment of transformative potential. To what are we awakening, because we are willing to risk ourselves in the awakening; in other words, to be the awakening?  As Krista Tippett writes for On Being, from Minneapolis: “[O]ur hearts are broken by what has happened in recent days — the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the protests and riots that followed here and across the country. This has all compounded the loss, danger, and grief of these months of pandemic. But it has erupted, more deeply, out of generation upon generation of how we have lived ‘race.’ Race is a dehumanizing construct, an invention of white people in modernity; I recommend this excellent podcast episode by our friends at Scene on Radio to understand its origins. Its endless terrible consequences have distorted our bodies, souls, and societies.”  For those of us who are white allies, here is just one article about how to “lift where you stand” on racial justice.  A superb article on meaningful actions that can be taken immediately by American business organizations is here.
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For Leaders, What Does “Planning” Look Like Now?

May 2020

For Leaders, What Does “Planning” Look Like Now?

Whether we choose to adopt this perspective or not, we humans are being individually and collectively transformed – as a species – by the Covid-19 global phenomenon.  The pandemic is no longer an acute emergency; it is now introducing the prospect of a profoundly disruptive and chronic unpredictability for the foreseeable future.  Because there are very few technical strategies for navigating such VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) conditions, every one of us is being called to stretch – personally and professionally – into our most adaptive, growth-oriented selves.

Exploring Terra Incognita

For some tips about how to be an effective leader in VUCA conditions, see my updated previous post, Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic.  In the meantime, another big question on my clients’ minds is how to do “planning” in terra incognita.  Mysterious forces have transported us to a place for which there are no maps, nor guidebooks written in any of our secular languages.  (Forgive yourself if you feel a bit lost these days.  No one, right now, is not lost!)  The short answer to the planning question is to trust your noblest instincts, your best data, and your most psychologically spacious, inventive and realistic colleagues to survey the area you’re in – and then chart your own range of possible trajectories.  Using the organization’s mission as base camp, get super-curious and treat planning like an exploratory expedition by running forays in multiple directions.  As best you can, resist the natural temptation to hunker down.  In addition, if you also have opportunities to collaborate in promising ways with new partners in your industry, and/or your geographic area, and/or government entities, and/or former competitors, consider experimenting with those, too, and share generously.  For your planning meetings, consider intentionally mixing your modalities between phone calls and teleconference platforms, using these strategies.

One Approach to Planning

A planning approach advanced by many sources lately is a process that is quite simple – not to be confused with easy! – and works for nearly anything: staffing, budgeting, logistics, products, services, events, etc.  There are various descriptions of this framework (and if it has a specific attribution I haven’t found it), but the process boils down to three steps once you identify the real question at hand; e.g., what will X program delivery look like in January, 2021?  You may already be doing some version of it:

Step 1.  What is the worst-case scenario?  If none of the variables you can think of end up breaking in your favor, what is worst situation that could result?  How would the organization deal with that?  Conversely, what is the ideal scenario?  If your organization could utilize this radical disruption in its previous modes of operating to actually make bold changes (e.g. transforming agency culture, or overhauling company product offerings, or fulfilling the mission through an entirely different set of assumptions, or *use your imagination here*) that seemed out of reach before, what would they be?  (Check out these examples: how to use “personal policies” to increase your work-life bandwidth even beyond the pandemic, Hawaii’s revamp of state economic recovery policy, these potential redesigns in airplane seating and one world leader’s blueprint for “re-globalization.”)  Read more about large-scale transformative potentials of the pandemic in this blog post.

Step 2.  What is the most probable scenario?  What do your most reliable sources of hard data, combined with your gut intuition, tell you is likely to happen?  If things were to unfold as you would guess, how does that affect your planning?  If planning for even the most probable scenario feels like a risk, ask yourself these five questions.  (Also worth asking at Step 2: At this point in your analysis, do you need to reframe what the real, core question is?)

Step 3.  How can the decisions you make today prepare you for the worst-case scenario, account for the most probable scenario, and lay the groundwork for the ideal?  How can your organization approach its concrete day-to-day realities while keeping its doors wide open to the best possible future outcome?  Here are some coaching questions I might offer to a client at Step 3:

  • What has to be true, and by when, for the ideal scenario to come to pass? What action can you take right now to influence it?
  • What projects or experiments can you launch today in order to obtain the practical information you need to build the bridge to the ideal future?
  • How will you recognize key choice points when you encounter them along the way?
  • If – as they say – “energy flows where attention goes,” what must you be attending to and investing in now so as to manifest the ideal scenario later?
  • As a leader, how do you have to behave, how must you communicate, and who do you need to be at this moment in order to embody the possibility of the ideal?
  • How does your leadership team (including the board) need to grow, change and evolve in order to lead others into the ideal? What will be lost if these leaders don’t change?
  • What must the organization learn in order to make the ideal a reality?
  • How could the organization’s reputation be enhanced – years into the future – by how it handles its planning and learning processes during the pandemic?

Recommended Resources

Three sources of inspiration that may help evoke your own wisdom as you move forward with planning – no matter what process you use! – are:

Closing Note:  I continue to wish good health, ease and strength to you, your loved ones and all of your colleagues, wherever they are on our planet.  May you find your new sweet spot and discover fresh dimensions of thriving in this strange world that is, paradoxically, both so familiar and yet so unrecognizable at the same time.  Thank you for your leadership.  –SMP

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

April 2020

What I Am Learning from My Clients

In the weeks since the pandemic began I have been astounded, heartened and elevated by everything that my leadership coaching and consulting clients are teaching me and – insofar as I am a hub 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 disorienting period.  (If you are also looking for practical strategies for “planning” amidst so much uncertainty, check out my next blog post and if you’re ready to look beyond the crisis to its transformative potentials see this post.)  I offer the following as a checklist of reminders to support your work in our uniquely unpredictable world right now:

  1. Stay well, and stay open. What remains as true 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.  (And if you are 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 perspectives on 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 the pandemic.  Personally, as well as professionally.  To some extent or another, we are also each grieving our former lives, on top of everything else. Try not to judge your emotions, and allow yourself to feel them.  Most often, difficult emotions 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, listening to short guided breathing or body scan meditations, or trying the very efficient “RAIN” strategy; playing music that centers you; doing a few yoga poses or other grounding forms of exercise; 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 for working with complexity in these very short YouTube videos.  If what we are experiencing at this juncture with Covid-19 is propelling us into a “new abnormal,” 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 during a crisis.  Most importantly, be authentic; you’ll lose essential credibility if you come across to your staff and stakeholders as disingenuous 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, publicly empathize with others, and demonstrate your compassion for their situations by taking all feasible concrete steps to alleviate their concerns.  (Empathy is a skill you can learn.)  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., now that your agency’s emergency and work-from-home measures have been taken, begin spending significant 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., create small, accessible short-term goals that give everyone an immediate sense of progress, while also designing larger experiments that might generate surprising innovations for adapting to the pandemic and shaping 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 which I review here).  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 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 exploring possibilities by taking calculated, constructive risks that produce new information you can learn from even if the results aren’t what you’d hoped for or expected.  “Wins” are only declared in retrospect!  While experimenting with risks, 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”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 those strengths?
  • 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 someday when you look back on the Covid-19 crisis?
  • What clues are you gathering now about who you will be as a leader in six months, or a year, or eighteen months, etc.?
  • How is your response to the pandemic helping you to clarify your life purpose?
  • 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”

March 2020

“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 #185, 2019)

February 2020

“Vulnerability: The Key to Courage,” Interview of Brene Brown by Dan Harris (10% Happier Podcast #185, 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)

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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