Leadership Library: In Praise of Ambiguity (The Rubber Chicken of Reality)

November 2020

Suffering, possibility and leadership

In recent weeks I have been finding solace and sanity in contemplating this astonishing nugget from Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala, 2016, p. 52):

As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.

If you’re perplexed and thinking “What the…?” that’s quite understandable; everything about this whole idea that we suffer from resolution is incredibly counter-cultural!  In our impatient, striving, polarized society, just tolerating open-ended grey areas – much less opening up our minds to, and relaxing, with them as our “birthright” (which is, itself, a paradox of course) – can sound crazy. 

But I believe it’s true that, while humans naturally seek stability, simplicity, certainty and resolution, these instincts cause us great suffering.  This is because the stark fact is we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.  Therefore, when we rush to decide, declare and complete things, we are making a futile attempt to go against the prevailing conditions and – worse – we close ourselves off from possibility. 

On some level we are aware that our (very understandable) fear-based attachment to outcomes tends to foreshorten creative potential.  Yet we’d rather sabotage our own futures by constraining ourselves with artificial deadlines than endure the discomfort of not-knowing indefinitely while we hold a space for something to arise that is almost always fresher, wiser, sweeter, more impactful or more beautiful.  This is why learning to embrace ambiguity – and the exciting implications of its dynamic process – is an important leadership capacity. 

How does a leader “do ambiguity?”

You can nurture a welcoming attitude toward ambiguity with whatever resilience practice works for you.  “Doing” ambiguity is, paradoxically, an “undoing.”  Any practice that loosens up your thinking and unravels or multiplies your perspectives on the world will help.  (Tip: unlike our busy minds with their attachments to a past and future “self,” our bodies know exactly how to handle the ceaseless bardo of ambiguity because they are unable to do anything but exist in the present moment – breathing – letting in and letting go.) 

One of my resiliency practices is humor.  If you think about it, good jokes are often powered on paradox: after a clear set-up, the best punch lines subvert an expected resolution with a surprise twist.  Consider this well-known Buddhist expression about the basic human condition, which is so soberingly sage it cracks me up: “The bad news is you’re falling.  The good news is there’s no ground” (bah-dum-BAH!).  To me, a serious deep truth is often very funny, which is a view actually backed up by science (i.e., it’s not unrelated to, and is illustrated by, physicist Niels Bohr’s famous observation that “the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth”). 

Speaking of science, another strategy for welcoming ambiguity is to reframe it using a friendlier term: possibility.  Humans live in total flux but, by and large, our default mode is to resist it unless we cultivate a certain quality of awareness, “an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”  According to quantum physics, what we call “reality” results from the incomprehensibly complex co-creative act of observation between a field of potential and our consciousness.  If I understand this concept correctly, all things are simultaneously possible until the moment they come to pass, which was proven by the gob-smacking “double-slit experiment.”  The bottom line (there is no bottom!) is that, when it comes right down to it, everything we intuitively take to be “real” is less physical matter than it is wave-like “potential” until the last instant, when the potential seems to make a choice and appears to become fixed or solid.  As if this dream-like description of reality weren’t bizarre enough, another version of the same double-slit experiment demonstrates that the field of potential makes different choices when being observed.  (!)  In other words, we – and our idea of reality – are continuously co-created in the act of observation. 

If this magical co-creation of reality between the observer and the observed sounds more to you like spiritual hoo-hah than science, well you’re not wrong, because it’s both.  There are those whose spiritual interpretation of the science is that the field of infinite potential (which is, to over-simplify, what we might think of as the entire seen and unseen cosmos across all space and time) is comprised of consciousness.  For these philosophers, limiting consciousness to an organ function doesn’t make sense in a universe that is capable of producing such organs!  One proponent, Paul Levy, writes in his provocative treatment of the question, entitled The Quantum Revelation: A Radical Synthesis of Science and Spirituality, “Thinking that the source of consciousness is in the brain is like looking in the radio for the announcer.” 

Okay, back to practicalities 

What does all this have to do with leadership?  Arguably, leaders co-create reality by sensing and observing as we go, making the path by walking.  Ambiguity is always available, waiting to be leveraged by our awareness: theoretically, infinite possibilities exist until the moment of decision (and making a discrete decision isn’t “resolution” when we are talking about the larger picture over the long haul).  The direction in which a leader chooses to look at any given moment determines where plans get implemented in the organization, when vision gets manifested, and how the future is made.  Moreover, whether a leader looks through eyes of sadness, eyes of generosity, eyes of fear, or eyes of compassion, will similarly determine the tonal quality – and therefore the range – of what can happen around her.  (A useful metaphor for this effect: “Leaders bring the weather,” as Bob Anderson and Bill Adams are fond of saying.)

One specific, pragmatic and urgent application of these concepts for leaders regards race.  For white leaders, learning how to “do ambiguity” is essential to becoming full-bodied antiracists.  In a recent On Being interview, White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo explains: “Doing our work with the humility necessary to live in ambiguity – white people working on our internalized white supremacy with each other, uncomfortable in the struggle between getting it right and getting it wrong, being vulnerable and making mistakes – is exactly how we become ‘an embodied antiracist culture.’” 

Recommended Resources

For more by Pema Chödrön on “The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human: How to Live Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change,” see this piece in Tricycle.  For using humor to deal with the ambiguities of the pandemic, check out this article in Forbes, which specifically addresses challenges faced by women leaders.  For more on understanding “antiracism,” the most comprehensive resource I’ve found is Ibram X. Kendi’s definitive treatment, How to Be an Antiracist (One Word, 2019); for quick advice on handling micro-moments, see this New York Times article on “How to Be an Active Bystander When You See Casual Racism.”  For a good video explaining the various versions of the double-slit experiment discussed above in accessible terms, I recommend this 9-minute piece by Jim Al-Khalili on YouTube

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Leadership Library: “You Make the Path by Walking”

October 2020

“You Make the Path by Walking”

A favored quotation of poet David Whyte’s is this one from the 19th-century Spanish writer, Antonio Machado:

Pathmaker, your footsteps
are the path and nothing more;
pathmaker, there is no path,
you make the path by walking.

In my view, this is a crucial observation about leadership in these unpredictable times, for which there is no path.  Paradoxically, pathlessness is the source of both the enormous suffering as well as the massive transformative potential in our response to the virus plaguing our planet. 

There is no path

The complexity and uncertainty of this era, reflected in a relentless cascade of daily news revelations which are impossible to digest, also means infinite opportunity to reframe what we are going through globally and individually.  As leaders of our own lives, how do we recognize – and begin to let go of – the resistance we humans innately feel toward uncertainty?  How do we cultivate easier present-moment awareness, and first bring to ourselves the compassion that is necessary if we are to fully offer it to others?  What renewed sense of purpose can we find in our lives and our work precisely because they have been disrupted by Covid-19, political and cultural turbulence, accelerating climate change, etc.?  These are the questions of a path-making leader.  If you are able to mindfully place your footsteps into the unknown with open-hearted courage and curiosity, the spaciousness of your presence will allow you and the path to invite and meet one another. 

Pathmaker, your footsteps/are the path and nothing more

Navigating complexity and transformation requires transforming ourselves first, because to some extent we are a microcosm of each system in which we operate.  As Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”  When we change our consciousness, everything around us changes.

This kind of self-transformation requires basic wellness habits before anything else: healthy nourishment, sufficient sleep, regular exercise, human connection and spending time in nature.  (For more, see the updated Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic post here in the Leadership Library.)  We must also have a consistent reservoir of trust, confidence, and sense of safety – within ourselves – to make a path by walking it.  There is no shortcut to growing this powerful capacity, but at least there is a well-researched way to develop it, and that’s through mindfulness meditation.  (A meditation practice can take many forms, including by literally walking.)  When we discover the practice that works for us, the relaxed yet alert awareness we eventually experience in the meditation enables us to access a deeper kind of “knowing” in ourselves, from which feelings of trust, security and expansiveness naturally arise.  Some of the leadership traits that can emerge from contact with this wisdom include knowing ourselves (i.e. the authenticity that comes from continual, unvarnished and compassionate self-observation), intimacy with our own intentions, commitments and shadow aspects (the bedrock of integrity), and clarity on our evolving purpose.  And playfulness!  When we have access to these qualities – which are true super-powers available to anyone willing to cultivate a meditation discipline – we can lead from wherever we are in a family, community, organization or cultural system.  We can even lead from simply adopting a connective mindset of loving-kindness.

Because it requires a transformation of our own consciousness, I believe the journey to becoming a transformational leader is an inherently spiritual one.  The journey often begins in response to a mysterious invitation or “call,” from that deep-knowing place inside ourselves, to vocation and action: to take the (sometimes terrifying) next step and just keep walking.  It tests us at the core of who we think we are. It offers us the transformative choice of allowing our heart, when it is inevitably broken, to be broken open instead of apart.  We need profound courage to risk what matters most to us – our comfort, our reputation, certain relationships, and even our physical safety – to grow “big” enough to serve a cause larger than ourselves.  Although, as Audre Lorde pointed out, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” 

You make the path by walking

Consider the following passage from Joseph Jaworski’s book Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership (Berrett-Koehler, 2011):

The conventional view of leadership emphasizes positional power and conspicuous accomplishment. But true leadership is about creating a domain in which we continually learn and become more capable of participating in our unfolding future. A true leader thus sets the stage on which predictable miracles, synchronistic in nature, can – and do – occur…. The capacity to discover and participate in our unfolding future has more to do with our being – our total orientation of character and consciousness – than with what we do. Leadership is about creating, day by day, a domain in which we and those around us continually deepen our understanding of reality and are able to participate in shaping the future. This, then, is the deeper territory of leadership – collectively “listening” to what is wanting to emerge in the world, and then having the courage to do what is required.

Are you wondering, more specifically, what it looks like during Covid-19 to create “a domain in which we and those around us continually deepen our understanding of reality and are able to participate in shaping the future”?  Otto Scharmer of MIT’s Sloan School of Management describes leadership, systems awareness, listening and the pandemic in this half-hour episode of the Transformational Leadership Podcast.  He says, “There is no such thing as the future…The future is how we respond to what happens to us…The future is emerging from the quality of how we respond in the disruption of the current moment.” 

For Further Listening: A Recommended Resource

Are you curious about who actually “makes the path by walking” in real life?  (Well, arguably we all do, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not!)  A global business leader who is, in my opinion, an exemplar of making the path by walking and consciously leading from the emerging future is Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of Acumen.  Acumen has been described as “an exercise in creative, human-centered capitalism: a venture capital fund that serves some of the poorest people in the world.”  In a gently fierce conversation with Krista Tippett in this episode of On Being, Novogratz speaks to the opportunity of our moment when she says, “I want future generations to look back on us and say, ‘Look how hard they tried,’ not “Look at how blind they were.”  How does she hold the heft of what this implies lightly enough to carry it?  For that, we go back to mindfulness.  Novogratz does her own version of a practice akin to the Jesuit Examen:

I don’t do it every single day. But when I do do it, my day is different; and that is, to start with intention. What do you want to accomplish in the day? Who do you want to be? And then check in with yourself later and ask yourself how you did. Do an account. And what did you learn from it? And then, importantly, forgive yourself for what you didn’t do or what you did poorly. And then the most important part of all is to express gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude: If the Jesuit Examen is not your cup of tea, you might experiment with a simple gratitude journal, if you don’t keep one already. For several months now, I’ve personally been buoyed by doing something akin to this Three Good Things practice offered by Greater Good in Action.

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Leadership Library Review — A Trifecta of Soul Balms: Three Books for Autumn in the Pandemic

September 2020

“Joy is the kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” –David Steindl-Rast

A Trifecta of Soul Balms: Three Books for Autumn in the Pandemic

Are you nervous about the fall and winter?  I am.  Perhaps like me, you are sensing in autumn’s unfolding an apprehension among those of us in the northern hemisphere who have enjoyed relative freedom during the pandemic so far.  Covid-19 came on in the spring and surged over the summer months when it was comfortable to spend a lot of time outside.  Already fatigued by the virus, we wonder – privately to ourselves, or out loud to friends in our search for a pod – whether we will feel even more constrained, exhausted, sad, claustrophobic, isolated, or anxious when we move further indoors as the seasons cycle into much colder weather.  If this resonates with you, I have three book suggestions.  You might begin by declaring,

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything

This volume of three essays by psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl was only recently published in English for the first time (Beacon Press, 2020).  Delivered as a lecture series in 1946 mere months after Frankl was liberated from his final of four concentration camps (Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering and Türkheim), Yes to Life is based on the original manuscript for what became Frankl’s now-world-famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning.   In his fascinating introduction, Daniel Goleman (who coined the term “emotional intelligence”) distills Frankl’s “yes to life” approach down to a stark choice faced iconically by concentration camp prisoners:

Despite the cruelty visited on prisoners by the guards, the beatings, torture, and constant threat of death, there was one part of their lives that remained free: their own minds.  The hopes, imagination, and dreams of prisoners were up to them, despite their awful circumstances.  This inner ability was real human freedom; people are prepared to starve, [Frankl] saw, “if starvation has a purpose or meaning.”

It may sound like tough reading (i.e. “why would I intentionally go there when I’m already down?”), but I found Yes to Life offers a healthy model for optimistic perspectivising on darkness and difficulty.  The three essays – “On the Meaning and Value of Life I,” “On the Meaning and Value of Life II,” and “Experimentum Crucis” – explore in robust detail Frankl’s philosophies of humanity, suffering and meaning-making by analyzing topics like concentration camp dynamics and examining concepts like “fate” in ways that are so intellectually subtle and emotionally perceptive that they are inspiring.  In the first essay, Frankl writes:

In general, of course, it is not advisable to create difficulties for oneself [unlike the challenges that athletes, for example, pose to themselves for the sake of cultivating skill]; in general, suffering as a result of misfortune is only meaningful if this misfortune has come about through fate, and is thus unavoidable and inescapable….Fate, in other words, what happens to us, can certainly be shaped, in one way or another.  “There is no predicament that cannot be ennobled either by an achievement or an endurance,” said Goethe.  Either we change our fate, if possible, or we willingly accept it, if necessary [author’s emphasis].  In either case we can experience nothing but inner growth through such misfortune.  And now we understand what Holderlin means when he writes: “If I step onto my misfortune, I stand higher.”

And when you are afraid in the midst of your misfortune, you might become a burst of light by “turning fear into fire,” like African-American activist and writer Audre Lorde (1934-1992):

“A Burst of Light” from the forthcoming Selected Works of Audre Lorde

This collection of twelve essays and 60 poems by “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, released by Norton in mid-September, is edited by the contemporary thought leader on race and gender Roxane Gay. 

I was first introduced to “A Burst of Light”in Maria Popova’s infinitely enriching Brain Pickings blog, in which Popova amply showcases Lorde’s luminous courage.  After her second cancer diagnosis, for which she refuses treatment, Lorde writes in a series of diary entries, as quoted by Popova:

Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun….

I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency….

When I’m open, I’m also less despairing. The more clearly I see what I’m up against, the more able I am to fight this process going on in my body that they’re calling liver cancer. And I am determined to fight it even when I am not sure of the terms of the battle nor the face of victory. I just know I must not surrender my body to others unless I completely understand and agree with what they think should be done to it. I’ve got to look at all of my options carefully, even the ones I find distasteful. I know I can broaden the definition of winning to the point where I can’t lose….

We all have to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboys’ world.

When any of us chooses to rest in Presence/Ground of Being/Grace/Love for as many moments in our existence as we are able – moments we do not distract ourselves from, or sleepwalk through – we allow ourselves to awaken.  Our hearts break open. There can be a peculiar delight in attention to aspects of our life and purpose which are much vaster than ourselves that arises in the way Lorde describes:

I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my noseholes — everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!

And speaking of sweetness and meteors, the third recommended reading in this trifecta of soul balms is:

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

The most thoroughly wondrous and reassuring of psychic salves, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (Avery, 2016), chronicles a five-day conversation on the nature of joy – as well as its obstacles and pillars – between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 

On the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, two of the world’s most inclusive (and heroic) spiritual leaders met in Dharamsala, India for a lengthy visit.  The Dalai Lama has lived in exile since his harrowing escape from Tibet in the uprising of 1959, and Archbishop Tutu survived South Africa’s violence and oppression before chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990’s.  As the book jacket describes the pair, “[d]espite their hardships – or, as they would say, because of them – they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.” 

They gladly share the open “secret” to happiness, which is that it is already ever-present within us.  Happiness is accessible in our own minds and hearts when we are able to respond to things that occur in our lives with what the Dalai Lama calls “mental immunity:” 

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

This teaching is what Frankl and Lorde also tell us: we suffer when we resist impermanence and try to control that which is beyond controlling.  And the ability to release ourselves from these sources of suffering is something anyone can learn how to do.

Another primary teaching in The Book of Joy is the power of compassion:

“What the Dalai Lama and I are offering,” [said Archbishop Tutu] “is a way of handling your worries: thinking about others. You can think about others who are in a similar situation or perhaps even in a worse situation, but who have survived, even thrived. It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a great whole.” [Author Douglas Abrams comments:] Once again, the path of joy was connection and the path of sorrow was separation.

One of my favorite aspects of the book, which I loved in its entirety, is a 40-page guide to “Joy Practices” tucked into the back of it.  If you are interested in starting or expanding your box of tools for developing mental immunity, this section of The Book of Joy is full of appealing, gentle and accessible techniques.  Not coincidentally, embedded within them are lots of beautiful coaching questions.

F-Balms

“F” is for Four more balms worth considering, each related to the trifecta:

  • The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Scribner, 2017).  Dr. Eger, now in her 90’s, was a mentee of Frankl’s and also a Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist.  She has a new book coming out soon, called The Gift.
  • “The Other Side of the Pandemic,” an interview of angel Kyodo williams, African-American Zen priest and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, on Dan Harris’s “10% Happier” podcast.
  • This lovely and inviting Inside Transformational Leadership interview with the late Kathleen Dowling Singh: “The Grace in Aging: Awaken as You Grow Older”.
  • The following excerpt from “A Great Wagon” by the thirteenth-century Sufi Muslim scholar and theologian Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

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Leadership Library Review: “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” by John Lewis

August 2020

“Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” by John Lewis (New York Times, 7/30/20)

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”  –John Lewis

Persistence

Born in 1940 in rural Alabama, John Robert Lewis – one of the “big six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement – served Georgia’s 5th congressional 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.  Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer late last year, following a routine check-up.  His final public appearance was in June, at Washington D.C.’s brand-new Black Lives Matter Plaza on 16th Street NW near the White House, which he visited because he simply wanted to see it for himself.  Lewis was admitted to the hospital the next day and died on July 17th.

When President Barack Obama eulogized Congressman Lewis on Thursday, he described Lewis as “an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance.”  Congressman Lewis’s perseverance was so unbreakable that he managed to address the American people from his casket, in what amounts to a love letter to us all, published by the New York Times on the day of his own funeral.

What Congressman Lewis Calls Us To Do

In his Op Ed piece, what Lewis urges each of us to do is be an accountable leader of our own life.  He encourages us to “answer the highest calling of your heart by standing up for what you truly believe”:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

He further exhorts us to learn and understand the history, context and constructs that have made the world work the way it now does, and which – therefore – point to solutions for our most intractable problems.  He speaks with profound wisdom to the transformative potential of this time.  Ultimately, Lewis asks us to “[c]ontinue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”

Next Steps

  • Consider meditating, free-writing, dreaming, making art about, or otherwise contemplating the grace of Lewis’s parting words:

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

Which words move you the most?  For you, what does it mean to “walk with the wind”?  What does the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love guide you to do now?

  • A concept well-lived by Lewis was “love in action,” which was the subject of this beautiful “On Being” interview of Lewis by Krista Tippett. I recommend it for inspiration and refreshment; each time I listen to it I notice something new and important about leadership, purpose and service.
  • Note to my readers: Thank you for all of the excellent leadership you are persisting to offer in the pandemic, in the anti-racism movement, and in your organizations, communities and families. In homage to John Lewis, here is my heartfelt leadership wish for you: Love is good trouble.  May you get into plenty of it.
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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 – Dr. Deborah Willis, who runs the diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) certificate program at the University of Michigan as the Program Manager for Professional & Academic Development – 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 journey is to understand anti-racism.  I attended a webinar with Ibram X. Kendi recently 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.  I want to learn how to be accountable to my commitments through action.  In the meantime, I was shaken and positively provoked by this stunning conversation between Robin Di Angelo and Resmaa Menakem with Krista Tippett on “On Being,” which I highly recommend, especially to white people.

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 and want to take action, 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 and this one.)  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.  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 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, which 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 has been superb at crisis communication during Covid 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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