The Poetry of Questions (and Vice Versa)

March 2023

When we look at how inquiry-is-change — how inquiry-and-change is a simultaneous moment in human systems — we start seeing the power of it. It is something I’ve called ‘the exponential inquiry effect’ to indicate how our first questions, like the early stage of a snowball, can grow into exponential tipping point movements. That’s why, in the practice of [Appreciative Inquiry] in leadership, we say: “We live in worlds our questions create.”

– David Cooperrider, “Appreciative Inquiry in a Broken World”

The poetry of and from questions

According to, the origins of the word “poem” are Latin and Greek: “<Latin poēma<Greek poíēma poem, something made, equivalent to poiē-, variant stem of poieîn to make + -ma suffix denoting result.”  Arguably, by this definition “poetry” is not confined to sonnets, haiku and limericks, etc. but technically encompasses emergent creation in any form.  In this way, poems and Cooperrider’s “first questions” serve similar purposes.  The world you inhabit – as a leader, parent, artist, friend or community member and everything else – is a poem, made through your questions.  Our lives are an experience generated and proliferated by our inquiries.  (“[T]ry to love the questions themselves…Live the questions,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously exhorted.)

While such an abstract idea might sound like flakey, unsubstantial or irrelevant stuff – particularly when it comes to serious hard-core leadership – consider poet and corporate consultant David Whyte’s shocking contention that “poetry is language against which we have no defenses.”  Too easily dismissed as superfluous, poetry is actually the raw speech of unvarnished reality: of life, of death and of the cosmic mischief that contains them both.  Poetry is the unfurling expression of this gorgeous yet broken world, the manifestation of the wayward path down which humanity’s greedy, distracted absence to our vital questions has taken us thus far.  The choices we, as individuals, make about our presence to our questions carry stark implications for the concrete poetry of leadership: parsimonious questions narrow our attention and therefore limit our results, whereas generous and surprising questions are the affirmative gift of an energetic curiosity that keeps on giving.

Let me offer a brief practical example from the early days of my leadership coaching practice, about fourteen years ago.  I was posing a series of exploratory questions to one of my first clients, a government appointee with a serious dilemma, who described her situation in detail and then paused, looking at me expectantly.  My mind began scrambling to formulate an interrogatory that would impress her as she urged me forward by saying, “Aren’t you going to ask me the next question?”  Suddenly I decided to take the risk of surrendering my egoic, performance-oriented attachments to how the conversation was going.  For a moment I completely let go of my own agenda, and out of purely curious presence I inquired, “What is the next question?”  This, in turn, elicited a worlds-creating query from the client!  As in this instance, one hallmark of authentic poetry is its emergent properties: i.e., it is not just greater than the sum of its parts (in this case, me and the client), but something new altogether (a mutually-held open space of abundant potential).  Leaders who learn to inhabit such presence have magic at their fingertips.

Poetry is at the heart of the call to leadership

Maybe because of the accelerating VUCA and BANI conditions of the new millennium, for the past couple of decades I have been returning with increasing frequency to the grounding practice of reading poetry, which has been a primary solace of mine ever since college.  Starting around 2016, I have also noticed a more widespread cultural instinct to turn to poetry for wisdom amidst the cascading crises that our global societies – e.g., American democracy’s immature and racialized struggles with violence over public discourse – have been metabolizing non-stop in recent years.  At Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration ceremony, the iridescent star of the occasion was not the president but the young Black writer and activist Amanda Gorman, whose poem of lament and challenge in the wake of the January 6th insurrection, “The Hill We Climb,” still reverberates.  The poem concluded that “there is always light,/if only we’re brave enough to see it,/if only we’re brave enough to be it.”  Obviously, Gorman’s “ifs” force us to ask ourselves the heart-breaking, tantalizing and world-creating compound question, Does this country – the home of the brave – have enough courage to see the light, and be the light?

It seems to me that the interior inquiry at the heart of any call to leadership is poetry, the world-creating “first question” Cooperrider describes.  But it’s interesting: poetry must sneak up on us and address us sideways, or in metaphor, or in the silent spaces between the words or lines or stanzas, because the truths that we sense lie beneath the grand illusion we take to be reality are likewise ineffable.  (Silence is language, too; paradoxically, it’s often what’s not said that resonates, and enables us to touch the truth.)  Poems, like generous questions, cleverly position us – intimately and sometimes frighteningly – within the “first questions” of our presence, which is where the future is born.  For instance, is this not one of the most poignant implied inquiries any of us can possibly make at certain inflection points in life, if we can endure contemplating what worlds it creates?  From David Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness”: “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet/confinement of your aloneness/to learn/anything or anyone/that does not bring you alive/is too small for you.”

Reading recommendation:

A perfect “starter” collection for leaders is Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems edited by Phyllis Cole-Day and Ruby R. Wilson (Grayson Books, 2017), reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

P.S. added March 3, 2023: I also highly recommend this just-published interview of poet Jane Hirshfield on the Ezra Klein podcast, entitled “The Art of Noticing – and Appreciating – Our Dizzying World.”

“Breathe until/you feel/your bigness, until the sun/rises in your veins. Breathe/until you stop needing/anything/to be different.” From “The Cure for It All” by Julia Fehrenbacher in The Poetry of Presence. (Photo: Radiating sunlight bathes the palm oasis in Andreas Canyon, on the land of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Susan Palmer, February 2023.)

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Leadership and Laughter

February 2023

Do you want to be an unf*cker?

As I’ve mentioned before in the Leadership Library, at some point during the pandemic I came across Erica Schreiber’s light-hearted blog post, “When F*cked Is Funny.”  It’s about how she uses humor to shift her consciousness from “below the line” to “above the line” when she feels stuck, including playing a particular song.  As soon as I listened to it I knew I’d found my personal Covid-19 Anthem: Katie Goodman’s perfectly-pitched “I Didn’t F*ck It Up.”  (Take a moment to check it out – stand up and sing along!)  There’s so much to love about these psychologically perceptive lyrics, but perhaps because of my profession I especially appreciate that one of the notes it ends on is a delicious coaching question I ask myself – with genuine curiosity, depending on the situation (!) – on a regular basis: Do you want to be an unf*cker?

Those three little letters

Y. E. S. 

As Keith Johnstone, the author of a classic workbook on improv called Impro (Routledge, 1992), is credited with observing, “There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘no’. Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”  This is the basis for the well-known “yes, and” improv game, and it applies to leadership as well.  Not in a “yes-to-any-and-everything” sense, but in the sense of having courage to be present with a clear-eyed seeing of the truth of What Is at any given moment, and responding to it in full-bodied good faith.  This kind of presence can offer a largeness of perspective that helps us to find humor in even very difficult realities, and thus bring more creative vision to them.

Of course it is not only for the sake of adventure that leaders are well-served by adopting a “yes, and” to spontaneity and (appropriate) humor, but also because demonstrating relatability is effective at promoting trust.  According to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, the authors of Humor, Seriously (Penguin, 2020), over the past couple of decades there has been an unsurprising trust-in-leadership crisis.  Their research shows that in workplace contexts low trust measurably erodes motivation and productivity, whereas high trust in leaders is correlated with innovation and performance, because it creates the conditions for safer risk-taking.  The chapter on “Leading with Humor” reads to me like an argument for leaders to nurture trust by discovering their signature style (or Transformational Third Way) of transcending the poles of Gravity and Levity; a magic mix of what’s bigger than the either/or of these poles opens up creativity, including in high-heat, high-stakes conflict.  (The authors cite late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a towering example of using humor to loosen up the atmosphere in tense negotiations.  I agree with them and can recommend Albright’s final memoir, Hell and Other Destinations – Harper, 2020 – as proof!)  On page 26, Aaker and Bagdonas write that even Dwight D. Eisenhower espoused humor as important to the art of leadership, and he was “the second-least naturally funny president after Franklin Pierce.”  

Laughter as lube

In Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead (Stanford, 2023), Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin name laughter as one of their GEMs or “genius engagement moves” because it is “a miraculous nervous system reset….Not only does it awaken your parasympathetic, complexity-friendly nervous system, but it lubricates basically everything you want for thinking and acting in complexity” (p. 89).  The young-adult fiction writer Jason Reynolds, whom Krista Tippett interviewed for “On Being” about racism, narrative and imagination, shared that he once asked himself what a synonym for freedom could be:

And I made up the word breathlaughter, because there’s something about the idea, for me, that — when I think of breath, I think of life, but I also think of, it doesn’t stop. So if you exhale, what comes out of your mouth spreads and spreads and spreads. It goes and goes and goes and goes. And that’s something to think about. It’s something to think about, what happens when we breathe out or breathe in. It’s also interesting to think about that we’re breathing in, and then breathing out, which means it’s a constant recycling of energy.

Not only is it appropriate to enjoy humor as a leader, but used well, laughter is an extremely powerful shortcut to inviting a liberating shift in consciousness – “a constant recycling of energy” – which you can then steer towards actualizing what matters most.

Questions to consider:

  • How do you shift your consciousness when you feel stuck, or outright f*cked?
  • Do you want to be an unf*cker?  (It’s OK to say no.)  What would it mean to you to be an unfucker in a situation you’re dealing with right now?  What’s the first step?
  • Does the word “breathlaughter” speak to you as a synonym for freedom?  If you were to make up your own synonym for freedom, what would it be?
  • Can you think of a recent example of when laughter was lube for you when responding to a complex issue at work?  What difference did the humor make?  How could you replicate that experience more often?

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Leadership, Ubuntu and Evolving the WEIRD Mindset

January 2023

People do not perceive worlds but enact them.  Different mindsets bring forth different worlds. 

–Susanne Cook-Greuter and Ntyatyambo Sibanda

Photo: Susan Palmer

“I am because we are

I recently attended a fascinating Growth Edge Network community presentation – materials from which are quoted in the epigram above – by developmental psychologist Susanne Cook-Greuter and Johannesburg-based coach Ntyatyambo Sibanda juxtaposing the WEIRD worldview of adult maturation with the southern African cosmological paradigm that includes Ubuntu.  (Here WEIRD means White, Educated, Integrally-informed, Rational and Developmental; elsewhere it can mean White, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic.)  If I accurately understood her, Sibanda described Ubuntu as an “I am because we are” ability to pay simultaneous attention – through “multiple channels” – to the interconnectedness of self, community and the whole of existence.  (It’s energy: Sibanda explained that linguistically ntu indicates a dynamic life force.)  While there was a great deal more to the discussion than what I’ll offer below, the presenters identified three intriguing differences in how adult development theory and Ubuntu make sense of human growth that have enormous leadership implications. 

Adult development theory, Ubuntu and interconnectedness

According to Cook-Greuter and Sibanda, adult development theory has a directional bias that is forward and upward (indeed, it is often referred to as “vertical development”), its trajectory evolves from more individual to more communal, and it generally privileges cognitive (head-based) complexity.  By contrast, Ubuntu has the more fluid element of remembering or “looking back to go forward,” its trajectory evolves more from communal to individual (notably, “always in relationship”), and it emphasizes heart- and body-based intelligence gained through present-moment experience (including ceremonies and rituals) rather than cognition. 

The ancient Ubuntu journey to becoming a healer that Sibanda specifically outlined mirrors aspects of what we in the West might consider the process of gaining leadership wisdom or maturity.  For example, following several initiating steps, the first key “gate” in the Ubuntu healer’s journey is a ceremony called Vuma ukufa, or accepting one’s death, during and after which the grasp of the ego is loosened through various kinds of ongoing internal work.  This reminds me of Western pathways toward servant leadership in its purest manifestation, reflecting the willingness to – typically, but not necessarily, metaphorically – die into a new identity for the sake of something vaster than the “small-s” self (which also entails various kinds of ongoing internal work). 

Leader as healer: evolving the WEIRD mindset

Increasing numbers of WEIRD people in my discipline who are exploring the edges of our knowledge-based paradigms are awakening to the fact that, as these systems grow mind-bogglingly more “sophisticated,” it turns out non-Western and Indigenous ways of sensing, relating and being are far more developed for handling complexity.  I’ll speak to personal experience, here: my WEIRD worldview is comparatively toddleresque when it comes to traversing the messy, mysterious territory of being human in absurd circumstances of my culture’s own making.  How to live on the planet without committing mass murder-suicide is merely one example.  Different mindsets bring forth different worlds.

It’s my impression that North Americans’ and Europeans’ gradual enlightenment by African and Indigenous cultures around the globe in recent years has begun to seriously influence the theory and praxis of leadership in the West.  In their healthy, non-appropriating and partnering forms, respectful integrations of mindsets (often entangled with Western mystical traditions as well as Middle Eastern and Asian spiritual wisdom) are nudging WEIRD leadership into less rational, less linear and therefore profoundly more effective responses to disruption.  The Western ideal of a solo out-front, command-and-control leader (think: Putin) has been eroding since the turn of the century, and we are currently watching it evolve in real time into a figure more like the healer (think: Zelensky); communal and embodied, sensing and leading from anywhere inside (and outside) a system by being utterly dialed-in to the present moment in service of the greater good.  As such, the healing leader – even, or especially, in her warrior iteration – inspires others’ courage, agency and leadership for inclusive, life-giving purposes. In Nicholas Janni’s pragmatic and spiritually luminous book published last summer, he explicitly distinguishes between leader as executor (what we do) and leader as healer (who we be), advising how to make this shift.  Similarly, another favorite book of mine from 2022, Unleash Your Complexity Genius by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin, expounds upon how to access your own nervous system’s capacity to handle complexity through deceptively simple “geniuses” we’re all born with, such as breathing, noticing, connecting, and relating to ourselves and others with humor, love and gratitude. 

This is not “woo-woo” stuff.  Those of us whose instinct is to label it dismissively are likely resisting with our heads, fearing our hearts will break if it turns out that what we secretly believe is not true.  Resistance to What Is is understandable and deserving of compassionate patience with ourselves, because – as none other than Viktor Frankl observed – “What is to give light must endure burning.”  In other words, it is for good reasons we fear our own power, and we are never more powerful than when we are Love.

For further exploration:

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Leadership and Depolarization in These Times

December 2022

It’s not clear to me that the long-term generational rise of liberal values, which I do think is happening, and [of] which there’s solid evidence in the polls, is necessarily going to trump all these other aspects which are changing the political institutions in America and really are weakening democracy and the public’s faith in the norms of democracy in America.

Pippa Norris, comparative political scientist, on the Ezra Klein podcast

I was born in 1966, between two notorious pairs of politically-motivated assassinations in that decade. President John F. Kennedy Jr.’s in 1963 and Malcom X’s in 1965 preceded my birth, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s both happened in 1968.  All four men were icons of vast movements to shift American culture towards the more inclusive and equitable values represented by the broadest interpretations of the U.S.’s imperfect founding documents.  But context is everything; without having deliberately repaired the profound traumas caused by our genocidal history with indigenous peoples and nations, slavery and the Civil War, a failed Reconstruction that became Jim Crow and an unfinished Civil Rights project, Women’s Suffrage without an Equal Rights Amendment, the devastations of two World Wars and questionable-at-best forays into Vietnam, etc. (among many other mass cleavages), to this day our heap of unhealed wounds make all Americans incalculably vulnerable to our own and each other’s excruciating frustrations. 

As the saying goes, pain that is not transmuted is transmitted.  In its fragmentation, American culture – rather than teaching us to lean into what we can learn from our own and each other’s extreme discomfort – pushes us to deny, resist, fix or assign blame for it.  We’re entranced by a mass delusion that a pain-free life is possible if we possess certain things.  Understandably then, driven by mirages created by social-media algorithms and derange rhetoric, we are confused about power.  We are mistaken that power is a zero-sum game, that exclusion works, that power-over is more effective than power-with, and that any other force (like money or “likes” or guns or votes) is more powerful than love – the behavioral hallmarks of which I’d argue, in the political realm, are curiosity, compassion and optimism.  As a citizenry and a democracy, we are certainly still resilient enough to heal our civic body, and to shore up or redesign our political institutions if we commit to learning how to inhabit these three things in our day-to-day discourse.  Post-traumatic growth is possible.  But ever since the January 6th insurrection, many of us wonder whether or for how long resurgent public violence will delay or prevent this possibility.  So what is the call to leadership – including as the leaders of our own lives – in These Times?

It may be an unwelcome prospect (at least it is to me…), but the foundational step is to dedicate ourselves to transforming our own individual shit into fertilizer.  When we gently allow the roots of our psychological distress to surface into awareness, we gradually find our way through our unique suffering with increasing self-acceptance.  If we can do that, we simultaneously cultivate the vital self-love that quietly animates our singular contributions: to a healthier family, community, national and planetary situation.  As the late Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh put it, “No mud, no lotus” – i.e. without the ugly nutritious muck, nothing inspiring blooms.  If you’ve been putting off therapy, AA, coaching, talking with a clergy-person, joining a peer-support group, or starting an emotion-expression technique like journaling, don’t wait any longer.  It’s astounding how elusive and challenging self-love can be (she declares, from experience!), but this is the only process I know of to intentionally open our hearts up enough to make sincere political inquiries that strengthen muscles of curiosity (“what can I learn from someone else who believes something so different from what I believe?”), compassion (“what does the world look like through ______’s eyes?”) and optimism (“what else is possible for us, starting in this immediate moment?”).

Life is hard to begin with, and humans aren’t curious, compassionate or optimistic when we tell ourselves that our sources of safety, security or status are being taken away.  Under stress, we’re neurobiologically wired to shrink into reactive, constricted and sometimes aggressive and even violent patterns. In the United States, where our culture’s scarcity mindset meets our irrational caste systems, the effects of our unaddressed historical depravities seem to manifest in pathological behavior around four constructs in particular: whiteness, masculinity, land and treasure.  In my view, and as recent tragic events attest, the pressure of this country’s unresolved stuff triggers an astonishing amount of self-destructive energy (by suicide, mass shooters trending toward younger men, and the amount of white supremacist violence now fueling the recent rise in domestic terrorism, prompting other countries to issue travel warnings for their tourists here). 

I wonder what would have to happen to force us to fully pause and look at our cultural truths with clear-eyed vision.  As a citizenry, will Americans ever have enough honesty, courage and will to face the complexity of our anguish?  Is it possible for a national healing process to emerge from this era (perhaps through transformative justice projects and/or resilience-based indigenous approaches)?  Will the faith and values of our young people – who voted in the 2022 midterms at the second-highest rate in 30 years – continue to shape a stronger future for our weakening democracy?  These huge questions remain to be answered.  In the meantime, I humbly offer my personal list of what I believe are the smallest depolarizing things we can each do as leaders at work and at home that make the biggest difference in 2023 and beyond:

  • Start with ourselves.  We know this intuitively: how we engage in the inevitable conflicts within ourselves is also how we engage in the inevitable conflicts we have in our interactions with others.  So – without judgment – notice your patterns, and then work on them.  Reach out for support when you need it.  Practice seeing with a “full moon in each eye,” beginning in front of the mirror. 
  • Be conscious of our language.  Observe when and where we use disrespectful or contemptuous language about people whose politics we disagree with, including around kids.  How conscious are you of whom you disparage?  (What would you say if they were right there in the same room with you?)  My practice is challenging myself to separate humans from political stances.  We wire our brains – and childrens’ brains – with repetition, and our polarizing words polarize the world. 
  • Get off social media.  I suspect much of my personal hopefulness comes from where I’m not: luckily, I never created a Facebook or Twitter account, and I go on a “news diet” when my curiosity, compassion and optimism start fading. 
  • Volunteer.  Whether for an effort that transcends politics, like your local food shelf, or for an organization specifically designed to address political depolarization like Braver Angels, donate time to finding common purpose with others.  (Consider checking out New Politics, a bipartisan nonprofit that helps candidates with a track record of national service run for office; for the last couple of years, I have been offering pro bono and discounted executive coaching for internal leaders there.)
  • Tiny gestures of connection are meaningful.  Polarized politics is one symptom of our culture’s “crisis of belonging” and our need for more connection.  Micro-connections (the opposite of micro-aggressions) make a difference. Driving my car this summer, I was stuck trying to make a left-hand turn into a parking lot, waiting for the relentless oncoming traffic to subside.  Suddenly, an older white man in an enormous pick-up truck flying a six-by-ten-foot “FUCK BIDEN” flag stopped for me, and waved my little Subaru Crosstrek across his lane to my destination.  I smiled and held up my hand in thanks.  Ditching my cynical narratives (“what he was really doing…,” “who he wouldn’t have done that for…”), I decided to accept his gesture as the courtesy it was – period.  Anything else would be me making stuff up in service of keeping my polarized worldviews intact.  Now I’m just curious.
  • If you’re a Vermonter, read and share the engaging new comic book about how democracy works here.  Titled “Freedom and Unity” after our state motto, the book explains how Vermont attempts to navigate the polarities between individual and statewide needs through its unique blend of processes.
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Leadership Library Review: “Lessons from Plants” by Beronda Montgomery (Harvard, 2022)

November 2022

We would do well in our interactions with others to consider how we take care of plants.  For the most part, we begin from the expectation that the plant has the ability to grow and thrive.  When the plant is not doing well, we ask questions about the health of the environment (does the plant have enough or too much light?) or about our own abilities as a care-taker (what am I doing wrong?).  We do not immediately believe the plant has deficits.

– Lessons from Plants (p. 146)

Vice president for academic affairs and dean of Grinnell College, Dr. Montgomery arrived at Grinnell this year after serving as a professor in the departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University.  (I heard about her from my wise friend Diane Kelly, Vice Provost of Faculty Affairs at the University of Tennessee.)  Montgomery is a plant physiologist whose experimental research focused on ecophysiology, or the interplay between plants and their environments.  In this quietly provocative volume, she writes with deep insight and savvy about the sophistication of plants’ sensing and decision-making capabilities and what we can learn from them about cultivating healthy human communities.  The book is, ultimately, an impassioned call for leaders to develop greater cross-cultural awareness so that they can rigorously engage in “groundskeeping” (as opposed to “gatekeeping”).  For Montgomery, groundskeeping entails perception, creativity, resilience, collaboration, sensing, adaptation, pioneering and – most importantly – attending to both the individual and the larger environment.

Sensing, discernment and risk

Lessons from Plants is a poetic rumination on how the sentience, behavior and thriving of plants illuminates our own human assumptions about agency, transformation and care-taking.  In the chapter on “A Changing Environment,” Montgomery uses the science of plant sensitivity (e.g. detecting and responding to light, or soil nutrients, etc.) to offer a formula for self-reflection.  In her writings, Montgomery refers to this important leadership capacity to take stock of and reflect upon internal and external resources as “process and proceed.”  In “Friend or Foe,” she describes how plants and trees create network-based relationships based on various amazing forms of communication, offering a poignant commentary about how broadly or narrowly humans tend toward inclusion and exclusion. 

“Risk to Win” focuses on – what is, in my view – the most astonishing discernment process that plants engage in, which is how they “weigh risks and respond to scarcity in remarkable ways, all while staying put” (p. 56).  Plants use elements called volatile organic compounds to gather data on which to make gambles.  Like animals – including human leaders (think: pandemic!) – plants are more likely to take particular types of risks when resources are uncertain.  It was strangely touching to learn from Montgomery that when faced with “survival” questions, plants who determine that “the environment is unsuitable for continued existence” will direct their energy toward producing seeds in hopes of better conditions for future successors (pp. 59-60).  This resonated with my developmental leadership coaching approach.  Sometimes my clients outgrow their organizational conditions to the extent that they face an existential-level identity crisis (I can relate: three times in my career, a professional identity has died so a new one could take root).  In these cases, the smartest, most generous thing one can do is scatter good “seeds” and let go of life in that job.

Ecosystem transformation

Perhaps my favorite chapter of chapter in the book is “Transformation.”  Here, Montgomery describes how plants create and respond to various degrees of disruption (e.g., some plants serve as “pioneers” in re-vegetating an area made barren by conditions such as fire, others actively display collaborative “swarming” behavior) for long-term community health.  Humans have the ability to intentionally initiate transformational change, but too often resist it.  On page 94 Montgomery laments, “[p]eople often purport to desire significant changes to ecosystem structures in the pursuit of equity but ignore the need for real ‘disturbance’ to break away from the status quo community composition.”  She declares, quite rightly, that “intervention and intentional disruption may be critical for supporting environments primed for the succession needed to support cultural change.”

In “Planning for Success,” Montgomery uses plant analogies to highlight the failures of a deficit-based system that assumes individual weakness rather than inquiring about the environment with which a person is interacting – and whether the surrounding context actually supports successful outcomes.  Instead, she calls for leadership, mentoring and advocacy grounded in a different set of assumptions – e.g., prioritizing community flourishing over individual achievement – and which utilize growth-based approaches (p. 131).  This kind of leadership is expressed through seeing both the individual as well as recognizing their larger social context, which in turn requires “being able to comprehend that many of the challenges that individuals from minoritized backgrounds face stem from long-standing histories of systemic inequities” (p. 130).

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

While enjoying Montgomery’s book, I came across her enlightening 2020 mSphere article, Lessons from Microbes: What Can We Learn about Equity from Unculturable Bacteria. “We can learn many lessons about equity and stewardship-based engagement,” she writes in the abstract, “from the ways that microbiologists seek to understand how to cultivate unculturable bacteria, including the importance of understanding an organism’s language and community, replicating aspects of the environment of origin, an organism’s occasional need to transform aspects of its environment to persist, and the critical needs to provide a range of culture conditions to support diverse organisms.”  The piece makes a persuasive argument about what-not-to-do, the centerpiece of which is a stark chart showing “selected factors that we accept about unculturable bacteria that we reject about minoritized and marginalized colleagues.”

Are you interested in more about plants and the science of what we can learn from them?  Considering that – in the U.S. – we honored Indigenous People’s Day in October and we celebrate Thanksgiving (with all of the ironies of its origin story) later this month, I strongly recommend Krista Tippett’s On Being interview called “The Intelligence of Plants” with botanist and recent MacArthur “genius grant” winner Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed, 2015).  Just FYI, on Krista Tippett’s urging in “The Pause” newsletter, I am currently working my way through James Bridle’s revelatory Ways of Being – Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), which is wildly up-ending my notions about organic and artificial intelligence.

“To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” – William Wordsworth.  Photo: A purple aster blossom seems to reach for this clouded sulphur butterfly on my Montpelier, Vermont hillside in late September.
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Seeing with a Full Moon in Each Eye

October 2022

Admit something:

Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise

someone would call the cops.

Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.

Why not become the one who lives with a

full moon in each eye that is

always saying,

with that sweet moon language,

what every other eye in

this world is

dying to


     – Hafiz (14th-c. Iranian poet and mystic; trans. by Daniel Ladinsky)

As 2022 began, several inter-related questions were very alive for me with a fresh intensity – thanks to Brian Emerson, Gideon Culman and the Growth Edge Network community’s January conference – that has only grown stronger with the year’s two most poignant surprises. One surprise was domestic, i.e., the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision curtailing women’s rights, and one was international, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Of course I’m keenly aware that these are in addition to existing crises of war and rights violations in other places around the world, the ongoing global pandemic and the climate emergency.  Here in the fall season, I am inquiring more urgently about the intersections among polarity theory, the role of love in my professional work as a leadership coach, and what it will take at this point to save the planet.

What we’re eyeing

Polarity theory – first propounded by Barry Johnson – is the idea that many of the seemingly intractable issues we encounter in our individual, societal and global experience are not problems to be solved, but polarities to be navigated.  Polarities are pairs of apparent opposites.  On the surface, the poles can be easily mistaken for either/or choices.  However, what distinguishes a polarity from a problem is that the two poles represent two interdependent things which – when inquired about more deeply – reveal themselves to both be necessary for bigger-picture success over time. 

For example, common polarities that leaders in my coaching practice grapple with include Confidence and Humility, Task Focus and Relationship Focus, attending to the organization’s Inward-Facing and Outward-facing needs, communicating with Candor and Diplomacy, and Learning from the Past and Sensing into the Future.  Once you’ve identified that the dilemma is a polarity (rather than a problem), you can map it out to find breakthrough insights that involve some kind of transcendence and fusion of the two poles.  When I do this with a client (I employ the process outlined by Johnson’s former students Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis in their wonderful book, Navigating Polarities), the client eventually lands on an idea, image, mantra or way-of-operating that resolves the tension at a higher level of effectiveness than either pole can do alone. 

What does this look like? I might have a client who identifies that a challenge she faces is not a problem but a polarity: perhaps she knows she needs to carve out more time for self-care, yet she keeps repeatedly prioritizing care for her staff.  So, we would map it out. In the process, the leader realizes that taking care of herself in general – maybe improving her mental and physical health by increasing exercise, for example – would boost her energy and stamina for steering her organization. She might see how it also serves as powerful role-modeling for her direct reports. From this perspective, she might come up with a unifying motto, such as “Self-Care for Others.” Suddenly, the leader is no longer caught in an either/or proposition about how to spend her time; instead, she finds a magical “and” that helps her to further maximize her leadership talent.

To see is to love

“When we can see a person, group or country completely, love is a natural result,” says Johnson in a compelling essay on American racism entitled “Proud AND Critical.”  Complete seeing – a.k.a. unconditional love – of others (which, speaking of paradox, requires the healthy boundaries that enable unconditional self-love) is hard!  Unconditional love necessitates a courageous letting-go of beliefs that are defining yet limiting to us, which is a vulnerable feeling.  We have to find enough safety in our minds and bodies to unlearn stories we thought were “right,” and loosen our grip on ideas that make us feel secure or special.  It might show up as curiosity, at first. But when we are able to gradually awaken to this more expansive consciousness, unconditional love transmutes alienation, separation and marginalization into a profoundly liberating sense of connection.  We slowly move from a constricted, scarcity heart-set to one of creativity, spaciousness and generosity – including toward ourselves. We see more completely, with a full moon in each eye.

Ever since I read Emerson and Lewis’s Navigating Polarities shortly after it came out, I’ve been kind of obsessed with a footnote in it about the “Transformational Third Way,” which is their particular innovation to Johnson’s polarity mapping process.  The footnote cites a newsletter from the Center for Action and Contemplation in which the progressive Franciscan monk Richard Rohr writes about dialectics, polarities and the power of the Trinity (Christianity’s “Third Way”).  Rohr, in turn, quotes modern mystic Cynthia Bourgeault observing this provocative thing:

The interplay of two polarities calls forth a third, which is the “mediating” or “reconciling” principle between them. In contrast to a binary system, which finds stability in the balance of opposites, the ternary system stipulates a third force that emerges as the necessary mediation of these opposites and that in turn (and this is the really crucial point) generates a synthesis at a whole new level. It is a dialectic whose resolution simultaneously creates a new realm of possibility….Third force is there because the Trinity is real, and if you are alert to it, you will be able to find it….The problem is that most of the world is third force blind.

This concept exists in other Western, Eastern, Indigenous and African wisdom traditions as well, perhaps no more succinctly than in the Taoist yin-yang symbol.  The duality of darkness and light are in perpetual flow, each containing a bit of the other, depicting infinite emergence into a Third Way: wholeness.

As a leadership coach, I have a favorite polarity-invoking question that can sometimes hack directly into seeing the Third Way: “In this story/belief/conclusion you’re sharing with me, how is the opposite also true?”  (As ridiculous, woo-woo or even offensive as this question might sound at first blush, it’s backed up by science!  Consider physicist Niels Bohr’s famous observation that in the quantum field, the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.)  Over the years, I have had several CEO clients who feared – whether quite realistically or less realistically – that their boards of directors were about to force them to resign. For example, the client might reflexively say, “It is the worst thing that could happen to my career.”  When I ask her how the opposite of this truth is also true, she experiences a little epiphany and responds by noticing, “Well, it could be the best thing that ever happened to my career.” And then our exploration really broadens; in these illuminating moments, the client tends to take a wide-open perspective on the arc of her entire work life, and lands with clear-eyed equanimity on a “let the chips fall where they may” attitude toward her commitment to keep using her leadership in service of the same cause, regardless of organizational context.  She enters “a whole new realm of possibility.”

Recommended resources

I don’t know whether life on this planet will be saved from modern civilization’s pathological addiction to destroying each other and other animals, forests, deserts and oceans under the myopic delusion of short-term gain (of profit, territory, power-over type dominance, etc.).  But I’m a realistic optimist, and believe humanity can still wake up to a healthy enough perspective on its patterns to change them at scale. If we do pull it off, it will be an accumulation of tiny love-centric actions we choose take every day – towards our own individual selves, as well as everything and everyone else entangled in this gorgeous web – that delivers us to that omni-nourishing place.  Are you willing to practice seeing with a full moon in each eye?  

To learn about the latest research on how love, nervous-system regulation, connection and belonging can effectuate personal and collective healing, check out Thomas Hubl’s work on collective trauma and healing.  (Photo: Samer Daboul, Pexels.)

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Leadership Library Review: “Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin (Stanford, 2022)

September 2022

It turns out that when we need to handle complexity the most, we often are least able to…Complexity tends to trigger us, to make us anxious or afraid or overwhelmed. When this happens, our nervous system creates a whole series of shifts in our body that lead to reactivity and oversimplification. So we have a funny paradox woven right into our humanity: when we are calm, we are able to handle complexity better with play and collaboration and co-creation. But complexity kills the calm, making us less able to handle these things.

– Unleash Your Complexity Genius (pp. 2-3)

Beyond Complicated

Unleash Your Complexity Genius is anchored in theorist Dave Snowden’s conceptualization of complicated problems versus complex challenges.  As I understand it, the primary distinction between the two is that complicated problems have identifiable “root causes” that knowledge can fix, whereas complex challenges are the unpredictable by-products of so many factors within the system that produced them that cause-and-effect is no longer a useful analysis.  Therefore, in complexity there is – by definition – no certain approach to the uncertainty.  As the authors say on page 9, “if you get lulled into believing that you can use your experience and expertise to predict and control complex things, you’re likely in trouble…You need all the creativity, agility pattern-recognition, experimentation and learning you can muster when you’re dealing with complexity.”   And we also need to let go of the illusion of control.  Berger and Coughlin offer many do-able, effective approaches for helping ourselves make these shifts.


This slim but potent volume is full of GEMs (Genius Engagement Moves), which are practices for intentionally accessing the best that our own nervous systems naturally have to offer us as leaders in our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable times.  It starts with emphasizing the inner work of cultivating present-moment awareness (“the genius of noticing”), and then builds on that to explain how we can train ourselves – like exercise – for our fitness at handling complexity with the GEMs of breathing, moving and sleeping.  (The difficult irony at play here is that, when it detects a perceived threat, our sympathetic nervous system causes us to feel the urge to take action, when often we are actually better served by slowing down and switching on the restorative gifts of the parasympathetic nervous system.)  The book goes on to use research, as well as dialogue between relatable fictional characters, to demonstrate how leaders can then create conditions for flourishing in complexity at the intersections of our personal and professional lives.  These three big “geniuses” are: utilizing experimentation to navigate change, understanding how we construct our emotions (and therefore how we can construct new ones) to transform overwhelm into thriving, and harnessing the “the genius of loving” to value human connection over more traditional values such as competence (which are more suited to complicated problems than complex challenges).

Love and Connection

One of my favorite bits in this cutting-edge book is its calling-out and calling-in “the genius of loving.”  Not many leadership and management books do this yet, but we will be seeing it more and more, because the deep truth at the heart of all human endeavor – including in every business sector and disciplinary field – is that we are made for love, and everything in the universe is interconnected.  When we are able to inhabit this truth in healthy, whole and functional ways, nearly anything is possible. 

The practical, counter-cultural implication of this for leaders is observed by Berger and Coughlin on page 112: “One of the most surprising ideas that arises from complexity is that in a complex system, the thing that makes the biggest difference is the number and nature of connections among individuals rather than the excellence of any particular individual.  Take that in for a moment.”  In light of this remarkable statement, the authors offer several habits, workplace strategies and thought experiments for: emphasizing our full humanity in all the overlapping dimensions of our lives, breaking down the alienation caused by competition and the drive for unattainable perfection, and invoking the extraordinary power of gratitude (which they role-model beautifully in their equivalent of an afterword).  Yes, yes, yes.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Unleash Your Complexity Genius dovetails nicely with the book I reviewed last month, Leader as Healer by Nicholas Janni, as well as my recent reflections on the VUCA and BANI world we’re living in, and the value of not-knowing in leadership.  For more on the somatics of leadership and change, I recommend Amanda Blake’s Your Body Is Your Brain and Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Central Recovery Press, 2017).  For coaches interested in a deeper dive into how to leverage the miraculous capacities of the human nervous system in our work, see Richard Boyatzis’s Helping People Change (Harvard, 2019).

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Leadership Library Review: “Leader as Healer” by Nicholas Janni (LID, 2022)

August 2022

The cultures in which toxic leaders hold the greatest power are those that uphold the outmoded belief that traits like empathy, vulnerability and connection equate to weakness…Executors endorse these biases, while Healers dismantle them. The Leader as Healer understands that unless we acknowledge our grief, we cannot feel our joy; unless we embrace our fear, we cannot know true strength; unless we learn to embrace emotions unconditionally, we limit our access to higher levels of intelligence and insight. 

– Nicholas Janni (Leader as Healer, p. 21)

Embodiment of Presence

In this inspiring book, somatic intelligence (the wisdom of the body) is also among embrace of emotion, clarification of purpose, and mindfulness and meditation as the keys to Janni’s paradigm of Leader as Healer.  For Janni, the journey to becoming a healing leader begins with the leader’s shift from “I as thinker” to “I as Presence who thinks, feels and senses” (p. 38).  As a result, the way the leader shows up is an integration of doing and being: what she is doing arises from who she is being.  The message to those around her is I am here, and I am available (pp. 46-47). 

The scientific and spiritual dimensions of embodied leadership

Janni argues that one of healing leadership’s primary effects is the “restoration of unity [his emphasis], bringing those parts of us and the systems within which we work that are fragmented and/or exiled back into a coherent whole.”  Characterized by the “awakening of transpersonal levels of consciousness” (i.e., non-egoic or transcendent states), it’s noteworthy that Janni’s Leader as Healer concept is explicitly spiritual (p. 16).  That said, he also makes the neurobiological case for using meditation and mindfulness to support the flow states needed to promote the kind of relaxed attention necessary for being a healing leader, as well as the case for fostering right-brain activity to counter-balance our Western culture’s “left-brain takeover” which Janni persuasively describes as “dangerously fragmented and mechanistic” (pp. 49-50). 

In another scientific example, Janni also discusses the latest epigenetic research on intergenerational trauma and suffering.  He describes how it is through the gateways of body-based emotional and nonrational awareness that we can release old patterns in order to access fresh creativity:

[I]f we are to thrive in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we must bring all of ourselves to the problem-solving table.  To do that, we must represent an embodied, coherent whole.  The rational mind alone is no longer enough; we have forgotten the deep wisdom of the body, and it is now time to resurrect it. SOMETIMES THIS IS SIMPLE AND IMMEDIATELY TRANSFORMATIONAL.  [Author’s emphasis, p. 110]

This is, Janni argues, a cornerstone of the Leader as Healer’s own practice, which grounds her healing presence so that others are able to do the same.

Life purpose, and the call

Janni uses the chapter on life purpose to link the somatic work in Chapter 3 to the mindfulness and meditation work in Chapter 5.  Drawing on psychology (Carl Jung), poetry (David Whyte) and physics (Alfred Einstein), Janni asserts that “purpose arises from the deepest essence of who we are” (p. 134).  Among a number of excellent pragmatic coaching questions, physical exercises, attention-building and mindfulness practices that Janni emphasizes throughout the book, one of the most intensely valuable moments in the entire volume is when he synthesizes leadership, purpose and spirit in the brilliant list of prompts he offers on page 142.  Several of them are versions of my own favorite go-to coaching questions for exploring this territory, such as: “What do I really stand for and against?” How do I welcome and navigate the sense of unknowing?” and “What happens when I open up to what I have always excluded?”

I agree with Janni’s conclusion in the final chapter of Leader as Healer, entitled “The Call,” that the “gravity of this moment is an unprecedented evolutionary opportunity: the choice to integrate timeless contemplative wisdom with the advances of modern science and psychology” (p. 189).  We start by collectively deciding to face this moment squarely, and accepting What Is, then choosing action.  Making this choice is really all that’s left to humanity of we are to have a chance at preventing the planet from tipping over the precipice to which our over-rationality and profiteering have brought it.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Don’t miss the “Postscript” to Leader as Healer, in which Janni tells the story of his extraordinary (i.e. adventuresome, multi-disciplinary, generative) career path into leadership development work: he is a truly fascinating guy.  Otherwise, I recommend many of the references Janni relies upon for the structure and elocution of his ideas; you can find them littered throughout the Leadership Library: Brene Brown, David Whyte, Otto Scharmer, Robert Kegan and Joseph Jaworski.

To be Present in the way Janni describes, to meet the world just as it is, necessitates a certain fierceness which we can also approach gently.  One of my favorite meditation teachers who embodies this thoroughly, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, offers a 4-minute guided “Fierce Meditation” you can try.  (The same article hyperlinked here includes mindfulness meditations by two other teachers whose work I love, Tara Brach and especially Sharon Salzberg.)

One final recommendation.  As I publish this post, we’re entering the last few weeks of summer in the northern hemisphere: in these turbulent and perplexing times, be sure to HAVE FUN as part of building your “Presence muscles”!  Articles at the Greater Good Science Center explain how humor and play can improve your work life, contribute to creative group flow and team success, and benefit your partner relationship.  It’s noteworthy that play is “a radical and liberatory activity for Black children.”  Connect that thought to this Elements of Play chart from the National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.

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It’s a VUCA and a BANI World

July 2022

The BANI framework offers a lens through which to see and structure what’s happening in the world. At least at a surface level, the components of the acronym might even hint at opportunities for response: brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.

Jamais Cascio, Futurist, Institute for the Future

Covid-19 continues mutating around the globe, war has returned to Europe (on top of everywhere else it rages), and gun violence proliferates in the U.S., recently abetted by the same Supreme Court that last week overturned the 50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade (against prevailing public opinion both before and following the ruling), a decision that touches everyone in large ways and small, regardless of their beliefs about Roe. Cascades of unforeseeable consequences for generations to come are being unleashed by just these few examples, alone. How do we wrap our minds, hearts and spirits around the depth and scale and speed of the evolving unknown?


As I understand it, the acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) was coined about 30-35 years ago by U.S. business and military leaders to starkly name the difficult conditions for managing and planning within large-scale systems in the accelerating complexity of post-Cold War world.  VUCA has always been a short-hand but nonetheless useful frame for describing not only the wonkiness of global change (climate, geo-political, economic, digital/AI, etc.) but also for indicating how to wake up from our modern human sleepwalk through it.  People in my line of work – developmentally-informed leadership coaching, training and consulting – employ the idea of VUCA to help our clients stay alert to the risks of pretending there is any real stability, certainty, simplicity and clarity so that they can instead focus on growing their capacities for navigating through – and even thriving within – unpredictability. 


In the early days of the pandemic, a futurist named Jamais Cascio published a piece called “Facing the Age of Chaos,” in which he suggests that VUCA as a descriptor is growing obsolete.  “We have become so thoroughly surrounded by a world of VUCA that it seems less a way to distinguish important differences than simply a depiction of our default condition…declaring a situation or a system to be volatile or ambiguous tells us nothing new,” he says.  “With a new paradigm we need a new language. If we set VUCA aside as insufficient, we still need a framework that makes sense of not just the present world but its ongoing consequences as well. Such a framing would allow us to illustrate the scale of the disruptions, the chaos, underway, and enable consideration of what kinds of responses would be useful. Ideally, it would serve as a platform to explore new forms of adaptive strategies.” 

Cascio offers BANI as the fresh acronym: Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear and Incomprehensible.  This list can sound totally overwhelming, but I would argue that BANI does for individuals, organic situations and emergent movements what VUCA can still do – to some degree, at least for the time being – for big, formal organizations and agencies.  To my mind, BANI points to human ways of being inside, outside and alongside structured entities’ adaptations to the VUCA environment. By my interpretation, BANI tells each of us not to delude ourselves that ideas/institutions/systems that are assumed to be strong are indeed strong, it emphasizes that we must slow down, it reminds us that our cause-and-effect expectations are human inventions that might not even hold true in how the universe works, and it tells us not to overvalue intellectual “knowing” with our heads.  As noted in the quotation above, Cascio observes that “brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.”  This is a recipe for flourishing leadership.


It’s becoming increasingly accepted that the 20th-century “command and control” leadership paradigm was an illusion originally manufactured and leveraged by profit-centric forces for short-term gain at the expense of long-term effectiveness.  I understand it: a huge human blind spot, forged in the evolution of our species’ brains, confuses dominance with security. But this myopic narrative will finish us off if we can’t open all our eyes widely enough to see the beautiful precariousness of our planetary picture. Readers of this blog are aware I believe that in leadership as in life – ambiguity is actually opportunity, complexity is wholeness, uncertainty is possibility, and not-knowing is the way of nature so therefore embracing it (i.e., a less ego-driven pattern of thinking and behaving) is to embrace the emerging future with wisdom. 

We needn’t view VUCA nor BANI as threats but as a combined formula for thriving: taken together as a kind of polarity, the VUCA and BANI frameworks call for our awakening to the collective cultural transformation necessary if we are to pull ourselves back from the brink of collapse and leave to our descendants a world of possibility instead. Where to begin as a leader? Literally slow down and nurture your resilience (see a list of 12 strategies here) to keep yourself in a growth mindset. Stay connected to people (at work and at home) and to what’s meaningful to you. When you feel afraid or down, take an action step from the heart, even a very small one. Consider Maya Angelou’s advice: “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.”

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Leadership Library Review – “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (HBO, 2021)

June 2022

“She is doing what television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people.”Official Trailer

“Street Gang” is the story of many leaders contributing to the collective “workshop” leadership journey of bringing education, meaning and social justice to publicly-financed children’s television. This charming and nostalgic as well as ultimately enlightening documentary is a timely reminder of the convention-shattering creativity that can be born in equal measure with chaos during periods of intense societal uncertainty. 

“Sesame Street,” which debuted in 1969, was a radical “experiment” even for its radical era.  It was explicitly intended from the beginning to use federal dollars to help bridge a growing nationwide racial and socio-economic education divide.  As “Sesame Street” co-founder and producer Joan Ganz Cooney put it, “We weren’t so worried about reaching middle-class children but we really, really wanted to reach inner-city kids badly. It was hardly worth doing if it didn’t reach them.”  A recent Guardian article summarizes well what the show has taken on since then:

Sesame Street has taught kids about all manner of life topics. Not only racism (most recently with the introduction of two new African American characters, post-Black Lives Matter) but also poverty, addiction, autism, HIV and Aids, public health (Covid was not Big Bird’s first jab, he also got a measles vaccination in 1972), and gentrification (in 1994, the street was under threat of demolition from a loud-mouthed property tycoon named “Ronald Grump”, played by Joe Pesci). Sesame Street has even tackled the concept of death: when Will Lee, who played storekeeper Mr Hooper, died in 1982, the show featured a wrenching segment in which neighbours, clearly tearfully, explain to Big Bird that Mr Hooper is dead and is never coming back.

My favorite quotation from the entire documentary – and there are some beauties (e.g., Frank Biondo, who’s been Camera 1 operator since the very first show over 50 years ago, says, “I remember thinking, ‘Who’s going to watch this shit?’”) – is about the optimistic, constructive subversion that Joan Ganz Cooney was perpetrating on American culture’s inter-related systems of oppression and education.  It is from a guest on the Dick Cavett Show (forgive me for not noting his name and role in “Sesame Street”) who observed to Cavett that “[Cooney] is doing what television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people.” 

This love-based, inclusive and life-affirming approach was also reflected in the show’s unprecedented use of non-condescending humor and quasi-managed unpredictability to meet 3-to-5-year-olds where they are, and in the psychological world they inhabit.  Truth be told, quasi-managed unpredictability is the world we all inhabit. The sanest forms of processing absurdity are those that allow us to take it seriously while holding it lightly. Perhaps this is why the show’s huge emphasis on comedy – including lots of parody (e.g., from The Beetles belting out “Letter B,” to any of Kermit’s field-reporting for Sesame Street News, and the game shows hosted by Guy Smiley, who responds to the Count explaining “They call me the Count because I love to count things” with “They call me Guy Smiley because I changed my name from Bernie Liederkrantz”) – has always appealed to adults, too. One reason Oscar the Grouch is so funny is because he edgily yet age-appropriately represents the shadow side of “Sesame Street,” by which I mean the self-protective voice inside each of us that is skeptical of believing in “Sesame”‘s positive, utopian vision because we fear our heartache in co-existing with the gaps between What Is and What Could Be. We are invited to see the Grouch tenderly as comically lovable, an integrating move.

“Street Gang”’s narrative of how “Sesame Street” was conceived, researched and mostly funded by the government – and then how vastly popular it became and how quickly – is full of leaders, well-known and relatively unknown.  The documentary’s testament to them is, alone, revelatory.  But one of the quieter leaders profiled in the film is the head composer and lyricist, Joe Raposo, who literally set the tone for the show.  He wrote many of its most iconic tunes from the earlier days (he died in 1989), including the “Sesame Street” theme, “’C’ is for Cookie,” and “Bein’ Green.”  “It’s not easy bein’ green,” laments Kermit in a moment of existential reflection in the swamp; to many listeners, including cast member Sonia Monzano (“Maria”), the song was concretely about skin color while more broadly pointing to the ineffability of alienation.  (To me as a middle-class white girl in the suburban Boston area, it was a piercing ode to profound longing and the empathy that comes from bearing witness to another’s suffering, although of course that’s not how I would have been able to articulate it back then!)  Who knows how many hearts have been broken open by Joe Raposo’s words, which were written in response to director Jon Stone’s simple prompt: what does Kermit think about when he’s by himself?

“Street Gang” is trip down memory lane well worth taking.  I recommend pairing it with another uplifting documentary from last year about a similarly under-told story regarding the same era in which “Sesame Street” televised the revolution through kids’ programming, “Summer of Soul:…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised” (Hulu, 2021).  Could you use another dose of Muppet-level silliness right now? If so and, like me, baseball was as pervasive as “Sesame” in your childhood (I was raised by life-long Red Sox fans), check out the effort to revisit and revise traditional baseball – including its rules – in this fun L.A. Times piece about the recent Savannah Bananas team phenomenon. 

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