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Illumination

September 29, 2014 4 comments

IMG_5247During the autumn months in New England, we coaches have a co-conspirator in Mother Nature. Wielding her paintbrush and bending the angle of the light to move the seasons, She forces us to take new perspectives and directs our attention to marvels un-seeable in the full sun of summer or the winter dark.

A visit yesterday to the Trustees of Reservations’ Coolidge Reservation in Manchester, Massachusetts stimulated some reflection for me. With good reason, light is probably our most common metaphor for understanding…enlightenment, illumination, clarity. To see something clearly is to truly understand it. But I think the light during the transition from summer to fall works a more subtle magic. To see something differently is to understand it differently. What looks like a beginning might be an ending, and vice versa.

What practices help you bend the angle of the light to see things differently throughout the year? Particularly when you feel confused or stuck?

The Power of a Systems Perspective

Graphic facilitation by Elise Crespin In Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question, he recalls an anecdote from education pioneer Deborah Meier that stopped me in my tracks when I read it:

“We had one of those world maps with the U.S. right in the middle—remember those? And one of the students looked at it and said, ‘How come the East Indies are in the west?’ And that question got me thinking about the impact of what you put in the center and what it does to everything else.”

I love this story because it so nicely illustrates the value of what my partners and I call “coaching from a systems perspective.” Like a good coach with a provocative question, this little girl created an opening for Meier to talk with her students about their place in a larger system and the perspective they were holding about that. Meier changed the curriculum as a result of this inquiry because “it had so many implications for how you see yourself.”

This is exactly the kind of opening we try to create with leaders who are grappling with the challenges of effecting sustainable change for themselves and their organizations. We find that it is often new insight about the vantage point from which they’re viewing a complex systems environment—and their ability to try on other vantage points—that allows them to break through to new ways of thinking and acting.

One tool we use to get a fix on what our coaching client has put in the center of her awareness, and what that “does to everything else,” is the Butterfly Framework of Complex Human Systems.  Like Meier’s world map, this framework allows us to step back and ask, “Where in this landscape of internal and external systemic forces is our client’s awareness focused? What would be possible if she shifted her awareness to another part of the system?”

Having just returned from the SoL Global Forum in Paris, where I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop on the Butterfly Framework, I can report that there is a vibrant international community of coaches and consultants who understand the evolutionary importance of greater systems awareness. Colleagues from no fewer than fifteen countries shared stories with me about how they are catalyzing transformation by helping their clients ask more beautiful questions and better see the systems they are and the systems they’re in.

What question, if you asked it right now, would move you to a new perspective?

Seek Alternate Route

road work signSummer is the time for road work in New England. As the weather warms and schedules ease a bit, public work crews seize their short window of opportunity to repair the cracks and potholes wrought by winter. “Seek Alternate Route” signs are everywhere.

Groan. My first reaction to that message is aggravation. What an inconvenience! But, wait a minute—wasn’t I just complaining about the potholes, too?

One of the watchwords familiar to systems thinkers is worse before better. It’s a handy phrase for reminding the impatient and impetuous among us to keep the longer view in mind. By thinking long-term, we can better anticipate the unintended consequences of that seemingly simple quick fix. We can more readily accept the temporary discomfort of significant course correction by focusing on the improvement it will bring.

The pain of rehab after hip surgery may lead to pain-free walks on the beach. Sales numbers that sag during a major process redesign may soar when the new processes are up and running. The deceleration and detours that accompany road reconstruction give way to a delightfully smooth driving experience.

Tuning in to longer feedback loops can reduce your agitation level. And besides, who knows what you’ll discover along that alternate route?

Makers: Choosing to Change the Story

February 27, 2013 4 comments

Miriam Hawley, Co-Founder, Boston Women's Health Collective, featured in the Makers project from AOL and PBSI have no choice.”

We all have experienced a time when that sentence felt immutably true. Most of us have said it out loud more than once. But, the longer I think about it, the more I come to see that we almost always have a choice. It’s just that some choices are tougher than others because they seem to conflict with the story we believe we’re living.

As I watched Makers on PBS, an assertively present-tense celebration of trailblazing American women, it occurred to me that the phrase “pro-choice” can be seen as much more than a label describing someone’s position on reproductive rights. For the women featured in this film, pro-choice is a way of being; a way of saying, “We are willing to take bold action, even when it’s uncomfortable or scary, to challenge the prevailing norms in this story we’re living together.”

And the word “we” is important there.

In Sheena Iyengar’s brilliant research on how our feelings about choice are shaped by culture, she examines how Americans’ insistence on the primacy of individual choice is not always as liberating or effective as we might think. She suggests we might benefit by borrowing a little perspective from cultures in which it’s understood that, “when two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify each other’s success by turning choosing into a collective act.”

Therein lies the power of the women’s movement in America. Paradoxically, the individual choices that these (sometimes accidental) activists make are rooted in a fundamental value of interdependency. Rather than settle for constraints on individual choice imposed by hierarchical power structures that diminish us, they choose to change the story to one of greater equilibrium.

As Gloria Steinem observed in an interview on the PBS NewsHour, “This is transformation we’re talking about; to get to societies in which, as we once were, we are linked, not ranked; in which the paradigm of culture is the circle, not the pyramid.”

Is there an “I have no choice” experience in your life that you can courageously transform into a “we have a choice” moment?

Go First

October 9, 2012 3 comments

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.   — Lao Tzu

First Turning LeavesThis inspiring thought from Lao Tzu is often quoted, and I think, is often true. A leader succeeds best when her followers have adopted her vision as their own; embracing it so fully they don’t even recognize that it came from outside them.

It’s also true, though, that sometimes a leader has to be visible in her willingness to go first, literally to lead—and I am not only referring to “hero leaders” in positions of formal authority. Each of us, from time to time, has the option to go first from the middle of the pack. When all the other leaves are green, one leaf has to say, “Well, it’s time to turn orange now.”

“But,” you may object, “I don’t want to be the first leaf to turn. That leaf is dying!” Yes, it’s dying, and leadership often involves a kind of dying. We have to acknowledge the death of the system or the process or the product or the relationship that until now was the way we knew. We have to trust in the rightness of what’s next. (I’m aware, by the way, that leaves don’t actually have a choice in the matter…but you get my point.)

We go first when we become aware of something that the others aren’t aware of yet, when we get unhooked from something that is still getting in the others’ way, when we love the others enough to take the risk.

Where is your opportunity to go first right now?

Bring Your A Game

October 1, 2012 1 comment

The final rounds of last month’s US Open tennis tournament were beset with some of the windiest conditions in the history of the event. From the commentators’ booth, John McEnroe observed, “Every player’s worst nightmare is to play in wind like this. It’s basically impossible to play your ‘A’ game.”

A PlusHow do you get up for those moments when you need to bring your ‘A’ game, but conditions (external or internal) are working against you? The wind is howling, your energy is flat, or your fear of failure is creating static that interferes with your performance? Without your ‘A’ game, you can wake up all of a sudden in the car on the way home and the opportunity has passed you by. You might experience this as an indictment of your whole self-worth: I AM SUCH A LOSER! No, let’s not go that far…but it’s true that somehow, in this particular moment, you weren’t able to be who you wanted to be when the stakes were high. You know you can do better.

To improve your chances of rising to the occasion with confidence and clarity when the stakes seem high, start by writing a big ‘A’ on a small piece of paper and keep it in your pocket or your purse in the days leading up to your big event. Use the following questions to bring a clear vision of success into sharp focus so that by the time your event arrives you’re not inventing your success in the moment, but simply following through on the ‘A’ game scenario that you have played out in your mind.

A is for Aspiration: How does this event relate to your biggest vision for success in your life? What do you want to take away from the experience? Reminding yourself why this opportunity means so much to you can energize you by connecting you to a sense of purpose. When you know what you want to get out of it, you can appropriately scale and shape the positive energy you want to put into it.

A is for Awareness: Big moments can expand in our awareness until they engulf us, making us feel small by comparison. One way to respond to this is to move your awareness outside yourself and take in the bigger picture. What’s at stake for the other people in the moment? Is it a big moment for them? How do you want to invite them to participate? What are you co-creating energetically together? What happens to your energy when you see this as a collective experience instead of one that depends entirely upon you?

A is for Attitude: There’s a reason why this feels so big. You can think about it as the degree of difficulty. When a diver walks up to the end of the diving board and executes a simple swan dive, there probably isn’t a lot of challenge attached to it. But try doing a pike with 2.5 somersaults and 2.5 twists from a 10 meter platform, and you’re due to earn some serious points if you nail it. So, first of all, give yourself a preliminary pat on the back for even trying something this big. Go you! And second, recognize how much impact your attitude has on your results. What does it feel like to dread this event? What does it feel like to anticipate it with eagerness and curiosity? What attitude will serve you best in bringing and executing on your ‘A’ game? That’s the one. Be that.

Score and Performance

August 22, 2012 4 comments

The Tetons and the Snake River, Ansel Adams.I had the good fortune recently to visit the Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. In addition to being moved by the majesty and poignancy of the images presented, I enjoyed learning more about this pioneering artist’s approach to his medium. The wall text for the exhibit, coordinated by the museum’s curator of photography, Phillip Prodger, provides lots of meaningful context.

One particularly interesting note accompanied the large print of The Tetons and the Snake River from 1942:

“Adams famously likened negative and print to the score and performance in music. Because the negative contains all the information necessary to make a picture, he considered that the “score” of a photograph. And because printing in the darkroom requires interpretation that can vary according to the attitude of the printer, he considered that the “performance.” According to this idea, Adams changed the way he printed many of his negatives over time.”

Now, unless you’re a Photoshop user, you might not do much interpreting of your pictures these days; it’s so convenient to set your digital camera to automatic and let it do its thing. But this idea of score and performance struck me as relevant to something bigger than photography. I think it’s a nice way to think about the human capacity for change.

We all have the “negatives” we’re printed from: The inherited traits encoded into our DNA, the family systems we grew up in, our MBTI profiles and zodiac signs. But isn’t there an equal measure of “performance” that accounts for who we are? It seems to me that our ability to vary our interpretation of the encoded Self over time is what aspiration and choice are all about.

What attitude are you bringing to the darkroom lately?

Powerful Questions in Action

apple picking“I always have a question that I can’t answer just by thinking about it.”

That’s how Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison recently responded to an interviewer’s question about how she decides what to write about.

As befits her status as an international treasure, Morrison captured in this simple comment not just an insight into her own creative process, but something broader about the very nature of learning. She models for us the essence of action learning.

Many theorists have explored the inextricable connection between action and reflection in human learning processes. Kurt Lewin, David Kolb, and W. Edwards Deming are noted for their contributions to our understanding of this dynamic. And I often point to their cyclical models in encouraging my coaching clients to make room for reflection in their busy lives. “Reflect so that your next actions incorporate the wisdom you’ve gained.”

But what Toni Morrison hints at is an organic learning process in which action and reflection happen simultaneously; something closer to Bill Torbert’s theory of action inquiry. When we enter into action with awareness and the intention to absorb the learning it has to offer, it enhances the quality of the action we take. We not only find the answers we set out to find, but we expand our capacity for learning and leadership. We discover the creative power of inquiry itself.

What’s a question that you’re living with right now that you can’t answer just by thinking about it?

Braving the Discomfort Zone

April 10, 2012 7 comments

Waiting to singOne person’s fear is another person’s fun, right? A friend of mine is totally unfazed by donning 50 pounds of scuba diving gear and breathing apparatus to plunge into 75 or 100 feet of water, but when she is faced with the prospect of walking into a room full of strangers her heart races, her breath gets shallow, her palms sweat.

For me, singing in front of an audience can drive my anxiety up to acute levels. What sets off your fight or flight alarms? Regardless of what your particular challenge looks like, the fact that it feels risky is a solid clue to tell you that there might be something of substance for you to learn from it.

Oh, sure, we might wish to hang out endlessly in our comfort zones, those cozy, familiar, not too challenging places where we feel safe and self-assured.

Or we might crave more time in the flow zone that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified as the state in which people experience their greatest capacity for happiness and creativity. When you are absorbed in a “flow experience” he says, “…your sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”

These two inner-directed zones are absolutely vital to a balanced, joyful, healthy life, representing a spectrum of unconscious feeling that ranges from serenity to ecstasy. But even if we could choose to spend all of our time there, we’d be cheating ourselves out of something critical, wouldn’t we?

Just as important is that discomfort zone in which we get conscious about what scares us and what matters to us most. It’s there that we identify the gaps in our life and define our opportunities for growth and understanding. In short, it’s there that we learn.

It’s only in the discomfort zone that you can gather valuable data by asking, “What makes this experience so difficult for me? What would it take to convert these feelings of vulnerability, inadequacy, stupidity, frustration, or uncertainty into feelings of comfort and flow?” Your discomfort zone is a practice field where you can acknowledge and challenge your biggest fears and declare your intention to disarm them in pursuit of what you really care about.

When you choose to enter the discomfort zone with intention and curiosity—walking into that room full of strangers, standing up there to sing—you build your muscles for navigating this challenging zone the next time you find yourself there unexpectedly. Will you give it a try?

Shine: Coaching and Candor

September 28, 2011 Leave a comment

photo by Mike SchubertAre you ready to shine? If so, you might want to urge your organization to hire you a coach!

I was delighted to hear researcher Bill Ryan mention “candor” among the valuable benefits of coaching for leaders and their organizations. During a webinar called Coaching and the New World of Nonprofit Talent, hosted by Ruth McCambridge of the Nonprofit Quarterly, Ryan observed two types of candor that confidential coaching relationships can encourage. First, there is the leader’s ability to be candid with herself or himself—about strengths and weaknesses; about vision and purpose. Second, coaching can build a leader’s capacity for being more candid with others in the organization in the service of illuminating and pursuing shared goals.

Candor and candid are rooted in the Latin word candere, meaning “to shine.” And I love how these words imply the dual power of coaching to shine a clarifying light on the obstacles that get in our way, as well as to unleash the influential light that we might be hiding under a bushel.

The webinar, part of NPQ’s Trendcast series, covered a wealth of research-based observations about the business of coaching that Ryan had compiled as the evaluator for the Coaching and Philanthropy Project, a collaborative, “wide-ranging effort to promote greater understanding of coaching in the nonprofit sector.”  One of the project’s sponsors, the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, has created a resource-rich website where you can find the final report along with a series of short videos in which leaders attest to the value of coaching for moving forward through such issues as stuckness, stress, and lack of clarity.

Thanks, Ruth and Bill, for sharing this good work. Shine on.