Beeline or Meander

January 25, 2013 2 comments

tree rings

During yesterday’s confirmation hearing to consider whether John Kerry should be the next US Secretary of State, Senator Bob Corker commented to the nominee, “I think you have led a life that has brought you to this moment.”

Well, of course he has. Haven’t we each led a life that has brought us to this moment? No doubt, Corker’s observation was intended to highlight the internal logic of Kerry’s journey. As the son of a diplomat, a war hero and protester, a senator with long service on the foreign relations committee, Kerry’s life, in hindsight, seems to point specifically to this position.

But it probably didn’t always seem that way to him. In the bitterness of a lost presidential bid, for example, don’t you think he might have had moments when he bemoaned his life’s failure to add up? For most of us, life is more of a meander than a beeline. But with and without our help, our experience continues to accrue, endlessly shaping us and the moment we are in.

Even when the logic of our life’s trajectory isn’t so apparent, you can be sure it’s there. It is energizing and clarifying to make a conscious effort to discern that unbroken thread of purpose.

When you look back on the life you have led that has brought you to this moment, what would you say it’s pointing you to?

2012 Gift Book Pick: The Elephant in the Room

December 4, 2012 3 comments

Elephant in the Room book coverAt first glance, I wondered why Diana McLain Smith called her latest book about relationships The Elephant in the Room. Surely, interpersonal relationships are now understood to be an essential part of organizational life; every leadership competency model includes relational skills and every workplace development office offers classes on conflict resolution.

But as I delved into this highly readable, story-rich book, I increasingly appreciated Smith’s insight into two important ways that relationships at work are like that proverbial elephant—seen but undiscussed; or at least under-discussed and misunderstood.  By providing a practical roadmap and tools for identifying, understanding, and strengthening key relationships, Smith has created an excellent resource for leaders and coaches poised to push past their limitations in this domain.

The first way that we typically under-discuss relationships at work is by relegating them to the “soft skills” territory, making them a quality of life concern rather than a life or death concern. Smith moves relationships into the “hard” category, not just in the sense that they can be difficult (we all know they can be!), but in the sense that relationships are critical business assets. The behind-the-headlines stories she shares amply illustrate the significant bottom-line consequences of relationship issues left unaddressed. For leaders reluctant to venture into relationship matters too deeply, an amplified awareness of what’s at stake may help them embrace the work as a strategic investment.

The second way we tend to under-discuss relationships at work is to regard them at arm’s length, as structures outside ourselves that we can learn to “build” and “manage.” But with her finely-honed systems instincts, Smith exposes the inadequacy of this framing and guides us to see relationships as dynamic human systems that we inhabit and continuously co-create with each other. She provides tools that empower us to see how we contribute to the very patterns we feel trapped by and how, together, we can interrupt and disarm those patterns in the interest of forward progress. By inviting us to engage with relationships as a matter of perspective rather than of skill, Smith has elevated the conversation and made it easier (though still not easy) to talk about them productively.

If there is a leader or a coach on your holiday gift list, I think they’ll welcome The Elephant in the Room as a source of new insights and action in the coming year.

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?

Dialogue and Deliberation Resource Center

NCDD networking cardsAs a proponent of systems thinking, I’m often reminded of the gulf that exists between our ability to recognize big, hairy, systemic problems and our capacity to solve such problems together. It’s sometimes tempting to throw up our hands in disgust at the persistent divisions that impede constructive conversation and action on big system challenges. But one organization that never wavers in its resolve and has established itself as a force for progress in this realm is the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD).

NCDD has been cataloging resources about and for dialogue and deliberation since 2002.  Their extraordinary resource center gives you access to more than 2,600 discussion guides, assessment tools, case studies, public engagement programs and organizations, articles, books, videos, and more.

Dialogue and deliberation are innovative processes that bring people together across divides to discuss, decide, and collaborate on today’s toughest issues.  NCDD’s Resource Center was designed to connect you with the information, guidance, theory, and examples you need to engage people effectively.

You can use the search field, categories and tags, or additional sidebar navigation options to hone in. Especially recommended is the “I’m Looking For…” sidebar box that lets you cross-search categories and tags. Use the site map contents to see a full list of all the categories and tags, or just look over the most recently added resources.  Know of a great resource on dialogue, deliberation, or public engagement that should be added to NCDD’s Resource Center?  A form is provided so you can submit your favorites!

A big thank you to NCDD co-founders Sandy Heierbacher and Andy Fluke for their commitment to this important work.

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?

Art Changes Everything

February 14, 2012 4 comments

“Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in ‘leverage points.’ These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” — Donella Meadows

Last week, at the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Statewide Assembly, my fellow members of the Reading Cultural Council and I were tickled to be recognized for our advocacy “on behalf of arts and culture across the Commonwealth.” We received the honor for making this brief video to highlight the community impact of projects we had funded.

The event had me thinking about “support for the arts” as a leverage point for change. When I consider where Donella Meadows might have ranked it in her famous list of twelve progressively effective Places to Intervene in a System, my guess is…she’d have put it right at the top.

Why? Because art and culture allow us to continually reexamine the “shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions…or deepest set of beliefs” that constitute what Meadows called our society’s paradigm. The arts help us stand outside that paradigm from time to time and see it for what it is—temporary, relational, evolving. That’s a powerful leverage point!

But the most powerful leverage points share an interesting characteristic: They are often counterintuitive and therefore, easy to dismiss or overlook. Support for the arts is no exception. How might we convince public policy makers that by increasing our investment in humble community arts projects we are catalyzing big changes in everything?

At the Assembly, we sat with hundreds of other local arts advocates in the Great Hall of the State House listening as a panel of community leaders discussed the current state of the creative economy. While enthusiasm was high (and we are lucky to live in a State that has just completed multi-million dollar additions to two of its flagship arts institutions) the subtext of the conversation was clear: Promoting public policy that recognizes the aggregate impact of community arts requires constant vigilance.

Despite data showing strong returns on investment for every public dollar expended on arts and culture, most legislators are content to let arts-related spending languish at bare minimum levels. Except among the most dedicated artists and art lovers, support for the arts is deemed a luxury, not a priority.

You’ll have an easier time finding a policy maker eager to invest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) the vaunted antidote to America’s declining stature as the world’s economic and innovation leader. But as WGBH president Jonathan Abbott noted during the panel discussion, to leave the arts out of that picture is folly. He endorsed the idea that STEM education be expanded to STEAM, to include the Arts, so vital to stimulating the imagination that leads to scientific breakthrough.

Largely obscured in this discussion is a more fundamental and potent leverage point: The power of the arts to engender solutions to expensive and disabling social woes. Yes, the arts generate exponential economic activity. Yes, the arts stimulate scientific breakthrough. But most important, with projects like the MCC’s 2012 Gold Star winners, the arts help us shed our prejudices, connect across cultural barriers, turn toward aspiration and away from fear. Live together. Grow together. Create together. Come to understand ourselves.

I’ll invest in that. How about you?

New Leaves, Same Roots

Core Values Venn DiagramWhat do you promise not to change this year?

No, I’m not trying to talk you out of your courageous commitment to new behaviors. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to help you. I want to see you eat better, exercise more, improve your listening skills, find time for reflection, stop driving like you’re the only important person on the road, etc. I totally support your intention to change!

And that’s why I’m asking you what you want to conserve.

Behavioral change can only stick if it’s intrinsically motivated—when we say, “I want to,” or “this matters to me,” rather than, “I should.”

Naming what matters to you will help you illuminate what you want to conserve—those core values that sustain your resolve to change. My intention to savor my food honors my values of gratitude and beauty. My determination to read more and watch less TV is grounded in values of language and intimacy.

When I work with clients to clarify their core values, we uncover gold mines of intrinsic motivators. Not all values inventories are as visually delightful as the one you see here, which so cheerfully embodies the client’s values of creativity and design (he told me I could share it with you). But however you format it, this is the kind of list that provides a solid foundation for choosing the life you want.

Victor Hugo advised: “Change your leaves, keep intact your roots.” What would happen if you started your year with a galvanizing look at your values? Please get in touch if you want some help with that.

Happy New Year!

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