Mar 232019
 

When grace enters my life unexpectedly, the moment often becomes a font of knowledge and wisdom.

Operation Snowball is an organization for high school students who want to live healthy lives by keeping an informed and respectable distance between themselves and drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Twice each year a three-day retreat is convened for a hundred or more participants. I recently had the privilege of participating in my 26th such weekend.

The keynote speaker Friday afternoon was newly elected Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain. I have heard the Sheriff speak and I am inspired by his leading-edge ideas and philosophies related to law enforcement. On that day, however, I had no expectation of inspiration, just thoughts about teens, drugs and alcohol.

However, Sheriff Hain prefaced his remarks by retelling his journey from a young boy of twelve to Sheriff of Kane County. You see, and he admitted it was the first time he told this story in a very public venue, when he was 12, his father walked out on him and his mother. In that moment, as they cried, he realized the imminent choice that would chart the course of his life. He could, he told us, be destroyed by the abandonment, or use it as a lever to propel him forward toward a life of meaning. Thankfully for all of us, he chose the latter. From that moment forward, every significant decision he faced became another chance to prove, to himself and the world, he would use his time on this planet to make a difference.

Sheriff Hain did speak of drugs, alcohol, and law enforcement, and, following his remarks, there were many questions from the teens about a life in criminal justice. But the questions that most caused the Sheriff to pause, were those about what it meant for his father to abandon him and his mother.

I have long thought about the pain in our lives and who we might become with or without it. With this unique opportunity right in our midst, I raised my hand and asked, “Sheriff, if you could, would you go back to that moment when you were 12 and re-write history? Would you write a story in which your father remained in your life?” He paused for a long moment, then he looked at the 100 of us in the room and admitted that that moment made him who he became. He then said, “As strange as it may seem, that event was a gift in my life, and I would not go back and change it.”

I think many in the room were stunned by that revelation, but I was overcome with joy. Not joy over his father’s departure, but joy for the gift the Sheriff had just bestowed. Over the past 13 years in Snowball, I have heard hundreds of stories from teens who live through horrendous pain. There were many in the room that Friday afternoon who had lived through moments as painful as the Sheriff; some are living lives even more raw and chaotic. I thanked him for helping us understand that those moments, as horrible and as unfair as they are, can become defining moments in our lives. Those moments can overwhelm us…they can also propel us.

It is a story I have heard thousands of times answering calls on the National Lifeline. Often, after witnessing a human being in inordinate pain, I will ask, “While I would take this suffering away in an instant if I could, I cannot. However, are you learning something about what it means to be human that you can use to help others?” Often, the response is “You have no idea.”

Sheriff Hain, your ideas about law enforcement inspire me, but this past weekend I was moved by your strength and humanity. The gift from your life, became one in ours. I am deeply grateful for you giving us that unexpected moment of grace.

Oct 142012
 

 

Many years ago, my heart was captured by stories—stories of authentic, caring community—shared with me by John McKnight of Northwestern University. They were so compelling, I asked John if he would introduce me to someone who was building community based on authentic care. Without hesitation he told me about Jackie Reed at the Westside Health Authority (WHA) on the far west side of Chicago. After spending time with her and the people of the WHA, my heart was captured yet again. They accepted me in the most caring and compassionate ways.
The Austin neighborhood, where the WHA resides, is an area that white, baby-boomers like me have been taught to fear—an area in which I was clearly in the minority. As you drive east from Oak Park into Chicago, the change in socio-economics becomes painfully obvious. The store windows that are not boarded up are barricaded with metal grates. At first, my eyes, filtered by middle-class privilege, were only able to see poverty, crime and drugs—unable to discern the hope, pride and love I subsequently came to experience.
The people of the WHA are using, not needs analysis, but capacity building, to bring both hope and investment to an area of the city that 20 years earlier benefited from little of either.
But, besides optimism in the face of hopelessness and perseverance in the face of poverty, what is behind their success? I sat in Jackie’s office talking with her and Pat Perkins, one of the WHA’s most active citizen leaders. “How,” I asked, “do you deal with drug dealers and addicts, a segment of the population most of the world has given up on?” “We love them…unconditionally!” “How,” I had to ask, “can you love drug dealers and addicts unconditionally?” “Because,” they explained, “each of them is someone’s child.” “But if you love them, doesn’t it hurt all the more if you fail?” With eyes that forgave my extraordinary ignorance, Pat turned to me and said, “Roger, love never fails.”

 

Mar 312012
 

 

Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.
                                                         Amy Bloom
In my February blog entitle “On Being Fully Human,” I wrote about three leaders, each of whom allowed inhumanity to slip into the “edges” of their lives.
When I penned those words, I had not yet read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I have now, and it’s clear he did more than allow inhumanity to slip into the edges of his life. The brash, rude manner in which he treated people was deeply ingrained into nearly everything he did from a very young age. Often, the nicest thing he would say about another’s creative idea was “Well, it’s a start.” More likely he would call them stupid, crap…or worse. He was famous for rejecting another’s idea, only to return weeks later claiming it as his own. In his view, most people were “A players” or “bozos”. There was little space betwixt his neural synapses for other categories of humanity.
As I read Isaacson’s rendition of the life of Jobs, I attended a lunch sponsored by Aurora University with brief remarks by Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. The Greenleaf Center is based on management philosophies espoused by Robert K. Greenleaf during the latter half of the 20th Century. The leader as servant is similar to the Level-5 leader described in the best-selling book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. The Servant/Level 5 leader is one who leads with humility. They show care and concern for those who must do the organization’s bidding. Using traditional definitions, these leaders have more intimacy with their employees. Greenleaf, Collins and Porras all proposed that the leader who is first-and-foremost servant, is best prepared to create an enduring organization. A leader at the other end of the spectrum might create short-term success, but the chances of an enduring legacy are remote.
Enter Steve Jobs. As you read the Isaacson account, intimacy is perhaps the last word you would use to describe his relationships. Had Collins, Porras or Greenleaf been handed a nameless profile of Jobs and his management style, they likely would have concluded he had no chance of doing precisely what he did: create two—Apple and Pixar—of the most admired brands on the planet and a company that, even after his death, retains one of the highest market values of any corporation ever conceived. It would be difficult to call his 40 years of revolutionizing computers, movies, music, cell phones and more, short-term success. Many who worked with him, in spite of the way he treated them, speak of him affectionately, even reverently.
Few books leave me in tears as I read the final words. This one did and I have wondered why. Perhaps there is an unexpected clue in the words of Amy Bloom where I began this entry. I hope, before I die, I will have looked deeply, discovered who I truly am, and found the courage to be seen and known as that person…and thereby have a truly intimate relationship with the world. I have come to conclude that Steve Jobs, with all his faults, did precisely that his entire life. Perhaps it was that intimacy that enabled him, and those around him, to change the world.

 

Feb 232012
 

Note: The following is being published this week in the March issue of Batavia Business, the monthly publication of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.

When I began these words, I would have thought that being human and being inhuman were opposites and mutually exclusive. But now I wonder.

The spectrum of words that define “inhuman” range widely. At the brutal end are words like barbarism. At the softer end, even “lacking kindness, pity, or compassion” are invited to this party.

Steve Jobs, was a creative genius, and he could ignite fire in those around him. And yet, his ability to frighten, intimidate and reduce others to tears is legendary.

Was this brutal side an integral part of his success? If someone had found a way to polish Jobs’ rough edges—soften his abrupt, angry, impatient manner—might Apple have succumbed to one of its near-death incidents? After Lisa (a commercial failure in the 1980s), might Macintosh have remained only a variety of apple you eat. Might iPod, iPhone and iPad never have seen the light of iDay?

Was Jobs’ willingness to reduce others to rubble what ensured the innovations that made it to his office were more refined, more dramatic and more creative than they would have been if he treated product developers and researchers with kindness, pity and compassion? Did those invited to his office, knowing their careers could be made or broken by Jobs’ quixotic reaction, work harder, refine further, create more before daring to walk under the transom to his office?

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were organized under the attentive, uncompromising, often critical eye of Peter Ueberroth. Those Games were to become the first privately financed Games and resulted in a of $250 million surplus that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games eight years earlier, which left that city burdened with debt for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.

I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20th century. Similar to Steve, Dee was a visionary and innovator. Visa—or BankAmericard when first formed—saved the credit card industry from turmoil and eventual ruin with Dee’s radical view of the electronic transfer of bits and bytes that represented money. If you read Dee’s book Birth of the Chaordic Age (sadly renamed and reissued as One from Many) he too was very hard on those around him during his career, Like Jobs and Ueberroth, Dee had a vision that was so clear, so inviolate that compromise was simply not possible. When I asked him why, he looked at me and said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand, something in me would die.”

I hold each of these leaders in the highest esteem. Each opened doors to innovation that might have remained closed for many years without them. And yet, each let some edges of inhumanity slip into their lives. Or perhaps, our definitions of inhuman simply do not allow us to be fully human.

Feb 032012
 
At the end of a very successful, and completely redesigned, Chamber event, I turned to a member of the Board and told him I felt much of the success emanated from having turned many of the evening’s details over the young man who was emcee. “You should do that more often!” he suggested. The lightness of the moment did not ameliorate the painful way the comment pierced my psyche with its implication that I am otherwise too controlling. I need to tease apart, and try to understand, what the comment means, and how I will use it to move forward.
Having planned and executed hundreds of events in my life—everything from small, casual lunches to community events capturing the attention of tens of thousands, I have long wandered the hallways that define event planning and project management.
There are many doors that can be traversed in moving from concept to completion. Some lead into rooms filled with riches. They included “vision”, “mission”, “goals”, “values”, “teamwork”, “planning” and “attention to detail”.
There are other doorways labeled in less-flattering ways. “Overly-controlling”, “my way or the highway” and “closed to new ideas”. These are the rooms one is not supposed to visit along the journey. But I wonder?
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games were organized under the attentive eye of Peter Victor Ueberroth. Through his leadership, those games became the first privately financed Games and resulted in a surplus of nearly $250 million that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games just eight years earlier that left that city with debt that burdened its citizens for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps even rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was also named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.
In the last few months, the creative genius of Steve Jobs, founder and visionary behind Apple computer, has been splashed across every medium of communication imaginable, including those that wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jobs’ vision.
But if you read reports of these two visionaries, they traversed all transoms I have seen along the hallways I have traveled. Each used vision, mission, values and teamwork in extraordinary ways. But make no mistake, for each, much of their vision was so clear and inviolate—contained so much personal passion—there was to be no compromise.
I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20thcentury. Similar to Peter and Steve, he founded Visa on a vision and set of values on which he simply refused to compromise. When I asked him why, he said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand something in me would die.”
I do not, nor will I ever, deserve to even be in the shadow of the likes of Peter, Steve or Dee. But in my own very, very small way, I have plied my creativity to help midwife a future slightly brighter than the past that preceded it. There have been many times I have crossed the thresholds of the politically correct doorways. And many times I borrowed from the rooms generally banned, and, when standing my ground on those things I felt were critical, I wielded the less desirable weapons of “overly-controlling” and “closed to new ideas”.
So let me return to the comment that sparked this discourse. I have a vision and set of values upon which the event in question has been built over the 8 years it has been under my watch; principles upon which I would never compromise. I turned the details of the evening over to our young emcee because I have worked with him enough to know he truly understood. And while he built the evening in new a creative ways, the foundation was never under attack. If “You should do that more often” means allowing for creativity within the boundaries defined by the vision and values I believe are essential for success, I am in full agreement. If I allowed those values to be violated, however, I too would feel as though “something in me would die.”
Nov 082010
 
The following appeared recently in Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.
I do verklempt about as well as anyone.
Recently, the Chamber of Commerce recognized 18 professionals, under the age of 30, at our first annual “20 Under 30” dinner. It was a night filled with emotion as these extraordinary young leaders gathered with the senior leaders who nominated them, and a plethora of proud parents, friends and relatives. As is often the case, when in a place imbued with meaning, I became verklempt—choked with emotion.
I realize as I write, that the words we use seldom communicate their true importance. It is the emotions animating those words that do. As I introduced the honorees that evening, what brought tears to the eyes of those in the room was not what these young people accomplish at work; it was hearing that collectively they canoed 2300 miles to raise money for cancer research…spent their free time with Big Brother and Big Sisters, and Feed My Starving Children… dealt daily with people struggling mightily to find a reason to continue their lives…tutored the students at Mooseheart…were instrumental in bringing art and beauty to Batavia and so much more. It was their generosity and giving nature that invited everyone to explore the meaning of verklempt.
Kanizsa Triangle

That night I used an icon, created by Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa in 1955, as a metaphor for how we construct meaning. I asked the guests to decide whether the black or white triangle was larger. The majority concluded they were the same size. Then I asked how many noticed there were no triangles in the picture at all. That brought a smile to many faces…and frustration to others.

We owe our survival, as individuals and as a species on the brain’s ability to extract bits of data from the environment and use that limited information to construct complete pictures and draw conclusions. If not for this ability, we would be unable to, upon hearing rustling in the woods, construct a picture that includes the possibility of a dangerous snake in our presence. It is this ability that, when we see a green light turn yellow, enables us to conclude a red light is likely to follow. It is this ability that allows us to see a few facial features on a loved one and inquire if they are troubled about some aspect of their life.
Unfortunately, we are so adept at moving from disconnected images to complete pictures that we can fall into the trap of believing the pictures we create are accurate beyond reproach. If I am not careful, by looking only at certain aspects of young people as they enter the workplace, I can construct a less-than-flattering picture of who they are. Doing so is disrespectful, dishonest and distasteful. Most forms of prejudice emerge from our unwillingness to question the inaccurate pictures our minds complete of others…using disconnected bits of information to pre-judge them.
There is a Buddhist tradition that says, if we were to look deeply into the souls of those around us, we would never get anything done…we would spend our lives bowing to one another. We took the time at our recent dinner to look more deeply into the souls of 18 emerging leaders and create a more accurate picture of their wholeness. It left me in awe…it left me with the desire to bow in their presence…and it left me verklempt.
Sep 062010
 

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret J. Wheatley.

I rarely read books more than once…at least not since my children were enthralled by Dr. Seuss! Occasionally, however, a particular book and I develop a rewarding long-term relationship. Meg Wheatley’s masterpiece and I have been friends now for more than 15 years. I just finished reading the 3rd edition and it was as generous in challenging my thinking and providing mental nourishment, as were the first two.
In this perennial best-seller, Meg examines the new sciences—Quantum Mechanics, Chaos Theory, Field Theory, self-organizing systems and others. From these she extracts topics like uncertainty, strange attractors, fractals and action-at-a-distance, and uses them to re-imagine organizational theory in light of how we now understand the Universe’s modus operandi.
What Meg asks the reader to consider is that the world does not operate by the dictates of Newtonian and Cartesian science—in a clocklike, mechanical, cause-and-effect way. She reminds us that in open systems, like the organizations we inhabit and nurture, entropy will not cause anarchy to reign. We do not necessarily need humanities’ extraordinary management skills—and boxes on an organization chart—to whip the Universe into shape. As I recall, the Universe organized itself fairly well before we arrived…thank you very much!
She describes so eloquently that vision, values and self-reflective identity can serve as organizing principles—what Dee Hock, CEO Emeritus of Visa, calls organizational DNA—around which we gather to be creative and add value to the world.
If you have been kind enough to travel this far in my review, you obviously did not allow the scientific jargon to dissuade you. If so, this book will invite you into a comfortable conversation about the future of organizations. However, here’s my warning: this book, based on my 15 year friendship, can leave you adrift. The ideas will so deeply challenge the very essence of what we were raised to believe, you may be tempted to ask, “This is all very fine, but certainly this does not apply in the real world?” I am convinced it does…and that a livable future for our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.

Bon Appétit!

May 082010
 
In a recent blog, I wrote of “Pearls and Plaques,” and borrowed Ray Benedetto’s metaphor to speak of the unique “River of Character” that flows through the communities—be they organizational, spiritual, educational or geographical—of which we are a part. I surmised that the character flowing them is made most visible—not by the pearls of wisdom emanating from the lips of leaders, nor the etched, brass plaques that proclaim vision and values—but by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions made by community members…every hour…every day.
So if the dreams we dream for our futures are actualized—or dashed—by the disparate actions of so many others, how might we ensure these actions exhibit even a modicum of congruency? Is there a way to nudge people—or invite them—into alignment with the values we want the communitiy to exude? I believe the answer is yes, but beware…the territory I am about to traverse may make you decidedly uncomfortable.
Some four hundred years ago, the best scientific cartographers of the day, lead by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton (of gravity and apple fame) and Rene Descartes (“I think, therefore I am.”), drew maps of a scientific universe they believed was mechanical and clock-like. As a result of their cartography, we came to believe actions have definable and predictable outcomes. Even the actions and interactions of humans, like the bouncing of billiard balls, have predictable trajectories and knowable future impacts. In a Newtonian, Cartesian world, plaques and pearls, carefully crafted, would catapult us forward in precisely the direction we send that cue ball hurtling across the table.
But our experience shows these maps are crude and unreliable. Even as children, we learn the world is messier, less knowable and far less predictable than the one Newton and Descartes so clearly envisioned. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows that human interactions, in spite of our most careful planning, often ricochet into wildly unpredictable futures.
However there are new maps emerging…new ways of seeing…new ways of listening to, and understanding the world. These new maps ask us to imagine a world that emerges from webs of relationships and action at a distance. It is a quantum world in which the intentions of the experimenter determine the outcome of the experiment. It is a world of fields—gravitational, electromagnetic, quantum and others—that give the world much of its structure. As Meg Wheatley says in Leadership and the New Science, “Fields are unseen forces, invisible influences that become apparent through their effects.”
What if we were to think of communities as webs of relationships rather than boxes in a hierarchy? What if re-imagined vision and values as “invisible influences that become apparent through their effect”? Congruency ceases to result from command and control, whiplashed through an organization’s hierarchy. Gaining congruency—shoring up the banks of Ray’s “River of Character”—must then be re-imagined as strengthening our webs of relationships and fields of unseen forces and invisible influence.
How do you strengthen those fields? How do they become “apparent through their effects”? One of the most powerful ways is through the stories we tell—our mythology. Stories give us concrete examples of how to turn our desires, dreams—and dilemmas—into positive action. Greek mythology…Aesop’s Fables…the Bible, Koran and Torah all communicate proper action through the clarity of story.
The myths and tales we tell scream so loudly they deafen us to any other message. The stories that pervade our communities help create the fields that define vision and values. When they are compelling—for good or bad—they become as difficult to violate as the field of gravity.
Apr 282010
 
At the March Batavia Chamber of Commerce lunch, Dr. Ray Benedetto of GuideStar gave a wonderful talk on the unique “river of character” that flows through each organization. Some companies support a strong sense of character…others, less so. I wouldn’t even try to relate the depth of Ray’s understanding and research in the next couple hundred words. Instead, I would like to share some thoughts that erupted from the experience.
Like any river, the river of character carves a swath across the landscape, the banks of which are created and recreated with each passing current and the swirl of every eddy. Every grain of sand swept away, or morsel of soil dissolved, changes the course of the river, and leaves it forever diverted.
So what are the currents and eddies that create and recreate the banks of the river of character in the organizations we work so hard to mold? The well-crafted statement of vision and values? To some extent, sure. The CEO’s stirring speech at the last all-employee gathering? To a limited degree perhaps, but it is also the hasty decision to cut off a supplier for a single late delivery…the comment made in a moment of frustration that left an employee feeling something less…or the angry call to a customer who has just slid onto the 120-day accounts receivable report.
Too often managers believe culture is driven by the occasional pearls of wisdom they carefully polish and proclaim…or defined by the etched brass plaque in the lobby formulated on the mount during the three-day management retreat.
Unfortunately, while those pearls and plaques are valuable—it is, after all, a gift when those who are entrusted with the “big” decisions take the time to think deeply about what they want to be when they grow up—the banks of an organization’s river of character are actually shaped by the thousands of decisions made by each employee everyday. A decisions as simple as which phone call gets priority when an employee returns from a meeting makes a statement about whether attending to upper management takes priority over tending to a customer’s needs—or vice versa.
The narrative told by those millions of decisions—every interaction with another human, whether a customer, supplier, employee or other stakeholder—defines the river we carve across the landscape.
So, if plaques and pearls aren’t effective in etching the river’s path, what is? Stories. The myths and tales we tell about ourselves scream so loudly they deafen us to any other message. More on this in a future blog. Stay tuned!
Mar 032010
 

Note: This article was originally published in the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business.

My Father spent his career in quality management, so I was raised with a deep understanding of what quality means, how you get it, how you create systems to deliver it and what to do when those systems fail. Like the humans that create them, all systems are imperfect and will fail to meet customer expectations at some point! Anytime a customer is disappointed—with a product or service—you have a quality problem.

25 years ago, I was a newly-minted sales manager for a chemical company. A customer who used our dye to manufacture industrial paper towels discovered that one of their customers was upset because something was leaching from the towels and turning water brown. They wanted to cancel all future orders because they feared some unknown, potentially hazardous chemical was threatening the health of anyone who might grab a towel.

We did two things. First, we worked with our customer to adjust the amount of dye they added to their towels. Then we called our chemical plant to get toxicity data for the dye—it was completely harmless. Those two actions allowed our customer to report that the cause of the problem was found and corrected, and to document the dye was harmless, which no other towel suppliers could do. The quality “problem” lead to both an improved production process and a competitive advantage.

On the other hand, I once consulted with the president of a jewelry manufacturing company. He loved sales, but hated manufacturing. The only time he entered the plant was when there was a problem and it was time to “kick some butt.” The moment the plant door flew open and he appeared, the manufacturing people literally ran for cover. With everyone pointing fingers to avoid being the one whose derriere was to be roasted, few problems were ever really solved, little competitive advantage was ever gained and costs remained exorbitantly high

There are two ways to deal with a system failure. You can target some individual, label them an inept, inconsiderate slob who doesn’t care about customers, and punish them. Alternatively, you can realize that problems are almost always systemic—the weakness is in the system—and beyond the control of any one individual.

If you follow the first course, you will drive fear into the organization, fail to solve the systemic problem, ensure it reoccurs and train people hide or point fingers the next time the system fails.

A more enlightened approach is to gather the troops, explain the problem, enroll everyone in finding the root cause, fix the system and celebrate success.

Most managers would be amazed how much employees want to help solve problems… and already know how. When I was that wet-behind-the-ears manager, Denis, a customer service rep, would call every so often with a customer problem and ask how to solve it. Thinking it was my job to fix the problem, I would wring my hands, talk to a few people and call Denis back with a solution. One day he called with a problem and I was stressed and frustrated. I said, “I don’t know Denis, what do you think?” He knew how to solve the problem…he always did. He was simply afraid to step on the toes of some young, unknown manager. I came to love Denis for his dedication, creativity and customer commitment.

No system is flawless…no system will ever be flawless. When systems fail, you can exclaim, “Oh God…a quality problem!” Alternatively, you can view it as a gift to help you identify and reinforce a weak link in the chain of events that produces your products and services. When seen this way, next time a customer has a complaint, you just might instead—with the use of one extra “o”—exclaim “Oh Good! A quality problem.”