Jun 282016
 

I began as I always do…“Thank you for calling the depression hotline. How can I help?” The young man at the other end sounded disappointed; he had hoped to discuss, not depression, but anger management.

He had just left a store and was sitting in his car, overwhelmed with anger and self-loathing. Moments earlier, he became frustrated in the checkout line. When his frustration got the best of him, he lashed out at a woman, letting loose some hurtful comments. He was deeply disappointed and judging himself unmercifully. “It’s not the person I want to be,” he explained in a voice near tears. What I could hear was his fear that unreasonable, unrestrained anger defined him. “This is the kind of thing I won’t let go of for weeks,” he admitted.

As we talked, I came to understand the complexity and confusion that defined his life. He faced many difficult decisions and emotional battles, yet had no one he could look to for support. He was an only child, his parents were both gone, and his wife simply did not understand. He felt abandoned and very alone. My heart broke for a young man crying out for some measure of comfort.

No one calls the hotline with profound feelings of self-disappointment and failure if they are not molded from a core of kindness, generosity and humanity. I asked if he would wish to be a person who regrets letting himself and the world down, or if he would rather be a person who acts without humanity and simply does not care? “I want to be the person who is deeply sorry,” he said without hesitation. “So, in this moment, you are being exactly the person you hope to be?” He paused and, with a bit of intrigue, admitted he was.

While he did not understand Buddhism in depth, he had been introduced to it when practicing meditation with a friend from Thailand. Reaching back to the Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, I asked if he had learned something about himself as a result of losing his temper. “If something similar happens in the future, can you imagine being more gentle, kind and loving in that moment?” “Absolutely,” he said. “So you are a wiser, kinder, and more generous human being than you were even a few moments ago?” I pressed. “It never occurred to me to think of it that way,” he confessed, “but maybe I am.”

“I’m not suggesting you should ever intentionally hurt others in order to gain self-awareness, but, and I hate to break it to you, you are after all, only human. You will likely err again.”

In spite of our wish to always be kind, gentle, generous people, and in spite of our most heroic efforts, each of us will fail to live up to our expectations of self, time and time again. We can use moments of failure to define us as inadequate, horrible human beings, or they can afford unique insights into who we actually are, and who we wish to be. As Abraham Lincoln suggested we can allow ourselves be touched by the “better angels of our nature.”

As my new young friend began to grasp the profundity of this ancient wisdom, I could feel the weight of the world lift ever so slightly from his overburdened shoulders. “You’re amazing!” he exclaimed near the end of our time together.

As time has allowed me to reflect, I would wish for one more moment with my young protégé. “First, it is you who is amazing my young friend. I can sense how much you strive for wisdom, goodness and generosity in the face of profound confusion and abject loneliness. Your immense humanity inspires me. Second, I have done little other than share a bit of insight that comes to us through the wisdom of the ages. I am simply thankful for having been able to reach for it when you needed it. Finally, I will not consider myself anything near amazing until I can hear in my own life the voice of self-compassion and love I am asking you to hear in yours.”

As these words appear, I am grateful to have this young man remind me the “better angels of our nature” are always inspiring.

Oct 212015
 

Dear David & Kathryn,

Yesterday, on the suicide hotline, I spoke with a young man who is struggling greatly as he nears the end of his high school career. A number of years ago, life opened before him a horrific, hellacious valley. He fell in and was held captive for too many years. In the past year, not wanting his life defined by the choices that caused his fall, he found the courage to claw his way out of the abyss.

One of the miracles of the hotline is that callers, desperate for help, will often open completely and allow a glimpse into their heart and soul. This young man certainly did. I was witness to a heart filled with wisdom, generosity and love. And while his beauty was so very clear to me, all he could see were the mistakes that led to his trip into hell. He was nearly blind to the miraculous nature of his recovery. I was in awe of his courage on the journey.

Nearly an hour into our time together, I paused and said, “I don’t say this to many callers, but I love you young man. I am in love with who you are, and who you are becoming through the struggles you have faced, and the courage you found to overcome.” He began to cry. Through his tears he said quietly, “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because you’re the first person who has ever told me they loved me.” In that moment, I found it impossible to hold back my own tears. How could a young man preparing for college, never have been told he was loved or lovable?

As I reflected on story of this young man, I thought of the two of you. I would be heartbroken if I thought there was even a moment in your life in which you thought you were either unloved or unlovable.

I am in awe of the two of you as well. I am inspired by the joy, creativity, wisdom, generosity and love that flow from each of you. Even if I have told you before, it cannot be said too often: my heart nearly bursts with love and admiration when I think of either of you…and the miracle you are in my life.

A sage in ancient India once observed a knife that can cut anything, cannot cut itself. As humans, we can easily see in others what we cannot witness in ourselves…just like the young man I spoke with yesterday. In moments of sadness, loneliness or challenge, even if you must take it on faith alone, remember you are truly loved, lovable and are a miracle in the lives of those around you.

Love,

Dad

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.

Dec 232011
 
Note: I wrote the following for the January, 2012 Batavia Chamber of Commerce Newsletter.
 
“People hate change” is perhaps the most incorrect aphorism ever uttered. People LOVE change. In fact we crave it. On a CT scan, the human brain lights up in the face of it. If you put a human into an environment devoid of all change, they die!
If humans hate change, we would have spurned cell phones, ignored the Internet, snubbed the personal computer, rejected social media and eschewed wifi. Starbucks, Google, Facebook, Prius, Under Armour, iPad, Blue-Ray and Harry Potter would never have altered our lexicon.
Why is it, then, when the phrase “people hate change” is uttered, everyone nods in agreement? What is it that propels a book about the fear of change to the New York Times business bestseller list and keeps it there for more than 5 years? Maybe it’s because of a different fear…the fear of who we fear we are.
The parable in Who Moved My Cheese is based on two “little people”: named Hem and Haw who, after becoming complacent about what was once a large cache of cheese, deny their fate when, one day, it is gone.
Everyone has been caught acting like Hem or Haw. Most can remember moments when complacency about family, friends or career, left us suddenly lost, or in denial when a foundational piece suddenly crumbled.
But there is a danger in buying into the parable of WMMC with too much gusto. Because we are only privy to one part of their lives, we are left to believe that “hemness” and “hawness” fully defines the two main characters. Then, when I am tempted to even think, “Yeah, I’m a lot like that guy Hem,” I run the risk of seeing myself fully defined in that way. Then fear sets in…fear that I am Hem, I have always been Hem, and, I am sentenced to a life of “hemness”.
It’s true, each of us has a bit of “hemness” about us. We might even see a bit of Hem when we look into the mirror. But it is dangerous to allow those characterizations to define our lives.
I don’t want to be, nor do I deserve to be, defined by the way I behave in some portion of my life. I know I don’t accept change readily when it’s forced upon me. I am facile at finding reasons why a necessary change suggested by another is riddled with weaknesses…won’t work… or makes little sense. Like Hem, I am prepared to sit in the corner of life’s maze and wait for my cache of cheese to return.
But, there are many ways in which I love change. Much of what I believe today no longer resonates with what I believed just a few short years ago. When I look around at the things I have embraced with enthusiasm and gratitude, I know I am not Hem or Haw in most situations.
So, when “hemness” rears its ugly head in my life, or the life of others, what then?
First, I need to find the generosity to acknowledge that this moment does not define a life. It simply means that, momentarily, the perceived costs of change ignite a fear that the perceived benefits do not yet assuage. Once the benefits outweigh the costs, fear eases and change become easy.
To not offer the generosity of acknowledgement in a moment of fear does violence to others… or worse yet, to ourselves…and fuels the fear of who we fear we are.
Aug 112011
 

 

I wrote this piece shortly after my father passed away in 2005. A young friend from Operation Snowball lost her father this week to cancer. I reprint this here in honor of Megan Scott and her father. The footprints you are leaving, Megan, are filled with love and courage. You are very special.
 
“But Roger,” she said with tears in her eyes, “it feels like I am throwing him away. I can’t throw him away.”
In the months following my father’s death, my mother, God bless her, spent many hours cleaning out the house—going through my dad’s things and making painful decisions about what to do with what often feels like mountains of personal effects. While she did much of this in solitude, because my father and I were partners in a consulting practice, she wanted me with her as we approached the file cabinet that contained most of his written history. We faced thousands of articles, pictures, certificates, awards, letters, notes and other memorabilia. Knowing we couldn’t keep it all—it’s hard enough to go through it once—we discarded all but the most sacred reminders of his journey. But there were times when, I admit, it felt as though pieces of him were being discarded with the tattered fragments of paper.
But then I recalled what I learned in the days immediately after he died, during which hundreds of people came to tell us stories of how they were changed by something my father did. I learned of a neighbor, dying from ALS, who my father picked up every morning so he could go to church, and for coffee at McDonalds afterwards. I met a recently widowed church elder. He told my mother tearfully, “Just a few weeks ago, Wally told me he loved me. You have no idea how much that means.” I learned of the church secretary who loved how my dad would leave a quarter in the office every time he took a cup of coffee. “No one else ever does that,” she told us.
These are a few of the footprints my father left behind. You can’t put those in a file folder and you can’t throw them away at the end of a person’s life. It is in the changing of others that we continue to live on in this world—not through the awards and certificates we file.
It’s vain I know, but I too have file folders stuffed with memorabilia about the “whats” of my life. Having experienced both the “whats” and the “whos” of my father’s life, I now wonder about who I have been, who I am today, and who I will choose to be in my future—in the next decade, the next year, the next week…even in the very next moment. I wonder if the footprints I am leaving are ones that will leave the world a more generous and joyful place.
That becomes one last footprint my father left in my life—one I can never throw away.
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!