Jun 292011
 
The following piece was published today in Batavia Business, the monthly newsletter of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.
 
“You were a little snappish” a friend told me, with a smile and glint in her eye, after a recent Chamber Board meeting. She was right…but I was hoping it wasn’t that obvious. While I may owe her an explanation, I actually owe it to myself.
A recent European trip to visit our daughter was intended to be no more than a tourist’s sojourn. As it turns out, the journey had unexpected consequences. Allow me to illuminate a few pieces of a puzzle that is emerging in my life—and then try to assemble them into some kind of coherent, yet still incomplete story.
One piece contains portraits of anonymous stone masons from the 13th century who spent their entire lives shaping and laying stones that became a cathedral in Nantes, France; an edifice that would not be completed for more than 20 generations. I stood in awe of their craftsmanship, and their dedication to a vision they had no hope of seeing to completion. Their contribution was essential…yet their identity forever lost.
While in Europe, and on my return, a second puzzle piece emerged from two intellectual excursions. In Europe I began a trek through a thousand-page volume called Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Since our return, I have been enjoying an 18-hour series of lectures entitled Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Professor Grant Hardy of the University of North Carolina.
The puzzle piece that forms as I study humanity’s wisdom traditions is that, like the stone masons of Nantes, untold millions of deeply philosophical humans contributed to the ideas that define and gird human wisdom and understanding, but for the vast majority, their contribution too, is essential, and their identity forever lost.
The third puzzle piece is defined by my experience of being immersed in cultures decidedly different from the one I left behind. As you walk the streets of European cities, it is common to hear a dozen languages—and see as many modes of dress—within a few short blocks. I became aware of just how much I don’t know about the world.
I arrived in Europe with some sense of being wise and worldly…and arrive in this moment having been reminded of my ignorance and naïveté.
The puzzle pieces strewn in front of me have something to do with the existential angst of being human. Most of us hope we will leave something behind that future generations will experience with admiration. I strive to make something of my time on this planet; from talking with people struggling not to end their lives, to teens struggling to understand theirs. Even the struggle to put these few words on paper is part of my search for meaning.
And yet, having come face-to-face with authors of our wisdom traditions and creators of monuments to human imagination, it is difficult not to view your own contribution with a skeptical eye. “Is this the best I could have done?”
 The roots of this story are nourished by a growing awareness of my own mortality and imminent loss of my identity to future generations. Until I come to terms with that angst, I will likely remain “a little snappish.”
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!