Aug 052014
 

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Buechner

In an interview with Peter Block many years ago I asked about the nature of our gifts. “We’re blind to our capacities. If you ask people what their strengths are, the list they come up with is pathetic. It’s crude and immature. ‘I’m hard-working…I like people…I’m loyal…I’m a good problem solver.’ Ask them their weaknesses and, oh God, you get poetry. They go on and on like an artist.”

When I announced I was leaving my position as Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, myriad questions arose from friends and colleagues. “Are you retiring?” “What’s next?” “Do you have another job?”

The answers I offered seemed feeble in this culture of plans, to-do lists and 5-year goals. I tried to explain I was not looking for a job, I was in search for my calling…my vocation. I was looking for that place to which God had always called me; a place that was simultaneously unknown and feared.

But how could I find that place? I felt rudderless and lost. I had few models of those who sought that space, unique for each human, where their deep gladness met the world’s great need.

I took comfort and direction from the wisdom I learned from improvisational pianist Michael Jones. The gifts of his music came so easily and naturally, he felt anyone could sit at a keyboard and play. So it is with each of us. When confronted with the truth of our gifts, if we don’t say it out loud, there is that internal voice of denial. “It’s no big deal. Anyone could do that,” we hear ourselves proclaiming. We assume the person speaking is just being polite because what they see in us is nothing special.

If I have wealth, it emanates from the love and care so many have shown me. After years running the fireworks, honoring the victims of September 11, exploring the fissures that so often separate us and showing up with authenticity and vulnerability, I have many truth-tellers in my life. I set out to find those who knew me well and would speak with honesty. I approached, told them the story of Michael Jones and explained how difficult it is for each of us to see our own unique gifts. Everyone understood the depth and meaning of that message. Then I asked if they would tell me what they saw in me that I was unable, or unwilling, to see in myself.

Being vulnerable in public does not take nearly the courage it takes to be vulnerable with ourselves. When I sit with a person who knows and cares about me—a truth-teller—I have to quiet the voice that wishes to deny; the one that screams “NO! Don’t you understand, what you think you see in me see is no big deal. Anyone could do that.” To deny what they see is to disrespect a person who, in love and generosity, is offering the greatest gift they can—a mirror into my own heart and soul. To deny is, perhaps, to disrespect the very voice of God.

One of the most telling phrases came from a woman who I helped as she struggled to start a small business. As I told her the tale of Michael Jones and asked if she would reflect on what she saw in me, she stopped me mid-sentence, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’ll tell you now. You listen and then you speak. I know because that is what you did for me.”

So in honor of all those who so generously spoke of my gifts, here is what I heard. I do listen to the world broadly. I listen to the stories and wisdom of the thousands of people who have reached out on the suicide hotline. I have listened through the wisdom of the hundreds of authors who have so generously gifted us with their perspectives. I have listened to the yearnings of members of my community who long for their stories to be heard. I have listened to hundreds of teens in Operation Snowball who struggle to find their identity and place in the world. I have listened to my heart as I try to make sense of the cacophony I often experience in the world.

Then, as I listen, I draw what I have heard into the experience that is my life, and through my own sense of truth, and speak to the world in the nuances that come through me. I try to honor those who tell me I have a gift to say what they have felt, but been unable to put into words.

And, with a deep sense of gratitude and humility, quieting that voice of denial, I believe I do these things well.

Apr 022014
 

Note: The following will appear in the May/June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.

If I asked, would you tell me of your gifts—the unique, stunning aspects of your humanity and journey that make you like no other human ever born? Even if you were able, would you be willing? Or would you, like so many, feel anxious and find yourself filled with unknowing and confusion? Even worse, would you feel compelled to say there is nothing stunning about you?

A friend, Michael Jones, is an exceptional improvisational pianist and elder. When Michael’s fingertips fall upon a keyboard, he and the piano become one, and glorious melodies emerge from them unbidden.Michael Jones Pianoscapes - Transforming Leadership, Awakening the Commons of the Imagination

Michael bared his soul to me in 1998 when we recorded, and subsequently published, a marvelous interview. We sat next to his magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano as he spoke of his journey, and how his inner flame was nearly extinguished when he was very young. I asked how such a gift could be lost. “It came in bringing a piece of my music to a piano lesson. My teacher, a very kindly person, expressed relatively little real interest. The real work was to play the masters. This creation of mine wasn’t going to measure up. I felt embarrassed and self-conscious.”

Michael’s journey was altered many years later when an elderly stranger caught him playing what appeared to be a secluded piano in a quiet hotel lobby. When Michael tried to disavow the splendor and uniqueness of his musical gifts, this unexpected guide asked him “Who is going to play your music if you don’t play it yourself?”

Michael has since shared his music on more than a dozen CDs with millions sold around the world. “To think,” Michael confided in me, “there was that much music I was carrying inside and had no sense was there. We have no perception of what is waiting to be made manifest.”

What would Michael say to that elderly gentleman today? “I would thank all those people who—in that moment of perception and courage—have been able to see into the essence of the other and give it voice. That’s how we can best serve one another…to see in the other what they cannot safely see in themselves.”

Michael went on to say, “We don’t get help in our culture to understand what it means to belong to ourselves and the world. There are many cultures where musicians would never think of playing anybody else’s music! In the West we play almost exclusively other people’s music— as a metaphor, but also literally. We feel embarrassed to bring something that is our own.”

We see the gifts that come to us most naturally as nothing special. “That’s easy,” we say to ourselves and the world, “anyone could do that!”

“More people are becoming aware there is deeper music in their life…sensing the call to let their lives and work be a reflection of that music,” Michael suggested. “The challenge is, we have to put aside the script…the musical score. When that gentleman spoke to me, I felt absolute clarity in terms of what was significant in my life, but I was totally lost in terms of what to do with it. Being lost is part of the journey. There is something we need to access within ourselves that only arises when we feel lost, confused or uncertain. There is the tradition that says, if you can see the path clearly laid in front of you, chances are you’ve stumbled onto someone else’s path!”

As I have struggled to discern my path in this world, I have asked those who know me and care for me to help me see what I cannot safely see in myself. Then, when a friend leans in close and points me in the direction of my music, I struggle to quiet the voice that screams in dissent, “Anyone could do that!

So, when you find yourself lost, confused and uncertain, take comfort in knowing that this just may be your rightful path for now. Then consider seeking out guides who know and love you. Listen, and seek the courage to believe what they tell you. Finally, thank them for their willingness to see into the essence of the other and give it voice.

You can hear Michael’s glorious melodies, and tap into more of his wisdom, at pianoscapes.com.

May 122012
 
If it was that easy, we would all do it, and put an end to much of human misery.
The world can be frightening for any of us, but for teens who are struggling to awaken to who they are in the world, it’s especially difficult. Recently, a courageous young man led a conversation with thirty or more of his peers. He invited them to put pen to paper and anonymously suggest topics for discussion. While the ensuing conversation ranged widely, it spent some time wandering the treacherous terrain of drug addiction, depression, bullying, and the pain that often flows from failed relationships and young love.
As the teens shared the challenges they face, it became clear that elevated self-esteem and self-worth might remedy, or at least assuage, some of their misery. It is, after all, difficult to destroy, or even harm, a human who enjoys a strong sense of worth. Most of us know well the childhood aphorism, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But a name can hurt, maim or even kill, when hurled viciously at a human in doubt of their value.
There were several adults stung by the awareness that these wonderful young people were in pain, and lacked the personal armor to protect them against the “Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune.” Few of us knew how to respond other than to offer reassurances. “You have to know you are valuable,” “You are all amazing” or “Don’t ever doubt yourself.” We utter these words with kindness and generosity, even though we know full-well that when we are beaten and battered by the world, unable to glimpse our self-worth, being told we should not turn a blind eye to our inner value is of little help. A typical private reaction to such a command might begin “If only they knew…”
While teens are particularly vulnerable to the poison arrows that can pierce their fragile self-worth, most of us find ourselves wandering the darkness sometime during our lives. I know I have been brought to my knees any number of times when I failed as a spouse, parent or friend. Few things claw at my self-worth more ferociously than the fear that I may have damaged the worth of those I love.
And yet, even in those moments we are least able to glimpse our own value, most of us can look at others and be witness to, and blessed by, theirs. There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests that if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us we would never accomplish anything…we would be too busy bowing to one another.
Why is it we can have such clarity in discerning the value of others, and be so blind to our own? Many years ago, I was given a hint when visiting with improvisational pianist, Michael Jones. He suggested that our true gifts come to us so naturally, we believe they are nothing special. When another holds up a mirror so we can see our gifts reflected back to us, we are as likely as not to disavow their uniqueness. “Oh that! That’s easy,” we argue. “Anyone could do that.” Michael, himself, denied his rare ability to spontaneously tease melodies from the ivorys of his piano until he was more than 30. He subsequently sold several million CDs worldwide.
So, if someday you find yourself wondering the darkness, certain your life is, as a friend once feared, a “throwaway line,” look courageously into the world and find those willing to bow in your direction. Allow yourself to look into the mirror they hold up and see yourself as they see you. Instead of immediately denying the gifts they see in you, try this instead: take a moment to sincerely absorb their wisdom and generosity, and then say “Thank you, I am honored.”
It can be very difficult, but if it was that easy…
Jan 282010
 

In the western culture in which I was raised, there is a model of leadership which is highly influenced by the Newtonian worldview. Newton, who first proposed the laws of motion, believed, correctly, that the cause and effect relationships of physical motion could be accurately described. The future, if you will, of balls on a billiard table could be foretold if we have sufficient information regarding the initial conditions, friction and gravitational influences. Combine those laws of motion with the belief that sub-atomic particles are much like billiard balls and you came to the conclusion that, given sufficient information about initial conditions, the future of the world could be accurately predicted.

Defining leadership based on this worldview is easy. We look for a person who has the ability to describe current reality, paint a clear picture of the future we wish to share, and identify a precise list of steps to get us from the current realty to the future we desire.

Let me discuss each of these three leadership characteristics and share some reasons why I believe they are of questionable validity.

A leader has the best description of our current reality.

The figure is often referred to as the Kanizsa Triangle. I have displayed this figure to many groups and ask if the white triangle is larger or smaller than the black. The majority typically agree they are, in fact, the same size. I then simply ask how many believe there are NO triangles in the picture?

This is a powerful metaphor for the kind of thinking I do all too often. I take small, incomplete bits of information and use them to create much larger, complete pictures. I don’t wish to recount how often I did this with my children. I would walk into the house after a stressful day, see 30 seconds of activity and angry children. I would turn that into a complete picture of what they are up to,who did what to get them upset, their motivation, what they were thinking and why they are wrong! Unfortunately, I continue to make the same mistake with co-workers and friends.
A leader has a clear picture of the future we wish to share.

We often refer to this as vision. We talk eloquently about the power of vision. “If you don’t know where you are going, any direction will do.” Unfortunately, we confuse vision as a compelling sense of direction, with vision as a precise picture of what the future should look like.

I once asked pianist Michael Jones about the importance of vision. Michael said, “There is a wonderful interplay between mastery and mystery. On one hand, you have the mastery of having and fulfilling a vision. But along with vision is imagination. Imagination is the path the heart loves to wander. You find yourself in places you had not conceived. The things I encounter at the piano I had not anticipated are the moments of grace I live for. It’s the mystery of finding things happening in my hands…composing through my fingers. This is not so much vision as it is life of the imagination. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught that the future we ordain can be fulfilled the way we ordain it. If we live according to those rules the possibilities open to us become limited…it becomes a relatively narrow life.”

There is an additional aspect of vision on which I wish to comment. We want, and need, people to be motivated and inspired by their lives and their work. I realized some time ago that the word “inspired” and the word “spiritual” have the same root. The words “motivation” and “emotions do as well. I find it difficult to be inspired and motivated unless there is a spiritual and emotional content to my work. I have to feel that what I am engaged in is bigger than I. To the extent a leader can paint a vision that has a deep emotional and spiritual context, I will be fully engaged in the enterprise.

A leader has a precise list of steps to get us from the current realty to the future we desire.

It is said that every action we take has intended and unintended consequences…the intended consequences sometimes happen, the unintended ones always do!

After the second world war, the United States build a highway system connecting major cities. While there were a number of reasons to justify the investment, one was that highways would save the declining inner cities. By facilitating the movement of goods into the cities they would become more available and cheaper. The unintended consequence? People fled. The highways made departure from the inner cities so easy that suburban areas grew almost overnight. It was suddenly possible to live outside the older areas of the city, show up from eight to five for employment, and retreat to a new home in a nice neighborhood for dinner. This “savior” of the cities actually may have hastened their decline!

Taxing authorities usually argue that commercial development is good because it will increase the tax rate, thus keeping other taxes lower. Commercial development, I am told, will help keep my property taxes low. A recent study of numerous American Cities shows that over time, commercial development and property taxes go up together…lock-step.

So much for the intended consequences of the actions we take. Peter Senge, in his groundbreaking book, The Fifth Discipline, said, the solutions we implement today will often lead us to even bigger problems tomorrow.

Leading by following

So where does this lead? In On Becoming A Leader, Warren Bennis says simply, “At bottom, becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.” I believe is was Fritjof Capra who said, “Healing the universe is an inside job.” These are powerful thoughts. They say the leadership comes from deep within; not from external views or visions. Leadership emerges from clarity of self. The more I know what is truly important to me–the values to which I am deeply committed–the more clearly I will see the path I need to walk.

Michael Jones did not sell his first CD until he was 38…he has sold millions in the intervening years. In spite of falling in love with the piano at age 2, he was unable to admit to himself and others that his gift lie in his music. He set out to become a management consultant and change the world through ideas; ideas carefully crafted by others and respoken by him. Michael found his gift partly because an elderly gentleman in a quiet hotel in Toronto, happened upon Michael playing a piano, thinking he was quite alone and “safe”. This wise gentleman, touched by the wonderful sensitivity of Michael’s music, looked at him and asked, “Who will play your music if you don’t play it yourself?”

Some years ago I came to know an artist in Chicago. Andrew Young, had a promising career as a scientist, with many opportunities to pursue research and academia. “In college I had a love for art but didn’t feel it was appropriate to pursue; in fact, I was very much afraid of it. I had a lower drawer at my desk, sort of my “altar”, filled with pastels, water colors, water color pads and colored pencils, all of which were impeccably arranged, neatly sharpened and color coded. Three semesters in succession I signed up for and withdrew from a course in color and composition because I knew what kind of door it would open. I was trying to conceal something that was clearly boiling in my spirit.”

Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, speaks of the way in which we normally teach sports. He likens it to a rubber mat with footprints. Unless the student steps on the foot prints in precisely the correct way, they are doing it “wrong”. What he came to learn is that the body has an innate sense of movement. The secret to improved athletic ability is to get the mind out of the way…thinking impairs natural ability.

What would happen if I stopped trying to live my life as if I had to place my feet on the correct space on life’s “rubber mat”. What would it mean if I followed my deep desires…to get thinking out of the way and make room to live life more naturally. For me this means living the life of the heart. Michael Jones said, “Our way of experiencing life, and our participation in it, becomes the art of all arts.”

I have had the privilege to know many people who have created wonderful institutions, art, music and ideas. Each of them are living lives largely dictated by beliefs, values and passions they would say, I think, are beyond their control. Each of them have pointed to significant moments when they needed to make a choice…and they chose to follow their passion.

So there is the conundrum. They lead precisely because, at the critical moment in their lives when they were called, they followed. They followed the inner voice that called to them. They took incredible risks…yet they chose the difficult, but extraordinarily joyful path. The path their heart called them to. Based on logic, analysis and cultural norms, each of them could have chosen a path of less risk…a path of greater predictable security…a path of less joy. But each of them chose a path of courage.

Each of them leads by following.