Jan 082016
 

From the January Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The theme of this issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine is a 50-year vision for the community. In 2008, Batavia rebuilt the William J. Donovan Bridge which spans the Fox River connecting east and west Wilson Street. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my future counterpart, for a time-capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt in the next century:

Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,

It is a challenge to speak to my counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy have been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.

So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.

We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.

Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.

So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. And while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.

I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.

Postscript: Seven years later I see little reason to soften my critique of our culture of isolation. We have hundreds more digital channels into which we can tune and remain observers, rather than participants in human drama. Dialogue is prepared for us, relieving us of the need to find our own genuine, loving, but elusive, words to offer solace and comfort. Then, when lives unfold and we find ourselves in the presence of devastating loss and suffering, we are amateurs at being human. We search for words we learned from script writers, because we cannot discern our own authentic, unique and vulnerable end to the story. We can and must do better…we have 93 years left in which to learn how. I pray we begin today.

Feb 102014
 

Note: The following will appear in the March/April edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. It serves as my transition from Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce to…well, that remains uncertain.

     Years ago, Ram Das wrote a book entitled Still Here. In spite of having left the Chamber of Commerce, I am still here in Neighbors of Batavia magazine. Publishers Tim and Kate Sullivan have graciously asked me to continue. Showing up in this place, authentically and emotionally, has become an integral part of my life, and I am profoundly grateful for this sanctuary. This work serves as a bridge on my path from the past to an uncertain and indistinct future. To anyone who has expressed appreciation for these words, thank you as well. Your affirmations help me discern my path.
     My decision to leave the Chamber arrived unexpectedly late last year, but the clarity with which I reached that crossroad was undeniable. I simply could no longer remain the community’s chief spokesperson for business. In leaving, one of the first questions I face is, “So, what’s next?” The fact that I don’t know surprises many. Why leave a position, without an alternate landing pad on my flight plan? I’m not sure.
     From the start, I was the most unlikely of Chamber executives. Truth be known, I don’t care about the measures of success typically saddled upon such a position. Did we, in 10 years, brighten the economic environment? Did we sell more…make more money? Are there more businesses in Batavia…fewer empty store fronts? These would be measures of success for the traditional economic development professional, but in ten years, I never knew, nor did I care about, the answers to such inquiries. Centuries hence, it will not have mattered that we sold one more trinket, or put one more dollar into the bank.
    What will matter to our progeny hundreds of years in the future? I don’t know that either, but here are some thoughts…
     Are we better human beings today than we were yesterday? Do we care more…love more…discern more…respect more? Are we wiser and more insightful? Do we act with honesty, integrity and authenticity? Have we learned to ask questions that truly matter? Have we found our rightful place here in this place? I don’t know if we have made progress on these measures of our humanness, but of these I care deeply. In my ten years as head of the Chamber, I was always far more concerned about the business of people’s lives than I was about the lives of their businesses.
     The human species, as well, faces many crossroads. In my heart-of-hearts I believe we are staring over a precipice. As we move into the future it is not what we do…it is who we are that will determine if we fall precipitously from the heights, or take flight into a humane future in which we will come to discover prosperity that is stunning in its simplicity, yet beneficent beyond our imagination. It is to that quest to which I hope to turn my attention. What will be the manner and mode of my journey? Of that I am uncertain.

     In the journey of life, we face unexpected crossroads. They can be a time of fear and confusion…when prosperity seems elusive and uncertain. Nevertheless, we sometimes need to leap, build our wings on the way down and trust that prosperity is abundant if we are willing to recognize it.
     The subtitle of Ram Das’ book is Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. While I am thankful for my continued good health, I am aging and changing. More decades are behind me than ahead. But perhaps, if I pay attention and live with evermore honesty, integrity and authenticity, I can discover my vocation and an even more prosperous life on the path ahead than the one I have already traversed.
    Over the years, I ended many Chamber events by wishing those in attendance “Godspeed on your journey,” without knowing its origins and meaning. The word Godspeed comes from the Middle English phrase God spede…“May God prosper you.” For perhaps the very first time, with humility and gratitude, I am wishing myself Godspeed on my journey…and I invite you to do the same for yourself.
Aug 172013
 
Note: I wrote the following piece for the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, but thought it might be of interest to the readers of my blog
I’ve been accused of focusing too much on images of death, but bear with me, you just might find the questions I am about to ask confusing and irritating enough to be useful.
What if the greatest challenge to your organization is that everyone expects it to be immortal?
We race books like Built to Last to the best seller list because we expect organizations and institutions to be impervious to the vagaries of imperfect economies and unpredictable politics.
To be sure, we are in awe of human creations that survive the limits of our fragile lives. I recall the wonderment of experiencing a few of the celebrated cathedrals of Europe.
But what if organizations are more valuable as organic, less stable, human creations? Consider human mortality. (Here is where I estrange those troubled by thoughts of death). It is no secret that, as people age, they become more aware of their mortality and begin to ask questions about what their time here might have meant. Conversely, if we were immortal, the need to make every passing moment a thing of beauty becomes less imperative. There would be plenty of time tomorrow—and the infinite tomorrows beyond that—to accomplish something of depth and meaning.
So what about your organization. I assume it exists to accomplish something of depth and meaning. To create products and services that add value to peoples’ lives…offer meaningful employment…make the world better, safer or more beautiful…or just to create wealth (however you define that easily misunderstood word).
Does it change the mission, vision and values you hold dear if you knew the institution you are building will, with no possibility of reprieve, cease to exist in five years? Even if it doesn’t alter the words, does it change their urgency? Does your heart skip a beat as you ponder how you must now turn those words into results prior to some uncompromising deadline? What if, as a result, mission, vision and values became more important than next quarter’s net income?
These questions occurred to me on one of my many journeys afoot. As the images flew, I began to ask how mortality might change my view of the Batavia Chamber. How might our goals and priorities change if the Board had to disband the Chamber at age 65 in the year 2018?
The Chamber’s purpose is to create a dynamic culture where business and community enhance one another. How might we renew our effort if we had only five years. Our vision is for Batavia to be a destination for people to grow themselves, their family, their business and their community. If that became the Chamber’s destination in a mere five years, what must we do differently this afternoon…and tomorrow? With a mission to advocate for, build relationships with, and educate our members for the benefit of the community, how should we redouble our efforts and set different priorities?
I know…this all has little meaning because our institutions are build to last. But you are not, so from your perspective, the organization you now run or support will only last a few more years. With that awareness to the fore, is there something you might do differently knowing it truly is a matter of life & death?

 

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.”
Jul 212011
 

Note: I first published this in the March, 2011 issue of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business.

An open letter to Joi Cuartero, Executive Director, Batavia MainStreet.
Welcome Joi. I am grateful to the MainStreet Board of Directors for offering you the position as Executive Director.
Do you, per chance, recall the book Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss? In it, Horton the elephant hears voices from a small speck of dust, which turns out to be a tiny planet and home to the Whos of Who-ville. The Whos, you may recall, are in desperate need of protection because no one can see them.
As you know, I was invited to sit in on the final interviews for your position. Afterward, the Board generously asked my opinion. I simply quoted a dear friend who spent many years as a consultant in human resources. He once said “Organizations tend to hire people for what they are… and fire them for who they are.” The moment the words slipped from his lips, they were securely lodged in the synapses of my brain.
Our primary weapon as we journey from job to job is the infamous resume; it informs the world of our accomplishments… the what’s of our lives. Mine reports years in sales, a chapter as a consultant, a snippet or two about my community work, and ends with accomplishments as Chamber Executive Director.
As hard as I might try, however, who I am—my love for this community, my passion for helping others discover who they are capable of becoming, the heartache I experience on the suicide hotline and my love for my family—becomes very small and is in constant danger of being lost.
The whats of my life are well-documented: BA, MS, MSM, Consultant, Fireworks Chair, Executive Director. And while those experiences help, little of that really matters as I face life. What is about my past. Who is about how I interface with the world today, tomorrow and into whatever future I might still be granted.
Joi, I have seen your resume, and it’s marvelous. Your event planning experience and organizing skills bode well as you face the necessary tasks of Batavia MainStreet.
However, my enthusiasm for you as Executive Director does not flow from my confidence in your skills. My joy, Joi, comes from who I see lurking behind them. Your passion for the arts, the intensity of the vision you contributed to the founding and ongoing success of Water Street Studios and the way you light up when given an opportunity to talk about the future of Batavia This is the fingerprint you leave behind that informs us about who you are, and who you are capable of becoming, Who you are, rather than what you bring, is what gives me confidence in our future with you as an integral part.
So, as you and I have an opportunity to dream together with the larger community about what might be possible, please bring your skills and experience. We need those. But what will more likely animate the future is when each of us takes time to look deeply into who we are and brings our deepest desires… fiercest passions…and most vivid visions forth so they can fuse and collide with those around us.
As in Who-ville, all is lost if we lose who we are. I look forward to working with you.
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.”
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.