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.

Jan 232010

Tomorrow begins, at least for those of us recently invited to be on staff, the Spring 2010 Greater Fox River Valley Operation Snowball weekend. If we are open to it, tomorrow also begins a new world…a new future. If I am truly open, tomorrow holds the possibility of a new me.

I am prompted in these words by a book I just finished on the subject of memes. Memes are the mental/intellectual/cultural counterparts to human genes. They are the thoughts, the ideas, the worldviews we hold and those we spread. Like the genes we pass on to our children, and generations yet unborn, memes are the ideas we implant in others that will fight for survival as they collide with alternate worldviews—conflicting ideas that simply cannot share the limited neuronal capacity of our all-too-human brains.

A phrase I once heard that brings me to tears as I contemplate my reason for existence—here at Snowball, as well as here on Earth—is “youth are the messages we send to a future we will never see.” Why does it tear at my heart? Partly because it reminds me that someday, in the natural course of events, I will no longer be here for my children, Kathryn and David, in their time of need…and I will not be here for the youth of Operation Snowball who so often need a kind word or hug to let them know that, in spite of their pain, they will be okay.

But I wonder if the tears come from a deeper place. I wonder if the tears don’t emanate from my deep sense of inadequacy. Who am I to think I am nearly wise enough to teach these beautiful young people even a small portion of what they need to know as they navigate the oft-treacherous rapids flowing toward the future. Who am I to think I have nearly the capacity to give them even a small portion of the love they ache to find in their lives. Who am I to think that I know even a smattering of the memes that will help them build a future where they can discover fulfillment and a share of happiness?

The reality is that these are actually the wrong questions. These questions put me at the center of their future. These questions hold out the possibility that I have their answers, when, in fact, I often cannot even answer the deepest questions in my own life.

So what are some better questions? A Buddhist monk once said that if we could truly see into the soul of other humans we would never get anything done…we would spend the rest of our lives bowing to one another. I believe that to be true. We have all seen it revealed through the magic that is Snowball. How often do the stories unveiled on Saturday night at “It’s a Wonderful Life” give us a glimpse into the sacredness of the souls who sit in our midst?

So what are the right questions? Here are a few that come to mind: How can I model for these ambassadors to the future the search for self? How can I, by honestly revealing the hills and valleys of my path, help them know the path they are on is the right path, even though, for so many, their path is infinitely more difficult than mine? How can I learn to find and bow to the sacredness inside myself, and by so doing, point the way to their learning of their own wholeness. How can I learn that the answers I seek are here inside my heart and that if I trust, they will reveal themselves. How can I help others discover they too already have the answers they seek.

I titled this piece “The Eve of an Inventure”—a word I borrowed from author and friend, Richard Leider. An inventure is a journey inward. An inventure is a sacred look inside my being. An inventure is a discovery of who I am, so who I truly am can manifest itself in the world.

So as we begin, I bow to each of you, my fellow travelers. I bow to your goodness…I bow to your humanity…I bow to your wisdom. And I ask for your love and support as I try to bow to myself.

Jan 152010

If I close my eyes, even momentarily, I can return to any number of journeys through the woods and rewitness a bird’s feather or wispy seed float past, gently buffeted by the breeze. And, as gentle as that journey might appear, the feather has no control over the direction of its travels or its final destination. In the case of a seed, the future of its species might actually be transformed by this journey over which it has no control.

“Feather on the breeze,” is the phrase, Jake, a wonderful friend and English teacher, used to describe life in a note he recently floated into my life. As I have thought about how to live life in the face of Black Swans—the highly improbable, impactful events described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book by the same name—feather on the breeze becomes a wonderful metaphor. And yet (pardon the pun) it flies in the face of much conventional wisdom. In a search of the web, the first blogger I discovered, compared a feather-on-the-breeze-life with one lived largely on a couch with a beer in hand and TV in view. The author spoke of the horrors of allowing the winds of life to determine where we and our seeds are planted. “Take control of your life,” this author demanded as millions of his pixels splashed across my screen. Is it just me, or is the image of a feather gently following the breeze juxtaposed with a couch potato and a beer just too difficult to fathom?

What if all we have is swans? What if highly improbable, impactful events really do define my life? How might I see swans as the winds—be they gentle or tumultuous—upon which my life’s path is hewn? If my most carefully refined plans will ultimately collide with—and be demolished by—the unpredictable, what is the role of planning?

Don’t misunderstand; I know planning is necessary and useful. I just wonder if we too often miss the mystery of life—the “road less traveled.” Our lives are made up of both mystery and mastery. If we are slaves to mastering life through planning, do we risk missing the mystery…what the pianist Michael Jones once called “the path the heart loves to wander”?

I have asked many people about the trajectory of life. I even emailed the December 3 blog to my son, David, webmaster for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitor Bureau (QCCVB). “Dad,” he emailed back, “your article reminded me of an interview I did as a student at Augustana with a staff member, Doug, during an extremely brief stint at the Observer newspaper. As a result, Doug offered me a job as a web journalist…and eventually one as student web developer. A year after I graduated, Doug encouraged me to apply for this position. If I hadn’t met Doug during that “fluke” campus activity, I wouldn’t be working at the QCCVB today!” Welcome to the feather on the breeze life, son.

When asked, most people will admit their life landed in a place far removed from where they imagined it would. And if I listen very, very carefully, I often detect a tinge of guilt. “My life is good,” they tell me, but their sub-context is “but I was just so lucky. I benefited from so many flukes. I feel unworthy to take credit for the blessings I have been given.”

So in view of lives directed by the flight of swans, what do I tell my son about how to live the rest of his life? I would be justified—and safe—if I were to pass along any number of well-worn pronouncements. “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” “People who write down their goals are more successful then those who don’t.” “If we fail to study history we are doomed to repeat it.” These, and thousands of others, are backed by data that appears to prove their validity. Yet I wonder.

These pieces of advice rely on well-worn skills. Describe the present state, create a vision of the future and then identify the gap that emerges. Follow that with plans and endless “to-dos” lists you can dutifully check off on the journey from today into the future. What we cannot take into account is that swans—be they black and horrific or white and joyous—have the irritating habit of showing up, making all the analysis and planning obsolete and sending us back to square one.

What then do we do—what alternate skills might we employ—to live in a world in which a swan’s flight path might well collide with ours at any moment. I can think of three. The first is to review where we have been, not as a detailed study of the events of the past, but in deep reflection. What has life taught me about who I am and what it means to be human. The second is the ability to “be” more and “do” less—we are, after all, as many have reminded me, human beings, not human doings. The last is the ability, desire and willingness to dream. As Dee Hock, Chairman Emeritus of Visa, has written, “At times such as these, it is no failure to fall short of realizing all that we might dream…the failure is to fall short of dreaming all that we might realize.” Perhaps a future blog will afford me an opportunity to think more about these skills.

One final story. I have struggled with these words—sat for hours trying to find the perfect metaphor. This morning I grabbed at random one of nearly 50 notes I received on the last Snowball weekend. It was Jake’s kind and generous note that ended up between my thumb and index finger. In that moment the winds of life had shown me the direction forward. I only needed to allow the words to appear over the horizon. And I arrived here without a beer, couch or television!

Jan 072010

Note, this letter was written in 2007 when my daughter attended a high school retreat. She was recently elected President of the Illinois Wesleyan University Student Senate. I am reminded again of the words I was given 3 years ago…


To describe your presence in my life is nothing short of describing a miracle. For nearly 17 years I have been witness to the emergence of a woman with extraordinary, innate talents and nearly limitless potential. The care, concern and love you exhibit for those around you moves me. The love of life you radiate brightens my world. The passion with which you pursue that which matters inspires me. The self-confidence you exude amazes me.

So why is your presence in my life a miracle? How else can you describe the flowering of someone so beautiful from soil that so often seems coarse and arid? As hard as I have tried, as much as I wished to be a perfect parent, I grieve over the endless times I failed. I am saddened by the hundreds of times you longed only for a listening and compassionate ear, and I found it necessary instead to attempt to fix or teach. I lament how often the stress of my life intruded on yours in the form of unjustified anger and frustration. I mourn the lost opportunities when a different kind of attention would have nourished you in more abundant ways. And yet, in spite of my failings, you emerge as a caring, compassionate, fervent young woman. Beauty is always a miracle. Too often we simply fail to take the time to sit quietly and be witness to it.

When I was about your age, on the Feast of the Epiphany, the church to which we belonged hung a HUGE banner with a picture of Snoopy, from the Peanuts comic strip, with an ear-to-ear smile, leaping into the air. Underneath it read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God on Earth.” Kathryn, when I think of you—and your presence in my life—my hearts leaps much as Snoopy did so very many years ago. And if that kind of joy is an infallible sign of the presence of God on Earth, you are that sign in my life.

Long ago I stopped trying to describe the love I feel for you. Some feelings—and those of a parent’s love for a child are among them—are meant simply to be experienced because they are beyond the limited facility of language. Love transforms. It will have to suffice to say that my love for you makes me more whole, more fulfilled and more complete. I am more human because God saw fit to allow you and me to share a portion of our journeys.

I wish you a life of joy. I wish you a life in which you too will experience often the gift I experience in you.

With endless love and admiration,