Archive for July 22, 2011

Getting to Sabbatical

My father’s PhD in history made me aware of the concept of sabbatical early in life. The only one he ever took was due to a Fulbright that enabled us to live in Paris for a year. It was grand. I was three.

I’ve used the word “sabbatical” now and then. It’s a word I like. It has a big fat history behind it – Greek, Hebrew and Latin all have antecedents. It’s a word essentially about rest. Cease planting the ground every seventh year, rest after making the world on the seventh day, leave work on one of the seven days of the week: divine instruction about the idea that everything needs a break from activity and routine for rest, reflection and renewal.

But in our modern lexicon, the word sabbatical has grown narrow and sits on the high shelf of academia. Tenured professors, after much labor and achievement, earn one: time away from professorial duties, bestowed by their dean, to renew their scholarship. To sit in the quietude of the mind, whether on a beach or in a dusty archive, and deepen one’s intellectual grasp of the world is an idea that makes intuitive sense to me. However, I wouldn’t have said the word “sabbatical” applied to me; I wouldn’t have presumed.

And then on an airplane flying to a client last summer, I was reading Hemispheres magazine and came across at least two articles with the same theme. They described people who’d achieved striking success in different professions and who’d elected to close up their businesses in order to re-invent their work – in order to come up with something entirely new.

“It happened one step at a time,” Randall Grahm says. “One day I discovered I was in charge of an organization that was so convoluted and Borgesian in its complexity that it was beyond out-of-control.” Still, had he produced any truly distinctive wine? That was the question he began to ask himself…The answer was no. “I don’t think I have made a deep contribution yet.” So he sold off two high-volume brands and spun off his Riesling brand into its own business. Then he took a gamble on his plan to create a vineyard of hybrids straight out of The Island of Dr. Moreau.


Spanish chef/guru Ferran Adria blanched the culinary world when he announced he would be shutting down his revered restaurant, El Bulli, for two years starting in 2012…”People wonder, if El Bulli is where everyone wants to go and if we are winning all the prizes, why change?” says the 47-year-old Adrian…”We’ve spent the last 25 years creating something new every year, but working 15 hours a day leaves us very little time to create.”

The articles remarked on the boldness, the audacity of this decision. I remember thinking, right – how can one re-invent when one is so busy doing what one does? What other choice is there but to close up shop? To take a sabbatical.

In the talk I gave my clients that week, I used the articles as a way of contextualizing our work. The client had recognized a serious dysfunction in one of its key business support areas worth about $2B, and made the bold decision to charter this group to figure it out. The work was grueling at the beginning: looking squarely at the problem and discovering that it lay at the feet of badly outdated cultural norms and processes. No easy fix. But the group persevered and was coming out the other end, with the light of possibility shining on them. And this happened because they were willing to take time out - to step away from the day-to-day, to sit for long hours in an unglamorous room with strangers, peering deeply into the face of problem.

Courtesy of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwanthari Ashram

It is my work to be a companion on these journeys, a kind of Sherpa to help my clients navigate the shadowy terrain of uncertainty as they reinvent the new. This is a tremendous journey to experience, whether in an individual or an organization. And I saw that this too is a kind of sabbatical: a rest from routine to re-envision the work, in the fullness of the context of their world, and to rekindle both meaning and relevance. And to be clear: although sabbatical does imply rest, it does not mean inaction.

The act of ceasing what one knows to voyage into the yet unknown of the new takes both great courage and great confidence. Yes, audacity. What if all that looking amounts to nothing? What if the grand re-visioning ends up right back where one started? What if nothing can actually change? Choosing sabbatical in the face of those fears is exactly wherein lies the beauty, the risk, the sheer mysticism of the practice.

As Chef Adria says, “There are no references. That’s the magical part. That’s the challenge.” And Grahm wrote in a blog post just today about his nervousness in calling his vin de terroir quest a spiritual journey.

But sabbatical is fundamentally an act of faith. Faith in oneself, in the group, in the process. Faith in the divine instruction that just by quieting, stepping off the busy-ness loop and contemplating the situation at hand will produce something new.

There is a lot of talk about doing, getting on with it, stopping the chatter and actually getting something accomplished. I am all for that. I am also for stopping now and again to consider “is all the doing working?” To ask “have things changed such that we should re-think it?”  What would a whole new take on the situation mean? What would happen if you rekindled your passion; what then could you do from the engine of your heart?

We have a long history of those who took sabbatical and accomplished greatness: Christ’s 40 days in the desert brought him full on into his calling; Buddha stepped all the way out of his life, never to return and achieved the highest level of human mastery; Gandhi took respite from his activism for deep self reflection, which he described in his autobiography, giving us a kind of manual for how. And more and more, I see people today, like Adria and Grahm, and organizations, like my clients, who are taking this same path. The quiet path of reflection, the active path of inactivity, from which renewal and reinvention are born.

My narrow child’s view, the three-year-old’s story of a father with a Fulbright – that sabbatical is something bestowed rather than chosen – veiled for me what is so obvious. Sabbatical is part of life, whether we are given it, take it for ourselves, or are somehow painfully thrust into it by circumstance. The cycle of work and rest, going out into the world and coming back, of doing and reflecting, is as natural as breath, rising and falling. But too often, rather than celebrating the opportunity and the fruit that comes of it, we worry. Worry that it will be for naught, that we will be embarrassed, that we shouldn’t be doing it, that whatever place we left will no longer be there when we return (Odysseus taught us about this). And that worry robs us of the very gift of sabbatical itself.

And I thought, it is time for a different choice. It’s time to reclaim sabbatical for us all, as a grand and ancient way of life. Time to recall the divine wisdom that says every individual, every organization, everything needs time out for reflection, for renewal, and in the stillness of inaction – or a different kind of action, to re-find meaning. And this is so we can bloom again, fuller and richer than before.

So now, I use the word freely, knowing how fortunate, august, and accessible the thing called sabbatical is. It is indeed a divine call; our first step is to heed it.


The July 2010 issue of Hemispheres included the articles The Grape Nut by Edward Lewine and The Thinker by S. Indramalar.


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The Supremes: Why We Do What They Say (and Should We?)

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spoke last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival. It was a stirring speech. He’s an eloquent and passionate speaker, and like all good orators, he got me to thinking.

Justice Breyer’s point was the importance of the Court to democracy. The Court serves the vital and essential function of a neutral actor in the mix to play referee, to stand in the fray and call foul, to stop the action and consider what really is fair, no matter the size or skill of the players. That sounds right. Without this role, games and democracies easily devolve to chaos or bullying. With this role, we can all relax into our own – whether as player or spectator.

I recognize the referee role only too well since I play a similar one. As a facilitator of process, I design and then monitor the way something gets done. The larger and more diverse the group, the more contentious the issues, the more important this work is — if I hold the space and monitor the established rules of engagement, the people participating can relax into dealing with the subject at hand. It can take a while to establish trust in this role, there may even be tests – people pushing the limits of the “rules” to see if they can be bent or broken, to see if I will notice, if I will act. But if I play it fairly, applying the same rules to everyone, people will stop worrying over process and really start attending to the issues.

So, when Justice Breyer recounted his story of this country’s test of the Supreme Court’s authority, I listened with great interest. The heart of the story involved two moments in American history. The first was in the 1830s, from when our democracy was still young. At the time, the state of Georgia, having found gold on Cherokee Indian land, wanted the Indians out. In a series of cases, known as the Marshall Trilogy, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote decisions that set precedent for tribal sovereignty. Breyer then referred to President Jackson’s response “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” Although this quotation is disputed, it is undoubtedly representative of Jackson’s sentiments. He sent federal troops into Georgia to move the Cherokee off their lands, disregarding the Marshall Court and inciting what would result in the Trail of Tears.

Breyer’s point was, early in our nation’s history, the Court was still establishing the authority of its supreme arbiter role. And clearly, that power was dubious at best if the President so readily flouted it.

Breyer then turned to a case much more familiar: Brown v. Board of Education. Although the landmark case ruled segregation unconstitutional in 1954, it took three more years for it to be tested. As we all know, the test happened in the fall of 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock’s school board and the NAACP planned to have nine carefully chosen students enroll at Central High. Governor Orval Faubus wouldn’t hear of it and called out the Arkansas National Guard to block the students. Like Jackson, according to Breyer, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops – and his choice of the 101st Airborne was brilliant strategy since the 101st was beloved for its role in Normandy. This time the troops backed the Supreme Court’s decision.

Breyer’s argument was that, even if we disagree with a decision, Bush v. Gore for example, or Roe v. Wade, the fact is that we, as a country, as a democracy, depend on the authority of the Court as our supreme arbiter, as the final say. And, what’s more, we adhere to it. For those of us who think we want the Court’s decisions challenged, Justice Breyer urged us to look carefully at the images of anarchy coming from places around the globe. Do we really want to live in a country where the role of referee is tenuous, even nonexistent?

His question is a good one. But then a fellow from the audience asked another.

“Would the cynicism toward the Court be reduced if the decisions could be 6-3 instead of 5-4?” Justice Breyer responded to this question by talking about our desire for a Court more in agreement with itself, citing Europe’s policy not to publish dissenting opinions as a way of solidifying the rule of law. This surprised me. What I heard in the fellow’s question was not a desire for more agreement, but for less partisanship among the Justices.

Too many of the major decisions (e.g., Citizens United and Wal-Mart v. Dukes) being made by the Court are being decided 5-4, with the conservative Justices (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) on one side and the liberal ones (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan) on the other. It is this, more than what the actual decisions are, that is so inimical to our trust in the Court as the neutral actor we need it to be. This partisanship is what is eroding our confidence in the Court as the ultimate power of judicial review in this country. If the Court can do no better than Congress in deciding the issues that threaten to tear us apart, if the Court is no more than a reflection of the rancor and polarity that run through our public discourse, then the Court is no longer deserving of the role of supreme arbiter and the ensuing powers that role commands.

Like any leader, I am only able to function as an effective facilitator as long as the people I serve perceive me as such. When I start to show bias, when I begin to take sides, especially if I do so under the guise of fairness, I am no longer useful in my role. If I do not correct my behavior, or step aside, the people will (and should) take care of it themselves. This too is inherent to democracy. In fact, it is the very idea upon which this country was founded: equal justice under the law.

For a related blog from Aspen Institute: