This interview, focused on entrepreneurialism, was conducted by Stephanie Chandler, author and CEO of Business Info Guide, where it was originally published. I share it here to give Call to Contemplation readers some additional background on my perspective, and also as an entrée to the ongoing dialog about new lines being drawn in the business space. Or should [...]
This is Part I in a series on my experiences in South Africa. I left for South Africa just three weeks ago, flying from Denver to Frankfurt to Cape Town for a three-week stay. The trip was the zenith of a ten-month journey into the subject of leadership, which I started as part of a sabbatical. [...]
One of my clients recently made a quantum leap in her thinking in under an hour. It was stunning. That got me to thinking about what she did that enabled her to move so fast. You see, it had little to do with the issue (the content) she was dealing with, and everything to do with the way she went about addressing it [...]
Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with people whose organizations are going through a not uncommon, but often painful and sometimes even terminal, phenomenon: questioning their relevance, their place in the world. Even as I type those words they feel heavy. There is weight to the idea that a thing, once useful and full of life [...]
How often do we reflect on memory? Surely, we think about it when it fails us. We may damn it when we lose our keys or forget someone’s name, or dread it in the case of Alzheimer’s, robbing mind of memory as bleach leaches color from cloth. We may also think about memory when our memories disagree with each [...]
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
Remember the phrase “the medium is the message”? Marshall McLuhan was pointing us to look at the medium, to be aware of its power and influence in shaping the content of our messages.
Medium as Message
This notion of considering the medium and how (as well as how much) it affects the message isn’t new. Each new technology, at least since the Industrial Age, has undergone scrutiny as an actor on how people communicate. But McLuhan, in the time of TV’s rise, gave the idea a particular vocabulary with a passion that was persuasive. And, since we’re again in the face of, not so much an emerging technology as the thorough infiltration of it, McLuhan’s ideas are on people’s lips – whether they credit him or not.
A case in point is James Gleick’s story about African talking drums (in his 2011 book The Information), which is a perfect illustration of McLuhan’s medium-as-message point. As Gleick explains, the drum captures the tone of the language and does so precisely because the language itself is rich in tone (drums don’t work with English because it’s largely monotone). But because the drum replicates the tone and not the sound, each set of tones can represent a number of different words, so drumming must supply context in order to make meaning clear. The drum is the actor shaping the message, but at the same time, honing the message sender, who must develop this descriptive ability in order to effectively convey ideas. Gleick reminds us that the telegraph did the exact same thing in another time and place, but where drummers were poets, telegraphers were our first texters.
It’s interesting and in some way quaint to examine cases like drums and telegraph, both of which are mostly lost media today. But apply “the medium is the message” to something extant and intrinsic like, say, language, and the whole exercise takes on new meaning. It’s a bit of a mind bender, but language really is the first technology, right? What is original is human experience, which resides inside me and inside you. We developed language to express what is individual and inside, to the other and the outside.
Even when we’re in our own heads, language runs like a river, at times spraying buoyantly over an idea and at others eddying around an emerging thought. Writers toy and struggle and cajole and muse over just which words - the units of language – to string together to make ourselves known. We humans rely on language in the same way we rely on the air we breathe: effortlessly, continuously, unconsciously, completely.
But if there’s one thing large-scale change work has taught me over the years, it’s that language is really a terrible analog for human experience. Get 20 people together to discuss anything of consequence, and you quickly find that language is so imprecise, it’s a wonder we ever connect at all. I spend much of my time, especially early on, asking “what do you mean?” to untangle the layered meaning inside one head so as to relate it to others. Wars are fought not so much because we disagree but because we misunderstand each other.
Those who use language well know it’s imprecise, and just because you say a word, doesn’t mean the other person got your intent. Great communicators tell stories, describe ideas or concepts with metaphors and examples, using different perspectives, wording, and sometimes even language. And in the context of change, the bigger it is, the more critical our use of language becomes. The early talk about global warming is a good case in point. Bill McKibben, in his book Eaarth, describes how 100 years ago a Swedish scientist proposed that coal “evaporating into the air” could cause increased temperatures. Obviously, he was way out in front, and no one paid him any mind. Yet, it strikes me that his language was a big part of the problem: there were not yet words to express his message and no one had the foggiest idea what could be meant by coal evaporating into the air; it must’ve sounded almost mystical.
A Powerful Tool for Change
But imagine if that scientist had been more skilled in messaging…where might we be today?
Despite its imprecision, language is our most indispensable and powerful tool for change. Using it well, we can inspire, galvanize, and focus. Use it badly and we’re ignored, or worse, taken for hucksters, gadflies, even traitors (Edward Snowden comes to mind).
What’s involved with using it well? Honing ourselves as messengers, who care deeply about what we are trying to convey, who notice and make use of the medium as we craft our messages, and most importantly, who approach each person with humility and curiosity. And the more agile we are, the more effective we will be in sharing the meaning of our human experience with others.
Want to know more about Meaningful Messaging? Join Rebecca on a free webinar to understand the huge value of language in large-scale change.
How we bring people in to our endeavors – no matter what they are –
determines, in large part, what we are able to achieve.
When we bring people in—whether we’re hiring a single person, creating a new team, restructuring an entire organization or starting a movement—we’re acting as a kind of host, inviting guests to join us. Like hosts, it’s essential that we invite the right people, that they feel welcome, they’re clear about the purpose of the visit, and they know how they’re going to get their needs met. And it’s the attitude behind these actions that endow their meaning. Anyone can go through the motions of hospitality, but it’s the underlying feeling of caring for others that makes all the difference.
As conveners of any human gathering, whether a team, an organization, or a party at our home, our mission is to create the right combination of humans to achieve the desired result. When we find the right mix, and bring them together in a way that recognizes each individual and his or her role as part of the group, we move toward our collective purpose with greater ease. And we achieve more together than we could separately, whether our aim is simply to enjoy an evening together or to change the world.
At the core of this practice of bringing people in well is the concept of role. Note the use of the word “role” here, rather than “job.” This is intentional. The focus on role has myriad benefits for both the host and the guest.
First, people work at a job, but they play a role. What’s the difference?
Fifty years ago, work meant a relationship between companies and their employees, which were often paternalistic, mutually committed, and lifelong. The result of the relationship was a job – which was a kind of resting place, providing both financial security and identity, and bestowed by someone in power.
Today we see work differently. The boundary between work and life is ever more porous with home offices, telecommuting, and 24/7 access. This fluidity means people can do more than one job, can start their own business from home, can work from an ocean away – which is changing what “workplace” and “job” mean. Rather than a resting place for life, people are looking for the places where they can express themselves and grow as human beings, while contributing to something greater. And this means they choose their work environment as much as the employer chooses them.
People are inspired by a role they are well-suited for, much more than by a To Do list. So, ideally, we want to bring people in who can be very good at their role and all that it involves, rather than simply able to accomplish a set of tasks. Unfortunately, too many employers still use job descriptions that are really just a list of duties. People working to a task list constantly need to be given new tasks, which takes time for the supervisor and also diverts that individual from her/his own role. This is both inefficient and tedious.
The urge to bring someone new in does often stem from the realization that we don’t currently have someone to do something. There’s a sense of urgency about it, which is good since that shows its importance. But like most perceived problems, the reaction is to hurry up and fix it.
Rushing into a search without the foundation of what the role is, a clear description of the contribution it will make and how it will fit into the team or department or organization as a whole will likely result in an unsuccessful search, or worse, a bad hire.
Describing the role, rather than the list of stuff that isn’t getting done, is a powerful way to counteract the bad hire. As an example, one duty on a job description might read, “Schedule team meetings.” A more effective approach sees past each discrete task to the purpose behind it: “This role’s purpose is to cultivate collaboration and a sense of community as a routine part of how our team operates.” Not only does the purpose enliven how the person will schedule the meetings, but it also enables the team to discover the character—not just qualifications—of the person who will fill the role well.
The best organizations manage to role routinely as a way to empower people not only to get tasks done, but to activate themselves within their role, thereby encouraging new ways to play them that increase efficiency and results. An emphasis on role actually fosters creativity and innovation, which are premium qualities in these changing times.
And that brings up another core benefit of role: it signals impermanence – no one plays the same role forever. Why is this important?
Change. People, situations, the world. Within this changing context, it’s helpful to begin from the idea that all roles are evolving, as are the people playing them. In this way, the old employer as King and employee as vassal is replaced by a partnership, the goal of which is the evolving contribution of the worker resulting from his/her own development. The focus on role helps us all embrace the fluidity of our work lives, even to the extent that the guest can become host, and vice versa. This is the new paradigm – that reminds us to emphasize the human part of HR, with hospitality and caring as its core.
What I am interested in is the part of change represented by the unknown. The time in each life when what has been is no longer useful or tolerable or enough. There is a certain angst in this. The angst and sadness of leaving something behind for what we know not … yet.
What is certain is that we must step out, across the threshold of the known into the unknown, what is referred to as the liminal. It’s as if something from deep within us is compelling us, calling us, or perhaps our lives have somehow conspired to bring us to this point. And we step across. Into the unknown. It can look like whimsy or irresponsibility. It can look like insanity. This is what it can look like from the outside – and we can even internalize this image and judge ourselves, even prevent ourselves from crossing over. But eventually, nothing can stop us. We do step. One leg led by one foot, moves forward and places itself on unknown soil – or into thin air.
The journey into the unknown has been called by many names and how we approach that step has a lot to do with how we name it, how we experience it. The dark night of the soul, the period of lunacy, the caldron, the topsy turvey, neither twixt nor tween, the void, the liminal.
We may do everything in our power to avoid it – scolding ourselves for thinking we can have more, diverting ourselves from the call with the details of day-to-day life, drinking or eating or doing any number of a thousand things to hold ourselves back. But there comes a time when holding back is no longer an option. So we step across. Or are yanked or pulled or shoved. We may look back with longing or dread or deep grief or relief, but whatever we were, whatever we knew is now definitely behind us. That much is clear.
What is not clear is what we are stepping toward. It is this that interests me. Not only what causes us to finally make the move, but what we do once we have taken the step. This time is so full of mystery and magic that there isn’t much written about it. It is so intensely personal, not many can share it. The poets attempt to describe it. In fact, this space is perhaps best written in the language of poetry because it is not linear, not of the rational, it sits outside the constructs of normal life and living. It is necessarily so.
This liminal time is exactly for that: the time to be with not knowing, to reside within profoundest uncertainty. The mind yearns for clarity, for a way to understand and classify, to organize into steps. But after that first step across the threshold from the known into the unknown, the whole idea is for the steps to disappear. It must be this way if we are to reach the far shore. It is not a commute; it is an adventure. The definition of which is not knowing how to proceed, where to go and how to get there – perhaps even how to know when one has arrived.
We humans have done quite a lot to demystify life. We have studied things at smaller and smaller scales, and named them, ordered them into meaning so we can know where we are. We carry GPS around on our phones so we can locate ourselves on maps, and those same phones enable us to communicate with anyone at any time no matter where we are. This gives us a sense of comfort. But it also deadens us, robs us of what we crave from deep inside ourselves: the mystical journey. Simply put, existing without knowing why or for what purpose, without the moorings of identity through those we call friends and family. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, for we need times of rest and community. We find a certain sanctuary there, where we can suspend the feeling of uncertainty. But a life lived only there is one missing what is essential to us as humans: the tremendous gift of knowing that we do not know.
I have occupied this liminal space with myself and with others as the defining focus of my life. I am drawn to the transition places, because they feel to me like the locus of where things are born, where possibility resides. I am fascinated and humbled by the journey we make that causes us so much pain. The kind of pain that is distinguished from the other pain that comes from habit. The first enlivens us, the other deadens. One awakens us to an entirely new level of experience and being; the other needs to be drunk away into abeyance. It seems to me that our ability to use this pain, this angst, this anguish for our own expansion is what it means to truly live life.
Unfortunately, much of our suffering comes from thinking that somehow this crossing of the threshold from the known to the unknown is bad or wrong – somehow not “normal.” We seem to have forgotten how to greet and use this liminal space in ourselves or in others. It scares us, like dark moonless night. So we try to “light” it up with distractions, with the familiar, with our endless lists of preferences. And having things the way we “like” them makes us feel at home. But even the most comfortable and beautiful of homes can begin to feel like a prison after a while.
We want to rush each other out of the liminal space, or banish ourselves from its threshold, so as to avoid what comes of residing in it. Or we set time limits – it’s okay to be “in transition” for a certain period of time, after which it begins to look like laziness, depression, or insanity. We rush ourselves along simply because we do not know how to find comfort there. The idea of not knowing at our deepest level brings sadness. A chasm of unending sadness and fear from which we look up as if from the bottom of a deep well.
But what if we could reclaim the liminal space as one of creation and joy? Where true possibility resides, from which a deeper experience of love and communion can be found? What if we can befriend the unknown and come to trust that it is the seed of all beginnings, rather than a sign of weakness, failure, abnormality or cursedness? Why is living in the known, the familiar, the certain so much more preferable to our brains? To our societies? Why have we built monuments to knowledge at the expense of the vast territory of its opposite?
It’s not an either or proposition, in my mind. While there is much we can know and the search for knowledge is meritorious, it is equally valuable to acknowledge, revel and welcome the opposite. Uncertainty leads to exploration, and that is the real adventure. Reaching the destination is grand and worthy of celebration, but it is a temporary respite only. Life is more lived in the liminal space than on the shores on either side of it.
I do not mean that most people live more often in the liminal space. No, civilization seems to mean building larger and larger monuments to the shores themselves. Few like to admit to not knowing; this is cause for despair and shame. What I mean is that actual life, life signaled by growth, expansion, greater comfort with what is rather than what should be, is lived more in the liminal space and as a result of it. This means that we could live a more enlivened life if we could find a way, not only to accept the liminal, but to embrace it. To learn how to recognize it and use it. To honor it in ourselves and in others.
In addition to celebrating achievement, we would commemorate experience. We would look for what is new in each moment, what that experience has to teach us, how we are being reborn through the happenings of our lives – which we do not dictate, but rather receive. We do not dictate our lives; we receive them. We do not make things happen. Instead, we tap into our deepest yearnings and attractions, we notice where we are intrigued and joyful, and we follow them. We follow them where they lead us, confident not that we know each step of the way or even the final destination, but that the journey is ours for the taking and that is what makes life worthwhile.
We worry much less about arriving and much more about what happens along the way. We practice the act of noticing our lives, and being present to them in each moment, rather than at some distant time when we reflect back upon them – or even worse, where we never experience them at all. As so many have said – Buddha, de Bingen, Nietzsche, King Jr., and more - we each have the possibility of becoming a full human being, but few of us will use the raw material we are given to become one.
Over the ages of human existence, the Liminal has called and we have answered, each age and each person facing the threshold and understanding it anew. This is our great occupation: learning to cross over and embrace our own experience of the vast empty void from which everything is born. We can do this because it is, simply, ours to do. We do this by letting go of the “I know” mind, reawakening in each moment to what life is creating before our very eyes, and with curiosity and gratitude, we experience in full the life we have been given.
Change is a kind of journey that involves traversing the distance from where we are today to where we desire to be. When approaching change, especially change on a big scale that involves many people, a critical early step is seeing as much of the context of the change as possible. It’s not good enough to see only the place we want to go; we also need the terrain between here and there. In short, we want a map of the landscape to help keep us on course and guide our way.
Too often, change is viewed as the solving of a problem. In this light, getting to the solution as fast as possible seems like a good thing. But more often than not, I am brought in because people have tried any number of quick fixes that haven’t worked. It turns out, it’s not so much a problem needing fixing as it is a changing situation that needs understanding. And the bigger the change, the more context – or landscape – is needed to gain sufficient understanding. If we’re heading to the next town, a few streets and turns suffice, but across the border requires a much larger map to get our bearings for the journey.
And yet, with really big problems, such as climate change or international economic downturns or even getting a divorce, gaining the context can seem so complex that we simply throw up our hands, and turn back to things more easily in our ken. But this means, obviously, that we never attend to what really needs changing, simply because we don’t know how to gain enough purchase on the endeavor to be able to see it well. Tragic.
What if, instead, we had a clear process for gaining context on anything – no matter its size or scale? What if that process was repeatable and applicable to everything? That would make approaching anything so much easier – even those big fat hairy things that really are calling for our attention. Such a process exists, and I call it mapping the landscape.
We all understand the idea of getting a map before heading out into unknown terrain. But in the case of change, especially large-scale change, no map exists. We may not even know our final destination, and for some, a clear understanding of where they currently are is a bit of a mystery. Like the early cartographers, in change we must make our own map: seeing into the change, all around it, noting its contours and connections to other things, its scale and varied terrain, and also discovering the gaps in our ability to see. The mapping process is itself a journey – one of exploration and adventure, best undertaken by the curious.*
So, how to go about gaining this context – how to create this map? By answering a standard set of questions that act very much like surveyors’ markers. These core questions are applicable to all endeavors, no matter the scale. Some of them are:
1) What is the nature of the current situation that seems problematic, that is in need of change? (Where you are now.)
2) What is the future we envision in which the “problem” is solved? (Where you’re headed.)
3) What events and trends in your world are affecting the situation, and what are the impacts? (What’s going on around you.)
4) What resources do you have/need to put toward this effort? (Provisions and capability for the journey.)
The bigger the change effort, the more people will need to be involved in the mapping so as to get a complete enough view of the landscape. The more people, the more time is required. That time is an important investment since it is the shared answers to the questions that make for a robust map. Some years ago, I was guiding a leadership team of 40 through these questions, when at a break one member asked: “Wouldn’t this go a lot faster if only a few of us did it?” “Oh yes,” I replied, “but would the others agree with and sanction the answers?” “Ah,” he said, “we’ve done just that before and gotten nowhere.” Exactly.
When we recognize that first we must create the map, it slows down our tendency to rush to solutions. This is a very good thing in situations where no one has really thought much about what they’re solving – and this usually is the case in large-scale change. Slowing down to create broad understanding is even beneficial when there are experts involved, since we’ve all experienced how much and how vehemently experts can disagree!
And this slowing down underscores an underlying principle to this process: patience. Developing a really good map takes time. And rushing it doesn’t help anything. That’s another reason most people don’t tackle large-scale change: they lack the stamina. Big problems and big change, like all big endeavors, require great preparation to undertake. Mapping the landscape is a key part of that preparation.
* If you’ve read Mastering the Cycle of Change, mapping the landscape is a terrific exercise to begin to cross the threshold from Instigation to the Liminal.
Want to know more about Mapping the Landscape? Join Rebecca on a free webinar to understand the huge value of mapping and to learn how to get started!
Change: it’s a little word that covers a whole lot of ground. Both noun and verb, it refers to events (a cyclone or a wedding) and processes (aging or metamorphosis), choices (sell a company or have a child) and actions (losing weight or starting a capital campaign), from the smallest scale (sock change) to the largest (climate change).
And we react to this little word in some big ways. Some of us hate change, some love it, some embrace it, and others resist it with all their might. And some act as though it never happened, even when it did a long while ago. There’s even a word for hatred of change: misoneism. We don’t use this word, so apt for the human stance toward change, because of our profound denial of how we feel about it.
That little word “change” is also a tidy synonym for something else: life. Being alive means change – a constant, swirling, layered current of change. The only constant is change. And so it seems odd, and in a large sense tragic, that so many of us find change so terribly unpleasant – tragic because to hate change, or at least feel defeated or repelled by it, makes for a life lived smaller. Less life.
But what if the discomfort with change was not some irrational human predilection, but rather the result of something far more practical? What if we don’t like change because we don’t understand it? We don’t understand how it works?
This makes sense. People tend to like and do things they know. So, if we knew how to change, the actual mechanics of the change process, we could all face change with more ease. If we knew the indicators of the cycle of change, we’d be able to see where we are in any given situation. And if we knew the unique purpose of each part of the change process, we’d know how to use it, to work with it, instead of resist, rush or bemoan it.
In fact, some people do approach change with more vigor than others, and having some sort of innate change ability, like musicality or being good with numbers, could be the reason why. And what if that change ability – that mastery of the cycle of change – has something to do with one’s overall resilience, capability and joy in living?
There’s an ancient species that’s more than 500 million years old (that’s 200 million before dinosaurs), making it one of the most resilient life forms on Earth. The nautilus – a type of mollusk that lives in the sea inside a shell – grows by changing out its current segment of shell for a new one. Its change process involves creating the next new chamber, moving into it, and sealing off the old one behind. The nautilus carries its old chambers with it, the shell forming a spiral with each new addition. The nautilus changes its living situation by moving chambers, but it uses the chambers of its past for added buoyancy, increasing its ability to navigate its watery environment.
Isn’t it possible that the nautilus has been around for so long because it has mastered its change process? And if this is so, wouldn’t humans as a species, and you in particular, want to increase our change ability? The good news is, even if you don’t have a natural affinity for change, it can be learned. And if you do, you can advance it even more.
The cycle of change is nothing more than the repeatable stages that change moves through – all change. Knowing the cycle of change and its stages enables people to better see where they are in any given changing situation, and to appreciate the value of the stage they are in and to identify new ways to more easily move through it. The idea is, if you know where you are and where you are headed, you can see how to get there.
As you explore the cycle of change in the table below, reflect on your life and experience with change. Remember a major change you went through and see if you can identify the stages. Remember how you felt at the time, and how it is to look back now. Also notice that your emotional response to the change itself affected the way you moved through the stages – if you wanted the change, then you likely experienced the stages with enthusiasm, curiosity and a sense of adventure. If you didn’t want the change, then you may have experienced fear, anxiety, even anger as you traversed them.
Perhaps consider a change you are undergoing today – whether in yourself or family or at work or in your community, and how you can approach it differently using the cycle of change. But remember, the cycle of change is just that: a cycle. For as long as we live, the cycle repeats itself, carrying us along either as oblivious, truculent, or enlivened passengers. The choice is ours.
The Cycle of Change: Four Stages
|Instigation: Build Momentum||Destabilizing, what worked before doesn’t, a sense of boredom, waning energy, illness may arrive – it can also be a burning desire that will not wait.||Notice. Where is the destabilizing occurring – what is starting to change? Be curious (antidote to fear), watch for patterns, resist urge to “figure it out”. Address “holding on” urges.|
|Liminal: Incubate the New||Crossing over, the world “shuts down”: busy-ness ends, lack of interest in the world – can look or feel like depression. Also can be a deep desire to go within, to go away, to be alone.||Surrender. Be still. Meditate, walk in nature, sleep, write down dreams, listen to music. Address judgement of self: lazy, depressed, something is wrong – conversely, impatience. STOP trying to figure it out/ STOP doing.|
|Metabolization: Acclimatize to the New||Energy returning, ideas/synchronicities occurring, sudden laughter, giddiness. Can lead to feeling overwhelmed, may cycle back to Liminal.||Practice. Try things out, explore, talk to people, research new ideas, change something physical (hair, furniture, car). Resist urge to rush into anything; cultivate gratitude.|
|Manifestation: BE the New||Effortless action, high productivity. Return to the world, with recognition. Feels euphoric.||Complete. Rest from change; high productivity in the world. Cultivate gratitude and generosity; watch becoming attached to positions, recognition.|
Excerpt from her forthcoming book, ©2016 Rebecca Reynolds.
Want to know more about the Cycle of Change? Join Rebecca on a free webinar to learn about the stages and how to work with them rather than resist them!
A while back I wrote on sabbatical: the ancient notion that everything needs rest as a part of life. I likened the concept to something as basic as breath – the in and out of life. In for reflection, rest and renewal; out for application, experience, and exploration – and then back in again. This is the cycle of life boiled down to its most essential.
And yet, when we start thinking about the world in its greater complexity, this essential idea seems to get lost. We somehow forget that everything we do is in essence a practice of what we understand. And that we can do more and do better and bigger, if we will take the time to expand our thinking as a result of it. If we will see and live our lives as if they were our own divine curriculum.
Great things come from great understanding, from integrating our thinking and our being. And with each expansion of ourselves inside comes greater ability outside. In fact, the world awaits – sometimes even impatiently – for our expanding consciousness so we can contribute more to it.
But ironically, there is no skipping over. We cannot simply attempt to do more without also growing up inside. If our doing outpaces our being, the result is somehow not as good. Our service or leadership or even kindness come across as smaller than we’d hoped – more about us and less about the gift we were trying to give.
So, the anatomy of the thing is using what one does and what happens out there as the fodder, the curriculum for expanding in here. For growing one’s consciousness and understanding and being. Then, uncannily, the very situations we longed for – positions, contacts, opportunities – come to us because we are now ready to use them. We have built up our capability such that it is honed for bigger, more complex arenas than before, with greater outcomes the natural result.
And still, we must remember that even this new opportunity to give and serve and contribute - as much as the world calls for it and benefits from it - is also ultimately for our own learning. So going back in to reflect, to assess, to learn is key to continuing to grow in this life. This may look like humility to others – and it is, but in the intrinsic sense of the word. The practice of using our lives as our learning grounds us, connects us to ourselves and what we are on earth (humus) for.
Each of us has this ability, this assignment, and the great destiny for doing good that comes from expanding oneself inside. In fact, this is what it means to be human.
You do get to choose just how fully you will experience your humanness this life – how much you will learn and how fast from the life that is unfolding before you. You get to pick both the pace and the amount you will learn. But make no mistake, we are all here learning to be human, even if in our infinitely varied ways.
The world wants nothing less than our fully human selves, but will take whatever you are willing to give. This is not about a capacity for charity; it is absolutely about what you are willing to learn. How facile you are with the IN and OUT of your life.
Thanks to artist Danae Stratou for such a stunningly perfect image for this post: Desert Breath. Check out her website by clicking the image above.
“It’s challenging when leadership can’t even agree.” - Anonymous University Chancellor
Gaining leadership alignment in these times of rapid change and social rearrangement is so fundamental to institutional success that without it, it’s only a matter of time before institutional relevance is in the balance. And forget about institutional greatness.
To achieve something big – to solve a complex problem, or reach new levels of accomplishment, or exponentially broaden impact, or develop a game-changing innovation – requires a level of focus and clarity of Olympic proportions. Essential to this is alignment.
Alignment among individual leaders first, and then down through the organization and out into the community, whether local, national or global. This alignment is not about getting everyone to think the same, but rather to develop a view that encompasses myriad individual perspectives from which a grander vision is possible.
Without leadership alignment, organizations (and countries) are left to govern themselves from the bottom up, instead of enjoying the freedom of governing within a shared visionary framework. Without leadership alignment, communities are left to formulate their own (mis)understanding of the institution, if they bother thinking of it at all. Without leadership alignment, the leaders themselves are impeded in moving forward, fall short of achieving what is desired, and experience a diminished role of service.
The way in to leadership alignment – whether the team is reaching for a new business model, increased capacity, or innovative solutions to long-endured problems – is the leadership conversation. This is a simple idea: how people talk about their institution, their issues, and their world is the genesis of the results they achieve.
Even the greatest leadership teams get into troughs of habit in their conversations, in the way they frame issues and describe their worlds. And worse are the isolated silos of thinking and vernacular that foster so many illusory conflicts. Add to this the growing number, complexity and scope of issues facing leadership today – in our organizations, our communities and on our planet – coupled with the pace of change, and leadership is surely tested to deliver on its primary purpose: articulating a compelling vision.
For leadership to create and hold such a vision, here is what’s required:
A shared understanding of the world
A common language with which to discuss it
A broad view of what is possible
These are not insignificant goals; they are the foundation for brilliance.
And the only way to achieve these goals is through conversation. Not the quick and dirty repartee of the break room or text, not the functional email delivering edict or information, not certainly the soundbite or check list. The real kind. The kind of conversation that takes time, that wrestles with assumed meaning, surfaces unspoken values, considers new perspectives, that seeks more to learn than to persuade.
The kind of conversation that, when all is said and done, opens minds and creates accord.
When was the last time you treated yourself to a conversation such as this?
I was culling through some old papers the other day when my eye caught my father’s familiar handwriting.
He passed away one morning nine years ago after playing a double-header softball game at the age of 72 – we found him lying peacefully in a field with a bag of stray balls by his side.
He meant the world to me, and I took coming across his words as his way of speaking to me. I pulled the paper close to see what he had to say and this line jumped out:
How you practice is how you will play.
These words struck me as just exactly right.
Although his scribbles were notes for coaching the team of players he managed in the Boulder seniors league, they spoke volumes to me as a general principle of life. A consultant I worked with a while back said the same thing to me this way “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
This got me thinking again how important every single act is in the life consciously lived. By that I mean simply the kind of life led for purpose rather than out of routine. What you could call a leader’s life.
It’s a high bar to set for oneself: to consider each act, no matter how small, how private, as a practice for how one lives, for how one’s life is measured, for its testament when all is said and done. This is how the scriptures say we’ll be judged, no doubt to help us be better people.
Taken too literally, this idea can drive you mad. Perhaps even stop you dead in your tracks.
But used as an ideal, as something to aspire to, something to remember as a kind of meditation, these words feel ultimately useful to me. They are simple. They are memorable. They are eminently measurable.
There’s a moment when the helicopter is finally free of the ground and the used air from hovering, when the rotor takes in its first fresh air, like the first breath after a deep-sea dive, that the ability to lift really kicks in – it’s called Effective Translational Lift.
I experienced Effective Translational Lift (ETL) on a first-time helicopter ride a few weeks ago and it started me pondering the brilliance of its analogy to something often considered elusive.
I’m referring to those moments in life when it’s as if we, like the helicopter, suddenly move high enough and fast enough to finally escape the used air of our old thinking – and in those moments, the rotor of our mind takes in completely fresh thought – pure, newborn idea – causing a swift surge upward. We’re instantly catapulted to a whole new thought plain, with a much-expanded view. Effective Translational Lift. Exactly.
This human version of ETL creates that feeling of aliveness, tingling through every cell, firing along the pathways of our nervous system, that makes life worth living. ETL is what spawns great invention, is the midwife of creation, and is what’s meant by illumination, revelation, and epiphany. These words have a sacred intonation, but are not specifically religious. They are perhaps the religious experience, which is to say, the moments in which perfect and higher order clarity emerges inside us – as if out of thin air.
You know what I mean. The moments when suddenly we see differently, as if a veil has been lifted, and bigger, as the lens that’s zoomed out. And it is quiet. The mind goes blank – is blown, as we say – even if only for seconds. Like the helicopter’s upward surge, the mind too takes its quantum leap – as if stepping deftly over some number of rationales that otherwise would’ve taken years to unravel.
The pilot told me he never tires of witnessing his passengers’ experience of ETL. I know just how he feels. In my work with individuals or teams, I watch for their ETL moment, for it is the precursor of a new clarity for action. It may prompt something as small as an individual’s change of career or as complex as how to reinvent an organization of thousands. The clarity may come in a brief conversation or may take months, depending on the magnitude of the transformation – or, to use our ETL analogy, how large and loaded our helicopter is.
But unlike the pilot, I never know exactly when the human ETL moment will come. Human moments of sudden transcendent clarity aren’t certain or predictable. Unlike the helicopter’s ETL, ours isn’t a function of physics. It’s squarely in the realm of metaphysics, and yet, no less real. That’s its magic. And my alchemical creativity comes in playing with the exact combination of words, pictures, feelings, energetic shifts, confronting, cheering, explaining, and using the basics of time, sleep and contemplation to bring it about.
Perhaps because of this metaphysical quality, we often cast such moments as inexplicable, non-repeatable, and perhaps even illusory. Sometimes, I hear people wistfully describe one of these moments from their distant past, as though it’s the rarest and most precious of gems. And it is precious.
But what if these moments didn’t need to be so rare? What if there is a way to cultivate them in our lives – what would that mean? Faster learning? Vastly increased clarity? A greatly expanded presence of being? And with that, what more could we bring into this world?
What I’ve found in my work – both with myself and with others – is that, although human ETL isn’t predictable or definite, it is not only attainable, but repeatedly so. The price for it is a willingness to notice that in some way we are stuck. Hovering close to the ground, as if tethered to the tarmac. And a willingness to consider what stale, used-up thinking is running the rotor of our minds, holding us back from what we most desire.
You don’t have to know what to do. Really. What you have to do is be willing to look – to sign up and step into the helicopter. The pilot handles the flight plan, pre-flight checklists, and communication with the tower; you need only buckle yourself in and ready for the ride. Perhaps what makes ETL so rare is how difficult it is for many of us to do just this.
But for those who do, the reward is majestic. ETL kicks in and you’re soaring at new euphoric heights that were impossible moments before. Like the helicopter, on that cool autumn day, shimmering in morning light as it sped down the runway and in an instant, lifted skyward in a stunning ascent.
The idea of term limits for executive staff leaders in nonprofit organizations came up in a LinkedIn group last week. It’s a provocative concept, one that incited a range of comments and got me to thinking.
Although this article focuses on nonprofit organizations, its points are germane to both for profit businesses and government as well.
For the most part, nonprofits take for granted that board governance should specify term limits for its members and officers. It’s a good thing, too. There’s more than ample evidence that organizations without term limits eventually experience problems: stagnating board involvement, decreasing vitality and innovation, and, in some cases, a leadership stranglehold by a few individuals.
But should terms apply to executive staff positions as well? LinkedIn members viewed the idea with skepticism, even considered it radical and, for some, threatening. And I can understand why. One person explained that in smaller communities where the pool of qualified candidates is limited, it would be onerous and even risky to the nonprofit’s health and stability to institute staff terms. Another suggested that he saw no reason for terms if the executive was still performing well. And someone said it was out of the question in an economic slump like the one we’re in.
As I considered the proposition, I realized that the idea of a leadership staff life cycle occurs organically in all organizations. In other words, all nonprofits at some point outgrow their leadership staff and need to address this eventuality. Some address it more directly and strategically, others – tragically – only when the situation has become dire.
The organizations that are attune to the signs of staff leadership “terms” expiring, consider and plan for leadership succession as part of their strategic planning and executive leadership evaluation processes. Those organizations that are not explicitly attune, will instead be confronted with the symptoms of leadership that is “beyond its expiration date,” such as declining mission relevance, morale issues, financial problems, etc. The more aware organizations are that all things have a life cycle – boards, staff, the nonprofit organization as a whole – the better they can prepare for change.
For example, the most challenging leadership transition in any organization is from the founder to the organization’s first executive leader after the founder (or the similar situation of an executive director who has been with an organization for decades). The transition from the founder comes for all organizations, and yet, too often, is left unspoken until things turn for the worse. This is because many organizations are unable or unwilling to overcome the emotionality surrounding the transition, not to mention the founders themselves. And yet, this transition is a critical one for boards and executive staff to foresee and prepare for well in advance, to ensure the stability and longevity of the organization into the future. Not doing this may be a way to avoid ruffled feelings, but it puts the organization at risk, which should be an unacceptable trade.
So, while I find the concept of leadership staff terms useful, I think it may be too prescriptive a solution given the huge range of circumstances in nonprofit organizations. One organization’s appropriate executive leadership tenure will be another’s stagnating yoke and yet another’s “blink and you missed it” time period. For example, a mature and stable organization will have different needs from its executive than a start-up, so an arbitrary number of years for leadership terms, while easy, doesn’t make good sense. The bellwether for when leadership should turn over has everything to do with what the nonprofit currently requires.
Instead of prescriptive term limits for executives, I endorse that nonprofit organizations build into their planning and evaluation processes explicit conversations about this issue and develop policy and plans to guide a consistent leadership succession process. And such processes should apply to all major executive staff, from executive director to development director, administrators, CFOs and program directors. Evaluation processes for these positions should be developed with criteria defined to drive optimal performance by the nonprofit – this too will change over time and so must the evaluation process and criteria for each executive position.
And to circumvent much of the high emotion that can surround the topic of leadership succession, bring all executive staff aboard with full awareness of the nonprofit’s values, plans and process in this area so that individuals understand that it isn’t personal to them, but rather, simply the way the nonprofit does business.
The biggest problem in the area of leadership succession is that too many nonprofits just plain get comfortable when things are working well - the “don’t rock the boat” mentality kicks in – and they forget that at some point things will change. Perhaps setting term limits would help make sure this doesn’t happen. But even better is remembering that the only constant is change and being prepared for those predictable changes should be the nonprofit’s standard procedure. The need for executive staff turnover is one such predictable change. Not only does it make sense to plan for this to foster innovation and organizational relevance, it is one of the smartest ways to avoid crisis, highly emotional, or at worst, litigious situations.