Monday, October 28, 2013

Transforming pain and suffering into leadership.

The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died.  Strength, power and courage was born.  ~Malala Yousafzai

Pain, suffering, disappointment, and life gone wrong; any of these sound familiar?  We will all encounter moments or seasons of pain and disappointment.  But we can choose how to respond to that pain and suffering.  It can lead to devastation, anger, and despair; or it can lead to transformation, hope, and courage.  Many great leaders have been born out of horrific pain and sacrifice.  One such individual has been in the news headlines frequently over the past month.

Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was brutally attacked on her way home from school – shot in the head at point-blank range by the Taliban.  ABC World News reported, "One year later, the shot heard round the world has given birth to a movement of change – a movement to educate girls, and the little girl from Swat Valley in Pakistan has become an international symbol of courage and hope."

The fact that Malala survived her attack is miraculous.  But I think what has really transfixed us, is Malala's response to the attack and her attackers.  While speaking to the UN she said, "They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed.  And then, out of that silence, came thousands of voices."  In an interview with Jon Stewart, Malala stated, "I don’t want revenge on the Taliban, I want education for sons and daughters of the Taliban."  It was the transformation of pain that very quickly catapulted Malala into the global spotlight.

Philip Yancey writes about suffering in his recent book, The Question that Never Goes Away.  He quotes Victor Frankl who said, "Despair is suffering without meaning."  Later in the book Yancey says that "we get not a remedy for suffering but a use for it, a pattern of meaning."  He quotes Terry Waite, who said after being released from four years' captivity as a hostage in Lebanon, "I have been determined in captivity, and still am determined, to convert this experience into something that will be useful and good for other people.  I think that's the best way to approach suffering."

I realize that most of us have not suffered the extreme circumstances of Malala, Victor Frankl, or Terry Waite.  But we've all dealt with our own pain and suffering.  What's the use for our suffering?  What's the pattern of meaning?  I believe that the leaders we truly desire to follow are those people who find a pattern of meaning amidst their pain and suffering.  They give us hope, they personify courage; we believe that if we can grab a hold of even a fraction of their strength everything will be okay. posted an article entitled, The Value of Suffering.  Author John Hope Bryant states, “The real value in suffering is that you find the invaluable, unmistakable, purposeful, and maybe even the passionate you in the midst of all those business meetings, credit card receipts, and business cards.  And in so doing, you figure out that the best way to get ahead in this world is to lead by love and not fear.  You help those around you to navigate stormy waters instead of avoiding them, because loss creates leaders."

What's the pattern of meaning for your suffering?  Has your loss created a leader in you?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Is your sewage flowing in the right direction?

What got you here won’t get you there.  ~Marshall Goldsmith

"What got you here won't get you there."  This is a quote I use frequently when working with organizations on strategic planning.  It seems so easy to assume that if something worked in the past it will work in the future so why change anything.  I hear that a lot, especially from nonprofits that have been around for decades.  If we've been here for 100+ years, surely we'll be here for 100+ more years, just because.

I had an experience last week that proved to me, in a very personal way, that what got you here clearly won't get you there.  I have a small lake cottage in West Michigan.  For several years now I've periodically had plumbing problems.  I've had plumbers out more times than I'd care to count and the problem continued to persist.  So, as it began to act up, once again, I decided enough was enough and it was time to get a plumber who'd really diagnose the situation and help me get beyond putting band aids on the problem and be willing to do some surgery if that's what needed to be done. 

And diagnose he did!  He climbed on the roof to check out the venting system, crawled in my well, and put a camera through the line to the septic tank. He determined that the line needed to be replaced.  The lake cottage was built somewhere around 1950, or so.  This line, which is 60 feet long, was made of clay tiles.  That means each clay section of pipe was about two feet long and the sections were connected with concrete.  Yikes!  Yes, it clearly worked 60 or 70 years ago, but it's no longer functioning and what got me here clearly wasn't going to get me there.  So the backhoe was delivered, the digging ensued and I now have a brand new PVC line from the cottage to the septic tank, with a few bells and whistles added which I won't attempt to describe.  But I learned that I can truly get excited about sewage that now flows in the proper direction!

You may think that this personal experience is a little extreme as an example of "what got us here won’t get us there."  I've worked with enough leaders who want to believe that what worked for their organization the last several decades will continue to work in the coming years, to know that sometimes an extreme example is exactly what's required.  Sewage that didn't flow in the proper direction certainly got my attention, and I'm hoping it got your attention as well.

As leaders, sometimes we become nostalgic, or comfortable, or content, maybe a little lackadaisical, or even blind to what's really happening all around our organizations.  We might think that tweaking a few operational issues will get keep us on course.  A few band aids will surely make our organization sustainable.  But what's really needed is some major surgery, because what got you here just simply isn't going to get you there.     

In January 2012, Chicagoans were shocked that a 123-year-old institution, Hull House, providing crucial human services disappeared.  Hull House's co-founder, Jane Addams, who became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, was thought of as the Mother of the early American settlement house movement.  The reason that Hull House disappeared is straightforward: it was overly reliant on government funding in a time of public-sector cutbacks for social services, and particularly for child welfare.  What got them here wasn't got to get them there.  They missed an early diagnosis and weren't prepared to do the necessary surgery. 

As leaders, are we willing to ask, will what got us here get us there?  If not, maybe it's time for more than a few band aids.  Maybe it's time for some major surgery to get the sewage flowing in the right direction, and create real sustainability.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What's your metric for success?

Definition of success?  I could lose everything and truly be okay with it.  ~Tony Hsieh, billionaire and CEO of Zappos

This idea of a metric for success was suggested by someone this past week on Facebook regarding our current political dilemma (thank you, Rob).  I have to admit, I do wonder what our various senators and congressmen are using as their metric for success given the decision making we've observed.  Is their metric for success re-election?  Pleasing a very specific and small group of constituents?  To be on the winning side?  Self-promotion?  Doing what's best for the most people?  Who knows?  But it certainly did cause me to ponder the question: What's my highest metric for success?  And, how much is my ego driving my metric?

I'll openly admit that I have been a casualty of our culture when it comes to measuring my success.  I let external expectations of success influence many of my decisions.  For years, in my little company of Greystone Global, I had numerous staff, multiple locations, etc.  These are all symbols or metrics of success in the consulting world.  The real truth is, when I first started in the consulting business more than 17 years ago, I wanted to be an independent consultant.  That never changed.  However, I allowed my ego to get the best of me and I did all of the things that others told me I was supposed to do to be a "success."  I had multiple staff, multiple locations, traveled across the country to clients from coast to coast.  But those metrics of success weren't bringing me fulfillment.

As I mentioned in a recent blog, I was busy, but busy (along with the staff, locations, etc.) wasn't the metric for success that really mattered to me.  I wanted to be able to look back on a year of consulting and coaching and point to specific scenarios where organizations were healthier, dollars were being spent more effectively, people were achieving personal goals, and teams were thriving.  In order for that to happen it could mean (or even require) that I wasn't overly busy and it really didn't demand the locations, staff, travel, etc.  So, as staff either retired or wanted to make other changes I chose not to replace them.  I pursued client relationships that didn't require extensive travel, and I function from one small but efficient office space. 

My highest metric for success?  Did I develop a relationship and do work with each of my clients that could in some way push the world a little closer to wholeness?  I honestly believe that I have a better shot at achieving this metric for success by ignoring what culture dictates as my metrics of success.  But, that requires a lot of fortitude to put my ego aside; because while I may have changed my metric for success, our culture has not.  So I still get asked the same "success" questions like: Are you busy?  How many staff do you have?  Are you traveling a lot?  It's not unheard of, but on a rare occasion I get asked something like: What have you been able to help some of your clients achieve in the past year?

My intent was not to ramble on about my own metric for success, but to challenge each of us to be really honest with ourselves.  How do we measure our own success?  If you're not sure, then look at the decisions you are making – not your aspirations – what you are actually doing.  What we actually do or decide, is the real indicator of our metric for success, not what we'd like to do. 

Is your metric of success honestly bringing you fulfillment?  If not, then maybe it's time to re-evaluate.  But please, don't take 15 years to make it right, like I did.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Great leaders fall upward?

Instead of being ego driven, you will begin to be soul drawn.  ~Richard Rhor

In Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward, he states that our lives are divided into two halves.  In addition to many other descriptors, one of the major differences is that in the first half of life we are ego driven and in the second half we are soul drawn.  There is no magic age or number of years that signify the crossing over from one half to the other.  In fact, as Rohr states, sadly, some people stay in the first half and never see the soul drawn half of life.  Even in my own experience, I can identify individuals who are well into their 80s and are still very much ego driven.  I can also think of young adults just turning 30 who I would clearly put in the soul drawn half of life.

Here's the difference according to Rohr.  When we are ego driven "we have strong and final opinions about everything, every event, or most people.  When we are soul drawn we allow things and people to delight us, sadden us, and truly influence us.  We no longer need to change or adjust other people to be happy ourselves.  Our actions are less compulsive.  We do what we are called to do, and then try to let go of the consequences."

This reminded me of several other similar examples.  Renowned researcher and author, Jim Collins, most well-known for his book Good to Great shares the difference between a good leader and a great leader.  The difference (based on empirical research) is that great leaders combine personal humility and professional will.  That sounds a lot like "do what we are called to do" (professional will) and then "try to let go of the consequences" (personal humility).

I was recently coaching a physician and he viewed life as a continuum from advancement to fulfillment.  In your early years (especially as a physician) you spend a great deal of effort focused on advancing your career.  But as he identified, many times there comes a tipping point when more advancement doesn't necessarily bring fulfillment.  There may come a time when we make a conscious decision to allow advancement to play a less significant role in our life and we begin to focus more on fulfillment.  He believes that the two don't have to be mutually exclusive – sometimes advancement can also bring fulfillment – but that's not the case the majority of the time.  I think this is yet another way to describe moving from being ego driven to being soul drawn.  How and when we make the transition is different for everyone.

Rohr describes this journey as crossing a chasm, which may be why some people never make it to the other side.  He also says that this process usually involves some type of suffering, sacrifice, or maneuvering through life's complexities.  Using Jim Collin's example of personal humility, we really can’t wake up one day and proclaim that we are going to be humble, effective immediately.  While we can't dismiss our ego and embrace our soul overnight; we can certainly remain mindful.  When we encounter those moments of "complexity" we can find meaning, learn from them, and move one step closer to letting go of our ego and being drawn by our soul.

Rohr says that "One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down.  Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up."  Great leaders really do fall upward.