Sunday, August 26, 2012

In Pursuit of Silence

As the last few strands of sunshine in summer break trickle through my fingers I am preparing myself for my next class. I have three classes to complete the program and I apparently saved some tough ones for the end.  In my next class, Methods of Organizational Research, in part, we conduct a literature review.  I was advised by a classmate to have my research question ready before I started the class. My search for a question started with organizational silence. Although I do not have a perfect research question a scant breath or two before the class starts I have delved into silence.

Originally I read about how silence can crush an organization--and there is plenty of literature on that, but I came to sharpen my focus on the benefits of organizational silence. Can the organization thrive in the midst of silence? When is silence appropriate? What does silence mean to the individual who practices it? Obviously I have a lot of questions but few answers. I think that is one of the most promising feelings I have before each class. I know I will emerge more comfortable and confident with the topic and I will (in sometimes the most unpredictable ways) have applied the concepts in a way which deepens my gratitude for the knowledge.

In an earlier post I became interested in John Francis and his 17 year vow of silence. In preparation for this class I just finished "The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World." In truth much of the book seemed more than I expected about being silent so we can become better listeners. Even so, I did pick up a gem when Francis' father spoke the words which seem to dig into some of the issues that interest me: "After the [Master's] ceremony my dad came back to my apartment and asked, 'How do you do that? How do you walk into a town that you never been in before and bring all these people together without even saying anything? How do you do that? I really want to know."

Considering his father had uttered the most discouraging words amongst his family, it was great to see the father find value in his son's unusual methods of living in the world. In response to his father, Francis writes, "I looked at him. And in the looking I thought about all the words I would have said--or could have said--about how it is not so much what we say without lips, but what is in our hearts, and how we all long for that kind of straight talk. When we can listen with our hearts, there is nothing that we cannot do together. And how do we listen with our hearts? The answer is with love: talking straight from the heart." This advice, of course, is wonderful. But as I just stepped into this topic I have some work to do to find out how to apply this in an organization.

Friday, August 24, 2012

More on Forgiveness

I had lunch with a friend the other day and we began talking about forgiveness. My friend did not buy my graduate-school-developed  perspective that forgiveness is something which should be given when the individual is ready whether the perpetrator has requested it (or is aware of it) or not . In fact he said, is that what forgiveness means? I thought about the meaning a lot and looked more closely at the word, in pieces.

For.  Give.

Oh--I thought it is a gift for me, the perpetrator, for all.

Forgiving Dr. Mengele PosterOne amazing Auschwitz survivor says: "Forgiveness to me means that whatever was done to me is no longer causing me such pain that I cannot be the person I want to be." In Leadership, Justice and Forgiveness we read Simon Wisenthal's book The Sunflower. In it provided the cultural background for me why those in the Jewish faith do not believe a person can forgive a crime or criminal on behalf of anyone but themselves. Yet Eva Mozes Kor does just that--to a vicious concentration camp doctor who performed horrific medical experiments on twin children.

On the 50th anniversary of liberation Kor made the unprecedented decision to forgive all Nazis in her own name. "When I wrote my declaration of amnesty I still wasn't exactly sure what I was doing. But once I read it and signed it the feeling of complete freedom from all the burdens, the pain inflicted upon me. It's a life changing experience to be free of that pain. Because just to be free from the Nazis that did not remove the pain they had inflicted upon me." When I see leadership actions like Kor's, I am further pushed to refine my approach to organizational problems. People used to speculate at work why I don't engage in organizational battles. For one thing I think it is a misdirected use of energy, exhibits poor interpersonal skills and almost guarantees I will have to atone for a mistake or forgive a person in the future. I would rather avoid that headache altogether.

Sometimes I think the world is absurd and it is best to observe rather than participate. During these times when my life seems to be in a valley rather than a peak I observe the story of Kor who was repeatedly rejected for employment because of her accent. I see this amazing woman shrug off this limitation, square her shoulders and remark "I was so surprised no one was going to give me a chance, after all I survived Auschwitz!" Her strength is awesome and she inspires me to make my first attempt at dealing with adversity with a dose of kindness. Learning how to forgive has taught me to see forgiveness as necessary, and also something to foresee and circumnavigate.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Leadership and Storytelling (Semester Summary)

Storytelling is a fabulous treat. Good storytellers will never go out of business--humanity craves a powerful story. Over the course of this class I have become much more aware of the stories I and those around me tell. With that awareness I have played and explored with story structure, content and emotional impact.

In this class, each story I crafted was mentally strenuous. Why? Because humans love a good story and when disappointed by a story they provide immediate feedback. Sometimes they don't have to say a word. So, the pressure to tell a good story is a heavy weight. I have found a leader can be loved or hated for his or her story.  I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on what I have learned in this course. In some sense I seem no closer to being a storytelling leader than when I began the course. Perhaps it's that good stories are elusive.
Andy and Red (Credit)
On that note, I took a different perspective of a favorite movie to observe the influences of a leader telling and retelling a story.  As I rewatched Shawshank Redemption I began to see who was telling the story.  I have always thought the story was about Andy Dufresne's trip into the depths of misery and triumphant climb out of it. This time however I realized the story is told by Red and the story is about Red's redemption.

During Red's parole hearing speeches he gives positive but canned affirmations that he has been rehabilitated in prison--and his parole is consistently rejected. Through the evolution of Red's story we find he is not in denial about his transgressions, "the only guilty man in Shawshank" and lives openly in prison as a con man who "knows how to get things."  As time passes he admits he's an "institutional man" who doesn't think he can make it on the outside. To which Andy counters: "You underestimate yourself."

Here is where the beauty of a leader telling a good story can change the course of a person's life. Yet it is also the part which caused me the most deliberation in telling my stories.  Over summer break I've looked deeper and found Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak:  Listening for the Voice of Vocation." It's a fabulous book about finding our calling. As a leader Palmer reminds us if we are in the wrong position we can do great harm to those under our charge.

"If I try to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am, I may look good to others and to myself for awhile. But the fact that I am exceeding my limits will eventually have consequences. I will distort myself, the other, and our relationship--and may end up doing more damage than if I had never set out to do this particular 'good.' When I try to do something that is not in my nature or the nature of the relationship, way will close behind me."
Stories should not be used to manipulate and persuade people. They should be carefully constructed from the leader's authentic self to enrich the organization. It's no wonder the stories I wrote for this class were so challenging--I had to go deep within myself to find the story. Storytelling is so fundamentally human that we all understand immediately and intuitively when someone is not telling the full story, or cheapening it with a personal agenda.

A No Excuses leader may need to finely tune her or his diplomacy skills but should always tell an authentic story for the growth of all. To do that, the leader must know his or her staff, place the others highest needs at the top of action list and with humbleness tell the group's story so the emotional impact fuels the group forward.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Warrior Hall of Fame -- Pam Warhurst

Pam Warhurst is hereby inducted into the No Excuses Warrior Hall of Fame and designated as one of an Elite Group of Leaders.

pam warhurst
Pam Warhurst (Credit)
Warrior Warhurst leads us into dialogue and action to build kindness towards one another and towards the environment. Warrior Warhurst started a revolution by sitting around the kitchen table with friends and collectively deciding food was a universal language a leader can use to help others think and see differently. Therefore without waiting for permission, funds or the development of a strategic plan these warrior volunteers united with local artists to creatively plant an edible landscape.

How did the community edible plant revolution take root? Warrior Warhurst took her message out to the people in her local community and said: "'We are all part of the local food jigsaw. We are all part of the solution.'" Warrior Warhurst acts on the familiar phrase made popular by Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

In an environment of complacency which allow others to make our food choices for us Warrior Warhurst is prodding us back into community choices. In the genesis town they are growing and sharing the yields of vegetables, fruits and herbs. In return the population of Todmorden, UK is growing in resilience, economical confidence and "starting to reinvent community ourselves." A No Excuses leader knows: we choose who we want to be.

Warrior Warhurst has a lot of pluck. Her TED speech is full of vigor and energy and opens with a mind bending thought: "The will to live differently can start in some of the most unusual places." In all of her successes with this initiative Warrior Warhurst regularly reminds us she and her cohorts are just volunteers, and this project--it's an experiment. Leaders have one commonality and that is to give. Beginnings often aren't smooth and flawless but we can reshape our views into action experiments. If nothing else--if we plant kindness, we have achieved great success.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Becoming Your Future

Figure 1—Rut development on Florida low-volume road.
Credit: USDA
I strive to live in the moment. To do this takes self-discipline and purpose. However there are still plenty of times in my life when I mentally retreat into living in the past and other times thinking about my future. There are plenty of times when a leader can stay stuck in a rut and react to situations without a realistic understanding of the environment. For those leaders who become deeply entrenched they may notice that their problems keep repeating. This is painfully true for Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Murray plays an aging weatherman who worries only about himself. Instead of taking an interest in his current work he mocks, "Someday someone is going to see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don't have a future." Little does he know, his future is about to become inaccessible until he masters himself in the present moment.
Groundhog Day

The film walks us through a progression of the human condition trapped in a rut. Murray's behavior starts with skeptical, plows through suicidal, shifts to practical, and grows toward helpful. At this point he begins inner work, moves on to serving others and finally he is a breathtaking model of inspiration for the community.

Others have estimated his groundhog evolution covers 10 years. The film, watched as entertainment, makes transformational change seem quick and easy. But we all know it is not. Putting the change into a decade long perspective is interesting to me because it amplifies how we are creating our future by the choices we make in the moment.

Living in the moment is sometimes intense. In a moment of exasperation Murray says, "What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today." I think staying in a rut is a literal interpretation of having no future. In my quest towards personal transformation I have asked myself some tough questions. I used to want to know what my future holds, now I work on creating my future in this moment.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Future Story -- "Whale Rider"

We can build our future through story. This is a difficult task to do in great detail, so care must be taken in telling the future story--because most of us are not able to predict the future. This is essentially what our text tells us. On top of that the wizened professor said this is the story most grapple with.

Still of Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider
I have been wracking my brain for a future story I could relate to--to hold up as a model. Somewhere in the caverns of my mind the movie Whale Rider came to me as a likely candidate. As I rewatched it the Who I Am story of the protagonist Paikea, clearly was at odds with the Who We Are story traditionally held by the Whangara tribe of New Zealand. These traditional values held firm to patriarchal leadership even to the detriment of its own survival.

Her grandfather's vision was traditional and as Stephen Denning describes in the required text "People knew and kept their places, geographically as well as socially. Tradition was largely undisturbed by innovation. Overall change proceeded at a pace barely perceptible. Each generation was a replica of its predecessor. The central element of wisdom was seen as permanence." Paikea was born the future leader and broke taboos and precedence from the moment of birth; however as a girl who wanted to assume the role of leadership she was not recognized by her grandfather and chief who disdainfully said: "When she was born, that's when things went wrong for us." Yet she strove to honor and respect him while patiently loving him and seeking his attention and instruction all the while.

With unbelievable dedication, Paikea continues to embrace and model her vision. Her vision is to share knowledge so everyone can become a leader. In the process of rebirth to this new type of leader her grandfather nearly dies of a broken heart and Paikea nearly dies by drowning. Yet they both awaken together to the new leadership possibilities on the community's horizon. The movie ends beautifully showing communal unity.

Friday, August 3, 2012

When the only Stories are Negative

In several unhealthy work situations I've had the opportunity to be lumped in with, I've noticed most stories are negative. In our required text, "The Leader's Guide to Storytelling," Denning describes this: "An organization in difficulty will also have a vast underground river of negative storytelling at odds with the official stories being put out by its management. These stories may be invisible to outsiders and even to the management itself." Furthermore the storytellers and listeners seem to take pleasure in these negative stories. In my previous post I talked about how a leader can tell the group's story. In this post I want to elaborate on how the individual can shift the story from negative to a more healthy perspective.

Image Credit
My dives into internal leadership have led me to believe the person who seeks to redirect the negative flow of conversation must be healthy on the inside.  It will also take courage to speak positively in a negative situation. If you are not careful (and healthy on the inside) the negative talk can flow from the negative talk of the day--to you.

I am an inveterate joker and I've noticed as I've inserted more jokes into the conversation I've realized many of my co-workers appreciate my love of the absurd. I've also noticed how willing they are to participate in group storytelling when it includes jokes, even leading to the outrageous. Please note: no feelings are hurt during the telling of the jokes.

Don't get me wrong, we are still talking about negative things within the organization but instead of grinding ourselves deeper into an unhealthy pattern one person brings up the topic, behavior or person of contention and towards the end of the story another person flips it from negative to a funny (but untrue, often ridiculously untrue) new perspective. After the story takes hold each person in the group adds to the story until we all burst into laughter.

Denning advises us to use humor to brighten our story: "By referring to painful events in a humorous way, you demonstrate that you have mastered the experience, rather than that the experience has crushed you." We are using this advice to break up the painful experience in the moment and to date it's working fabulously!