Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: July, 2012

Reflections on Life: Noisy Life. Noisy Soul

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, sociologist and “storyteller” Brene Brown points out the importance of cultivating calm and stillness in our lives. This is essential if we are to become what she terms, “wholehearted” people. For those of you “type A” folks who stay in the right side of your brain most of the time (like me), such a premise seems antithetical to our “doing more” means “being more” perspective. The thought of quieting ourselves is more than a bit scary for we have much to do. Yet the sorting out of our lives, the renewal of our creativity, the treatment of the cause rather than the symptoms of our problems, indeed, the very care of our soul can only be found in quiet and stillness. Noisy life. Noisy soul.

We wake to the noise of alarms and radios and must get to the doing of the day. Throughout the day we dine from the buffet of information, gorging ourselves on information from the radio, internet and television. We check our email repeatedly, searching social media, check our 401K, search the web a bit. Our smart phones are never far away as we must be available to everyone all the time. We drive to work and home listening to the radio, then watch television before we go to bed. There is little, if any quiet in our lives. Somehow in all of this we believe we are preparing ourselves to live and work better. We are doing what is best. It is expected. And yet we are overstressed and over anxious. Then we over eat, over medicate, over drink, and over spend to distract ourselves from it all. We deserve better. We deserve the renewal of quieter lives.

It won’t be easy to reduce the noise in our lives. This week I stopped turning on the radio in my truck unless it was to listen to music. Somehow music is “quieting.” I committed to checking work email only after 7:00 a.m. and not after 5:30 p.m. I don’t look at the Internet until I’ve had coffee and invested in some quiet time. I’ve left my cell phone in a drawer at work and at home so I don’t have to listen to its “siren call.” Initially, it was like withdrawal from a drug. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but it was very uncomfortable. But over the last few days, I’ve found I’m more focused, more calm. A little less driven. I like it. I’ve actually seen things on the landscape I never saw before I find my mind drifting to creative things. It turns out I may have a “left brain.” Brenee Brown would be proud.

Keep the Faith.

Reflections on Life and Leadership: Penn State and the Question of Values

The unfolding of events at Penn State over the past year will likely become a leadership case study in “what not to do.” The facts, as known today, include knowledge that a visible member of the Penn State “family” has been convicted on multiple counts of serial child abuse; that many of the leadership team at the University appear to have had adequate knowledge about Sandusky’s activities and failed to take action to stop or prevent that conduct; that Penn State must now pay a $60 million fine and suffer additional penalties that will essentially “gut” its football program; finally, that Penn State’s reputation has been irreparably damaged. While time, detail and perspective will be make the circumstances surrounding Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, and the University’s leadership more instructive, there are many lessons to be learned from what has already be revealed. But central to those lessons are value questions that must be answered by all, especially those who would lead.

My father often told me “Remember who you are” as a teenager heading out for an evening with friends. At the heart of that admonition was a call to remain true to the values he held inviolate and that he and my mother hoped to instill in me. It was to make me responsible for upholding, not so much the family name, but principles that most would agree are noble and essential to civil society: honesty, fairness, self control, discipline, compassion, and justice. One wonders what values Penn State’s inner circle of leadership, those who knew of Sandusky’s activities, held inviolate. It would be tempting to view the mission statement and values as the University surely has published. Yet to do so would leave us all the more dismayed, it would seem. Leaders must decide what they will stand for, and therefore, what they will stand against. They must answer the question “What values are we committed to as an organization, family, or individual?” Theologian Francis Schaeffer once wrote that our own “personal peace and prosperity” could threaten our willingness to stand for things we say are important. We must let them.Leaders, genuine leaders, not just those holding positions of authority, must continuously examine themselves and their organizations to insure they hold true to their values. Mere words, no matter how eloquent, will not suffice.

Leaders, regardless of the venue, must ask, “Doe our commitment to our values govern or limit our appreciation for financial or other measures of success such as “winning?” In short, they must be willing to incur the tangible risks of loss of income or “wins” in favor of protecting the intangible, yet priceless, value of their reputation and the reputation of their family, company, or nation. Penn State’s reputation will not soon recover. Those who once proudly claimed it as their Alma Mater will now wince when asked about their education. Those far removed from culpability will pay the price for men and women who, whether through willful ignorance, disbelief, or wanton disregard for the truth, and justice, chose (and choose they did) not to act on they information they appear to have held. Perhaps, they were blinded by the public persona and virtue of a beloved Coach.

Genuine leaders will not be so blinded, whether by a Coach, DEO, Pastor, Teacher or other. They will anticipate the impact of their actions (and choose to risk short-term loss of reputation, profitability, or winning in favor of a long walk in the same direction toward what is “right.” Genuine leaders ask, “What will we do when the challenge to our values is presented?” They do not ask “if.” They are keenly aware that such challenges will arise. Such men and women recognize each of us is capable of the fear, self-deceit, and disbelief that may have contributed to the outcome at Penn State. In such knowledge, they build processes and structures of accountability that recognize what fragile, broken, and sometimes evil men and women can do if unchecked. They stare into the abyss of their souls and at the human experience and realize bad things happen. And we must prepare. They have determined their values and set their course accordingly. These are the men and women easily followed into battle and throughout a crisis. In them we sense our “higher self.”

Normally, these missives close with encouragement to “keep the faith.” In the light of the horrors visited on young children and the apparent complicity of so many, such an admonition might seem trite. Such events challenge our faith in God and Mankind. It is a fair challenge. Yet we must not remain there. To do so is to succumb to a hopelessness from which we cannot recover. It is to agree that nothing can be done so nothing should be done. Now, more than ever, we must….. Keep the faith.

Personal Note: As I began this, I did to realize I had so much to say about it. I would not overlook the facts of the Penn State situation include the unspeakable pain that must have been known by the children who were abused or their families. I pray they find peace.

Reflections on Life and Leadership: The Call to Rest

Recently, while sipping a cup of coffee and looking across the tranquil waters of Lake Martin recently, near DadevilIe, Alabama, I found myself without a laptop, book or Blackberry to distract me from the renewal of the moment. Once again, I was reminded that in the chaos of life and work how often we find ourselves overwhelmed by its incessant demands. Regardless of whether it is the creeping weariness borne of constant projects, endless deadlines, and family responsibilities or the seemingly sudden, heart pounding, gasping for breathe kind of exhaustion that comes from an impossible “to do list” and 14 hour day, those who would lead, or follow, often find themselves with insufficient reserves of energy and creativity to live and perform well. It is then we realize, as legendary Green Bay Packers’ Coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Fatigue can be emotional, physical, or mental. And fatigue in any area can drain us of the ability to perform in the other realms. When we are distracted with the pain and stress of family matters our mental acuity is affected at work. Mental exhaustion from work can affect our physical reserves. If you don’t believe it try going to the gym after a 12-hour day. (Or staying on your diet!) We are such creatures of routine we often fail to recognize how one component is intertwined with the other. Worse, we fail to realize how desperately in need of rest we have become. In a culture that regards rest as laziness we risk our effectiveness, our physical health, and quality of our business and personal relationships as we drive ourselves. To affect change, and remain effective, we must first recognize the impact of the overlapping contributors to our fatigue. When we find ourselves impatient, short tempered, or unable to focus on completing a task, we must recognize them as the warning lights on our dashboard. Something needs attention. To proceed without further examination is to risk calamity. These warning lights tell us it is time to take stock of ourselves. Those are the same things we must watch for in our teams and families if we are to lead well. Just as we must guard against the erosion in our own performance that is caused by the fatigue, as leaders we must guard against it in our teams. It is odd how clearly we recognize it in a grouchy four old who needs as nap and we fail to see it in ourselves. We must invite those trustworthy confidantes around us to intervene on our behalf to suggest it is time to invest in some well-deserved rest.

Rest is more than a nap. Though it is that sometimes. It is more than a few mindless hours in front of the television. Although, that too, may be considered rest. (Especially when it is spent watching Modern Marvels or Swamp People!) For those who would lead, rest must result in renewal. Renewal is more than a vacation. It is the regular and deliberate feeding of our body, mind and spirit with that which has the ability to restore us. It must be part of our day, our week, and our year if we are to avoid the angst and stress that prevails in our culture. Sometimes renewal is a quiet moment sipping a cup of coffee (caffeine free?). Sometimes it is a raucous evening with friends and family filled with music, laughter, and perhaps a single-malt Scotch, glass of wine, and simple food. It may be the solitude of a long walk in remote setting or along the beach. Other times it may be reflection on spiritual writings in which one finds meaning. Whatever the case, we must be deliberate to find that which Steven Covey referred to as self rejuvenation or “sharpening the saw.” The absence of a deliberate strategy leaves one with hope only. And hope is no strategy.

Rest and renewal need not cost large sums of money. It does not require us to buy another thing that ends up owning us. But it does require us to examine ourselves. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult to find rest and renewal. We may be simply fear what we will see and the changes we must commit to make. Then again, this may be the best possible reason to engage in such reflection that becomes the foundation for change that reignites our creativity, energy and our effectiveness as leaders. Whatever the case, as always… Keep the Faith