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When I was a teenager and thinking about my future my father would tell me, “what is important in life is making a contribution to society.”

He never defined exactly what he meant but he didn’t have to. His tone called up all those he believed were not making such a contribution: the selfish and the control-hungry, and especially those insensitive to the plight of the disenfranchised around them. He knew, growing up as he did in Nazi Germany and later as a refugee traveling from country to country, what those people looked like for real. On the road, the farmer who gave you work for a few days might well understand that you had no other place to go, and that might lead to either compassion and welcome and rest, or to being used and taken advantage of; for example, being given very hard work to “pay” for an inadequate meal and an infested mattress — by someone who understood precisely how hard a starving refugee could be pushed. He’d been through that and it had shaped him.

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As a child, I recall my father reading his evening paper in his comfortable easy chair, shaking his head about an unfairness of some kind in the news. Someone with less power was getting hurt by someone with more. He voiced his frustration as a champion for the working stiff and the underdog, and for anyone discriminated against because of ethnicity. He’d not forgotten what the world could be and do to people. He had never been a victim, but he’d also learned early on how to quash his anger in public in order to not stand out for anything, praise or punishment. He wasn’t a victim; he was a survivor, and it had paid off.

I did not inherit all of these patterns, but the notion of that contribution to society certainly stuck in my bones. How could you have a meaningful life without it? And what would be that contribution? I cannot remember all of what I thought as a young man getting this advice, but writing was certainly there for me and the idea of society itself, creating a better society, one with more equity, one with more understanding. And so there you have it, these feelings worked behind the scenes, shaping my own choice of a career in support of effective, humane workplaces and the value of people.

I suspect that many who might read this also have some of the same sort of thing in their blood. And looking at the current political polarization and economic polarization of American society wonder what we can do. What kind of contribution can we make every day that somehow moves us toward solutions that reduce the dangers of polarization, which are fragmentation through enmity, contempt, isolation and superiority? Polarization, it seems to me, is always a win/lose proposition with ever higher stakes, where that “winning,” whatever side you are on, is eventually also a loss for the whole, a cause of suffering and, potentially, of war.

My father’s answer to the question, after achieving citizenship and serving in the American military during WWII (he chose to fight in the Philippines), was to stay out of the storm, keep his head down, go to work, do his job as a carpenter for the Boeing Company everyday for thirty years plus, and support his family — do what he conceived to be his duty.

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But can any of us today afford such a luxury?

Probably not. The fragmentation is coming very close now. The fabric is thin, in places torn. What can we do to mend it? What will you do? What will be your “contribution”? Because society, a word originally from the Latin for “companion,” is always in our hands, and there is evident work to do. The fundamental question, given that Latin definition, is who will we choose as our companions and how will we, you and I, contribute to that companionship? On this small planet of swirling light and dark, will we try to congregate only with people just like us, rich or poor, left or right? Will we only read the news and watch the channels we want to hear? Will we brick up the walls of our ideologies? Or will we, in the face of our own human selfishness and hunger for control, our own insensitivity, make a subtle but powerful choice to stretch the field?

It seems to me that the first change is always one of consciousness. To grow weary of the polarization. To find it unacceptable — and say so. And then to start looking for solutions, not just compromises (although they may help in the short term), even if it means discarding our own dearest ideologies as part of the problem and in order to get at something more fundamental, undiscovered and true. The biggest contribution is always to go farther down, farther in to the human spirit and our greatest capabilities. To see the times as a teacher and a challenge, not a failure, and let go of all the rigid labels that keep things exactly where they are. Something new and better is on the horizon, if only we can let go of what we cling to so tightly.

The alternative, it seems to me, is really to go backwards, perhaps ultimately to a world of “farmers” and “refugees,” and, my friends, my companions, let me ask you, who on God’s green earth would ever want that?

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A typical injunction is that leaders should always “walk their talk.” A cost of leading, perhaps, the price of being in a more exposed and influential place where the scrutiny is that much greater. As a culture, we all seemed tuned to search for hypocrisy in other leaders, always ready to share a disappointment in someone else’s discovered feet of clay.
Yet, what really is the problem here? And so what?

A host of examples come forward:

• The CEO who says he would like “to open up communications in the management team” but becomes angry and abruptly ends the effort when members of his senior group suggest that his own behavior (blowing up at managers publicly) is part of the reason people don’t speak up.

• The senior VP of research who says he wants to encourage more cross-disciplinary collaborations, but is well known as the roadblock because he autocratically reserves all decisions to herself.

• The manager who wants to guide a team that in her words, “feels more like a community of practice than a work unit” but who becomes so emotional about human relationships and is so decision-avoidant that she drives people away from her own vision.

• The Vice President who wants his department’s management group to operate as a self-leading team and believes so thoroughly that the end of the day “the best idea will win through debate” that members’ conflicting ideologies (including his own) keep the group stuck in a frustrating cycle of decision-less conversations.

• The CEO who touts the importance of the company’s brand and core values (integrity, responsibility, etc.) but is well known for wimping out when it comes to holding his senior team accountable to these values.

In each case, the leader is a well-intentioned person whose own behaviors contradict the stated goal. Yet a variety of defenses protect the person from constructively hearing and dealing with the data — in turn deeply undermining the organizational performance the leader says is so desired.  In the first case, the leader becomes more abusive and shuts down when hearing about the gap in his own behavior. In the second, the leader simply doesn’t respond (he doesn’t have to, after all). In the third, the leader takes it personally and emotionally and cannot decide what to do. In the fourth, the leader wants to debate the point. The fifth listens to feedback sympathetically but does not act. In each instance, even though the interest is creating a more open, innovative, and humane organization, the behavior of the leaders is incongruent. Offering this data to them simply amplifies rather than reduces the defensive reaction.

This dynamic easily leads people to a moral judgment, that the leaders are hypocrites; reinforcing an underlying belief, often part of the default culture, that all leaders are hypocrites as an artifact of their acquired power.

The Incongruency Principle

Instead of “walk the talk,” or the morally loaded term,“hypocrisy,” let’s call it something more neutral, and try to figure out what’s really going on. Let’s call it the Incongruency Principle: the notion that if leaders are the real system within which an organization’s members operate, then in part the system works against itself.

To begin with, this part of the system is often undiscussable because the defensive reactions to talking about “defensive reactions” are so strong as to make it a dangerous or futile conversation. The situation, to use Chris Argyris’s words, becomes “self-sealing.”

But this is not news, Argyris himself and others having covered the territory comprehensively. We know there are sacred cows, elephants in the room, a dead moose on the table, all references to inconsistencies that we have learned to talk around, not directly about, at least not to those who can do something about the problem. The undiscussables are about people, us.

The question is do we really understand our own personal incongruency and the defensive reactions we exhibit? Do we know how our defensive behaviors are interpreted by others and their impact on the work? And could we actually turn the formula around in some way so that what has been a detractor to our credibility would be an asset? How could our incongruency in fact set the stage for courageous breakthrough?

Part of the answer appears to be in acknowledging that the Incongruency Principle offers an eminently powerful and downright inspiring opportunity.

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An Example

I’m working as a coach with Bob, number two in a technical services firm and slated to take over the presidency in a few years. He’s come up through the ranks and is superb technically but isn’t so good with people. In fact, there have been complaints of a confidential nature to the HR Director who is asking me now to help Bob but cannot, because of the confidences, actually disclose what the nature of the problems are. All she can say is that because of them, Bob’s future as President is definitely in jeopardy. So I suggest Bob get some feedback from others, and I will teach him how to get it. The first thing we do, using the Incongruency Principle, is to have Bob articulate his vision of the kind of workplace relationships he would like to create. I’m asking him to tap his personal values.

This is a tough task for him. He has a hard time getting through these “touchy feely” things, he says, and he’s also so perfectionistic that he wants whatever vision he assembles to be incontestable to others. But after a day or two of thought, he softens and becomes more himself. He says to me, “You know, it really only comes down to one thing, respect. That’s the kind of relationships I want to have, relationships of respect.”

“Great,” I say, “let’s start there. Now, Bob, you know that we wouldn’t be doing this work if there were not some kind of problem, and neither you nor I know what it is at this point, but what’s important is just to find out by asking some questions of a few people that you think might be able to give you data — in this case, in the area of respect. Who do you want to talk to? Who can help most?”

Bob identifies seven people on his own, three of whom I learn later, were sources of complaints to the HR Director. So I’m thinking he has an inkling of some kind where the problem might be. I teach him to start each conversation by clearly stating that he would like to build relationships of respect as part of his role and to ask about anything he might be doing that interferes with that — this is the application of the Incongruency Principle. We talk about creating a safe, sincere environment for his talks.

After three conversations Bob calls me up to tell me it’s already clear where the pattern is — for that’s what I’ve asked him to do — not to fixate on individual relationships so much as find the patterns that are in the way of his stated goal.

He tells me that he’s learned about how his sexually oriented abusive language with staff is undermining his credibility as a boss and deeply distressing staff members. He shares specific examples with me, some of them shocking. At that point he and I can begin looking together into some alternative methods of dealing with his frustration and anger at work, especially when the performance of his team members seemed to reflect some lack in his own leadership capabilities. Embarrassment that things had not been done perfectly had been driving him to some very bad behavior.

You can ask, shouldn’t he have known better? Wouldn’t that be common sense, especially when discriminatory language of any kind is known to be illegal? If he was truly interested in respectful relationships, how could he have engaged in this conduct in the first place? Good questions, and they get at the personal and emotional sensitivity and unconsciousness of our defensive systems and how reciprocal they are with others. Who would talk with him about this behavior, given the very pattern of abusing others that he had adopted? Indeed, how would he have learned about his blind spot without asking in this way?

Beyond Judgment

Now the point of this is to move as quickly as possible from judgment to compassion. We, too, have blind spots. We see them easily in others, but as a therapist friend pointed out, “When you are sure you see someone else’s shadow, there’s a good chance you are standing in your own.” The more important discovery is that we are all implicated precisely because we don’t know what we don’t know, and we therefore have an opportunity: we can always request data about our contradictions, and the results are likely to be valuable. We can always ask, “How am I getting in the way of the things I say I want?” or even better, “How am I colluding in the problems I say I want to solve?”

Making these questions a conscious, deliberate, and continuous inquiry with others — a practice — reduces the defensiveness to a level where we can actually hear about the incongruency, and begin to do something constructive about it. But it has to be a choice to ask, which means from the beginning we accept that some kinds of incongruency are always present — an interesting form of self-acceptance that assumes we do not know our true impact.

And this point is key. I may well suspect who has a problem with me, and have some sense of what it is I’m doing, as Bob did, but the truly missing piece is often the impact that problem has on others and on the work. When Bob heard how devastated people felt, how much time they spent at home trying to recover, how it affected their day-to-day performance and mistakes, how angry they were, it was a great deal easier for him to begin working the issues — more so than even knowing his future as president was at stake. But if you never choose to hear the incongruent data, especially the impact part, if you run from it, if you allow your defensive reactions to prevent you from hearing about your defensive reactions, then you and the system you lead remain the same.

And this, it turns out, is possibly why innovation is often so hard in organizations — because the deepest innovations probably tweak the personal defensiveness and sensibilities of those who have the power.

The real triumph for Bob was not just ending bad behavior, it was replacing it with something else that worked a whole lot better, and also knowing that as a leader he could make a profound difference in the culture of his organization by not just avoiding abuse, but actively intervening when abuse of any kind was appearing in front of him. He went from avoiding certain negative comments and jokes to noticing and calling them out when they came up and with whoever was voicing them.

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Toward Breakthrough

This is a somewhat harsh example of putting the Incongruency Principle to positive use, but this essay is not about something that’s necessarily harsh. It’s about the structure and nature of an inquiry that can lead to breakthrough. How could you use the principle to make more every day improvements? Going back to the five examples at the beginning of this essay, the following questions could have been asked by the leaders:

“How am I personally contributing to the problem of a hesitant and closed management team?”

“How am I standing in the way of the high level collaborations I say I want?

“How is my own behavior interfering with the ‘community of practice’ workplace I’m trying to foster?

“What am I doing that prevents my management group from becoming more self-managing?”

“In what ways am I working against the values of our company that I say I want to uphold and promote?”

Simple questions, yes, but rarely asked and rarely answered with the truth. And taken in this personal form, they really only scratch the surface of the Incongruency Principle’s power. Since the leaders’ behaviors set the culture of the workplace, learning from contradictions actively empowers others broadly and makes learning collaborative.

Imagine, for example, the last case, the CEO whose own behavior contradicts the values of the company. These values are stated in customer literature. They are broadly advertised as part of the company’s internal supervisory and management training programs. They are, in essence, a core component of the firm’s brand, it’s competitive marketplace differentiator. So if the CEO begins to ask about himself, the company is free to ask about itself. But if the CEO is not open to the contradictory data, isn’t learning from the data, doesn’t want the data and continues to behave defensively, then the brand is never lived — by him or anyone. The brand is not the vital force of the company. It can’t inspire.

This is, by the way, why values training programs for staff are typically so useless. If the leaders cannot themselves show their own learning based on the values, why should anyone else? And we go back to a default culture that assumes defensive incongruence.

But imagine if we could make a practice of asking and learning from the data about where the brand isn’t real — whatever that brand is. We could find all the places where change is needed, exactly where innovation needs to occur. And suppose that we didn’t dissociate the information from ourselves; that it isn’t about the other people, and our righteous interventions to stop them from doing the wrong things, but our humble interventions to learn about our own self-contradictions and blind spots? What then would be possible?

Why We Don’t Do This

What would prevent this honest asking and honest answering? Here we come to the nub of the matter. We don’t ask and get straight answers to these simple questions because our internal defensive processes generally won’t allow it — unless we are under, as Bob was, specific duress with significant rewards at stake. Our day-to-day identities, the process of internal stability and congruence, will not grant permission because we think, at some subliminal level, that we will disintegrate with the incongruency, rather than transform. Once that potential disintegration is scented the dogs at the fence line of current identity begin to bark — and we step back from the edge, saying we don’t need to go there, have already been there, there’s nothing there to find, others motives are suspect, and it will take too long, anyway. The habit of rationalization steps in.

Defensiveness is exactly that, a habit and a reaction, not consciousness, not the deliberate, sincere intention and choice-making (soul-making) that can bypass defensiveness.

Instead, the defensive reactions continue to feed a predictable, traditional workplace culture in which speaking up is feared because of possible repercussions and the belief it will simply do no good. What we have instead of awareness is a self-reinforcing system of low interpersonal and organizational trust. After all, fear-based cultures are actually the safer ones, designed to prevent disruption by not going near what is threatening. We never ask the hard questions and grapple with hard answers — because they deal with ourselves.

This suggests that the core problem is first and foremost one of the leaders’ lack of self-trust, which is not exactly the same as low confidence. A person may appear to have a great deal of self-confidence, but actually have very low self-trust. Self-trust is about being able to trust in a fluid identity, knowing that we are much larger than whatever incongruency is discovered and that we will reforge ourselves naturally, transforming in processes called growing and learning and wisdom. It’s because we don’t trust transforming as people and as communities that the defenses work so hard to protect us and we must create fear-based cultures as a blanket of denial and dismissal.

Each of the five leaders mentioned at the beginning of this essay lacked exactly this quality of self-trust. What they did have was a strong sense of pride and confidence about the changes they felt they should foster — it’s what they stood for, after all — and you cannot, I believe, really separate people from their important ideas. Without self-trust, however, if my ideas or directions are questioned, then I am in jeopardy, too and my defenses are up, precisely to protect those ideas and the person behind them.

Although our organizations do not get the best when defenses are triggered, culturally we are still making believe the ideas we are personally invested in can be separated from our feelings. We pretend, we convince ourselves, we think we are getting the best, operating under an increasingly schizophrenic formula that rates highly the person who has “the best idea” while simultaneously expecting “collaboration” and cooperative execution. Like as not we end up adopting the idea of someone who is no longer really learning, who has high confidence but low self-trust, who dominates well. As a consequence, collective energy wanes, real innovation stalls while under the table each of our separate defensive systems continues to react, bouncing in predictable ways off anyone else in the same conversation.

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Protecting Our Strengths

I’ve helped teams map out these defensive exchanges and malfunctions, based on a description of individual defensive styles. What seems to be essential in knowing your own defensive style is often less about the how than the what. The how is about behavior, such as blaming others, getting mad or pushy, withdrawing, brooding, becoming hesitant, conflict avoidant, clever, manipulative, argumentative, sarcastic and so on — the way you go about protecting yourself from a threat. But it is the what that is often the bigger problem. The what represents the self-identified qualities of myself that I will defend at all costs, all aspects of a preferred self-concept such as my integrity, my intelligence, my passion, my skill in this or that discipline, my communication, my love of others, my sense of equity or fairness, my mission in life, and so on and so on.

These are my self-defined strengths and, ironically, it is these that make me the most vulnerable. For when they are under attack (or I think they are or I am doubting them myself), that’s when the how gets most active. Most of us have some sense of our downsides, but we are not likely to feel demolished when they are pointed out. We’ve already accepted them. When the strengths are in jeopardy, however, the armies must march or retreat. We must fight or flee. We must shut down or try to control. These ancient reactions of the reptilian brain act up and then we act out.

Go back and look at the five leaders and consider what self-assessed strengths might be behind the defensive reactions. What you find are people who want to believe they are paragons of various virtues — and don’t we all have this instinct? It behooves us nothing to say these five are not like us. They aren’t the exception.

In a way the competition for best idea these days is very much like saying we are competing to be the best, smartest person — but we try to frame it in disguising ways that deny the feeling. We believe in science. We believe in the value of an abstract reasons and ways of being right. In this sense not much has changed between old style hierarchies and new birthed meritocracies. In the latter, above the water-line is the stated intention of fostering a trust-based collaborative spirit in a flattened, peer-directed environment, but below the water-line domination is still at work, and it is this culture of domination based on what we think are our personal strengths that makes the Incongruency Principle both valuable and potentially disturbing over the long haul. For the Incongruency Principle questions our self-perceived strengths and the dualistic culture behind them, calling them out as the potential flaws they can be. The Principle encourages us to go ever deeper, to genuinely trust in our personal transformations, no matter what culture or organizational design surrounds us or what self-contradictions we find, as a matter of living a vital brand and a vital life. This makes the Principle itself a kind of “meta-strength,” but also a vulnerable one, maybe even a spiritual one, too; certainly an unfinished one as all strengths truly are. It’s the sort of leadership strength that can look suspiciously like a weakness to the constantly roaming reptilian eye.

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When it comes to confidence, no one has an answer that works for everyone. For some the issue becomes being more self-compassionate. Others may see it as a deeper access to faith. Some may need to explore the many psychological things that have happened to them that created negative conditioning — aka their voices of self-criticism. And some may need to do all of the above and more. So we all, in our own way have to figure out what works for us, what our vocabulary of self-confidence will be, not making the assumption that a single answer can be universal.

But if I could add one piece of advice it would be this, that there is no rescue from the loss of confidence. Nothing and no one can take the problem away. There’s no magical reprieve. All the power and fame you might be given, all the money, all the drugs, all the reassurances and approval of others will not make your insides different. It is up to you to figure it out.

The Zen buddhists call this, “jumping right down the dragon’s throat.” And that may seem like an incredibly daunting, if not frankly impossible task. So let’s talk about what that really means.

It means getting to the point where there is a rebellion, a thorough mental and emotional mutiny against all of the interior feelings and thoughts that prevent you from standing up in your own life. It means using your will as a human being to defeat the negative voices of self-criticism, the painful warp in your self-judgments. Usually, a person has to be good and sick and tired of the inner criticism, sick to death of it.

The trickiest part is knowing how to manage this inner revolution. When I’ve worked with clients on self-confidence issues, they say, “but I don’t want to become arrogant” or “I don’t want others to see me as ego-centric or insensitive” or “I’m not strong enough.” But, of course, these voices of self-criticism can be just the second level of the same dynamic, the suppressed demon showing up in other disguises, some of which can be very confusing. One of these certainly can be as an arrogant brat. So this means the fight is on several fronts, and you must keep going on all of them until they are defeated. This notion that one part of yourself is fighting another part may be disturbing. After all, aren’t we supposed to be whole, to feel a deep sense of integration, to not repress anything?

It’s an interesting conundrum. But at a certain point in our development, calling out this inner war for what it is, and the part of the inner world that is working against a more positive destiny, must be tackled.

If it helps, you may want to convert the image from something warlike to something a little more peaceful — harnessing an inner wildness, for example, or caring for an inner wild child. In this context, there’s a parental message — “no absolutely means no” — to both the critical self-messaging that continues to shame and the shameless brat that can show up nearby. You can see that both voices are immature.

What we do with these “children” is love them, and simply help them grow up through continuing guidance. Perhaps you recognize both in yourself, one a parasite called shame, one a shameless brat. You may notice the brat and end up with the shame, or see the shame and then end up with a brat.

So first you have to set the boundary and stick with it, building your strength as you continue to push through, and seeing all the disguises. Nothing can get you out of that responsibility. It may well be an act of pure self-discipline, and indeed you may feel like you are in the army. But then, as insight comes, you see that the “training” is paying off, and you know this — that no one saved you but yourself.

And that can lead to an enormous vote of inner confidence, just you to you.

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The other day a friend told me about an organization in which those who are considered star performers are explicitly nurtured, those who are considered average are recognized as doing good work, and those who are not doing so well receive no feedback at all. This is a planned, official strategy, thought-out and based on lists of employees that managers are asked to secretly prepare. The poor performers are just supposed to notice that they are not receiving feedback — as a kind of negative feedback, of course — and then choose to improve or to leave. It’s a really interesting system, isn’t it? It certainly makes feedback an easier proposition for managers and avoids all those clumsy, tense sessions in which everybody gets defensive.

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Rackhouses, Kentucky Distillery

The main thing is that it kills the spirit via no contact, via ambiguity, via shunning, essentially throwing people back on themselves through an official kind of isolation. It’s hard to imagine a more destructive, hurtful process or an easier out based on negative beliefs about human beings. And, frankly, I really wonder if it accomplishes the goal of fostering improvement or separation. The goal seems to spur human change through demoralization, as if an enterprise’s best interests are served by discarding people considered to be a form of trash.

And this is precisely the opposite of helping people by telling them the truth, including setting real boundaries and goals for conduct or performance, in a firm but respectful environment of listening and encouragement. No one ever said that was easy work. Sometimes it is painfully frustrating and time consuming. Sometimes HR functions are of little real help, and the rules seem overwhelming and unfair. And sometimes whatever communication and coaching process is used, it just doesn’t work, in which case the manager or the associate, or the two together, must decide that time’s up on the employment contract. And I am speaking here not just about first line supervisors or managers, but also senior executives who are just as likely to not know what to do when high level conduct or performance issues show up.

I will not in this post try to outline an entire process for intervening, but I will say this, that people are not likely to improve without some sense of hope for the future, a hope that any leader can provide by helping another see how the present moment, however difficult, represents an opportunity, not just a point of failure.

A personal example

Many years ago, when I still worked in a Personnel Department (yup, the name signifies just how long ago that was), I made a mistake in my communications with a senior leader — I’ll call him Bill. I had advised him that some of his employees, five levels down in the hierarchy, were wondering if they had to hire a neighbor of Bill’s who he had encouraged to apply for a summer job in his department. I was a bit nervous about the message, but I felt it better he know about the concern on the street so he could reassure people that they should hire whoever they felt to be best qualified.

Somehow, however, when we met, Bill heard me say he actually was influencing (or might try to influence) the process and he immediately felt his integrity had been attacked. Although he did not say anything about that during the meeting with me, within a few minutes he was standing outside the open-concept Personnel Department having a shouting meltdown about my “allegations,” (I was not there at the time) and by the next day he’d gone to every unit in his department to tell them what a cad I was, how I couldn’t be trusted, and how I had maligned him. He was a big enough fish that my reputation was in great danger, so much so that I thought I might have to quit or that I might be fired for this mistake — even though I’d had no intention whatsoever of questioning his integrity. I certainly did not think he would intentionally have manipulated the process. To make matters worse, the Assistant Director of the Personnel Department was a big fan of Bill’s and she immediately sided with him — I must have attacked him!

What a mess! I went home angry as hell. And I wanted my boss, the Personnel Director, Howard, to fix the situation. After all, he was more Bill’s peer, and I had done nothing wrong — except try to protect Bill’s reputation from gossip. The truth was, I didn’t know what to do and the situation scared the heck out of me. In part, the fear came from Bill, himself. He was a short, stocky, potentially intimidating military guy, holding a high rank in the reserves — exuding command and control all the way.

Howard called me to his office to discuss the situation.

“What are you going to do to fix this, Dan?” he asked.

“What am I going to do?” I asked. “Howard, I have no idea what to do. I don’t think I can do anything, and I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just trying to help, Bill! Can’t you do something, talk to him?” I rambled on for several minutes, frustrated, disappointed, victimized.

Howard was quiet, listening. Finally, when I got done venting, he said, “Well, if you think an apology would help, you might start there.”

Then I really blew up. How could I apologize if I’d never done anything wrong?! This was so colossally unfair. After brooding myself into dark oblivion the previous night, putting up with the Assistant Director’s assumptions, and now being placed in the humiliating situation of apologizing for doing something that supposed to have been helpful, I couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t remember exactly what I said shouting or for how long, but it took awhile for me to cool down. Howard was still there, still listening. After a pause he calmly reached out to me.

“Dan, you know there are a lot of Bills in the world. This might be an opportunity for you to figure out how to work with them just a little better.”

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His words were challenging — and firm — but his tone was actually reassuring. He was trusting me to figure it out while not letting me off the hook. He was expressing confidence in me, and saw more in me at that moment that I had seen in myself. I still wasn’t exactly sure what to do, but I had to acknowledge that this was an opportunity as much as it was a crisis.

That night I had some serious conversation with myself. I tried harder to put myself in Bill’s shoes. I tried harder to think about my assumptions about him, my fear of him, and what I could do now. In the end I decided to meet with him to explore what had happened, how this thing could have gone so far awry. When we met, the first thing I did was offer an apology. Not for doing something wrong, but communicating in a way that created misunderstanding. And then, as we talked through it, we were able to clear the air. I left Bill’s office proud of my role in repairing the situation.

The hero of the story is Howard, of course, because he didn’t fire me — and he didn’t let me fire myself, either. What he offered was hope. What he did was what everyday leaders can do, which is find a way to turn something dark into a chance once more to find light. It’s clear to me now, looking back after more than twenty years, that Howard, too, could have been at risk in the situation. Bill, in fact, had more power than he did, and could have damaged his reputation as well as mine. But Howard took the more courageous route of trusting me to find a new capability in myself, even when I was so very unsure that it was there.

It was a gift, and many times since then when I have wondered where hope might come from, I have remembered the lesson, “you can do more than you think you can,” which he never had to say, but was right there, always, in the middle of his office, the one with pictures of his friends behind him, people he’d met while serving in the Peace Corps in Africa, chiefs and others he had become close to. They were pictures of people smiling and dancing.

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For more context on this posting, please see:

The Practice of Leadership
Eight Leadership Practices
First Practice: Knowing Your Leadership Edge
Second Practice: Developing Your Comfort Level with Feedback
Third Practice: Caring for Self
Fourth Practice: Leadership and Influence
Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables
Sixth Practice: On Collaborating
Seventh Practice: Personal Integrity

Although spirituality is less discussed as a quality of effective leadership — probably because our culture does not know how to talk about such things very well — it is perhaps the most vital domain of any leader. It has these two essential functions: to help us deal with adversity and to bring real hope to others through the work we do.

A long time ago, 2004, when I started this series of posts on eight practices, I consciously saved this post for last. Not because spirituality should be the last thing to be considered, but the best, the most open-hearted, the most vulnerable, and the most true. To say a leader must have a spiritual perspective is not to say that this person must believe in God or adhere to a particular religion. In fact, whenever such requirements are made, I would say the essence of spirituality itself is lost. This isn’t the spirituality of belonging to a particular group. It is the spirituality of what you discover on your own of wisdom and what you refer to when no one, and no art or philosophy, no other forms of intelligence at all are of further value. To find the inner center, a place founded on the greatest virtues of life on earth, in love and in peace and in divine freedom, is to know, in a sense, all there is to know about self and leadership. This is not to say there is no further learning because once touched that depth is constantly tested in a world such as ours, filled as it is with so many sorrows, violences, and fears. It is the first and last step beyond ego, beyond the small self in favor of a larger, more penetrating, more personal view.

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Many years ago I listened to some lectures by John S. Dunne, a philosopher/seeker, who has written many books including his very beautiful, The Way of All the Earth. I recall him describing how often we look at our lives from a very short time span, maybe a few years, sometimes a lifetime if we are lucky. But there is another vantage point, which is our lives within the context of history as a whole, in effect within the frame of endless time. This is the temporal alternative to looking up at the stars at night and noticing our own smallness. There is nothing like these “demagnifications” of our little existences, existences that we make so much out of, as if, truly, we are not only the center of the universe, but its immortal center. The great teachers, John Dunne said, from Muhammad to Gautama to Jesus all were able to keep the greater view in what they did — and we can attempt that as well.

If you look, if you are really aware, then perhaps what you will see around you is a depressing view of humanity, a mad contest of egos and crushing events. Perhaps that makes you angry. Yet ego is, as D.T. Suzuki once said, also as natural to human beings as wings to a bird. And that depression or anger, if you let yourself feel it and follow it faithfully, may actually be something more like the beginning of a spiritual path than a psychological “problem.”

The concept of capital-S Self, or True Self, is close, at least for me, to the study of leadership spirituality. But, of course, we all have to experience and define that on our own. Personally, I’ve always liked the words of Sekkai Harada, a Buddhist teacher, who said:

In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet. No matter through which grasslands we may walk or which mountains we may climb, we must meet this person. This person is in this world. Who is this person? It is the true self. You must meet the true self. As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart. You will never lose the sense that something is lacking. Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are.

Certainly, without meeting this “true self,” our stamina is depleted. Life throws curve balls all the time, sometimes several at the same time. But more than having this inner strength of a true self available to us, this inner “radiance” to rely upon, it is also the key to offering hope to others in the deepest possible ways. As Karen Tse — the famous human rights leader and founder of International Bridges to Justice — noted about her own spiritual path, she learned in a moment of crisis to work with “the Budda” or “the Christ” in each person, but she also learned that “what you focus on will grow.” So even if we focus in a simple way on possibilities rather than limits, on the good that is available instead of the bad that must be defeated, something in us changes, and something in our world changes along with us. We see capability in ourselves and others as a fact, and they say it inspires them.

I have known people who gave up as leaders, sank into a kind of darkness, were angry with the world, with people, so that their bitterness became their cave. Yet we all know so many stories of others who brought light into darkness, not only for themselves but for others as well. Karen Tse, of course, is one such leader. But there are so many others. Who do you know who brings hope? And if you do not know anyone who does, what brings you your own hope?

For me, I can only say that from an early point in my life, when I could find hope nowhere else, only a few steps into the natural world were needed to restore it. The sound of a creek or the passing of clouds can bring that hope back to me, and is something I’ve always tried to share through my photographs. That’s why they are part of these pages. And maybe that is because nature is a window to all of what is beyond us. We only have five senses, so we only can be aware of so much of nature. Yet there is more, much more that is unseen, unheard, untouched, unsmelled, untasted — and perhaps outside of time itself. We are only conscious of so much. But if we have an intuition, a psychic second sense of what does lie beyond, if the walls of this world are indeed as thin as they sometimes appear to be, then of course there is hope, and that makes us crazy only if we do not acknowledge it.

Well, such is my faith, and I have no right to impose. But there may well be something, however irrational, that does draw all of us closer to faith itself, not necessarily a Christian or Buddhist or Islamic or any other religious faith, not faith in ourselves or our institutions, not cultural faith in our country, not faith in optimism or pessimism or cynicism, not faith in this leader or that one or any of these things at all, nor even faith in a God or gods, but faith in what the poet Wallace Stevens called in a simple way, “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.”

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This faith, this psychic understanding of the world, this inner strength that passes through us, is a path of encouragement, a well-spring of dreams. I believe it is what connects us ultimately, freeing us from what is old, and what is known. It is solace as well as solitude, a source of connection and always, a feeling of home. It is always present in the face of beauty, in the way “light takes the tree,” waiting for us there and within ourselves. And there are no words.

How strange, that you simply have to ask about your own wings, and the air — the air — is there.

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The weather here is (finally) good enough for a touch of Spring Fever, and so I am reminded of childhood. My older brother and I grew up on twelve acres of land, half forested, half in fields and orchard. At this time of the year he and I would spend much of our time in the forest, which was waking up with all sorts of green-gold leaves and pungent smells of the earth. We would dart off into the woods at a moment’s notice to build a new trail, camp or treehouse.

What I recollected this morning was the energy we used to do all that work. “Why did we want to build a treehouse?” I asked myself, and could only respond, “for the fun of it, and because we could.”

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Contrast that to so much that happens in our organizations today — where the “fun of it” often hardly matters or does not matter at all.

The difference is in the evaluation and demanding measurement of things, perhaps; the constant need to perform, to show, to prove — or be labelled, castigated, threatened in subtle ways with disapproval and sanctioning. Yet I doubt my brother and I ever performed better than when at play we figured out what to do about the sudden urge to put planks in trees. “You go back to the house and get some boards, a hammer and nails. I think there’s some boards behind the garage. I’m going to go over to the neighbors and see if there is anybody who wants to help and who has some rope to pull the boards up.” Is it any wonder that modern management often fails? Translating to such a project would look like, “Okay, let’s first write down your accountabilities and deadlines. It’ll be up to you to go find the wood, so don’t screw that up. Your department’s hammer can’t be trusted and you certainly can’t borrow mine, but let’s collaborate and be a real team anyway. Let’s innovate! Oh, and I’m not paying for any of the nails, either. BTW, there will be a behind-the-scenes review of your performance at the end of this that will go back to your boss…”

You get the idea. And yet I think organizations kind of want it both ways these days: a highly engaged, passionate, excited workforce, plus high levels of measurement and evaluation. Can both exist together?

This cuts to the quick when we get to the really squishy stuff, like performance as a leader, executive or manager. There the process of self-evaluation has already become deeply ingrained in a fearful, depressive, defensive way. I won’t say “naturally” defensive, because in truth if building ourselves were like building a treehouse that defensiveness might “naturally” go away.

This is just a playful thought, of course, but perhaps one with a point. Can simultaneously we be really open and yet still be subject to critical voices about our performance? Can I receive feedback from you about ways I might improve as a leader and yet think of it as helping me with the next great way to create myself, my life, and my accomplishments?

Wouldn’t that be amazing — to somehow totally drop the fear surrounding evaluation of all kinds; somehow get the information and the learning, the enrichment and growth without all that anxiety — for the fun of it, and because we can? We would pull the planks up by rope with our friends, helping each other, and at the end of the day say to ourselves, admiring the view from up there, “Isn’t this cool?”

Perhaps Spring Fever has some business value after all.

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