The Story We Tell Ourselves

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Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

This series on situational awareness is principally about how we learn to relate to people in situations outside of our comfort zone.

To do this we need something more than tactics for making conversation. We need to be able to know who we are, what matters to us, and why.

What I've learn by working with a wide variety of people and groups, who are in the midst of change, is that we need a story that we tell ourselves. This story distinguishes us in every situation we are in. It is a story that enables us to know who we can trust, and who we can't. It is a story that tells us, don't go there, or, let's find out more.

Another way of understanding this story is as a foundation, a platform, upon which we stand, while everything whirls around us. It is the story of our inner strength and commitments in the context of the external world.

It is not necessarily a story that I will tell people. This story is private, not public. It isn't a branding or a promotional story. It is, rather, a story of the values that matter to us, that we are unwilling to negotiate away by our accommodation to others. It is the story that enables us to walk into any situation and not feel compromised.

In this post, I'm going to describe two ways to create this story. One way out of reflection on who we are and what we want. The other through a more analytical approach using the Circle of Impact. 

Let's start with the first method which creates the story by looking at a couple of  scenarios.

Seeing the Situation

For example, when you go on vacation, what do you want to gain from it. Are you like some of us who enjoy adventure and discovery, or, like others, seek to be quiet and still. What appeals to you here is a part of your story.

I know folks who love going to the beach. They love sitting in a chair at the beach, reading a book, watching the waves come ashore, and then going out for a seafood dinner at night. They don't enjoy a manic schedule of biking, card playing and trips to the outlet malls. They have come for peace and quiet.

In this instance, that is their story. As a result, they need to be honest with their family members who love an action oriented vacation. That is the story which they tell themselves.

As a result, both types of vacationers need to be honest and respectful of the other. Both have to give in a bit, let the other have their approach, and plan to join them for some of the time that they enjoy, whether quietly on the beach or riding a jet ski jumping waves.

Here's another scenario. You are invited to a business after hours networking social event by a friend in your industry. You've never been to one of these meet-n-greet things. You don't really know what to expect. You are meeting your friend there. As you walk in the door, he texts you to say that he is running late, and will be there in 15 minutes. What do you?

The story you tell yourself, about who you are and what matters to you, guides your response in this awkward situation. You can stand outside and wait for him. Or, you can go in, register at the door, get your name tag, get something to drink, and stand near the front waiting for your friend. Or, you can immediately begin to introduce yourself to people you do not know. If you are somewhat shy, this may take some effort. However, I believe, what you will find is that many of the people in the room are experiencing the same uncomfortableness.

If being uncomfortable in social settings is the story you tell yourself, then you will be. If, on the other hand, the story you tell yourself is

"I'm not here to impress people. I'm here to listen, and learn, and make one new contact with whom I'll schedule a follow up meeting."

In effect, the story is a plan of action which sets specific boundaries, and is focused on one goal. Once there, and the goal is met, then, a release of pressure will be felt, and our story changes.

This shyness thing used to be me. Those of you who know me personally may find that hard to believe. But it is true. The story I told myself in those days was

"What do I say? How do I start? What if I look weak and silly?"

It took time but the story I told myself changed. I began to walk into those situations looking for someone whom I could befriend. I would not go to a mingling of 3 or 4 people, but to the person who was standing by themselves. I'd introduce myself, and just start asking questions. Each question was not planned other than the initial one,

"So, what do you do? How do you spend your days?"

After they told, me, I'd ask a question about that thing. If they said,

"I sell insurance."

I'd respond with,

"What kind?"

Then they say, something, and then I asked, something like.

"How do your new customers find you?"

Or,

"What is generally the first question people ask you when they come to you for insurance?"

My story shifted from being about my fear to about my curiousity and interest in the other person. The rapport that comes from asking questions is the kind that builds trust, at least when the questions are kind and respectful. Now, I am not afraid to meet any person regardless of who they are.

Another Approach

The story we tell ourselves is not about what we do, but about who we are. If your sense of identity is murky, then the story you tell yourself will be too. As a result, it may then be helpful to take a more analytical approach to developing your story. My Circle of Impact model can be a help.

3dLeadership - Purpose-Vision-Values

To develop the story that we tell ourselves, we don't start with the Three Dimensions of Leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure. Instead, we work from the Four Connecting Ideas - Values, Purpose, Impact and Vision. Let's take them one at a time.

Think of this discovery process as a conversation between us right now over coffee or dinner. Just the two of us talking. We aren't looking for the perfect answer, but an honest, beginning point of understanding. We've just met, and I'm just asking questions because I'm curious, not nosey, just interested getting to know you.

Values:

I ask:

"If you didn't have to work for a living, and you had access to all the financial resources you would need, how would you spend your days, and why?"

"What do you think are the values that are important to you in doing those things? Do you think those values define you more than any other? Do they please you, make you smile, get you excited about the day ahead?"

In discovering the values that matter to us, we are identifying the foundation upon which we have built our lives. These values help us to establish the boundaries that guide us. If this is new to us, then we may have to live into this awareness. These values may not be evident, active or relevant at a particular moment, with some people, and then, some comment, triggers in us an awareness. This is how we grow into the values that matter. We try many, discard many, from our emotional investment in them, and then come to realize what is truly important to us.

These are the values that tell us who we are, and are the ones we want to have always present. I have five of these values, and I'm looking for them in every thing that I do. I, personally, have decided that if three of the five are not present in the opportunity before me, that I'll not participate. Knowing the values that guide and give meaning to our lives is a way of saying No to situations that are not supportive of the values that are important to us. This is why knowing what our core values are is so critical to being able to walk into any situation and function well.

Purpose:

I ask:

"How do you spend your days? How did you end up doing this kind of work? Does it give you a sense of purpose, a sense that you are making a contribution?"

The conventional thought is that we all have a singular purpose for our lives. I find that very limiting. Instead, I see purpose as an intentional focus on applying our values in a specific way in the situation that presents itself to us. Here's how this could work.

One of my values is integrity. It is so that I don't live with regret or fear, or, even the sense that I've compromised by values to accomodate some person or situation. The purpose of integrity beyond that is to provide me a basis of relating to every person from the same position of respect towards them. My purpose, then, in social situations is to act with respect, by listening, being honest and truthful, without being beligerent. The purpose of my integrity is to establish a basis of friendship that is open, mutual and filled with opportunity for shared work and contribution.

Purpose is a way of translating the values that matter to us into action. While our values may become clearer and more specific over time, they rarely change in any radical sense. Our purpose, however, can and should change. For purpose is the mechanism for focusing our values in the situation that is before us right now. Even if we are talking about our purpose as sort of a life mission, it still is subject to change. With our values as a foundation, we live out a purpose in an adaptive manner to fit the time and place in which we live.

While our purpose is about what we do in acting upon our values, it is also about the effect that we want to have.

Impact:

I ask:

"Tell me what difference you think your work makes? Why is it important? Who is impacted by what you do? What do they tell you?"

The way our world works is by an exchange of products or services by an agreed upon price. Money is the most tangible medium of measure we have. It is simple, straightforward, and for that reason obscures many of the signs of value that actually exist, yet we never really see.

To look at the difference a person makes, we have to look at what our expectations are, right now. This requires us, on both sides of a relationship, to have an idea of what we want, or, what our purpose is. If we can define our purpose, not as what I do, but rather the difference I want to make, then my story takes on a very different feel.

Let's return to our business after hours event. In that room, our purpose is what? Is it to meet people? Or, is it something more. Is it primarily about "my" interests or about the other person's?

My friend and colleague Meridith Elliott Powell told me years ago about her strategy for after-hours business events. Her focus was to go, meet people, and leave as soon as she had three follow-up meetings with new contacts. She would go to alot of these events, and built up a substantial client list through that focused approach to business relationship building. She's one of the best I know at this. I found her approach incredibly helpful, and focused on the purpose of the event, which is to initiate new business relationships. Then she works her "magic", she's really good, in the interaction she has with people within the context of their business.

When the story we tell ourselves is not about what we do, but what we create, the difference that we make, about the relationships that we form, then we approach everything with a different level of confidence. If we measure our lives by our activity level, then we never really see clearly the outcome of that activity.

Measuring by activity comes out of the old factory production model focus. The most tangible measure of that work was the paycheck. Measuring by impact is a change model focus. One is repetitive. Let's see how many events I can go to this month. The other is a creative relationship with people where together we learn to make a difference. How many relationships do you have right now that if asked they would say, "She makes a real difference in my work." And, then be able to describe precisely what that impact is.

The Four Connecting Ideas are not isolated from one another, but, are interconnected as a way to understand how things can fit together in our life and work. To be able to see the impact of our values and purpose in real life, then our perspective changes, and our story does too. It opens up possibilities that may have been present, but were hidden behind the production measure mindset.

Vision:

I ask:

"Where do you see yourself in a year? What's your plan for today?"

The vision we need is not some grand, epic adventure into the future. Instead, our vision is our story lived out in real time, right now. It is the story we tell ourselves every day that enables us to make decisions. In the context of the Circle of Impact, it is about people, and the organizational structures in which we live and work. Our vision emerges and is lived out every day through the story we tell ourselves.

A vision then is simply what I do and the decisions I make, based upon my values and my sense of purpose for this particular moment, all through a deep desire for impact, with the people that I work with and encounter everyday.

The story we tell ourselves is a guide in the unexplored land of today. It helps us to know the boundaries that will both protect us from the unwanted compromise of our values, as well as, opening us up to the possibilities in every human relationship and situation.

When we find the story we tell ourselves, and, we grow into it, it ceases to be a story "out-there" that we tell myself. We become the story. We become the living embodiment of the values, the purpose, the difference and the vision for being an authentic person regardless of where we are and with whom we are with.

The story that we tell ourselves is the secret to being situationally aware. If you are a person who finds him or herself overwhelmed by circumstances, people and change, then you need a story which helps you live in those moments that are threatening and uncomfortable. 

Where do you begin to write your story. Here are two suggestions.

1. Think of the situations where you are most comfortable. What are the values at work in those situations that you'd like to see in those uncomfortable situations.

2. Write a three sentence introduction of yourself that describes the person you believe you actually are. This is not what other people think of you, but you at your strongest, most impactful, most free and at peace self. Write it down, carry it with you, and edit it until you've found the story you really want to tell yourself. Then toss it away, and let your story unfold.

It all starts with personal initiative. One step. Then another. And another. If you need to share your story with someone outside of your world, send it to me. I'll not critique, but will ask questions to clarify, so you can be clear. Then you can go live the story you tell yourself.

Find other posts in this series on Situational Awareness:

Three Keys to Situational Awareness

The Speed of Change

The Social Space of Situational Awareness

Social Conformity and Situational Awareness

In the Moment of Situational Awareness

The Story We Tell Ourselves


The Edge of the Real: Our Fragmented World

Big Hole Battefield 1

I have been arguing that in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative. This has been much discussed recently, and very insightfully. It has often been remarked that making sense of one's life as a story is also, like orientation to the good, not an optional extra; that our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

Charles Taylor

We all exist in time. We know that yesterday we went to the market, and tomorrow, we'll visit with friends over dinner or spend our days at work. We look back in remembrance and forward in time with anticipation. We understand the cycle of time as a part of life.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes wrote a very long time ago,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
  a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
  a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

While we may acknowledge this to be true, we also desire for time to stand still. We desire stability and continuity, to keep the good and avoid the bad. This is a response to a world that is more fragmented than whole.

Look to the conditions of our external world. It is a world of change that is often disruptive, random and unwelcome. Yet, it is this very fragmented world that we ask to be consistent, stable and compatible enough to make us feel good about ourselves and provide a ground for a personal identity that can withstand the change we experience. This fragmentation is primarily between our inner selves and the world that is separate from us.

The challenge to be a whole and complete as a real person becomes more urgent as our world fragments into hyper-realities.  Of course, to see this, understand it, and live into it requires us  to understand how our inner and outer lives have become so fragmented, how the world is and is not a mirror of our inner state, and how we can establish a path to personal wholeness.

The Hyper-reality of the External World

The hyper-real social world that I describe in The Spectacle of the Real is a world of random experiences that are presented to us as daily events of significance intended to define who we are as people.

Look at your Twitter or Facebook feed, or, watch the news scroll across the bottom of the screen of your favorite news channel, and you'll see events, causes, ideas and personalities that are promoted as information that is important for us to engage. These status updates are not descriptions of all that is taking place, but rather a filtering of what is important and what is not. The selection of what is included and not included is commentary on the news, not the news itself.

ALL media content is mediated content, not raw data for our own critical mind to determine whether it is news or not.

The early promise of social media was as a more or less unfiltered reservoir of people and information to connect and engage.  Social media sites have evolved into clever, highly sophisticated advertising platforms, promoting not just products for sale, but perspectives and social philosophies intended to guide our understanding of the future and our place in it. The more they know about us through our social media postings, website selections and online purchases, the tighter and more closed the sources of information that are provided to us.

The hyper-reality of social media fragments the narrative sense of our lives, that Charles Taylor describes. For our lives to be understood as a continuous, unfolding story, we need to be able to see our life experience as a whole in two ways. First, as having continuity and connection over the entire length of our lives, and second, as being open to what is new, different and unpredictable.

Hyper-real contexts always place us on the outside of the screen, looking in at those who are doing the real living. We are meant to see a reality that is larger and more important than our own existence, filled with the fascinating people we must follow, and never, ever, involving us as direct participants in their lives. The result is that our inner lives take on a stunted, not flourishing life, disconnected from an outside world that can fully engage us

I have often heard people say in response to my daily change of my Facebook cover picture, how much they would like to go to the places that I have been. There is nothing unusual about those places. Many are within minutes of where I live. Or, the number of times the thought has crossed our minds about how much we would like to do what those crazy guys in a YouTube video did or say what they said. Social media sharing is a vicarious experience, not a direct one, as it is not quite as real as the one we create when we act upon some desire to go see a concert or hike to a beautiful mountain waterfall.

The reality is that the attraction of the screen is always random, momentary and intermitant, never whole or complete. Our lived lives, on the other hand can be filled with meaning, friendship and a real sense of accomplishment and contribution.

As Umberto Eco wrote in Travels in Hyperreality"the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." This is the hyper-real, social media context in which we seek to understand who we are as persons. The more deeply engaged in this hyper-real world we become, the more disconnected we become from our inner selves.

The Numbed Self, or, The Hyper-Real Inner Life

Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1960s, was one of the first to recognize the social impact of images on a screen. His most famous epigram is the medium is the message. In McLuhan's most important book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man there is a chapter entitled The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis. In this essay, he uses the Greek story of Narcissus as a way of seeing the effect that electronic technology has upon us a persons.

"The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions ...

... the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is, perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus!"

Narcissus was unaware that the image was of him. His inner self-awareness was disconnected from the external reality of the pool. His sense of self or identity was broken.  His awareness of who he was had been severed from his awareness of the world beyond his perception. The wholeness of life was lost on him. He had no way to tell a complete or whole story of seeing his reflection in the water, because his perception of the image in the water and his self-perception were disconnected. He was a fragmented man captivated by a hyper-real image in the water.

McLuhan was one of the first media critics to see electrical technology as a tool for replacing our sense of identity with an artificial image. The computer screen, the iPad, the Smart Phone are objects which are now extensions of our identities, representing our inner selves in the outer world. This is why it is do difficult to let go of them. To let go is to lose our identity.  Whatever is on the screen is not who we are, but, rather, a substitute representation, a hyper-real presence.

Sherry Turkle two decades ago began to speak about how Life on the Screen provides us multiple identities. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other  she has similar insights as McLuhan's.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run.

... we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.

But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes. And with constant connection comes new anxieties of disconnection, ...

This is a fragmented relational world lived through the hyper-space of the screen.

At The Edge

Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, draws a distinction between the self of the modern age and that of the premodern one. He speaks of the modern self as being "buffered" against the intrusion of the outside world, and the pre-modern self as being "porous" so as to allow what is in the outside world to take on meanings that intrude into our sense of who we are.

By definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the "mind"; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.

As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don't need to "get to me", to use the contemporary expression. That's the sense to my use of the term "buffered" here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

... the porous self is vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.

... the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

As Taylor's description shows, the separation between our inner selves, or "minds"  and the world at large is much more complex than simply identifying either a connection or a detachment between our inner and outer worlds.

The point I wish to draw here is that the extremes of either a "buffered" or "porous" self are products of the fragmentation of the world in which we live. Wholeness is discovered, lived out, at the boundary between them, which I'm calling The Edge of the Real.

Two Questions

There are two questions that I wish to raise that I will pick up in part two of this essay.

1. Is the fragmentation between our inner selves and the outside world neutral, neither good nor bad, just the way things are, and therefore, just something to adjust and adapt to each day?

I am asking whether what I have said thus far has any merit. Am I just creating an issue where this is none?

I ask this because Taylor in his A Secular Age clearly shows that there are benefits to living a bounded, buffered life, creating a safe space between my inner self and the outer world.

2. If this fragmentation is unhealthy, then what does it mean to be a whole person, and how does one bridge, cross over, heal the gap between our inner lives and the outer world?

I ask this question because of what I observe in people who are broken and people who are whole. I see a pattern or a collection of patterns that point to how the boundary between the world of our minds can engage in the world apart can become a place where life is made whole.

The Edge of the Real is a place of discovery. In part two, I'll explore what I see as the source of wholeness, and part three how to create wholeness in our lives and work.


The Art of the Real

 

Aviary Photo_130247938124161624

Analytical writing ceases to be able to express what is real and what we know about it.

Christian Smith

What is a Person?

Christian Smith's statement is particularly true of writing about beauty. For beauty, as in this vase created by Mollie Curtis of Laguna, New Mexico, is something that must be encountered in the real of life. The moment I saw it, I couldn't take my eyes off it. It isn't just the pattern, but the creativity that went into it. All by hand. No template. No formula. As she told me, a blank slate when she began. Just imagination applied in shape and image. For me, this is symbolic of the real that cannot be put fully into words. It must be encountered, not simply observed.

It is, also, somewhat contradictory to think that writing about reclaiming the real is an act of reclaiming it. The real is something that can only be reclaimed in the world of experience, of doing, of action, in creativity and through change and transformation. It is more than what goes on in our heads. It engages the fullness of our body's senses, emotions and thoughts. It connects to the moment of encounter with past remembrances of similar encounters, and gives a grounding to understand our place in time and place. This is what it means to live in the real. It is full, complete, integral and alive.  

We do need words to help us tell the story that gives meaning to the work of art and to life as a whole. In many senses that story is a story of human encounter. This is why the best novelist creates for us a real world in our imagination. She elicits from us emotions and memories, images in our minds that create a world in which we are apart as the story teller proceeds.

Carried out in the fullness of our lives, the words come to us within a context that guides us to see how we can act, not just feel. To make a difference that matters, that gives meaning to the action itself, we must be engaged in a real context as whole persons. To reclaim reality today, we must articulate why it is necessary, and why we have a problem at all.

The Inadequacy of Analytical Observation

Christian Smith's statement above gets at part of the issue, that of treating reality from an analytical perspective. This is what Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist discovered as he studied the cultures of North Africa. He found that the analytical tradition that emerged out of the European Enlightenment two centuries before was inadequate. He writes,

Objectivism constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up a 'point of view' on the action and who, putting into the object the principles of his relation to the object, proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and as if all the interactions within it were purely symbolic exchanges. 

Let's look at what he is saying here.

Objectivism is a belief that we can know something by standing apart from it. From the observers point of view everything is an object for detached observation and evaluation.

In its most benign sense, it is what the clinical lab does with the blood after your doctor draws it from your arm during your annual physical. Back from the lab comes a reading of your blood count that gives your doctor an indication of your health. However, as essential as this data is, it is your doctor's ability to see the whole context of your body's health that gives meaning to the data in the blood analysis. What matters is not an analytical reading, but a synthetic one that blends analytical analysis with an understanding of who this particular person is in their life context.

Detached observation and analysis has become the primary means for critics and commentators in the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics and society at large to present themselves as authorities.  They speak with an air of authenticity. As alleged 'objective' observers, they claim to provide "objective" knowledge for the viewing public. They exist to inform us about the issues of the day, and guide us towards a "correct" understanding of events.

Watch them on television as they interview the subjects of their observations, the practitioners of whatever arena the commentators are observing and their condescension emerges. Because they are detached, analytical observers, they believe they are more honest, objective critics. Listen carefully to their questions, and a formula reveals itself. It is the formula of The Spectacle of the Real, that I've written about in this series of posts. There I write,

Fueled by a 24/7 news cycle, actual news - a statement of "facts" that an event, an accident, a death, an agreement, a visit or something has taken place, described in the traditional journalistic parlance of "who, what, when and where" - is transformed into a spectacle of opinion and virtual reality driven by the images of faces speaking words of crisis, fear and self-righteous anger. Televised analysis - more important than the "facts" of the story- drives the news through the ambiguity of the visual image and is its source of validation.

The problem is that there is an 'accepted' narrative, and an 'unaccepted' one. The former we must 'accept' on face value, because it comes from those who have been chosen as "authoritative" interpreters of events. In this sense, the real is not authentic, the 'narrative' is the substitute for the real. The acceptance of the broadcast narrative leads to an audience and a populace who are passive receivers, dependent upon their daily missives from the screen to tell them what is true and real. This is the nature of the world as a series of spectacles as French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord has written in his book, Society of the Spectacle.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ...

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. ...

The concept of "spectacle" unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible.

Life seen as a series of spectacles, without continuity or reality, but rather a bright, shiny appearance of something of significance.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, tells the story of the French Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. In that day, the public celebration of art was governed by the French government. An annual artistic competition called The Salon was held to determine the best (good?) art of the day. Repeatedly, the grand epic paintings of day were chosen, and the Impressionists paintings of ordinary life through very different images of color and technique were rejected. Gladwell writes,

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. Everyone at the Cafe Guerbois agreed on that. But the acceptance by the Salon came with a cost: it required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful, and they risked being lost in the clutter of other artists' work. Was it worth it? Night after night, the Impressionists argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The Spectacle of the Real is a constant reminder to each of us that the world is a Big Pond, and we are all tiny minnows. We are dependent upon them for their observations to determine who we are, what we are to believe and how we are to live.

It is impossible with this kind of manufactured narrative-based, posed objectivity to establish a basis for understanding what is real. Every person has a 'point of view' that they use as the basis of their analysis. Everyone of us. We, each one, speak from a context that disqualifies us as objective presenters of reality. This isn't a problem, but a social asset. Our point of view is OUR perspective. Just as The Impressionists perspective was THEIR perspective.

Context matters because it is the ground upon which we live in the real. The further we distance ourselves from the spectacle of manufactured opinion, the more likely it is that we will discover the value of our own opinion, and consequently begin to express it inways that are creative and elevating to the worlds in which we move.

It is important, therefore, that we own our prejudices, claim our perspective as our own, and speak and act from a standing position in the arena of life. In doing so, we are better able to engage in conversation and deliberation about the crucial issues of our time, because we are honest about our bias and perspective, and have the humility and self-confidence to listen, learn and engage with people of differing view points. But to get there, we must see clearly how objectivity is a mask for prejudice.

What is good art?

In college, I took one philosophy course.  It was on the philosophy of art. I took it because I was interested in art, especially the visual arts, and wanted to develop my critical faculties for understanding what I saw.  The professor told us, at the beginning of the course, that we'd spend the semester exploring art from the standpoint of what is 'good' as a way to get at what art is. What he did not tell us at the time, but became obvious, fairly quickly, was that he did not believe that there was such a quality as good.

As the semester proceeded, many of us in the class became increasingly aware that while our professor claimed an objective perspective as our academic authority, we students increasingly did not. Instead, we viewed him as a dishonest teacher of philosophy. Ultimately, it was not his stated position on 'the good' or art that disqualified him as a professor worthy of our respect and allegiance, but, rather, his constant denigration of students who saw things differently, who were trying to work out in their own real world context the meaning of art and the good. What I learned from that semester is that all knowledge is interpreted knowledge, interpreted from within a person's own life experience.

Habitus

The issue here is not that we have opinions, but the relation that our opinions have to reality. Bourdieu writes,

... The theory of practice as practice insists contrary to positivist materialism, that the objects of knowledge are constructed, not passively recorded, and, contrary to intellectualist idealism, that the principle of this construction is the system of structured, structuring dispositions, the habitus, which is constituted in practice and is always oriented toward practical functions.

To know something is not to know it as an object, but rather as a part of a living context that is constantly in flux, always changing, and in which we live each day. To know something, anything, is 'to learn' to know it. This knowing is an engagement, or as Bourdieu calls it, a habitus, that involves us in the thing to be known.

These 'structuring dispositions' or habitus are the virtues that Aristotle writes about in his Nichomachean Ethics. Virtue is more than an ethical perspective as in "She is a virtuous lady" or "He is a good man."  Rather, it is a learned mastery of living. It is life as a craft to be mastered, a work of art to be created over the course of our lifetime. It is our capacity to live fully in a real world, with all its hardship of work, pain and suffering, along side the beauty and goodness that we can create through our own desires for meaning, connection and impact. Aristotle writes,

Virtue, then, is of two kinds, intellectual and moral.  Intellectual virtue owes both its inception and its growth to instruction, and for this very reason needs time and experience. Moral goodness, on the other hand, is the result of habit, from which it has actually got its name, being a slight modification of the word ethos. This fact makes it obvious that none of the moral virtues is engendered in us by nature, since nothing that is what it is by nature can be made to behave differently by habituation.

But the virtues we do acquire by first exercising them, just as happens in the arts. Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones ...

We don't know something because we read a book about it, or took a class on it. We know something by living in a learning relationship with it. Mollie Curtis did not wake up one morning and create beautiful pottery automatically. She learned over many, many years how to create a work of art as the one shown above.

The vase is a whole and complete expression of Mollie's art. It stands alone. It is does not need reference to anything else to be complete. It is not symbolic of anything. It is a work of art that is whole and complete in itself. As a result, it will be a lasting source of fascination as it resides in my home.

It is an expression of a creative life of integrity. Nothing artificial, nothing intended to push a perspective, just art for the sake of creating something beautiful.

 This vase is a product of the mastery (virtue) of Mollie's craft. It is good because it is a reflection of her learned skills. Goodness is another way of talking about excellence. As a work of excellence, it stands on its own, as a unique expression of the artist her self.

The Choice

Ultimately, it is not necessary to understand the inner workings of the Spectacle of the Real. All that is required to reclaim the real is to act, to create, to contribute to the world in which you live.

Start somewhere, and go where it leads. As you do, your world will expand. It doesn't expand by spending more time passively observing others expressing their 'authoritative' opinion. It does not because it lacks a context in which you live.

Plan each day to choose to do something that makes a difference that matters. By doing so, by focusing on creating impact, you turn away from a passive fascination with the spectacles of our time.

Ask yourself these questions.

Why is it important to understand why Mylie Cyrus has taken her performance craft in the direction that it has?

Why is it important to pick sides in the political games that Washington plays to distract us from what is really going on?

Why is it important to know how much money NFL quarterbacks make each year?

Now ask, how does this change my life, and especially what I'm going to do today?

More importantly, what will I do differently because of knowing more about these spectacular subjects?

Follow the desires that we all share. There are three of them.

1. That our lives have personal meaning.

2. That our relationships are to be health and happy.

3. That we make a difference that matters with our life.

We all share these desires. They are part of what makes us human. And to flourish as human beings, we must find ways for these desires to live and find fulfillment.

Lastly, think for yourself. Don't let anyone tell you what you must believe, think or do. Stand fast as a person of dignity, with gifts to share, having a purpose that elevates your life and the lives of others.

This is how we create our lives as works of art that enable us to reclaim the real.

May this be true for you and all those whom you touch with your life's work.

*******

This post is apart of the Reclaiming the Real series. Links to the other posts can be found here.


Reclaiming the Real through the Living Past

Aviary Photo_130143349190604384"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Gavin Stevins

Requiem for a Nun

William Faulkner

The Spectacle of the Real penetrates into all aspects of contemporary life. It isn't just about the media, or the news, politics or sports. It is also about family and history.

Families get trapped into the culture of the spectacle when the externals of consumer choice determine how a family positions themselves within the social environment of their community.  The context of history provides a counter-balance as past generations' culture of identification provides perspective for self-identification.

The advent of "moving pictures" over a century ago in films and later television initiated the use of images as a way to depict the real world. Over the decades, the image on the screen became increasingly a hyper-reality.  Post-World War II families, as presented on the screen, were understood to be a cultural standard for what a typical, traditional, middle class American family should be. The emergence of a new and growing middle class marked the shift of families out of the the poverty of the Depression era as a new society of consumers, with Hollywood and Madison Avenue as their guide.

Television's presentation of families shifted over time to become less traditional to more hyper-real and spectacular. Beginning with the traditional family of The Donna Reed Show, to all-male families of My Three Sons and Bonanza, to the pristine frontier family of Little House on the Prairie to the blended family of The Brady Bunch, each family represented a type of growing hyper-real traditionalism, where what constituted a family became less and less defined. 

The ironic genius of Norman Lear in the late 60s and 70s, entered new families in shows like All in the Family, One Day at a Time, and The Jeffersons as the traditional understanding of the family was turned upside down.The span of television's perspective on the family came full circle as the Huxtable's of the Cosby Show were an updated affirmation of traditional family values and structure.

The_Loud_Family_1973All these shows, though were fictionalized families in situation-comedies and historical dramas. Even as a kid, I knew they were not real families. Then in 1973, An American Family premiered on PBS. This was the first truly reality-based show. The series followed The Loud family through their daily lives. One son, Lance, came out as gay during the series. The parents, Pat and Bill, separated and divorced during the series. It began the trend toward reality television that continues to this very day in series like, The Real Housewives of Orange County. 

The spectacle of hyper-reality is detached and voyeuristic at its core. It builds around the attraction of the images and stories whose unbelievability makes them all the more believable.There is fascination in people who are somewhat like us, yet, not like us at all. This is the pull of hyper-reality.

As a result, history has become less a continuing story of the past, but, rather, a design backdrop for the present.

History as Context for the Real

My son Troop and I have a long running, ongoing conversation about history, its place in the modern world, and its effect upon our family.

As a young man, he is seeking to understand history through the craft of writing novels. I find his insights deep, rich and expansive. He has begun a multi-volume history of one North Carolina farm family through many generations. The first volume of this family's story, The Knot of Home, will be published later this summer. Here he describes the cycle of stories that he has begun.

Stories have beginnings and ends, we all know, but sometimes we aren't aware of the start until we have already reached the finish.  Maybe we were simply unaware of what was happening, or were born at the wrong time to have seen the whole of the story from its inception. 

Arlen Breckenridge came to realize this too.  Perhaps he feared that he was at the end of the cycle, that the family ways would all die with him.  But that gave him the ability to look back to the beginning of his story, embodied in his family, and understand.

The Knot of Home, though chronologically the last, is in truth the first of several books in The Breckenridge Cycle.  Each book in the Cycle will examine the roots of the American agrarians, their values, their ways, and what they fought to build and preserve, often in vain, as America modernized.  The Cycle will illuminate for all Americans what has been lost and forgotten, but what can be remembered and upheld, if we just have a little imagination.

Following one of our late night conversations about history and our time, I asked him to put in writing what he had said. Here's a portion of what he sent.

Rather than a distinct collection of facts that we know are right, have been tested and proven, are easily definable, and can be used to justify any theory or position on the world (present and past) in a neat, bibliographical form, history is rather a massive, ill-defined, humbling dialogue, both between individuals, but also larger groups, communities, etc; and also between the self-conscious thinker and his acknowledgement of his own influences, personality, and tendencies.

The latter definition encompasses everything - every discipline, field, tool, etc. - as a way for understanding the world in relation to the past (which is really the only real world, because it colors our view of the present). Thus it can build something by the agglomeration, juxtaposition, tension, or negation of various ways of looking at the world.

To get at both a certain true historical reality and thus a workable method for living in real, current world (two sides of the same coin), I am not writing any academic history. I am not dealing with facts, because the tested and proven facts that I was given by those who have "done the work" before me do not explain the reality that keeps poking its Cyrano de Bergerac nose through the curtain. Thus I combine from different sources - folk tales; philosophy; my own archaeology of past behavior in certain groups of "backwards" people; personal letters; psychology; traditional histories; and literary archetypes. These all prove to be different tools for getting at the same thing, which you will never do perfectly. For choosing one of these methods for understanding is as arbitrary as choosing "facts." There is no rational (or otherwise) criteria for choosing facts as criteria. But if you understand the uses of each method and are prepared to create a dialogue between them (both in your own head and potentially between other people who represent a given method), then you stand a chance at working out some kind of synthesis. ...It is all context, then. It is also the universal. ... Thus the dialogue runs on, getting closer to the truth, but always needing expansion. (Emphasis mine.)

This historical context for recovering the real is a dialogue that takes place with many contexts, not just one or two.  Most of us can access these histories. They are embedded in our families and the communities where we live. We do so by talking with others, doing some leg-work, doing research online, and being aware of the historic connections that exist between the present and the past.

The Context of Family

I have a photo file of grave markers of the members of my family, from both my mother's and father's side, going as far back as six generations. I have been accused, jokingly, but not without cause, of practicing ancestry worship; it isn't worship, but honor and remembrance.

8191045504_26c1d20530_b

The scene above is of the Brinegar Cabin where Martin (1856-1925) and Caroline (1861-1943) Brinegar settled after they migrated into the mountains from the foothills of the Piedmont region of North Carolina in the late 1800s. This cabin is preserved by the National Park Service within the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway (Mile Marker 238.5). The Brinegar's (notice the different spelling from mine, Brenegar) are "distant" cousins. We have to go back about five or six generations to find the family connection between my father's line and Martin's.

The story of Martin and Caroline and their cabin provides context for understanding my father's father's family who lived within a twenty mile ride of the Brinegar's before they moved to the mountain. Seeing the contrast between Martin and Caroline's life and my grandfather's family's life in town has provided me and my family perspective on who we are.

What is that story? Martin's lineage were farmers. My grandfather's were merchants, clerks and government workers.

On both sides of my family, I cannot find a single farmer within the past five generations. One great, great grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. Another great, great grandfather was a newspaper man, and his father ran a general store. My mother's father's mother's grandfather (my great, great, great grandfather) was a farmer in the Swannanoa River Valley of Buncombe County, North Carolina. One great grandfather was a lawyer, another a banker. Others were politicians and civic leaders. My father's father worked as clerk for a tobacco company. My other grandfather was a lawyer and a veteran of the battles in France during the First World War. No farmers after the first half of the 19th. century though.

What does this family history tell me, my siblings and my children? It shows how we were part of the growing modernization of the region and the nation. That there are reasons why we are more mobile, less rooted in the soil, and why our consumer tastes are more urban than rural.

I understand the reasons why my mother's mother told the stories that she did. Why she impressed upon us certain values. Why family was important. It wasn't about pride. It was about history and honor for those who came before us, and about never bringing shame to the family.  It is identity and meaning that links generations of my family over the past 300 years.

My mother was a Morrison. Our Morrison line came from one of three brothers that came over from Scotland in 1750. Those three brothers ended up in the Rocky River community of Cabarras County, north of Charlotte, North Carolina. Two sisters there have done the genealogical research and produced a volume on each of the brother's lineage. It is fascinating to see time through the lives of these families. It is more than a history of the nation. It is a tangible way to understand the social, economic and political changes that have taken place over the past three centuries.

My father's family came to America in 1730 on a ship from Germany into Philadelphia. The Bruenenger's, as the name was spelled then, eventually migrated, like my Morrison kin into the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The two families were only about 65 miles apart. And yet, it was not until around 1949-50 that my parents met, and these two families were joined in their marriage.

Our family histories are not just about family, but about identity, place and community. In understanding them as living histories, we begin to understand ourselves within the context of each day's historical transition from the past to the future.

Traditions: Dead or Alive

I know many families that are broken, as spouses, children, siblings, parents and grandparents are at odds with one other. There is something missing from their relationships. It is only partly the self-centered independence of our time. That is too simple an explanation for the problems that I have seen in many families during my lifetime. 

The lack of a broader context for understanding who the family is, and the obligations that come with being family is a greater contributing factor. The weaknesses that I see are not because these families are not following a traditional path of recognized family values. In fact, many of these families, that are in distress, are very traditional in their approach to being a family. The reality though is that the family doesn't work for each member. There is a failure for the family unit to provide a sufficient environment for the child to discover her or his identity in the context of the history of the family.

For many families, the expectation placed on the younger generation is that they will follow along the path that previous generations have trod. That loyality to home and hearth is to resist change, and sublimate one's own personality and sense of call in life to the family. This is the heart of Rod Dreher's story, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, where he leaves his small town Louisiana home to discover his course in life, returning after the death of his sister, to discover a part of his family's life that he had missed by moving away.

Col AH Belo - 55th NC CSA
Col. AH Belo - 55th NC regiment, CSA

This also part of the story that my son Troop is writing in his The Breckenridge Cycle of novels.

We all wonder what it means to go home. For Arlen Breckenridge, it is no different. Leaving his North Carolina farm to fight a bloody war across Europe, Arlen finds that the memory his own home, a real and lasting place, is the only thing that makes him fight on. He hopes to protect it and return to it. But when he returns the hero, Arlen is a different man. His little rural world has changed, too, and Arlen is left almost alone, trying to bring the soil of his old farm back to life. Was all his sacrifice, misunderstood by everyone around, all for nothing? Or can he find redemption in how he has changed, able to make his home, his farm and family, live once again?

The larger context of family history is recognizing that each generation has had to establish their own path, while maintaining connection and respect for the past. At the heart of this context are values that provide a basis for understanding what has worked and has not worked in the past for families.

How we approach our family's histories is a guide to how we can approach history in general. If we close off understanding of the past because there are unpleasant aspects of it, the presence of the proverbial horse thief or scoundrel, then we also close ourselves off to a recognition of values that are worthy of elevation, and have served to define us as people.

Younger generations often struggle with the forced allegiance to family traditions that seem without logic or reason.  This is often their parents and grandparents fault for failing to articulate the significance of the values that are at the center of their family's history. Families, like other traditional social and organizational structures, can fall into the trap of simply doing things because that is the way it has always been done. However, if they looked back in their history as a family or group, they'd see that those hardened traditions had a beginning in time that were created with the same sort of resistance to change as new ideas today

There is a difference between traditions that are alive and those that are merely habitual. The difference are values that provide the glue to the relationships. Values, when they are elevated to a place of engagement, are a living context for families. 

In my own family's history, I go back to the decision my great, great, great grandfather, the proprietor of the general store mentioned above, gave to his son to make at the outbreak of the Civil War. The choice was to stay home, help his father run the store, or leave as a volunteer, and if so, the store would close. He chose to join the Confederate volunteers from North Carolina and spend the next four years at war. 

Choice, responsibility and contribution are values that are part of my family's past that live on in how we function as a family today. The strength of those values provides the glue that holds us together as we live in different parts of the country and world, and as we, like all families, go through times of trial.

Living within the context of history enables us to know and understand who we are. This is particularly true for families. Without a grounding in the past, even if that past is not one of strength, provides a context for knowing what are the values upon which we can build our future. 

Recovering the real from the hyper-reality of today's culture of the spectacle is partly accomplished by remembering the past as a living reality, here and now, in the present. Memory becomes an important aspect of this process of recovery, and is the subject of the next post in this series.

Poetic Postscript

2010-11-08 13.36.32

After posting, I decided to add this poem by Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry.

Testament

Wendell Berry

And Now in the Abbyss I pass

Of that Unfathomable Grass …

1.

Dear Relatives and friends, when my last breath

Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death –

A world to enrich the undertaker and inspire

His surly art of imitating life, conspire

Against him. Say that my body cannot now

Be improved upon; it has no fault to show

To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh

Has a perfection in compliance with the grass

Truer than any it could have striven for.

You will recognize the earth in me, as before

I wished to know it in myself: my earth

That has been my care and faithful charge from birth

And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,

And all my hopes. Say that I have found

A good solution, and am on my way

To the roots. And say I have left my native clay

At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.

Traveler to where? Say you don’t know.

 

2.

But do not let your ignorance

Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay

You, or overwhelm your thoughts.

Be careful not to say

 

Anything too final. Whatever

Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger

Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought

Let imagination figure.

 

Your hope. That will be generous

To me and to yourselves. Why settle

For some know-it-all’s despair

When the dead may dance to the fiddle

 

Hereafter, for all anybody knows?

And remember that the Heavenly soil

Need not be too rich to please

One who was happy in Port Royal.

 

I may be already heading back

A new and better man, toward

That town. The thought’s unreasonable,

But so is life, thank the Lord!

 

3.

So treat me, even dead,

As a man who has a place

To go, and something to do.

Don’t muck up my face.

 

With wax and powder and rouge

As one would prettify

An unalterable fact

To give bitterness the lie.

 

Admit the native earth

My body is and will be,

Admit its freedom and

Its changeability.

 

Dress me in the clothes

I wore in the day’s round.

Lay me in a wooden box.

Put the box in the ground.

   

4.

Beneath this stone a Berry is planted

In his home land, as he wanted.

He has come to the gathering of his kin,

Among whom some were worthy men,

 

Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,

But one was a cobbler for Ireland,

 

Another played the eternal fool

By riding on a circus mule

 

To be remembered in grateful laughter

Longer than the rest. After

 

Doing what they had to do

They are at ease here. Let all of you

 

Who yet for pain find force and voice

Look on their peace, and rejoice.

 

from Collected Poems 1957-1982, Wendell Berry, North Point Press, 1985.

 

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


Parallel Structures of Networks of Relationships


Structure - Collaborative into Hierarchy
One of the questions that continues to dominate many of the conversations that I have with organizational leaders is the one related to how they should structure their business.

For example, yesterday in a conversation with a friend and client, we discussed the role of the administrative assistant in his business. Like many small businesses, this role has shifted from an essential one to a discretionary one. Many employment positions have gone away because the benefit does not match their cost.

The issue isn't whether the tasks that these people do are not valuable.

The issue is whether the role as defined is.

This is a picture of the shift being taken in many places from a traditional hierarchical business structure to one that I call a parallel one. This parallel structure is a network of relationships.

Hierarchy-NetworkRelationships

As you can see by this chart, there are some real differences between the traditional approach to organizing a business, and one built around relationships.  This shift is hard for everyone who has spent their work life in a hierarchical structure.

In the traditional approach, a person is hired to fill a position. That position has a job description that outlines the specific tasks and responsibilities that they are to do. The employee's expectation is that is what their time at work will be like each day. Completing tasks that are assigned through the organizational design of the company. Responsibility is passed down to the employee,while authority is held at the top. This system worked well during an era of easy growth and social continuity.  It does so because the ultimate purpose of the organization is institutional integrity.

In a network of relationships parallel structure, the job description is also relational. It means that the individual's character and engagement with people is part of what makes them a valued employee. Some may think this has always been true. And that is correct. These parallel structures of relationships have always formed when a specific need emerges. But they were seen as temporary or adhoc, not a permanent or essential part of the organization's structure.

What We Want

The greatest business failure of the past thirty years has not been scandals or financial collapses. It is the failure of business to understand the value of their employees. This failure originates in the structure of businesses.

If employees are functionaries in an administrative, production system, then their value is diminished, by let say at least 30%, and in some cases twice that.

If the business is organized to create order, then employees are hired to comply with that order. Institutional integrity becomes the goal of the organization.

However, in a network of relationships model, people bring much more to their work. This is what the team building movement has been teaching us for a generation. How people relate and work together is a key ingredient in an organization's success.

I suspect though that here again the value of the individual to company is still not perceived well.

If you were to sit down with each employee for coffee and talk about their lives, you would find what I am finding. There are three things that they want. Everyone says them differently, but they can be summarized simply. 

Life-Work Goals
People want their lives and work to be

Personally Meaningful,

          Socially Fulfilling, and

                    Make a Difference that Matters.

This is what we all want. We want the values that matter to us to be central in how we live. We want some kind of purpose for our lives. There needs to be a point to it.

We also want our relationships to be healthy and whole. We don't like conflict. We don't like to be manipulated, to be taken for granted, or to be used for someone's selfish purposes. We want to walk into work hopeful and excited about the opportunity to share my day with the people with whom I work.

We want to feel at the end of the day that we did something that made a difference. Listen to what people say when they talk about a good day. One where they accomplished something. They overcame a challenge or an obstacle and succeeded at it. Also, they did something for someone else that was appreciated. It made a difference. There was real satisfaction in helping solve person's problems. That's what we want.

The Circle of Impact Connection

The lesson for me when I began to see this picture emerge is how congruent it was to the three dimensions of leadership that I had identified as the Circle of Impact.

Circle of Impact- simple
The three dimensions that command every leader's attention are Ideas, Relationships and Structure. We tend to segregate them, thinking that it is easier that way. Instead it creates confusion and greater complexity. That is why the four Connecting Ideas - Purpose or Mission, Values, Vision and Impact - are essential tools for helping link together the three dimensions.  And it begins by clarifying the Connecting Ideas.

The Circle of Impact applies to both kinds of structures, traditional and parallel, because this is a basic, fundamental understanding of all organizations, regardless of type. Every organization must address its ideology, its social context and how the business is structured to achieve impact. All of them. However, here's the difference.

The parallel structure, described above, is a Network of Relationships. Just like in a traditional hierarchical setting, this organizational structure requires attention to the Connecting Ideas, relationships and the organization of their work.

Networks of Relationships are formed around a Shared Mission and Shared Responsibility, where leadership, authority and responsibility to contribute are shared.

From this perspective of Shared Leadership, the responsibility of the individual is to take initiative to create impact. This is the most basic contribution of the team member. And because the group is organized as a network of relationships, their collaboration and communication is an essential focus of their relationships.

Three Contributions

Most of us have experienced team work where there was a genuine experience of coming together as a group of shared purpose and contribution. And most likely, we see these experiences as the exceptions in our lives.

Let's return to my conversation with my friend and client about the administrative staff person in his office.

How can this perspective about parallel structures, networks of relationships, shared mission, shared responsibility, shared leadership and impact fit into his traditional business structure?  

It begins with recognizing that each individual has unrealized potential waiting to be released. Everyone of us wants to work in an environment that is personally meaningful, socially fulfilling and makes a difference that matters. If that is so, then the first step is figuring out how those three personal goals can become the basis for the contributions of each person.

As a result, each person contributes that which is personally meaningful. Each person contributes in their interpersonal interaction that which is socially fulfilling. And each person contributes out of their own talent, expertise and character of personal initiative those actions that create the impact that makes a difference that matters.

For each person to do this means that the social structure of the business must change. And this shift is based on what each person shares with the whole of the organization.

SharedNetworkRelationships
Here's the insight that is a key to understanding this organizational change. Because these networks of relationships are parallel structures, they can work along side of, and even within the traditional structures of hierarchy. In fact they always have. But rarely as a core strategy, but rather as a tactical approach to team work. 

We can see this is the way businesses define positions of employment. Instead of focused on contribution, the emphasis has been task oriented. As result, the value of the employee is not realized, and it makes the case for reductions in force must easier to make.

The future belongs to these parallel structures. Let networks of relationships form. Let them take collective initiative to make a difference that matters, then new vitally and impact will emerge.


Creating an Open Culture of Gratitude*

Five Actions Gratitude- horizontal

The executive leaders of businesses are not just strategic decision-makers and systems managers, but the creators of culture.  This culture is the human dimension of their organization. It is how people interact, communicate, collaborate and operate ethically. 

There are some aspects of a healthy culture that transcend time and place, industry and organizational purpose. One of those marks is openness.

Two questions drive this interest for me.

What is an open culture?

How can the practice of gratitude contribute to it?

Think of a culture of a business as being the product of the ideas and relationships of people connected to it.

A culture has distinguishing characteristics, activities, branded products and services. and specific processes that represent that culture. It is also the connecting ideas of purpose or mission, values, vision and impact that are given life by the people within the culture. A culture is what binds people together as a group, a movement or an organization, and provides them a way to interact and support what matters to them collectively.

Cultures can be open or closed, healthy or dysfunctional, unified or confused, sustainable or dying.

The key to creating a healthy, sustainable culture is openness.

The Marks of an Open Culture

In an open culture there are low barriers to contributing.

A new person can join, and immediately make an impact. There is no process of jumping through hoops to determine whether you are worthy of contributing. I see this particularly in social organizations, whether a club or religious congregation. In an open culture, people join and start participating and contributing right away. Their contribution is valued and recognized.

Another characteristic of an open organizational culture is a high incidence of personal initiative being taken by members. In my mind, initiative is the beginning of all leadership. Without initiative, there is no leadership, only passive followership.

In a closed culture, the initiative is reserved for the authority figures. They decide what the group does and doesn’t do. This high control environment means that personal initiative is resisted and those who may be more independent, creative and innovative in their attitudes and behaviors are discouraged or punished for being so. In an open culture, people recognize that they have the opportunity and responsibility to create new and better ways of realizing the impact of their organization. So, they take personal initiative to make difference that matters.

A third mark is that openness creates a higher level of adaptability. In a closed culture, the mindset becomes defensive and resistant to change. The assumption is that a culture is fixed in time, and remains the same over time.  Rather, what is fixed are the values that drive the culture. The expression of those values can change over time. But the values don't.

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book, Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, make the distinction between core values and cultural practices.

“Core Values are the organization’s essential and enduring tenets – a small set of timeless guiding principles that require no external justification.”

Cultural practices, in their model, are those practices that have replaced the core values as the drivers of the company. These practices have lost their connection to the core values with the result that the company becomes closed to opportunities through change.

In an open culture, values matter. 

Your mission or purpose can change. Your vision can change. Your understanding of the impact that you want to have can change. They can because you are adapting to changes that are occurring simultaneously throughout the landscape of your business.  What guides you through change are your values. 

In an open culture, people find a culture where there are low barriers to contributing, their personal initiative to make a difference that matters is welcomed, and the company adapts more easily to change by being rooted in its values.

The challenge to creating an open culture is implementation. It is one thing to have well defined connecting ideas. It is another thing to know how to act upon them within the structure of the organization.

What I've discovered is that the practice of gratitude, as characterized in Say Thanks Every Day: The Five Actions of Gratitude, is a set of strategic practices that support an open culture.

The Five Actions of Gratitude as Openness Strategy 

Each of the five actions is an outreach of openness to others. It is not protective, defensive, exclusionary or elitist. It is open, grateful, giving, welcoming, respectful and creative.

Five Actions Gratitude

To Say Thanks is appreciate the actions and impact of another person.

It is recognizing another person or group’s contribution to your life and work. It is also a type of self-awareness that sees the beneficial place of others in our life

To Give Back is to recognize that I want to give back in service to persons, groups or communities some measure of the goodness that I’ve received from them.

This is not a payback of a debt owed, except as a debt of gratitude. It is an act of thankful contribution.

Imagine if this was the culture of your office right now. What would it would it look like. Maybe, what you’d see is a higher level of not just contribution, but sharing of work and responsibilities so that it gets done, and done well.

To Make Welcome is to create an open environment for people to take initiative to contribute.

With openness comes personal responsibility to make the workplace a better place to work, to innovate ways to better serve customers, and to resolve problems and issues before the grow into a crisis.

This is the key action for creating an open culture. It requires a specific kind of leadership that permits others to lead along side one another. It is a culture of shared responsibility and opportunity.

To Honor Others is to treat people with dignity, respect and kindness.

These are values that characterize the best of relationships. The are the basis for a culture of gratitude and trust.

The reality for most businesses is that these are rarely evident with any degree of strength. Why is it so?  My guess is that these practices require effort and commitment.  They do not easily translate to a company's bottom-line. They are not typically the qualifications for executive leadership. These values only create efficiency when the culture has reached a level of maturity. As noted above, it is this culture that produces the adaptability that is so essential for sustainable growth in the current business environment.

To Create Goodness is the outcome of an open culture that invites personal initiative to make a difference that matters.

Creativity is born in the initiative of a person. It rises from their values, their sense of purpose, the questions that lead them to explore new ways of doing the things and finally to make a difference that matters.

Goodness is the impact of an open culture. As the ancient Greeks understood goodness, it is a way to understand the fulfillment of purpose. It is way to understand wholeness, completeness, integrity and success. It is the fulfillment of the potential that resides in each of the connecting ideas. It is that intangible quality that brands the experience that people within a company's culture comes to measure the organization by.  It is the product of personal initiative, which flourishes within an open culture.

Creating an Open Culture of Gratitude

These practices are not just good ideas, which they are, not just good things to do, which they are, but more importantly a systemic strategy for the effective functioning of every organization. In order for a system of gratitude to be developed, the system that currently exists must be changed or replaced. It may be a small change or a large one, but turning your organization into an open culture of gratitude creates an environment of shared leadership that attracts the best talent to join you.

Leading in an Open Culture of Gratitude

I hear from people that gratitude is this sweet, grandmotherly sentiment that has little relevance to leading organizations. Obviously, they didn't know my grandmother. Instead, to practice gratitude as I've outlined here requires personal maturity, inner confidence, and a willingness to trust. Instead of it being trite, it is the most transformative, courageous thing an executive leader can do. 

To transform an organization’s culture from a closed one to an open one is dependent on the person at the top changing. It is a simple change, but a very difficult one. It is difficult because it is not tactical, but personal.

In order for an open culture of gratitude to grow, you have to decide that you are not the go-to-guy for everything, that you can’t make every decision, resolve every issue, be the king or queen on the throne, and be the one who dictates the course of your business. You can't even be the expert at creating an open culture of gratitude. You have to realize that you are a facilitator of talent, and that the value of that talent is only realized fully when each person is free to exercise their personal initiative for the greater good of the customer, other employees, the business and the community.

This is a change of mindset, of attitude and behavior. This is the supreme test of the character of the leader. Can you let go and let you people lead? If you can, then you can create an open culture of gratitude. If not, then you will be following those who can do it.

Openness is the key, and gratitude is the strategy that elevates openness to a practical, functional level.

Be grateful, giving, welcoming, honoring and creative and you’ll find new depth of impact emerging from the parts of your organization that have never produced to their potential. It all starts by being open and grateful.

* An earlier version of those post appeared as one of The Stewardship of Gratitude columns in Weekly Leader.


Are leaders born?

My friend, FC, asked me the other day in response to my Weekly Leader column, Luis Urzua: Exception or Standard? whether I thought he was a born leader. I responded with,

"Not really. I'd say he is an intentional leader. It is a moral question of choosing to lead, and lead in a particular way, and not one of personality or talent."

In respect to FC, let me offer more explanation.

For a long time the nature / nurture question of human development has been a standard by which questions, like the one FC raised is discussed. The longer I deal with issues of leadership, the more I see the nature/nurture, born or made question as a secondary, less relevant issue. Because I see too many people who would not be characterized as being born a leader, who are leaders whose life and work make a genuine difference.

Talent is a major topic in organizational circles today. The conversation revolves around how to recruit, train and retain top-flight talent. There is definitely an aspect of this discussion that relates to the question of whether some is born to be a leader. I am not saying that talent doesn't matter, only that it isn't what makes a leader.

Leadership is only realized in action, by what one does with the talent they are born with.

The personality-centric view of leadership commonly called the "great man"(sic) or heroic theory of leadership, promotes a limited, idealize view of what a leader does. It has suggested, wrongly in my opinion, that leadership is a product of the projection of a leader's personality upon a group or organization. It is condescending to followers, colleagues, employees or other leaders.

Luis Urzua's leadership is seen in the choices that he made. They are moral choices, not simply tactical or strategic ones.

To lead in the circmustances that he and the other 32 miners faced, required him to step beyond managing. His leadership created an environment that elevated a collection of men, who had a death sentence upon their heads as soon as the cave-in began, to be a team that survived in a remarkably healthy state.

Luis Urzua chose to lead by unifying his men through confidence, discipline, structure and a mutuality of equality. His leadership did not allow individual concerns that each man had to eclipse the needs of the whole group. Only as a whole and intact team would they have survived, and done so as well as they did.

Luis Urzua's leadership reminds me of the leadership of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking POW during the Vietnam War. I wrote about him here, here, and here. Their stories are similiar in that both were leaders of a group of men were living in a life and death situation. And both chose to lead in a manner that unified a group of men who easily could have lost hope, composure and began to think of their own survival as of utmost importance.

Leadership is a choice, and not a natural one. The natural choice is to put one's own welfare first, instead of the team's. I don't believe people are born to sacrifice their own benefit for the sake of others. It is something that is learned through mentorship, example, training and experience. For those for whom this kind of leadership seems so natural, my sense is that as a child they were influenced by leaders of this sort, and their home experience provided a learning environment to gain these values.

For Luis Urzua, it may well have been playing soccer. For James Stockdale, the lessons learned in studying the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. In both we see leadership that made the difference under the most extreme circumstances. As I point out in my Weekly Leader column, Luis Urzua's leadership is not the exception. It is the standard.


A Fine Line

On top of Max Patch

A fine line marks our lives.

Its a fine line that separates us from who we are today and our better selves, 

     between what we think and what we know,

          between what we desire and what we seek,

               between what we believe and what we do.

A fine line between what we are willing to try and what we will sacrifice.

A fine line between making a difference, and wasting our lives.

A fine line between fear and determination.

A fine line between failure and success.

A fine line between good and evil,

     between altruism and narcissism,

          between nobility and inhumanity.

A fine line between who we are and how people perceive us.

A fine line between who others are and how we perceive them.

A fine line between us and people who are different than us.

A fine line between what is normal and what is abnormal.

A fine line between what is acceptable and and what is not.

A fine line between comedy and tragedy,

     between humor and horror,

          between the fullness of life and the loss of it.

Yet, we live in a world where all these fine lines are portrayed as wide gulfs that we are unable to cross.

These gulfs represent the worst of ourselves. They are what divide us. They treat life as a dichotomy between one thing and another. As a result, they rid us of the beauty of ambiguity.

The fine line is a moving line that forces us to pay attention, to be aware, and to appreciate the subtle nuances that actually exist, so that we live as seekers, explorers and discoverers of what life offers.

To live with the fine line is to live with ambiguity. To do so means we break out of the ever narrowing boxes of perception that close us in, make us defensive, isolated, and out of touch with the world that exists on the other side.

The gulf of dichotomy is a fantasy world. It is not real. It is an illusion. It is a world of hermetically sealed categories that we embrace to avoid engagement what those people and arenas that we do not understand.

There is a fine line that most of us never cross. It is a line that breaks us out of the conformity of dichotomy, of the we-versus-them mindset that is a product of manipulation and control.

Are we afraid?

It is okay to say so.

Do we think for ourselves?

Or do we follow some conventional line of thought to fit in, to belong, to find some connection beyond ourselves. 

Do we lack personal initiative?

Do our actions defines us?

Actions of purpose and impact, not just calendars full of activities.  

Life's goodness and beauty doesn't come in a box from an online retailer. They aren't a commodity to acquire, to trade or to hedge against. It isn't one thing or another, it is embedded in the ambiguity that defines the fine line.

Recently, I wrote ...

Picture with me walking out to the edge of what you know and have experienced, and seeing a line. 

That line is the horizon of your life. It is way out there.

Or, it is right here, in front of you, close at hand, always marking the line that confronts you. Day by day, that line is getting closer and closer. Avoid it and you'll be boxed in, cornered, paralyzed by the ambiguity of the fine line.

The fine line is the horizon of our life. We live up against it everyday. Face up to it and find a life and work filled with goodness and beauty, meaning and fulfillment, and a difference that truly matters.

We have a choice. Accept the fine line, step across it, and embrace a world of ambiguity, goodness and beauty. Or, shrink back from it, embracing the gulf of dichotomy, and imprisoning ourselves in our own world of irreconcilable difference.

It's a fine line. Will you embrace it?


10 Actions that Make a Difference

10ACTIONS image
We all reach a point where the routine of our lives has bogged into a mindless repetition of the same actions. We can easily begin to feel cast adrift, lacking direction or the motivation to do the things you need to do. This is a sign that we are at transition point in our life and work.

At times like these it is one thing to change our thinking, it is a wholly other matter to change what we do.

Take these ten actions provide ways to break a routine so that new opportunities, ideas and behaviors may emerge. 

1. Write down your thoughts in phrases, especially those that wake you up in the middle of the night. Look for patterns. What gets repeated? Then ask, what change or reaffirmation of a commitment is this pattern of thought leading me to make?

2. Read one book outside your field of expertise and interest. Make at least one application of an insight from the book to your life or work. Share that insight with someone.

3. Write a personal mission statement that only you will see. Write it on a card. Keep it handy. Reflect upon it for a week or a month. Note how the perception of your impact has changed.

4. Write thank you notes to people who have influenced you and did not know it.

5. At a business social event, meet three people with whom you follow up with a meeting. (This idea comes from my friend Meridith Elliot Powell.)

6. Ask clients to make referrals.

7. Write a story that explains to a 6 year old the difference you want to make in your life.

8. Establish a mentor / menetee relationship. It doesn't matter which one you are. It is the relationship that matters.

9. Spend an hour answering in writing the Five Questions that Every Person Must Ask from the Circle of Impact Leadership Guides. Don't spend more than an hour. If requires longer, put aside, and come back to it tomorrow.

10. Take someone you want to get to know to lunch. Prepare two questions to ask during lunch. 

As the complexity of the world increases,

BIG ideas are the small ideas that can be applied in simple, daily ways to make a difference that truly matters.


Circle of Impact Consultation & Coaching debuts

There is “… a thinning line between life and work …” that is forcing us to step back and reorient ourselves to the future relationship of the work we do and the life we want to lead.

Until our life purpose is aligned with the work we do, and our values are aligned with the relationships we have, our vision for impact is just an idea waiting for fulfillment.

Everyone wants their life and work …

    To be personally meaningful …

            To be socially fulfilling, and …

                    To make a difference that matters.


Circle of Impact Consultation & Coaching is here to be a trusted guide toward a future that is meaningful, fulfilling and that creates the impact that makes a difference that matters.

We create an Action Plan that aligns your purpose, your relationships and the social and organizational structures where you are involved that positions you to achieve the impact that you want in your life and work.

How We Plan is How We Implement

We don’t just plan, plan some more, and once we are done planning, then act. We do Active Planning where you begin to act on your plan as soon as it is clear and practical. As you do, we review and adapt to what we learn as we go along. As a result, we are always in a planning - implementing mindset. The benefit is that this keeps us alert to changes taking place that provides us opportunities to strengthen the effect of the active planning process.

What does an Active Planning Process Look Like?

Everything is built around Conversation. When we talk, we learn and discover hidden wisdom and insight.

I ask Questions that help us discover what we need to know. My questions are focused on revealing to us the action steps that we need to make. See my 2010 Planning Guide for a list of questions that we can use.

We use the Circle of Impact as a guide to be complete, comprehensive and strategic.

Complete means we cover all the bases.

Comprehensive means we look at the whole of your life and work.

Strategic means we create a plan that integrates your goals, values, relationships and social and organizational settings.

We look at your Network of Relationships, who you know, who knows you, and who you need to know in the future. We link them together into a socially fulfilling network of relationships that enables your network to be an asset in fulfilling your purpose in making a difference.

Our Analysis of your situation, by using the Circle of Impact model, provides you a basis for a clear perspective on where you are right now, and where you’d like to be in the future.

From this perspective, we create an Action Plan that guides your decisions and actions to achieve the impact that you desire.

Your greatest leverage for achieving your desired impact is through the Social and Organizational Structures where you are involved. The action plan we create addresses how to work within these structures. The key is aligning your purpose, values and vision for impact through these structures.

The Client – Consultant/Coach relationship

My relationship with clients is modeled after the Circle of Impact. I work to make sure that our communication is clear, that our relationship is based on trust and respect; and that the structure of our work together is organized to meet your needs and within a financial framework that makes sense to you. I am honest, yet discrete, respecting the boundaries that define our relationship. I care for my clients, and believe in their potential to make a difference that matters. Our relationship begins with a conversation to clarify your needs and goals, and to see how we can work together.

This new program is the product of over six months of intense redesign of the work that I've been doing for 15 years.

Circle of Impact 2010 Planning Guide http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/CircleofImpact2010PlanningGuide.pdf

Circle of Impact 2010 Planning Guide Questions http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/CircleofImpact2010PlanningGuideQuestions.pdf