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: The Call of Desire

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DESIRE

The physical, emotional, or intellectual longing that is directed towards something or someone that is wanted.

Sarah Coakley, PhD.

Cambridge University

Desire is a longing which bridges our inner life with the outer world. It is a longing for connection, completion, and relationship.

Desire is a longing for fulfillment or achievement. It is a longing that is born in emptiness, frustration, or loss. It is the feeling that comes from a missed opportunity or the sense of unrealized potential when a project ends suddenly, or when love shared goes unrequited. 

This longing is born in our experience of change. It is something we feel inside. It is our inner voice telling us that more could be done or needs to be done.

Desire does not fade. It seeks out that which is beyond our grasp today, but maybe not tomorrow. Our desires define who we are.

Desire precedes and is greater than our goals, strategies, plans and intentions. Desire is that deep core within us that we identify as what we love, for those people and causes to whom we give ourselves with passion and sacrifice. It is that place within us where human flourishing finds its source and motivation.

I've seen desire in people for a long time. Early on, it was that "thing" which emerged when a group began to have a vision for their organization or community. They are passionate about their cause. They see it, feel it, taste it, smell it as this movie-like visualization of a idea that comes to life and compels them to invest their shared life to bring it to fulfillment.

Passionate desire is a longing for something better that engages the whole person, mind, body and spirit. It is who we are at our most central, deep and intimate level.

The desire for wholeness is born within us. Philosophers, theologians, motivational experts, story-tellers, and artists have spoken about desire, passion, and completeness in many and various ways. They know, as we know, that this is the nature of our world. Broken, incomplete, unjust, raw, untouched potential, filled with passionate visions of the good which touch us down deep inside, drawing us out into a life which is better, more complete and whole. This isn't a new story. It is rather the oldest story of human endeavor taking on urgency for each of us, everyday.

To follow our desire, we must think for ourselves, act as responsible persons, and live as the embodiment of that desire. Out of this commitment we discover a new life, and the potential for completeness.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith, writes,

“… we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things ... what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it.”

The challenge is to not get lost in the rush of emotion that comes from passion.  We need to treat our passions with maturity, respect, and understanding.  Our passions have the power to create goodness as well as to destroy the very desires at the heart of our passion. 

We, therefore, need to understand the source of desire. We need to find a way to create patterns of thought and practices of behavior that allow us to see how to bridge the deep reservoir of meaning within in us with the world of change that envelops us like the sea does its fish.

The Three Desires

Over the years, as I've listened to what people say and have observed what they do, both in private and organizational settings, I've seen that this inscruble thing called desire is always present. It is evident in the passions and visions that people have for their future. It is also evident in their response to situations where they are frustrated, disappointed, anxious or angry.

I eventually came to see that this desire from down deep within us is a mix of three desires. I've concluded that this is the spiritual core of our humanity, or, what we mean by our human spirit. It is the center of our individual humanity that is the platform for the life and relationships we nurture in the outer world. It is what is celebrated, what elicits tears, cheers and commitment to making sacrificial gifts of art, wealth and time. From my own experience, I see this as the mark of divine intention upon our humanity. Nourish these desires, and we see why we exist, and what our lives are to mean in practice and difference. Our desires carry that kind of singular importance.

The Three Desires guide how we function in our work, our communities, and our families. Our desires are revealed when we plan, in how we address problems, in our celebration and mourning of life's transitions , when we succeed or fail, and, in how we go through the changes and transitions of our lives and work.

What are these desires and how are we to understand their function in our lives?

Our Three Desires are

for Personal Meaning, for Happy, Healthy Relationships,

and, to Make a Difference That Matters.

 Three Desires-Impact-NoFill
We desire for our lives to have personal meaning.

Our minds sort through our experiences; sift through the sensory data we are receiving; categorize the information that we absorb; identify patterns of behavior and recurrence of ideas; then, our minds establish order, perspective, understanding, and finally meaning.

Most of the time, all of this takes place just below the level of our conscious awareness. Learning from childhood onward to think this this way, it becomes second nature. Physicist and philosopher Michael Polanyi describes it as tacit knowledge. It is that knowledge that we know, but we don't know how we know it. We just know it. It is learned in the experience of life.

We think this way, finding meaning in our lives and in the world, until there are too many discontinuities. Increasingly, in the modern world, these discontinuities are markers of societal and intellectual change on a grand scale. All the meaningful continuities of the past, of belief in God, in the goodness of humankind, in the power of government to do good, in freedom, opportunity and progress. Each of these points of personal and societal meaning are in transition. It doesn't mean that the foundational truths are changing, but rather how they function in the world is changing.

Personal meaning is not just a set of intellectual or spiritual beliefs that are important to us. This sense of meaning rises from down deep in us. It is not just individual, but a shared feeling. I've seen it in working with businesses. There is something that draws these people together. Some vision or desire that compels them to join their lives together to venture forth in some great endeavor.

A vision of this sort, as I point out in my Circle of Impact Leadership system, is formed by ideas. They provide a core belief or meaning for us to make the commitment to work together towards goals that we define as our organizational purpose. A vision, then, is a picture of shared meaning that is acted upon by the people who work within an institutional system to create impact.

Circle of Impact- simple

We articulate this order by telling stories. We share our opinions, make decisions and practice ethical discernment because of the clarification of the values that form our desires, or are the product of our desire for personal meaning.

We act on what is personally meaningful, by defining our purpose, by elevating values that underlie our purpose to a central place in our relationships with others, and, then, together, implement a vision that leads to the impact that is a fulfillment of that which is meaningful to us.

Unless there is constant attention to sustaining a culture of founding values, future generations only see those values as relatively meaningless, and possibly, irrelevant cultural practices.* In other words, Personal Meaning is not private meaning, but meaning that is shared within the social context of our lives.

We desire to have happy, healthy relationships.

In a previous post in this series, Fragmented Boundaries, I write,

I am who I am, always have been, always will be. Though I live in the external world, I am who I am, in an always changing interaction between this person who I am and the world in which I live. Therefore, I am always becoming the person who I am right now.

Crossing the boundary from our inner life to the outer world requires an engagement with that world. It is in our relationships with one another that we find our most tangible connection to the outer world. Let me describe what I see.

Recently, I took a salsa making class. In this class was a retired couple who had been married for six years. As we prepared our salsas, they talked about all the cooking classes that they had attended, from Santa Fe to Boston to Paris, and soon, in Tuscany.
I asked them, "Which one of you was the foodie who got the other involved? They said, "Neither. When we got married, we decided to do something that neither of us had ever done. We took a cooking class, and found out that we both loved it."
What was it that they loved? Sharing the experience of learning, of being creative, and establishing a whole new circle of friends in their hometown.

In the context of their relationship, individual desires, long dormant, came to life. Joy and meaning, and a life that matters resulted. For not only has their experience provided them a context for a happy, healthy marriage, it has also brought them into relationship with people that they may never have had  the opportunity to know.   

We are social beings, even the most shy, introverted and individualistic ones of us. It isn't that we want to hang out with people all the time. It is that our engagement with people, more than in any other facet of our lives, is where our inner selves meets the outer world. To speak, to know, to share, or to love, requires something from within us to form into words or actions that communicate to the other person, who translates what they see and hear into something that touches their inner self.

We are not random objects bumping into one another, like billiard balls on a pool table. We are purposeful, desiring beings who seek connection with other purposeful, desiring beings.

Our shared connections make us tribal beings as well. We gather around the things we love which release our passion in life. My tribes are the church, social entrepreneurs, organizational and community leaders, people who desire change, the Red Sox Nation, jazz and classical music aficionados, lovers of history, philosophy and culture, and travelers through landscapes of mountains, oceans and open spaces.   

We learn in the context of relationships; a living context where our inner lives touch the outer world in a less mechanistic, more organic way. To know someone, to interact with them, requires us to live in a shared story of meaning and expectation. This is true for our oldest friends and family, as well as the person that we have just met.

Our human relationships are the embodiment of particular values that are intimate, social and practical.

A happy relationship is one free of doubt, open to vulnerability, peaceful, affirming, with genuine compatibility, and love.

A healthy relationship is built upon the mutual practices of openness, respect, trust, honesty, and responsibility.

There are two distinct contexts for our relationships. One is personal, the other professional.

Happiness and health in our relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, children, parents and in-laws function in a long historical arch. Live with someone for ten, thirty or fifty years, and our lives are bound together in ways that are invisible and continually present. We nurture the health and happiness of long term relationships by giving our attention to the core desires that we each have individually and those we share. It is by this daily practice that we produce happiness and health. The ancients believed that happiness and health came as the virtues of life were mastered. This is the intention that is needed in our closest, most intimate relationships.

A relationship between two people is between individual persons. Each is defined by their own distinct values. Each is defined by what they desire in a relationship to the other, and, together they grow into an understanding of the difference their lives are to make. When there is compatibility and a sharedness in each of these three parts of our lives, then happiness and health can grow.

In the professional sphere, our relationships are less personal, more detached, more difficult to be qualified by the terms happy and healthy. Modern organizations have become increasing dehumanizing, unreceptive to human interaction (communication), and lacking the supervisory space to allow for the expression of individual initiative to create a collaborative environment for relationship.

As the old, dying models of 20th. century hierarchy fail to adapt to the rapid introduction of technologies for individual autonomy and collaboration, resistance to change grows. Defense of institutional positions of power and influence create weakness in the operating structures of organizations, making them less agile and more prone to corruption and violation of founding values.

Outside of many of these corporate structures are networks of relationships that are spontaneous, open and collaborative. Leadership is not directed and delegated, but shared and facilitated. The network of the relationship is marked by the phenomenon of shared values, responsibility and outcomes. The structure of organization that is needed rises from the purpose and desired impact of their work together, and by design is agile and adaptive to contexts of rapid, discontinuous change.

Network-Hierarchy ImageThe weakness of these networks of relationships is that it is difficult to scale and sustain the work of these kinds of relationships. As a result, they need a structure within which to work that can accommodate the energy and ambiguity that exists in these relationships. The challenge of hierarchy is nimbleness for change. Networks of relationships emerge out of the discovery that we - WE - share similar desires that call us together for achieving impact.  These structures need one another to counter their inherent weaknesses.

We desire to make a difference that matters.

The desire to make a difference that matters is the most fundamental expression of human desire. It is what we do, and the effect of what we do that we see as validating the value of our lives.

For some people, the obsessive need to prove their worth in achievement is the extreme expression of this most human of desires. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lack of desire towards achievement or fulfillment is the product of the weaknesses or absence of the other two desires.

To make a difference is to create impact. To create impact is to take some idea or value and create a living expression of it.

If there is a forward movement through the three desires, it is towards making a difference that matters.  It is the most logical place where achievement and completion are realized.

There is some satisfaction in finding what is personally meaningful, as well as in having happy, healthy relationships. But it is this third desire which brings wholeness to our lives. If values strengthen the mind, and friendship enriches our physical life, it is making a difference through the expression of values in our relationships that brings the three parts of ourselves to fulfillment.

As a result, it is what we do, create and the impact we have which is the greatest expression of human spirit, and where wholeness is realized.

The Leadership of Making a Difference That Matters

Early on in my exploration of leadership, I came to see that all leadership begins with personal initiative. This initiative is specifically an act of decision in response to an inner desire for change. In effect, leadership is a form of our inner selves' engagement with the outer world.

This perspective is vastly different from views that are hierarchial or inspirational. Neither view places the source of leadership in human desire. Instead these views see leadership as either a position of responsibility within a management system, or, a kind of sloganistic pumping up of one's emotions to do various kinds of work.

My early inspiration for seeing leadership as a function of human desire towards creating change came from Peter Drucker, one of the preeminent management thinkers of the 21st. century. In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that was spark that led to the creation of my own leadership consultancy a decade later. Drucker writes about entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs see change as the norm and as healthy. Usually, they do not bring about the change themselves. But – and this defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.

Drucker's view from three decades ago remains true today. Change is the norm. Effective leaders, as well as managers, learn to work within the context of change. This requirement is now no longer limited to people in positions of leadership, but the necessity for each individual, regardless of their place, standing or position in life or work. To respond to one's desires, is to accept, not a leadership role, but a call to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

The Call of Desire

Desire rises from within us as a longing for connection, completion and fulfillment. It is expressed in the desire for personal meaning, happy, healthy relationships, and, to make a difference that matters with one's life. This movement of desire bridges our inner selves with the outer world. When we act upon our desires to make a difference that matters, we are exhibiting the character of leadership.

Our desires, therefore, are a call upon our lives. A call to step out to make a difference in a way that fulfills one's desires.

The Call of Desire is a call to meaning, friendship, wholeness and impact in life. When we respond to this call from within us, we are deciding to change not only our outer world, but also ourselves. When we do, we turn away from the world of the Spectacle with its artificial hyper reality. We claim a reality that can be touched and experienced, created and replicated. This is how we reclaim the real for our lives and for the people and places where our lives make a difference that matters.

The call begins within, must be answered, and lived out in the world of change. As a result our lives take on the character of an unfolding story. It is this story that I'll explore in my next post.

*See Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' Built to Last for a description of this reality.

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.


Still Waters Still Flow

Snake River Swimming Hole

In my previous post, Leading by Vacuum, and in my two-part presentation The Flow of Leadership and Community, I use the concept of flow as a way of understanding how change "flows" through our life and work. The flow of a stream follows the path of least resistance. It is persistent in finding that path, and renews itself everyday for that journey.

If we speak of flow in human terms, as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi has done by bringing this important idea to the world, I believe we will understand how people and by extension, the world, may find peace.

Peace is not the absence of conflict, for I do not think that is possible. Rather, peace is the ability to be one's true self in the midst of conflict. To live with integrity is to be at peace, which creates one of flow. This peace is the product of love finding its completeness in our life and work.

Flow = Love

The ancient Greeks had four words for love. They are:

Agape - unconditional, sacrificial love

Eros - physical, erotic love

Phileo - friendship

Storge - affection like a family

In our modern world, we have split these loves apart, treated them like separate loves. As a result, we become people split, fragmented, with too many tributaries seeking their own flow. This is what it means to be a broken person, and to lose the conditions for peace and genuine flow.

As my title suggests, Still Waters Still Flow, we must find a depth of life experience that gives us a clear sense of purpose to each day. Then we will not be in conflict, but in the flow of life. Being complete, as whole persons, flow brings the peace that we need for a world in the midst of conflict.

To pick and choose between which of the four loves I am to use to express my relationship towards people means that our relationship will be incomplete, ultimately unsatisfying and disappointing.

When flow happens, we discover a kind of wholeness or completeness which brings fulfillment and contentment. This is a depth of life experienced that is expressed in stillness and peace.

This is what lies behind our loss of and desire for community. It is why our virtual relationships are incomplete, never fully realizing the potential that exists in any relationship. If we are not complete people, how can our relationships be whole and happy, and how can the world in which we seek to change also become whole and healed of its conflicts?

As I've said many times, as human beings, we desire meaning, and healthy relationships, and ultimately for our lives to make a difference that matters. Without each of the four loves functioning in our life, our relationships and our work, it is not hopeful that our desires in life will find fulfillment.

Affection and Friendship

There are many people for whom I have affection. I care about them, appreciate who they are, and wish to be with them more than I am presently able to be. There are hundreds, may more than a thousand people who fall into this category for me.

I wish for many of these relationships of affection to become friendships, where we identify a certain common or shared desire for one another's happiness. It is the sort of thing you see in bars as friends gather. There is connection and happiness because the relationship transcends simple appreciation.  There is something shared which links each person together in a meaningful, fulfilling way.

My guess is that many of our relationships are like this. People who are acquaintances, who transcend a shared affection to become genuine friends, often only for a short period of time. Like old high school buddies reconnecting on Facebook or at reunions discovering that those shared experiences in high school produced friendships that have survived even the disconnect of time and place.

Or the deeper connection that takes place when someone becomes ill with cancer, and the care of neighbors pours over in affection and genuine caring. We step forward to care in these moments partially believing that if we were in their shoes, people would care for us in a similar way.

Intimacy

The physical love of eros is more than sexual. Unfortunately, it has been reduced to this in our society. Erotic love is embodied love, a love of the whole person towards another. It is something larger and deeper, more significant and difficult to achieve. It is what we call intimacy. 

This kind of love shatters the illusions of appearances. It is openness and vulnerability, a desire that we all want, but too often find difficult to achieve. It is why we can still be alone or lonely while in the midst of a crowd of friends. It is a question of the depth of intimacy that we share with one another.

We want all the physical benefits of intimacy. Yet the emotional, psychological and spiritual openness that is required is something we often resist. This is why, in my estimation, pornography is such a powerful force in our culture. It presents the illusion that intimacy can be achieved without the other three loves. It is purely erotic, without a foundation of relationship, or genuine affection and friendship. 

Sexual intimacy touches deeply our physical desires for relationship. Yet, it can be incomplete if that openness is not feeding our shared affection and friendship. It is why the current popularity of having "friends with benefits" is really not surprising at all.  It makes perfect sense to desire intimacy with those with whom you already share some personal meaning and friendship. What is missing is the commitment that is needed for intimacy to be complete.

Understand, I'm not advocating for all our friendships to have a sexual side. I am saying that our desire for intimacy goes deeper than our sexuality to the very core of our identity. It is about being known as a real person by another real person, not by someone who is playing a role in the virtual reality of the appearence of intimacy.

Complete Love

It is the fourth love, agape, which is the most powerful. It brings completeness to the other loves through which peace and flow are discovered.

It is by far the most difficult love to live fully. It holds within it the highest ideals of human relationships, of love at its most complete and fulfilling. Yet, it is the hardest because it requires the greatest sacrifice to give it.

Agape love is self-giving love. It is sacrifical and unconditional. It requires great maturity to love someone, not for what what it means to me, but for what it means to the other. It is where our affection, friendship and intimacy find their complete flourishing.

This love is not a love of convenience. It is a love of commitment.

This is why agape is a love which is the most powerful and transformational. For it to become the love between two people requires a laying aside of our individual right to be fulfilled, so that we might together find it as a shared fulfillment. It is a costly love through which we gain the best of all loves.

This is why this love is usually associated with romantic love. It is the love that throughout human history has been associated with marriage. Yet, it is more than that. It is also the love associated with a passion or calling to service. It is the love that makes it possible for the other three loves to find their wholeness and connection.

The Impact of Love

Am I setting up an impossible scenario for our relationships? Of course I am! For without a standard, an ideal, or a vision of the highest in human experience, then there is no clear direction to the flow of our lives.

When the love I describe becomes complete within us, and seeks out others who also have found a completeness in the love within them, then a depth of relationship results that changes us. We are transformed by loving, not simply by the idea of love.

All these human characteristics that we celebrate and honor, like Respect, Trust, Confidence, Responsibility, Courage, Empathy and Self-sacrifice find a ground upon which to grow. For ultimately, flow rises from our own capacity to be the person we wish others to be.

I wish I could say that all this can come without pain or suffering but it can't. In fact, it is the very comforts of our modern life that stand in the way of a fulfilled, complete and flourishing life. Those comforts present the appearance of strength and completeness. But too often they are the curtain that blinds us to harsher realities of the world.

For still waters to run deep requires the dredging of the stream bed of our lives to remove all those barriers to flow. The more courageous, the more willing we are to raise the standards of our life and work, the more willing we are to be committed to do the hard work of changing our lives, the more willing we are to defy fear, and move into unknown territories of discovery, the more we will discover that still waters still flow bringing peace into a world of conflict.

This is not simply about our individual experience of flow. It is also about developing the capacity to create flow for our families, our businesses and communities. For this to happen, we must become complete in our capacity to love. What more could we say than I have found love's completeness in my life and work, I am satisfied, fulfilled and at peace.


The Social Bond

Troop in Edinburgh - Night

"If this afternoon, you were to lose everything, become a failure in all that you had sought to create, who would stand by you?" 

This is the question I asked of a number of men during a six month period a many years ago.

At the time, I did not realize how traumatizing my question could be. Most of them answered with reflective silence.

The others? "My mother."

None of them were confident that their spouse, their children, their neighbors, the people from their congregation, work, the club or any other social association would hang in there with them during a time of humiliation. In effect, these recognized leaders of their businesses were isolated and alone, alienated from a community of support and caring.

It did not take long to realize that I had to stop asking the question.  It didn't help them. I also realized that I had to become a person who could stand along side of them when they would go through the worst experiences of their personal and professional life. It changed my approach to being a consultant. It elevated my understanding of the relational nature of leadership.

Why is it that these men thought that no one stood with them?

Is it something personal?

Or is it something embedded in the way leadership, professional life and the structure of organizations have developed?

Failure of the sort that I described to them could come as a black swan, out of the nowhere, without expectation. Over the past three years, many people have found themselves in this situation. It points to a fragility that exists in our lives that is buffered by relationships of trust.

Trust is basic to healthy human interaction and the functioning of society.  We diminish the value of trust when it is understood as little more than the basis of economic exchange.

In my post, The Emergent Transformation, I distinguish between human experience that is series of transactions of information and encounters between people, and a transformational one where our interaction creates a higher level engagement.

Here's an example of what I mean.

The closest Starbucks to my home is in my neighborhood grocery store. For most of the baristas, I'm a customer. I come in, order my coffee, pay for it, and leave. Whatever banter we have is rather meaningless, just the sort of talk that accompanies any transaction.

However, there is one young woman who is different. She engages me in conversation. She recognizes me, tells me about her day, asks about mine with genuine interest.

One morning, I walked in and said, "Grande bold, room for cream, please." She starts to laugh. She stops and says, "Sounds like the names of your pets." We both laugh. It is one of those situational jokes (You had to be there.). So about once every three or four visits we talk about my dog, Grande bold, and my cat, Room for cream.

Granted, the barista and I will never become BFFs or colleagues in business. However, the moment we shared that day transcended the typical economic transaction that was the purpose of my visit, and has transformed my relationship to that store.

The Social Bond Online

Over the past decade, an interest in human connection and social networks has grown dramatically. Much of this interest is taking place online through social media platforms. You only have to look at the rise of Facebook to see the extent of the desire that people have to be socially connected to other people.

Many people denigrate the trend towards connection by social media.

"They are not real relationships." 

The relationships that develop are viewed as the online equivalent of a large cocktail party. Lots of meet and greet (search), exchange of contact info (befriending), and a superficial staying in touch (status updates.)

There is a social bond to this shared experience.  Real relating is taking place. Some of it is at a low level of social interaction as describe above. However, some of it is at a personally meaningful level. Social transformation is taking place as our connection deepens with each interaction, and possibilities open up for good things to result.  This is my own experience. 

The social bond is not the online space where we meet. The bond is the connection that we share through a common interest. Our interaction is real and provocative. Like many people, I find people whom are asking similar questions, seeking similar solutions, and who are open to learning from others.

There are two conditions that determine whether the social bond online is superficial or substantive.

The first is the transformational potential of the ideas or common interests that bring people together.

The second is the willingness for participants to allow their interaction to lead the interaction where it needs to go.

As you can see, it isn't being online, but what we do online that matters. By being a particular kind of person, we engage others in such a way that the social bond emerges from its hidden place in the social setting..

Learning to see a social bond

Earlier in my career, I worked at a small college. One of my roles was to develop a student leaders program. For three years I failed as I sought out the top student leaders to form a group focused on leadership. They simply were not interested. Persistence is sometimes not the answer. Changing your approach is.

Over time, and through my doctoral work, I came to see what was in plain sight, but virtually all of us miss when we talk about leadership.

We see leadership as a set of transactions or rather interactions and moments of decision within an organizational context. We think of leadership as a function of process. Is it simply a series of transactions made between people and groups within an business, or is it something more?

When we think only transactionally, we miss seeing the social dimension. 

We touch on it when we talk about collaboration and team work. But if you listen, most talk about improving those aspects of their business is not about the social dimension, but rather the tactical dimension of business processes.  My observation is that most leaders don't address the social dimension until it has become problematic. By ignoring the social dimension, we create a self-profiling prophecy as issues arise that not subject to easy process change.

Let me say it this way.

The last remaining unexplored leverage that leaders have now is the social dimension.

Tactics and processes, while essential, do not address the issues that many businesses now face. Leaders must identify the social bond that exists within their organizations if they are going to find the edge they need for sustainable growth in the future.

I learned this in addressing my own failure with my student leaders program. My approach had been abstract and tactical, lacking in a context for application. So, I shifted my focus to mobilizing student groups through the social bond that brought them together.   

In a college context, there are sports teams, fraternities, sororities, academic clubs, religious groups, advocacy groups and residence halls. In each, a group of students discover each other through a common bond that unites them together. It provides each person connection, a place of belonging, and a sense of identity.  For the group it provides purpose, a reason to exist and possibly as they develop a way to understand the difference they can make as a group.

Connecting Ideas2
In a business context, there are associations based on interest, skills, industry and locale. The social bond unites the executive team, the administrative staff, the sales staff, and back office as uniquely definable groups whose shared work experience provides a basis for connection, belonging and identity.

The leader of the organization has to discover the social bond that unites all the different groups to make them one group. That social bond is wrapped in what I call the four Connecting Ideas. 

When I discovered this perspective, I made two changes to my student leadership program.

The first change was to shift my attention from the individual leader to the group.

The second was to shift my leadership emphasis from teaching abstract principles of leadership to learning to lead within the context of doing it. 

I did this by starting two new activities on campus. One was a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity International. The second was an afternoon play group for the elementary age children of adolescent mothers in our community. For each, I went to the groups on campus, asking them to sign up for a service weekend with a Habitat affiliate in a nearby county or one of the play days with kids during the semester.  In both instances, groups eagerly stepped forward to sign up and participate. They saw it as a fun, meaningful activity for their group. The leaders within those groups rose to the top as organization as they took on responsibility, with the added benefit of new leaders coming forth who wanted to focus on these new campus activities.

The transcendent character of a social bond

A group's social bond is not a branded idea. While ideas may describe the bond, it is more than an idea. It is instead something emergent. It is something that is whole, that draws people together into a relationship that transcends the moment.

Here's the difference. Your college's basketball team wins the national championship. The streets of town fill up with cheering, celebrating fans. The experience brings people together around their shared joy for their team. But once the cheering stops, the bars close, and baseball season begins, the bonding experience of the post-game celebration is gone.

The social bond is something that people draw upon for meaning and purpose in their relationships within a particular social or organizational context. This is historically been one of the core strengths of religious worship. It isn't just the ideas of faith, but the shared experience of faith that matters. It is a whole shared experience that elevates one's perception of who they are and how their life matters.

For military personnel, the experience of battle is the archtypical bonding experience. This became quite clear to me when I watch for the first time the HBO documentary,  We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company that accompanies the mini-series Band of Brothers.  Lt. Dick Winters commander of the 506 Paratroop Infantry Regiment,Company E speaks about the men under his leadership.

I look upon them ... each man with great respect ... respect that I can't describe ... each one of them proved himself that he could do the job.

The respect which is difficult to describe is the bond that unites them as soldiers. It comes through a shared experience where they were tested as men and as human beings in the crucible of battle during World War II. Shifty Powers describes it.

"You know these people that you are in service with ... you know those people better than you will ever anybody in your life ... you know them right down to the final thing .. that comes when you start your training .. that progresses."

Listen how these men, in many ways not different from people we encounter everday, describe their relationships with one another.

 

The social bond that these men have exists beyond analytical description. It can't be simply broken up into a collection of ideas or stories.  It goes deeper than that.  Their relationships matter more than just as as a group of acquaintances. Rather, they are forever connected by the bond of shared experience. You can hear it in what they say. 

Here's what Ed Tipper said in the video.

There is an intimacy develops like nothing I've ever experienced anywhere, not in college, not with any other group of people.

It is like the union leader who commented to me during a values identification process with his company.

"I want us to get back to where we were twenty years ago when we were family."

Embedded in these emotions is the social bond that made working for the company or serving in 506PIR Company E something more than a job.  What formed was something fundamentally important to their experience as human beings. We are not solely individuals. We are not simply interchangeable parts in a system of organizational processes. And potentially not just list of friends in a Facebook profile.

Attention to the social bond that exists in organizations is largely missing in our society today. We treat the shared work that human beings do as mechanical scientific processes that are to be performed and measured. By removing the human social element we think we are removing ambiguity and creating efficiency and consistency. Rather, we are diminishing the organization's ability to maximize the potential that resides in each employee. It produces a rush to the bottom of the lowest common denominator level of social experience. The potential that resides in each person cannot be released because it must be done so within a social context that shared purpose and experience. Our potential is not realized solely by individual initiative, but by collaborative action.  At the heart of every team is a social bond waiting to be recognized and released. It is the hidden potential that awaits recognition by organization leaders world wide.

The challenge we confront

Years ago, when I asked people who would stand with them if they failed, unwittingly, I was revealing the absence of the compelling connection that the social bond in an organization can create. The reason for this is not solely the mechanistic principles modern scientific management.  It is also a national culture that seeks to remove risk and danger from every day life. 

When I first watched the We Stand Alone Together documentary of the actual members of Easy Company, I turned to my son and said,

"If you ever find yourself in a group where this is your experience of friendship, consider yourself to be one of the lucky few. Most people go through life never having this kind of experience of human community."

At the heart of the social bond is the recognition that we need one another. Not because we are weak, but rather because we are incomplete as individuals. The togetherness that is realized when this social bond is strong enables men and women from diverse backgrounds to join together to achieve greatness beyond their individual potential.

The challenge before us is to believe that this is true, and to act accordingly. For if this is true, then how we organize our businesses will set the stage for the elevation of the social bond creating a culture of shared human endeavor, that is required more today than every before.

First steps in discovering the social bond that exists in your organization.

I could give the standard analytical process of a set of processes that focus on the development of values and organizational purpose. But I won't, even if at some level that is important.

Instead, just treat each person with openness and honor.

Learning how to do that (I'm assuming we all need to learn to be more open to others, and to honor the best in them), a new social context will emerge that can elevate your company to a new place of shared endeavor.

To be open simply means to listen, to understand, to affirm, to let people try and fail, and to create the expectation that others will be open.

It means letting new people have the opportunity to influence decision-making and direction. It means not assuming control over every aspect of the organization's life.  And from my experience, openness is a powerful attractor for talented people to come work for your business.  It is a signal of authenticity and opportunity.

To honor is to appreciate the value and dignity of each person (see my post Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomacy) .

This is more difficult because it requires us to pay attention to the other people in the room. We must look at them not as human resources or representatives of particular social ideologies. We look at them with dignity and respect, with appreciation for the potential contributions that they can make. In many cases their contribution can only be realized when the social bond creates social strength for the depth of trust and collaboration needed for a challenge moment.

In one way or another, much of our lives is lived standing alone. But it does not have to be this way. To stand alone together is the product of intention, initiative, openness and persistence. It emerges from the thousands of individual encounters that we have where our connection to one another begins to matter beyond getting tasks done.  It is where genuine transformation happens.

Discover the social bond in your business, and you discover the path to a future that is yet to be realized.


After 15 years, this I've learned.

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide

Earlier this week, I quietly celebrated the 15th anniversary of the beginning my consulting business, Community of Leadership, LLC. There was no time for celebration or fanfare, just another day of trying to make a difference that matters.  However, a road trip this week gave me time to reflect on the past 15 years.

Here's some of what I've learned.

1. You don't know what you don't know, and if you did, you'd be so overwhelmed by it, you'd never act.

I was young and naive when I began my consulting practice in 1995. I started with a desire to help leaders develop their organizations and communities. That purpose still remains. What I didn't know then is just how ill-prepared I was to go into business on my own. If you remain open to learning, to trying new things and fixing what is broken, you can make it. But it isn't necessarily easy. The Five Questions That Everyone Must Ask that is a part of my Circle of Impact model developed from my experience and that of others, especially #5.

2. What you THINK you are doing, and what you ARE doing aren't always the same. The difference you think you are making, and the actual difference you are making are not always the same either.

Focus is a good thing. However, if it is practiced too rigidly, you can miss what is right in front of you. While relationships have always been important and central to what I do, I'm not really selling a relationship. Instead it is a process of discovery and development where the relationship is integral to that process. At the end of the day, real progress often comes from the conversation that takes place within relationship.

The actual project, while beneficial, is often a secondary benefit compared to what happens in the relationship. The project deals with an immediate or current need. The development of the relationship prepares us for the future. The lesson, therefore, is to realize that nothing is ever exactly like you think it is or want it to be. The task for us is to be aware of the peripheral or ancillary processes that are taking place, recognize their value and give them attention.

3. Work is a context for personal growth. As a result, everyday we can afflict ourselves on our loved ones because we are not the person whom we or they think we are, not always living up to what we say we believe or are committed to doing.

My family has lived through my many personal transitions over the past 25 years. It has not always been easy for them. The old joke of asking "... when is Dad going to grow up and get a real job" is a familiar refrain in many homes. There are two sides to this situation which are important to address with our loved ones.

If you remain the same person over the course of your lifetime, you may never reach your potential. Growth has it price, and often that price is in our relationships. If your family expects you to remain the same person you were when you married or before you began a dramatic growth curve, then there can be conflict.

What I've seen in too many situations are families where the structure of the family is what is important, and not the actual relationships. And when Dad or Mom begins to change, it creates conflict, because what we are used to, what is comfortable, secure and predictable, is no longer there. Ambiguity and change get thrust into an already volatile cultural social environment.  As a result, families grow apart, members go looking for support and intimacy in other places. So, if you are growing into being a new person with a new focus and purpose for your life, then know that it has its effects upon your loved ones and you need to address it openly and with genuine humility.

One of the ways that I've seen these situations addressed is an appeal to balance between life and work. I'm not sure that balance is achievable. It assumes that we can compartmentalize our lives into the personal and public or work and measure out our time and attention in proportion to our priorities. I've concluded that alignment is a better approach. We create alignment by elevating the importance of living out our purpose and values, and allowing for the social settings and organizational environments where we live and work to adapt to our core beliefs. In other words, be willing to change what you do so that you can become the person you are destined to be.  Again, this is not necessarily an easy path to take.

If your life's trajectory is taking you through many stages of personal growth so that you are becoming a different person at 40 than you were at 25, or different person at 55 than you were at 40, then it is very important that your family grow with you, and you with them. If your growth happens too dramatically, too radically, over too short of time, without their input or support, you'll find yourself becoming estranged from them. The lesson is that every transition we go through in our lives is filled with opportunity and challenge. How we meet both determines what comes next. As you change, care for the people who matter most to you. Keep them close, so they understand and can support you as change happens. If they genuinely love you, then you'll make it through the hardships of change.

4. After 15 years, my original purpose and the values that sustain the vision for my work remain the same. The structure of my work has constantly changed.

This is not just a good lesson for personal growth. It is a lesson for businesses and organizations develop. I find the reverse to be often the case, where the social and organizational structures dictate to us what our purpose and values are. Purpose and values are internal strengths. Structure is an external form that provides a context for living out our purpose and values. People whose security is in the external world of things and order, often find themselves frustrated because it is impossible to control their social and organizational contexts. Those who rely on the internal world of their purpose, values and a vision for impact, find these ideas provide them the strength to manage the chaos of change in the external world. As a result, when your personal strength is internal, you can move into a wide variety of contexts and make a difference that matters. You remain the same person regardless of who you are with, and what you are doing. This is what we mean by integrity and authenticity. This is why it so important to know what you purpose is and what you value. They are foundation of sustainability and opportunity in life and work.

5. Opportunities may abound. However, not all opportunities are equal. We usually don't know this until we are half way into the project. Then, we realize that it isn't going to work out or there is something better that we didn't initially see.

While I'm not an advocate for quitting, I have learned that ending something sooner than later is usually better. Know what you want from life and work. Know what you are committed to giving to a particular situation, and don't forget it. Often the reason why these opportunities don't work is that there is not sufficient follow through and effective execution of the plan. In addition, I've learned that what someone says is the opportunity or the problem is probably only part of the story. You'll find it out soon enough, and that is when you'll know whether you should increase your participation or quit.

Life will teach you lessons that you can then turn into growth and benefit for yourself and others. If you let it. Personally, I'm looking to another 15 years of work before I retire. I feel that everything up to this point is just preparing me for the main act which is coming. In other words, if you have a plan for your whole life, make sure that you leave open the possibilities of changing your plan so that at the end of your life your legacy is clear and secure. Your legacy may come in the last half of the last chapter. So, be committed to staying true to your purpose and values through the end of your life.

I look forward to collaborating with many of you in the future. All the best.  Thank you very much.


Becky

See Becky Update below

Today marks a milestone in a story of a woman whom many of us have come to know TEDGlobal2009and love. Mid-morning in an auditorium in Oxford, England, Becky Blanton will cross the stage and address the TEDGlobal conference about how she has gone from being homeless journalist living in van three years ago to being an invited speaker at TED.

The door opened for Becky to speak because she won the Johnny Bunko contest last winter. It was through the Bunko contest that I came to meet Becky. I was one of the three finalists in the contest. Becky, as an expression of the magnanimous person that is, secured an invitation for me to join an online social network of leaders started by Seth Godin, called Triiibes. That is a story in itself which you can read about here, here, here and here. Becky with Tribes book

Becky's story is more than Johnny Bunko and more than being homeless and living in a van. Here's how she described it to some of us a couple weeks ago.

The important thing is not the whole homeless story - but the fact that our reality is based on our perceptions. Any of us can change our situations, find our hope, change our circumstances. Few of us will do so in such a dramatic fashion, but I was hard-headed and kept "trying to make things work," and failed. My commitment to my pets is what kept me in the van. I refused to give them up and accepted a choice (keeping my animals) of living in a van rather than giving them up and moving into an apartment. All choices have consequences - and gifts. This choice had both. (emphasis mine.)

I'm very happy for Becky. She deserves this moment in the public eye as much if not more than anyone I've ever known. I'm grateful for her friendship, and wish her all the best as she speaks today. An early recording of her six minute talk had me in tears.

After writing the above, Becky sent a report to her tribe of supporters. Here's some of what she has experienced, along with some pictures. It captures part of the person that Becky is.

From Becky at TEDGlobal2009/Oxford:

This is the view from my room at TED! I know. I couldn't believe it either - but it's what Oxford - Becky 1 I visualized for the last six months so I guess the law of attraction works! ...

Okay. Bear with me....this is the TED experience beginning with arrival....

Spent the day sightseeing on a tour bus and talking to the driver, Alan. He's invited me back to stay with his family if I come back. I handed out cards to everyone on the bus who was curious about TED. My cards say, "It is not our abilities that define us. It is our choices." Alan drops me off at the door to Keble College, not on his regular round of stops, but he's a NUMBER ONE customer service oriented guy!!

Nick is a physicist studying at Keble College. He wants to be a journalist. We talk journalism and vandwelling as he carries my bags to my room overlooking the quad and the building that is the TED Global centerpiece.

Shelia Bailey owns Daisies Flower Shop in Oxford. She's responsible for the flowers for the TED party tonight. She loves Oxford and pointed out the best seating and the place where there's most likely to be a breeze. She gives me her card as well and shows me the inside of her flower van....since I love all things vans...having lived in one.

Miles is the IT guy who ""fixed my mac" but it broke again. I figured out how to reset it this time. He camps and we talked camping and vandwelling. Now I know where to go to park on 3,000 year old trails in England!

I arrived early and saw the guys with the hawk demonstration and asked to take photos...and to let the hawk land on my hand!!! THEY SAID YES AND I GOT TO PLAY WITH THE HAWK!!!!!! My TED experience is complete. I also talked to the Tom's shoes folks - they said "HI Seth." They said you told them you really liked what they were about and the shoes when they saw you in California.

Albara Alohali is here from Saudia Arabi. He has a new Canon camera. We talked about settings and then got shoes. He didn't want to play with the hawk.....He's the guy setting up Saudi Arabia TED. Lots to do after registering.....no line! Pays to be early!

Then it's off to the TED stage! Got pictures of "Griff" sleeping. He started work at 4 Oxford - Becky 2 a.m. this morning and is "beat." There have been 24 presentations - practice, since they set up. Several other folks hand me off to various people until I arrive at the AV (audio Visual) room where I am told I am DEEPLY loved. I have no audio visual stuff so they get a 30 minute break. They need it. There is no air-conditioning here and it is HOT HOT HOT!!! My room is gorgeous....just remodeled...in the oldest wing of the school.

And lastly the story of the hawk...

Right off the bat stuff has been cool! I got to play with a hawk!! Hawks, the handler Oxford - Becky 3 said, are "Tribal animals." When they get used to human beings and learn to trust them, the human becomes part of their Tribe. More on that in a separate blog post, but here's a cool photo! Yes! I got to wear the glove and "catch" the hawk about a dozen times!!! FUN FUN FUN!!!

And in a follow up email she wrote...

I told Bruno at dinner that my TED experience was already complete - I got to play with the hawk! He said, "Yeah, talking tomorrow pales in comparison I'm sure!" Glad he has a sense of humor! I don't have room for ALL the stuff I did, but basically the locals here are really friendly and told me where to go to drink beer in the bar where Bill Clinton smoked pot, where to get the best photos of the boats on the river, where the best fish & chips are - (they were right)...all the fun stuff they don't cover in the tour books. And the bus drivers know my name! Talk about great customer service - these bus tour guys are awesome!

Becky Update

My TED talk is done. Parts went great, parts I forgot. I hope they can piece it together. As much as I practiced and memorized - it all flew out of my head halfway through. Thank God for notes. Actually, now that it's over, I think I've forgotten the whole morning. Not unusual. What shocked me so much about the experience was the kindness of strangers. So many smiling faces - so many people wanting me to do well. I hope I did. It was the hardest thing I've ever done - even harder than living in the van for a year. Too much to blog about, but it was intense. (emphasis mine.)

Dan Pink rearranged his schedule to be there in the front row cheering me on. He is amazing. Simply amazing. I walked over and shook his hand at the end of my talk....it was too emotional....I don't have the words to describe it. But something inside me changed. For the good! Lunch is in an hour. Amazing people. Amazing speakers. I can't believe I can't form complete sentences or function, but it is that powerful, and those are just the TED University folks.

I think I just want to go somewhere and cry. It's intense. So intense to be here. If you get a chance to go to TED - do it. You'll never regret it. And this is just the first day. wow.

Later that day ... Oxford - Becky 4

I must have done better than I thought. People came up to me all day and night, crying and hugging me. I spent almost an hour in the bathroom because as I was washing my hands women kept coming in the door and stopping to tell me their story and their feelings after hearing my talk. I'm stunned at how intensely people WANT to connect with other's experiences. A female doctor took a year sabatical to live on a boat and told me she got the same response. People saw her differently and treated her with hostility. When she moved off of the boat after a year, people went back to treating her like a doctor. It made her so angry. (emphasis mine.)

A woman who had been kidnapped and tortured, held hostage and raped for months - also identified with it. Non-Americans were more moved than Americans and identified more deeply. I've never been hugged and cried so much in my life. Everyone wanted a longer speech and more details. It was a great way to get stories. I asked what they liked best about the talk and wow! The floodgates opened! It was like getting my own personal TED experience hearing people's stories....just incredible!! What I saw as "forgetting my place," the audience saw as emotional pauses....so, it worked I guess. Humbling. Totally humbling experience.

I remember about three faces on the front row. People tell me that there was a standing ovation, people crying etc. but I didn't hear a thing. I remember walking over and leaning off of the stage to shake Dan Pink's hand (he was in the front row) and then the moderator/host saying, "And that's what we call a "TED" moment." Apparently there were a lot of tears, but I remember a hug from the host and Dan.

Friendship Matters

Seth Godin asks an author an important question.

 ..."are you writing this for strangers or friends?"

He follows with this insight.

You need to treat friends differently at every step along the way. First, don't confuse the moments you're supporting them or connecting with them with the moments when you are doing business. Second, understand that the most powerful win is when your friends tell their friends about you. This is worth 1000 times more than you talking about yourself.

This is a bigger question than simply whether you are selling to strangers or friends. It is a wholesale change in how we think about the impact of our businesses.

Until very recently, numbers ruled. Technology is changing that. Now, the average person can have access to as many people as the President, if they understand what the game really is.

Numbers are no longer the most important factor in business. Now, trust, respect, integrity and public perception have become much more important.

If you are perceived as using Twitter to grow numbers, you'll be shunned as an opportunist. However, if you are perceived as a person of influence because you are both generous and wise, then your numbers will grow and they will be sustainable because these people want to be your friend.

Here's the real secret, it isn't enough to be a good person that people like. You have to be this person in conversation. Sal Bhanji responding to Seth's post gets it.

Suddenly with tools such as blog, Twitter, Facebook, rss feed etc reaching far more than these numbers is easy, less expensive and tempting. But none of the old tricks would work even if you manage to reach these numbers. As this is a total different game all together.  The new tools require you to have a conversation and not force things upon people.  Start having a conversation with your prospective market and make friends long before you offer your service.

If you still need a way to understand what's happening, consider this.

You go on vacation to Yellowstone National Park. You have a great time, andIMG_0390 return home. What do you talk about? The cost, the miles driven, the gas used? No. You talk about  the experience you had with one another.

You tell stories of the agitated bison that came up to your car(true story). You tell of the forest fire (true story), the snow fall in August (true), and meeting FBI director Robert Mueller at dinner (also true). You tell of the people you met, the sights you saw and the surprises along the way. You share your experiences. You recommend places to stay and restaurants to visit. And you share what you learned about life, friendship, family and the importance of each. You tell me this, and I want to go to Yellowstone. Every year. And go with you.

Please don't confuse friendship with numbers. Friendship is giving, sharing, caring, sacrifice, honor, and gratitude. If you can be this person with 10,000 people then you have a chance of doing some remarkable things.  You can have an impact far beyond the product you are selling.


Do you know who you need to know?

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When I moved to Asheville/Hendersonville in 1995, I came with three contacts from three friends. Each of the friends didn't know one another. As far as I know the three people recommended to me didn't know each other here.

This is a story about how to network.

I called the three people and told them I was new in town, that their friend suggested I should get to know them, and that I would like to come by and talk about my vision for my leadership consulting business.

Each person graciously accepted. I gave them my mission pitch, not my sales pitch. I asked, "Who do you think I need to get to know?"  Each one of them gave me 10-15 names and phone numbers. This was before the ubiquity of email and social media. I then began the process over again. I still ask the question, "Who do you think I need to get to know?"

There are two kinds of social networks: Open and Closed.

Closed and Open Relationships

My experience is that all networks begin as open and then develop towards being closed. Once closed, social exploration becomes more difficult as preservation of the social bond begins to take precedence over the drive to expand and diversify.

Start a network by asking "Who do I need to know?"

The people you spend time with on a regular basis can't tell you that. Everyone in your current closed network knows everyone else. However, there are networks of people who don't know you. Do they need to know you? That depends on whether you are someone who can make a difference to them.

The largest hurdle to stepping out of a closed network is our own fear of rejection by those who are different or don't know us. This fear is in all of us. Walk into a room of strangers, especial those whom we wish to know for business reasons, and our egos are on the line.

In order to grow our network, we must move beyond our fear. We can do so when we have a clear sense of what is happening in the room.

Next walk in, and take some time to see how people are standing in one place, never moving, and how many people are moving throughout the room. Become the person who moves through the room, making introductions, and soon, you'll find that you are introducing two other people to each other. The result is that a social network is forming around the intiative you've taken to meet people.

Taking the initiative is the beginning point of all leadership. Taking initiative in relationships is how social networks form.

The nature of a social network is what Seth Godin calls a tribe, with tribal leadership the key to builiding both the openness for new people and the bond of relationships that helps sustain the group. I recommend reading his books, Tribes and Linchpin to learn how to lead within a social network.

The second hurdle is feeling comfortable going into groups where you don't think you belong. I'm not saying go join a gang. I am talking about creating relationships with people who are the least like you, and who offer you, and you to them, access to information and experience that is not available to them in their closed groups.

For example, I'm not a IT professional, web designer or in the marketing/advertising field. However, I have over the years attended a groups here in Asheville like the technology field business social group, Meet The Geeks. Why do I attend? Because I am always learning something new when I go. They are interesting, intelligent, and innovative people. It is a circle of relationships that none of my regular colleagues knows. As a result, I have access to information that people within my more closed circles don't have. I gain a different perspective on business in Asheville and Western North Carolina than I do from the guys at the Y or from people at church.

The third hurdle is understanding that the key to networking is not the social group, but individuals within them. It is difficult to join a group of people no matter how much you share in common and gain the full advantage of membership. The key is establishing relationships that transcend the group.

Social groups are incidental to the friendships that are formed. They are vehicles for people to connect. It is what happens after the connection is established that is important.

For example, I went to a Twitter Tweetup luncheon the other day. I was old enough to be the father of half of the participants. I was the odd-duck in the group. I knew going in, and it didn't matter. I went to meet people who are different from me. I learned a lot from these people. They are all caring, socially engaged people. It will take some additional encounters to build real trust and rapport. I'm willing to make that investment of time and energy.

Sustainable Social Networks

Social networks are generally unsustainable without relationships that grow beyond the boundaries of the group. I'm involved in a large number of social networks because I'm naturally curious and interested in getting to know people. As long as the topics are interesting, I'm interested.

But many of them get boring pretty quickly. Many social groups are often places where lonely people are looking for companionship. As a result, they talk about themselves a lot. When everyone is telling everyone else what they think, instead of asking questions that build relationships, then the group has no place to grow. I'm glad the vehicles exist because many people do find the opportunity to transcend the group into genuinely meaningful relationships.

What is interesting is finding someone with whom there is a significant level of commonality in purpose and values, and where there is a mutual desire to create something through our relationship together. It just doesn't happen that often. It takes intentionality and initiative, and lots of communication.

The key question, therefore, that we all need to be asking ourselves is

"Who do I need to know?"

That question is closed followed by,

"Who needs to know me?" 

Keep an open mind to the answers to these two questions, and you'll find that the circle of relationships surrounding you grows to be one of real impact. Help one another make those connections and you'll find you own network growing.