Understanding What You Have To Offer


I like to think of people as bottom-less reservoirs of unrealized potential. Sort of like Hermione's handbag in the Harry Potter stories. Her handbag is useful because literally everything can fit in it, from a complete camp site to a huge broad sword.

The reality is that most of us don't see ourselves this way ... as full of unrealized potential. 

We are not even sure we know what we can do well, much less the difference we can make every day.

In this post, we are going to change all that.

Do you have paper and pen handy?

You are going to want to write down some things as we go along.

Change and Transition

Change for most of us, today, is a way of life. It isn't always as we expect it either. In some cases, the change is just the slow decline of all that we thought was good and hopeful when we were younger.

You can see it when people talk about their work. It is something to endure. It is as if the job's purpose and their idealism left them a long time ago. They still get up every morning, drive to work, and go through the necessary activities to do the work. But, it isn't a happy picture of the good life for many people.

Add in a global recession that may become a way of life for many people, and it is easy to understand how we can lose touch with the things that matter. Especially the talent, the skills, the passion and the unrealized potential that is who we are. We carry them around inside of us everyday, just like the stuff in Hermione's handbag, that has the potential of enriching every place we touch,and every person we encounter every day.  

So what do you do when this is not your situation, like it happen to one of my friends, who found himself out of his dream job after 40 years, and is definitely not ready to retire?

These are two sides of the same coin. Both the person who has lost their passion and purpose for work, and the person whose work lost him, need to understand who they are, distinct enough from their workplace, so that a picture of their unrealized potential can begin to be drawn.

The first thing we need to determine is "What do I have to offer to the world?"

Say that to yourself.

What do I have to offer the world?

Say it out loud if you want, emphasizing the "doing" of the offer.

What do I have to offer the world?

Write the sentence down. Look at it again.Think of your hands open extended out in front of you. In your hands is what you have to offer. It is the gift that you give to people, organizations and places that makes a difference that matters.

Now imagine that every day you climb out of bed to offer to the world all the unrealized potential that you have been storing up in the Hermione's handbag of your life. 

We are, now, beginning see that our unrealized potential is not some abstract value, but something real that we have to offer. Something tangible that can make a real difference in the world. We are recognizing here that we have within our own abilities the power to bring change that creates goodness wherever I am, even at work.

To learn what we have to offer is a process of self-discovery. It leads to a realization of all that we have been storing away, out of sight, out of mind, down deep in Hermione's handbag all these years.  It is all we've learned, gained and developed in the way of knowledge and experience over the course of our lifetime.  The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide
Five Questions

, I sat down with my friend who lost his job and talked him through the Five Questions That Every Person Must Ask.

After 40 years of doing the same job, it is understandable that we don't know really know what we know, and we need help getting down into Hermione's handbag to find out what we have to offer.

To understand this is to see that we are not what we do.

We are what we desire to change, the impact that becomes the validation of who we are.

This is what we offer, our gifts, talents, wisdom and experience to make a difference that is an expression of the very best of who we are.

Now, let's answer the Five Questions.


The first question asks what has changed. If you are out of a job, then the answer is easy. If you are at a dead end in the work you are currently doing, then you need to reflect a bit more on how things got this way.

It is important to see that our lives are a long progression of changes that has an inner logic. To see the rationale behind the changes in our lives is to understand how we are always in transition from where we were to where are going to be.

Write down what helps you to understand what this sequence of change looks like. It is a reference point for understanding what you've been going through. Keep what you write down, and the benefit of seeing this transition will grow over time.

If you are in a hard spot right now, go back in time as far as it takes to that point when you were happy in your work. Because when you were, you were fulfilling some of the unrealized potential that you have. Remember fulfillment is happiness.


It is a simple question. What is my impact?

It may be the hard to answer because it forces us to look at the world differently.

So, think in terms of what is the impact that you'd like to create? Put yourself back in your old job or back when you were the happiest in your work, and then ask, What is the impact that I had then?

Don't be too analytical. Keep it simple.

Who are you impacting?

You need two lists of people.

Create a list of those people whom you believe were impacted by your work and relationship with them.

Contact them to discover what it was that made the difference.

Create a list of people whom you know who can provide you connections to people and fields of work that are currently not open to you.

Follow these steps.

Ask, who do I know?

Ask, who do they know that I don't know that I need to know?

Contact your list to set up a conversation.

Share with them the impact that you'd like to achieve.

Ask them, who do you know that you think I should know?

Ask, are you willing to make an introduction for me?

Go to see these people, repeat the process.


When you go talk to people, don't go looking for a job. Go looking for an opportunity to make a difference with the assets that you bring to the business.

Think ... I'm looking for opportunities to create impact.

Your opportunities are not limited to the work and occupations that you have had in the past. By understanding what you offer, you can demonstrate how they can be applied in many more situations than you can imagine.

Obstacles / Problems

Let's be honest with ourselves. Often the loss of a job is the product of our own failure to do what we needed to do to stay current in our field or demonstrate the value of the impact that we bring to the company.  As a result, there may be obstacles or problems that stand in your way of fulfilling the opportunity that you see before you.

Don't sit around paralyzed by guilt and regret. Neither will bring the next job or the good life. Get to work on resolving the issues that hold you back so that you are prepared for the next opportunity to make a difference.

The Offering

Knowing what we have to offer the world is an important step of bringing fulfillment to the unrealized potential that fills our Hermione's handbag. What we have to offer is our gift. When we give it, the impact is magnified because the spirit of the gift strengthens the environment of the relationship and organization.

Our offering of service to create impact distinguishes us from those who are simply looking for a job. By giving of ourselves, we create the conditions for goodness to be realized for the companies and clients we serve, and for our own sense of well-being to be fulfilled.

The steps above are simple. Believing that we have something to offer is hard. I hope that this process is helpful. If you need more specific help, just let me know.

Leading by Vacuum


"Nature abhors a vacuum."


Physics IV:6-9

Aristotle is speaking about flow.

See the two channels in this stream. One is meandering and the other is more direct. The meandering one has established its own path which is different from the wider stream bed. I've seen this before in streams near my house as a child. The stream bed was dredged of silt, and it looks like a long straight culvert. Within a few months, the meandering curves return. Flow finds its own path of least resistance.

Professor Adrian Bejan writes,

"Everything that moves, whether animate or inanimate is a flow system. All flow systems generate shape and structure in time in order to facilitate this movement across a landscape filled with resistance..."

It applies to the function of leadership in a way that may surprise you.

Hierarchy of  Structure

The conventional view of leadership is that it is a role within an organizational structure. The people within that structure are divided between leaders and followers.  It looks sort of like this diagram. Responsibility is set at the top and accountability is to the level above. It is built for order, control and efficiency.

This kind of structure worked for a long time, many millennia, for many reasons. Principally, limited access to education and technology kept many people from advancing beyond the physical labor of the family farm or the factory. These cultural situations acted as restrictions on the growth of this structure. Sources of friction, like these, are rapidly being removed, the result is that the place of leadership in organizations is changing.

By place I mean function. The function of leadership in this older hierarchical model was management. The function of leadership in the future will be something quite different. Instead of managing order, it is creating opportunity for leadership.


The Flow of Leadership

A vacuum is an open space.

Think of two spaces. A bowl full of water and a sponge.

The sponge is less dense, has more open space than the water in the bowl. Place the sponge in the bowl, and the water flows into the sponge until it can hold no more.

Take that same bowl of water, and leave it out on your kitchen counter long enough, and the water in the bowl will evaporate into the air. The water in the bowl is denser than the air. However, for it to flow into the air it must change into water vapor. 

This metaphor describes the changes and differences that I see in leadership between the 20th and 21st centuries.

In the older model, the corporation absorbed the raw talent into its organizational structure.

Today, there are fewer corporate jobs, and so people are adapting to a world of independence, entrepreneurism, and networks of interdependency.

This is the difference is between a closed system of a few leaders and many followers and an open system where everyone can function as a leader. It may depend upon how you define leadership.

These changes, however, are not caused by our ability to define words. Instead, it is defined by our ability to interpret the natural changes that are taking place all around us.

Adrian Bejan's point above is that nature's pattern is one of flow from one place to another following the path of least resistance. I recommend his book, Design in Nature, as an introduction to an understanding of flow in science.

The flow of leadership then is to remove the barriers, the restrictions, the obstacles and the controls that bar people from developing as leaders.

Is leadership, then, a function of management or is leadership a function of who we are as human beings?

Or, let's reverse the question.

Are human beings born as management functions? Or, are we born to lead, to make a difference with our lives?

It isn't a question of nature versus nurture in human development.

It is instead a question of how human beings function in modern organizational structures.

It is a question of human purpose first, and, and organizational purpose and structure second.

Remove the barriers that block human beings from fulling their potential, and leadership develops.

Create openness, and leadership throughout the social and organizational setting will result.

Leadership in the 20th century was a product of organizational structure. Leadership in the 21st is a product of human action.

Simply put,

Leaders take personal initiative to create impact, to make a difference that matters.

The flow of leadership, therefore, is the change that results from the human action rising from the individual initiative that fills the open spaces of opportunity to create the impact that is needed in each individual situation.

This means that in organization structure after 20th. century models must change

The role of executive changes from one who manages processes to one who facilitates the creation of opportunity and the development of the practice of leadership throughout the company.

The structure changes from a monolithic hierarchical one to a collection of smaller, networked communities of leaders.

In this respect, companies are no longer simply places of employment, but rather places of human formation.

The transition is not an easy one, but a necessary one. It is not easy because the most fundamental structure of the modern world is required to change. What is that structure? The concentration of power and affluence into the hands of those who are designated as leaders.


Leading by vacuum

The title of this post is a way I have come to describe what happens in an organization that opens up the opportunity for people to learn to take initiative to create impact.

We create a leadership vacuum when we refuse to do that which we are not able to do.

In other words, I only do that which I can do.

This isn't a rationalization for the avoidance of responsibility.  It is rather an intentional recognition that each person has gifts to offer to the functioning of the organization. When leaders claim more responsibility, more authority, or more control than they are effectively able to manage, they are at the same time restricting the possibility for the leadership potential of others to be realized.

Here's how it works.

1. Do that which you can do. Invite others to do that which they can do. Be a team of shared initiative and contribution.

2. Celebrate your values by creating a culture of unity and commitment to a shared purpose for your relationships and your work together.

3. Create an organizational structure open to change and personal initiative to create impact.

An open structure of shared responsibility for each person to realize their own potential for making a difference that matters is the future of organizations.

Executive leaders as a result push the responsibility for developing the processes and policies of the company down the organizational chart to the point of implementation.  They also are constantly communicating the Why of the companies values along side the How of the companies policies and approach.  They do this by being clear how the values of the company are functioning throughout the organization. 

Like a stream, openness for leadership helps the organization finds its path of least resistance to create impact.

Like a vacuum, where there is openness to make a difference, people step forward to fill the space provided for them to make a difference. When each person does what they do best through their own personal initiative to create impact, then the leadership capacity of the organization expands to become its greatest asset. This is 21st. century leadership.      


This post was published March 4, 2012 as an introduction for two presentations that I gave in Ventura, California, March 16-17, 2012. Here are links to those two presentations.

The Flow of Leadership

The Flow of Community

A follow up to this post was published as Still Waters Still Flow.

 Attribution Some rights reserved by Phillie Casablanca

The End and The Beginning Redux

In March of 2011, I wrote a post called The End and The Beginning.  Here's an excerpt.

What I see is:

    The Beginning of the End of the Progressive ideal.

     The  End of the Beginning of the Capitalist model.

     The Emergence of freedom and democracy on a global scale.

The first two, Progressivism and Capitalism, along with modern Science, are the principal products of the age of Enlightenment.

The Progressive ideal believed, and still does by many of its advocates, that through government control of science and industry a free, equitable and peaceful world could be achieved. Conceived during the 19th century as a belief that society could be perfected, and as a counter-balance to the industrialization taking place in Europe and the United States, it was an utopian belief in a well-order, controlled, uniform world.

The Capitalist model was born in a belief that each individual should be free to pursue their own economic welfare, and not be forced by government rules or economic servitude to do that which they choose not to do. It was the ideology that provided the basis of the industrialization out which has come prosperity for more people in history and the rise of the modern middle class.

Both the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have brought great benefits and liabilities to society. They form the two sides of virtually every divisive issue confronting the world today. They are quite similar, yet in very different ways. Both are organized around the control of power and wealth. Both have been institutionalized in the large, hierarchical organizations in Washington and on Wall Street, and in similar institutions throughout the world.

Over the past decade, the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have begun to show their age. The assumptions that underlie these ideologies are being challenged by forces of change that are beyond their control. Because the control of global forces of change is problematic and less realistic.

I wrote this before the Occupy Wall Street movement began.

I have thought for a long time that there was an evolutionary cycle of institutional decline taking place. Some of this change was the result of out-dated organizational and leadership philosophies, and some of it the emergence of technologies that provide for a more boundary-less environment for communication and collaboration.

This change is an organic process that will ultimately transform or replace most organizations. While I still believe this to be true, I also see that there is a revolutionary cycle of institutional destruction taking place as well.

Read these two different views of the Occupy Wall Street movement. First, Naomi Wolfe's The Guardian article, The Shocking Truth about the Crackdown on Occupy. Then read Matthew Continetti's The Weekly Standard editorial, Anarachy in the USA.

If both are right, then what we are seeing is the rise of political violence on a broader scale in America than we have seen since the late 1960's / early 1970's.  I see parallels from my youth in this generation of young people who rush to join the protests, without really knowing what they hope to change. Their frustration is shared broadly.

A few times over the past few months, I have heard business people in differing contexts say something like, "I'm not making any investments in equipment, no acquisitions of companies, and no hiring until after next year's election."  The reason, instability, a lack of clarity about the rules. In effect, they don't know how their investments will be taxed. As a result, they are forced to sit and wait, contributing to a further erosion of jobs and economic sustainability for families and communities.

This fits with the trends picture presented by Charles Hugh Smith in his post The Future of Jobs. Look closely at the 5Ds at the end of this list.

Most cultural and economic trend changes begin on the margin and then spread slowly to the core, triggering waves of wider recognition along the way. Thus some of these long-wave trends may not yet be visible to the mainstream, and may remain on the margins for many years. Others are so mature that they may be primed for reversal.

The key here is to be aware of each of these, think on which are most likely to impact your current profession and how, and estimate when that impact is likely to be expressed so that you can position yourself wisely in advance:

  1. Automation enabled by the Web…
  2. The cost structure of the US economy—the system-wide cost of housing, food, energy, transport, education, health care, finance, debt, government, and defense/national security--is high and rising, even as productivity is lagging. …
  3. The stress of operating a small business in a stagnant, over-indebted, high-cost basis economy is high, and owners find relief only by opting out and closing their doors. …
  4. The Central State has been co-opted or captured by concentrations of private wealth and power to limit competition and divert the nation’s surplus to Elites within the key industries of finance, health care, education, government, and national security. ….
  5. Financialization of the economy has incentivized unproductive speculation and malinvestment at the expense of productive investment. …
  6. The U.S. economy has bifurcated into a two-tiered regulatory structure. Politically powerful industries such as finance, education, health care, oil/natural gas, and defense benefit from either loophole-riddled regulation or regulation that effectively erects walls that limit smaller competitors from challenging the dominant players. …
  7. Selective globalization and political protection has created a two-tiered labor market in the US. …
  8. Financialization and the two-tiered labor market have led to a two-tiered wealth structure in which the top 10%'s share of the nation’s wealth has outstripped not just the stagnant income and wealth of the lower 90%, but of productivity, the ultimate driver of national wealth.
  9. … Looking farther out, there are emerging trends I call “the five Ds:” definancialization, delegitimization, deglobalization, decentralization and deceleration. …
  10. Definancialization. Resistance to the political dominance of banks and Wall Street is rising, and the financial industry that thrived for the past three decades may contract to a much smaller footprint in the economy.
  11. Delegitimization. The politically protected industries of government, education, health care, and national security are increasingly viewed as needlessly costly, top-heavy, inefficient, or failing. Supporting them with ever-increasing debt is widely viewed as irresponsible. Cultural faith in large-scale institutions as “solutions” is eroding, as is the confidence that a four-year college education is a key to financial security. 
  12. Deglobalization. Though it appears that globalization reigns supreme, we can anticipate protectionism will increasingly be viewed as a just and practical bulwark against high unemployment and withering domestic industries. We can also anticipate global supply chains being disrupted by political turmoil or dislocations in the global energy supply chain; domestic suppliers will be increasingly valued as more trustworthy and secure than distant suppliers.
  13. Decentralization. As faith in Federal and State policy erodes, local community institutions and enterprise will increasingly be viewed as more effective, responsive, adaptable, and less dysfunctional and parasitic than Federal and State institutions.
  14. Deceleration. As debt and financialization cease being drivers of the economy and begin contracting, the entire economy will decelerate as over-indebtedness, systemic friction, institutional resistance to contraction (“the ratchet effect”), and political disunity are “sticky” and contentious.

So, a picture emerges that promises the economic and political environment to be more unstable and volatile over the coming year. I believe this requires us to make a change in our perspective about the way we view the evolutionary changes that are working in tandem and at time against the revolutionary changes of the past few months.

Understanding the Transition

Many of the people I am with on a daily basis feel a strong ambiguity towards institutions, like government, business and religion. Many of these institutions are failing, declining, or evaporating before our eyes. I don't need to go into the reasons why. It really doesn't matter that much because to a great degree, it is a function of the transition from one era to the next. I don't believe we can stop those changes. Our course of action is to be different. Here are some of the ways we can adapt to this changing social landscape.

1. Develop Parallel Structures that provide a buffer against the disintegration of legacy institutions. Creating parallel and redundant structures provides a greater margin of security against the shifts that are taking place. The thinking process behind this is to define the four Connecting Ideas of Mission, Values, Vision and Impact for your organization, and then answer, How do we create the structures that can fulfill the potential that resides in this ideas?

2. Develop Networks of Trust that provide a community of collaborators who stand with one another as economic conditions worsen. If society moves towards a more anarchic, violent place, then having a network of trust is essential for security and safety.

3. Develop a Long View / Big Picture that projects out how new ways of working can become sustainable.  Right now, using traditional plannng methods, it is very difficult to create a long range plan for development. Yet, without some clarity about the Big Picture, we are at the mercy of the current fashionable idea. Build a Long View / Big Picture around the Values that are most important to you and to those who are in your network of relationships. Strong values lived out in our relationships are an essential strength for being more adaptible in the face of revolutionary change.

4. Develop an Independent, Adaptable Mind that is able to discern the Big Picture in the moment of decision. Don't let someone else tell you what to think. Think for yourself. Do your own research. Read broadly. Think critically, with a view to understanding context, trends and what the Big Picture is. Engage in conversation, ask questions, change your mind, and build a network of people who are just as independently like minded.

5. Develop the Character of Resiliency that refuses to quit or fail, but continues to adapt and learn. This resiliency comes from an inner strength of courage and confidence that we can go through any difficult situation and remain true to ourselves. To be resilient requires us to see ourselves as more than the victim of current circumstances, but able to adapt and change to create the structures and relationships needed to advance forward.

6. Develop Traditions that Celebrate Values that unite people together as communities of shared mission and responsibility.  Of the four Connecting Ideas, Values is the only one that does not change. Our values are the glue that holds us together in times of crisis and stress. It is the core strength of every lasting institution. Those people and institutiosn that are able to change are the ones whose values are greater than its organizational structure.

7. Develop the Leadership of Personal Initiative in every social and organizational setting you touch. The attitudes and behaviors of entitlement and dependence, which have been nurtured by the institutions that are declining will not sustain society in the future. The freedom of the individual is the freedom to lead through their own personal initiative. The key is understanding that this initiative is the leadership of the future, as person who are free to act, join with others to create the parallel structures that are needed to replace the structures in decline.

The End and The Beginning Redux

I'm still convinced that we are witnessing the decline of Progressivism as a viable system for society. I'm also convinced that Capitalism as it has developed in the late 20th / early 21st century is not sustainable. I am more convinced than ever that individual freedom and the liberty of democracy are the trends that will carry us through the violence of the next generation. I say so because the era that is passing away before us will not go quietly. But go away, it will. That too I am firmly convinced.

The Davos Question

Have you heard about The Davos Question?

What one thing do you think that countries, companies, or individuals must do to make the world a better place in 2008?

As we go through a global financial crisis, and as we prepare to elect a new president and members of the Congress, state legislatures, and city and county officials, this may be a good time to ask this question.

Here's my answer.

Countries: Restore citizen trust and confidence in government and their national economies.

Companies: Restore public trust and confidence in the capitalist system that links all companies and all nations.

Individuals: Learn to think for yourself. Take responsibility for the future. Take action to strengthen the institutions of your local community. Be a collaborative partner.

What is your answer to the question?

Check out these YouTube videos of world leaders answering the question.

HT: Bryan Caplan

What if neither is the right man?

Peggy Noonan echoes what I've been feeling and have been trying to write about this week.

The economic crisis brings a new question, unarticulated so far but there, and I know because when I mention it to people they go off like rockets. It is: Do you worry that neither of them is up to it? Up to the job in general? Is either Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama actually up to getting us through this and other challenges? I haven't heard a single person say, "Yes, my guy is the answer." A lot of shrugging is going on out there. This is a read not only on the men but on the moment.

This is my question too. Everyone I know has already decided. There is no discussion, no inquiry, no debate.  And to a large extent, their votes are negative, not FOR their candidate, but against the other, and in particular George Bush. That is no basis for a selection.

This is what drove me to the postings over the past several days. It is what drove me to read the policy statements on their websites.

My honest impression is that these are two very different men with a singular quality for getting elected, but not necessarily for governing. I find them too narrow, too self-focused, too Senatorial.

John McCain, the maverick reformer who becomes a lightning rod for concentrating conservative anger toward corrupt and inefficient government. Barrack Obama, the evangelist of hope who knows how to wow an audience and raise money, but not much more.

Noonan raises another more disturbing question.

I wonder if we follow the election so passionately because we're afraid. We're afraid a lot of our national problems are intractable, and the future too full of challenge.

We cannot tolerate feeling this way. So we make believe the election can change everything. And we follow it passionately to convince ourselves its outcome will be decisive and make everything better. We reassure ourselves with pictures of the cheering crowds at the rally. We even find some comfort in the latest story of the latest dirty trick. But deep inside we think: Ah, that won't work either.

Some part of me thinks we are all making believe this is a life-changing election because we know it's not a life-changing election. Ever have that thought? Me too. Then there's a rally or a scandal or a gaffe, and it passes.

I too wonder this. And it leads me to this conclusion...

This election is not about Obama or McCain, not about the Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, or any other single issue party.  It is about US. Not the United States, but We The People

Problems are intractable when the people who can change them don't. Over the past five years or so, I've become more convinced that hope lies not in a person, but in people. Individual people doing what they should do on their own initiative.

The most telling example of this mass initiative for change was the response to Hurricane Katrina. I've been down the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and New Orleans several times. I've met people who decided that there was no longer anyone to give them permission to act, and they act on their own accord. There is Kathleen in Waveland, who hopped on a truck with her construction tools, headed to Mississippi from Illinois, spent three weeks working, went home, closed up her house and moved to Waveland to start a relief and repair organization. She's an amazing woman.

People don't take initiative like this because of their government. They do it because they feel compelled to do it. It is a part of their character to do it.

The key to our future is not in Washington but in each home in America. It is each person deciding on their own to do something to make a difference. If there is no credit to pay for a new home or fix one up, then we establish the community relations to create a system of barter than enables peoples' needs to be met. That is one answer to an intractable problem.

Yes, we need a different type of leadership in Washington. But that won't happen until We The People become the kind of leaders that that different kind of president can lead. It starts with us. Not them.

When leaders act children

This article - How the Masters of the Universe ran amok and cost us the earth - in The Scotsman gives a insightful picture of life at the top.  As I read it, all I could think was that the world's top banking executives were children playing and benefiting from someone else's money, and thinking that their Daddy, the federal government would be there to bail them out.

Accountability ignored is discipline denied.  Accountability modifies how one looks at risk. If  you think that your actions have no downside because Mommy and Daddy are there, then you'll take on ever riskier activities.

As a result, when the industry was deregulated, permission was given to these children to play with fire. With freedom must come discipline, and discipline begins with the individual. You can see how one firm invested more and more in subprime lending, seeing their cash flow grow and grow, and how other firms jumped on the bandwagon. Just like a fraternity party where one drunk decides to jump off a hotel balcony into a pool, the rest of the guys have to do it too until one or more end up in the hospital or dead.

Independence of thought, and responsibility for action are lost in the herd instinct not to be an outsider.

Here is a lesson for the person who is head of an organization. Following is not leadership. Leadership is taking personal initiative to do the right thing in the context in which you live. In all my years of working with organizations, there is not a single group that is like another. NOT ONE. So, if you want to follow, know that this is what you may find at the end of that sequence of non-decisions.  There are no perfect people or organizations. There are none that you can follow blindly. Everyone spins their failures into someone else's responsibility.

Here's the bottom line, the failure of these banks is not simply because of their financial decisions. Their financial decisions failed because of the moral choices that they failed to accept.  Leadership is a position of trust which is earned by the moral choices we make. If we act like children, believing that some parental agency will be there to pick up the pieces, and that I get to keep all my toys and privileges after my failure, then we are failing at the most fundamental level of life, the moral one.

None of us should ever think that we are immune from the moral imperative of accountability. And in the case of these bank failures, the implications of their moral failure is global.

What should we do? Accept the world as it is. Success and failure are both components of the life of endeavor. What we don't know is more important than what we do know, and what we don't know is determined to a large extent by what we choose to accept as relevant information.

Accept the world as it is because we have now seen, you can't fool Mother Nature.

Quick Takes: Speed Hiker pays tribute

Over the summer, those of us who enjoy hiking in our southern Appalachian mountains have been following At_map_250 the exploits of Jen Pharr Davis. She's a local woman who recently set the record for a woman to hike the Appalachian Trail. She hiked the entire 2175 miles in 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes. That is an average of 38 miles per day. If you have ever been hiking along the AT, you'll know that this is a feat of strength and endurance that revivals Michael Phelps Olympic record.

Why did she do it? 

Her speedy “thru-hike” was a tribute to honor fellow, fallen hiker-heroes who were killed on trails she had hiked many times.

“My hike was to honor the hikers killed by Gary Michael Hilton: John and Irene Bryant, and especially Meredith Emerson,” Davis said. “Meredith was a 24-year-old female, hiking alone. I was a female, hiking alone. I had been out on the same trails where they were murdered. It could have easily been me. If I had been an artist, I would have painted something for Meredith. But I’m a hiker. I took a hike for her.”

This hike was the culmination of several years of hiking alone beginning with the AT in 2005, and then trails in Australia, Africa and South America.

The idea to hike one of the country’s longest trails ... started as a teenager’s dream.

Davis, raised in Hendersonville, grew up playing tennis competitively, hiking, camping and living an outdoors lifestyle. She set herself a goal to “thru-hike,” or backpack the entire trail alone. She hurried to finish her degree at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 3 1/2 years, so she could hit the trail in the spring to take advantage of the best weather conditions for the hike.

“It seemed a good way to combine my interests of being an athlete and loving the outdoors,” Davis said. “It seemed like a good challenge that would allow me to make decisions concerning my future.”

In March 2005, the slender, 6-foot-tall hiker set off solo on a 4 1/2 month odyssey. She grew up quickly.

“I started off fearless and naïve,” Davis said. “Along the way, I ran into challenges and dangerous situations that made me question whether I should be out there on my own.”

Davis encountered naked men in the woods, met up with vicious, unleashed dogs and, in her worst moment, while hiking on the trail in New Jersey, she was the first upon the scene of a suicide.

After she was safely home in Asheville, Davis said she felt that it was a wonderful experience, but one she thought she never wanted to do again.

“But two months later, I wanted to go again,” she said. “I had learned so much about myself. I enjoyed being in nature and being active. I was eager to hike on other continents and see what they had to offer.”

I have a deep respect for Jen Davis. Her quest to honor her fellow hikers; her desire to set the AT speed record for women; her desire to know herself as she exists in the natural world are all attributes worthy of our respect.

We live in a time where extreme sports are celebrated for being extreme. And I must say watching skateboarders and bmx bikers get "big air" is amazing. But those sports, like virtual reality computer games, are all conducted within the safety of rules and shelter. Jen's quest led her into a natural world where there are no negotiations about the rules, and shelter is what you carry on your back. Our hyper technological world makes it difficult to have the experience that Jen did, and to learn what she has learned about herself and what it means to commit yourself to honoring someone with your life.

Here's a print ready copy of the article from the Asheville Citizen-Times.

A new generation visits the Generation Gap

Liam Kinnon, son of Bill and Imbi, Canadian college student, asks a profound question about how the generations relate to one another.

Here's part of his post:

I’ve realized recently that so much of my thinking is the direct outcome of how my parents raised me.  Ideas they transmitted through discipline and conversation are ingrained in me.  I can’t escape them, but is this a bad thing?  I’m not sure how to answer.
I guess part of the whole part of the teenage rebellion is your answering that question.  So in my instance I accepted that my parents had taught me the right things.  Therefore I didn’t rebel in any big way, though you’d have to ask my parents how they feel about that statement.  So than here’s the question that follows.  What is the reason that so many people in the last century have rebelled to the point of no return from their parents?

Profound question from this young man.  I thought about this last night at our weekly scout meeting as our troop committee met with a boy who they dismissed from the troop. 

The reason?  It wasn't that he used his knife in a threatening way toward other scouts, which he did.  In the passion of a game of capture the flag, we can do some really stupid things.  No, it wasn't that.

Instead it was a issue related to Liam's question about teenage rebellion.  This boy of 14 is very smart.  He knows how to argue his way out of responsibility for his actions.  His refusal to accept responsibility for his actions can be understood.  He's learned that like most kids from all the adult role models society presents.  Many adults refused to accept that there are certain inevitable consequences to our decisions and actions.

No, his problem was that he thought he existed apart from the rules. That he had no responsibility to the troop to be a good scout.  To follow the scout oath and law.  His anger, primarily directed toward me - "I hate you. ...  Just SHUT UP!" - was due to the fact that we had established boundaries of behavior and attitude for him as well as for the rest of the scouts.  He didn't accept those as relevant to him.

Do I have an explanation for his rebellion against the authority of the scout troop?  Yes, I do. 

In a certain sense all of us are in rebellion against authority.  It is normally expressed in passive aggressive behavior. We see it in our organizations. We see in the discussion in the parking lot and rest rooms.  We see in the attitudes of co-workers who believe that they run the company better than anyone else.  We see it in the executives who play the ethical margins and lie to maintain their imperviousness to criticism.  We see it in the resistance to change.  We see it in our own unwillingness to recognize that our individual decisions and actions carry consequences for other people and for the organization.

Here's how I make sense of this. The Impact diagram hereCircle_of_impact_diagram_8 is a picture of the three dimensions of leadership - Ideas, Organizational Structure and Relationships.  A fuller depiction of this chart can be found here.  Let me treat our situation last night as an example of what I see.

This young man lived with an Idea that he was independent from both the Organizational Structure of the scout troop and the Relationships he had with his fellow scouts.  As a result, he was isolated in a fantasy world of his own mind.  His conflict with me as his scoutmaster was that my relationship with  him caused his intellectual world to be thrown into conflict.  The expectations that my role as scout leader places on him as well as the rest of the scouts were in conflict with his independence.  I expected him to have scout spirit. I expected him to act in the best interest of the troop. I expected him to participate and contribute to making the troop a better place than he found when he joined.

My relationship to him also meant that he had to relate to the structure of the troop. He had to be a member of a patrol. He had to fulfill certain requirements in order to advance. He had to live up to the standards that the Boy Scouts set for scouts. So, when the issue of his attitude of defiance came out in the level of disrespect and rebellion that it did, it was then time for the troop committee to handle the matter.  And they did.

Out of the hundred and fifty boys who have been members of our troop over the past seven years that I have been scoutmaster, I can name on one hand the ones that were at this level of rebellion.  For most they were just kids having fun. It wasn't malicious or intentional.  They were just kids wanting to have fun after being confined within the structures of the school classroom. 

Do I blame their parents? No.  I think the social, emotional and developmental context of these boys is far more complicated than just laying it at the feet of their parents.  The parents maybe doing the very best they can, and turn to programs like scouting hoping that the structure, discipline and caring relationship with non-parental adult mentors can make a difference.  Based on my experience, this is what happens in most cases.  There is no greater pleasure than to see a kid, who at one point in his childhood, people were writing off as lost, then emerge as young leaders, focused on their future, recognizing their responsibility to the troop, their family and to their community.

I loved Liam's question because the answer forces the generations to come together to find an answer. I'm privilege to do this every week with 43 scouts and a 30 adult leaders.  But this isn't just an issue with teenage boys in rebellion. This is an issue that lies at a much more sophisticated level in adults.  It is an issue of the personal character of humility and the ability to put aside one's own interests for the betterment of the organization or society as a whole. This is the crux of the issue. It is how our own sense of independence can find a structure that allows for the kind of relationships that are personally meaningful and fulfilling socially.

The last thing to say about last night is that when an organization acts to protect its values and integrity, it provides strength and security to its individual members. This is the second time during my tenure as scoutmaster that a member of the troop was dismissed.  In each case, the discipline invoked was an affirmation to the parents that we take seriously the welfare of their children.  As a result, they have greater confidence in the leadership of the organization and, more importantly, are more willing to personally invest their time and energies in helping. 

There is a fine balance required in the exercise of discipline.  It can't be a knee-jerk response.  It can't be personal. It can't be too stringent or too casual.  The balance is not a matter of the management of organizational processes.  Rather, it is insuring that the relationships within the organization are respectful, that expectations are fair and clearly expressed, and that issues are addressed before they grow to become a serious crisis.  For this reason, it is my conclusion that organizational structures do not exist for their own purposes, but rather are there to provide support and protection for the relationships that are the organization.  Ultimately, this is what was affirmed last night.

Climbing the Mountain of Change One Step at a Time

First Posted August 17, 2006, updated for today.

As I drove to Atlanta to attend a conference, I listened to Ken Burns' DVD on the Lewis & Clark ExpeditionThe story is one of my passions.  As I listened, I kept thinking about the trek that I just completed with my son, Stewart. We went to New Mexico with a group of Boy Scouts from Western North Carolina to spend ten days backpacking at the Philmont Scout Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo mountains between Taos and Cimarron.
The most difficult day on our trek we hiked to the top of Mt. Phillips, 11,400 feet above sea level.  The last mile and a half is about 1800 feet of elevation gain.  For an old guy, with a 40 lb pack on his back, this is no easy task.  It reminded me of what the Lewis & Clark Expedition had to face. 

If you have ever spent any time on the Missouri River in Montana, you'll know that your footing along the river is either sharp shards of shale or a thick mud that the locals call "gumbo." Either your feet are getting cut up or your being sucked into the vacuum of the "gumbo."  These guys traveled up river pulling - yes, pulling their boats and canoes loaded with gear - up stream.  They did this day-in and day-out, weeks on end. They did it in moccasins and eating 9lbs of meat a day. Imagine getting up in the morning knowing that you have 12 miles of gumbo to slog through today.


This is what I thought about as I climbed Mt.Phillips with our crew, the Blu Cru. Imagine my situation: age (53), the weight on my back (40lbs), the altitude (between 9,000 and 11,400 ft), the heat (95 degrees +; I drank a 2.5 liters of water before beginning the day), and the slope (like climbing a step ladder). You can get the idea that this was the most physically challenging experience of my life.  When I looked up, and saw the nine scouts (16-17 years old), and two other adults (one a Marine and the other a runner), the words crossed my mind, "Weakest Link." My desire to pick up the pace, to not slow them down, to get to the top would lead to nothing but a sense of despair and distress.  It wasn't that I couldn't make it. It was that I did not want my limitations to adversely affect their experience of ascending to the top. So, I'd look down at my feet.  I'd take one half step, and another, then another. 

Part way up the guys said, we want you to lead us to the top.  Despair sets in. I couldn't do it. I told them, "If I'm in front, I'll slow you guys down."   I thought, "The pressure to go faster means I won't be able to make it to the top with them."  I said to the crew, "Let's get to the tree line and then I'll come to front, and we'll get to the top together."   And that is what happened. The energy and will that came from their encouragement gave me what I need to power through the difficult breathing and the fatigue in my legs. We made the top together. What a moment!

What does my experience climbing Mt. Philips say about character and change? 

If you look too far ahead, you'll get distressed. Particularly when the climb to achievement is difficult, even overwhelming.  You'll wonder how are we are going to make it. So you look down at your feet, and figure out how to get through today, then tomorrow, then next week, on and on. 

When your friends and colleagues say, we need you at the front, you are our leader,  you say to them, "Let get to a point where I can see further than my feet, and we'll go to the top together." In other words, let's take the time to build our strength for the vision we have.  Then, you can.  You can do it together, and when you get there, there is no greater feeling, than a great achievement accomplished together.

This is how change management needs to happen. If you are the leader of your group, then they need you to lead, even if you are dying on the trail. Draw upon their belief in you, and you'll make it to the top.  Lewis & Clark made it because they drew their strength from one another. This is what we must do to make it to the top as well.

When you do, celebrate the moment with some marker that is a reminder to each of you of your achievement together.


Update: Two years later, two members of our troop and the Blu Cru, Quinn and Zach, were awarded their Eagle rank. At their court of honor, they honored me with a shirt to commemorate our Philmont trek. The shirt, with an image of Mt. Philips on it, is a reminder of that day.