The Benefits of Adaptive Learning


The other day, I stopped by to see a friend and colleague. On his desk was one of the best leadership books of the past decade, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow. It is stellar description for leadership of the importance of the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Adaptation is a key skill for leaders who are managing change, while at the same time creating stable, sustainable enterprises.

Peter Mello and I had the opportunity to interview Marty Linsky on the book for two Weekly Leader podcasts, Part 1 and Part 2. It is worth hearing Linsky talk about the book and his work with Ron Heifetz.

Sitting there with this friend in his office, talking about leadership, how we deal with people in various situations, I came to a realization about myself, and about adaptive leadership.

In order to be an adaptive leader, we must be an adaptive learners.

I  realized, then, that virtually everything I know, I learned from someone else.

It wasn't like a being student in a classroom learning from a teacher. Rather, it was learning by listening and observing to the lessons embedded in a person's perceptions and experience.

Listening and Observing - keys to being an adaptive learner.

Informational or Contextual?

There is no way I can tell you what I have learned from any particular individual. It isn't that type of learning.

It isn't informational learning.

Rather it is contextual learning. Learning from the context of a person is learning to see how ideas matter within a certain distinct situation.

It isn't abstract, or detached from experience. Rather, it is how an idea that transitions from the idea itself to something practical and real, that's applied in a particular situation.

The use of values in an organization is an example.

There are two types of values.

There are the ones that are on a list that the company claims are their values.

Then, there are the ones that actually are practiced by the people in the company.

These two sets of values are not always the same, congruent or even aligned.  Depending upon different conditions, the same understanding of value will have a different application in an organization.

Company A espouses to be an open, transparent organization placing a high value on communication. Company B makes the same claim. The difference is in their context.

Company A is physically structured so that executives are separated into their own discrete offices. Communication is mediated by administrative assistants, and written information distributed throughout the company. If you want to speak to V.P. Joe, you go through his assistant Mary, or look at the latest memo.

Company B is physically structured around an open space concept. My friend Dana Leman of RandomKid share with me her experience of touring the Bloomberg offices in New York. She sent me a link ot a video tour of their offices. Regardless of your position, your office is in the midst of this open concept. The benefit is a greater exchange of ideas.

So, two companies can claim allegiance to the same values, but their application of those values be totally different. To understand the difference is to understand how to these insights and apply them in your own context.

Through my conversation with Dana, my perception of how to organize office space is different.

This is how adaptive learning happens. We listen for insights for applying ideas in various contexts. The more we learn from others the clearer our own understanding becomes, and how we can be adaptive leaders.

This kind of understanding is tacit and intuitive. It isn't an understanding derived from an analytical process. Rather, our brains synthetically weave together many thoughts, impressions, experiences, and feelings to provide understanding. The more this emergent awareness is allowed to take place the greater the capacity for adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership is a shift away from the old command-and-control method.

It requires openness to other people, their ideas, their experiences and an appreciation of their particular context.  The easiest way to begin to learn this kind of adaptive behavior is simply to listen and apply the good ideas that you hear each day. 

The Difference Adaptive Learning has made to me.

Sitting in my friend's office, I came to realize that adaptive learning had been my practice for over 30 years.

Listen and learn from people, whomever you meet, you can learn something from them.

Listen to them, ask questions to clarify what their experience was. Listen without trying to compete. Listen to learn.

Take what is heard and seen, then, reflect, process and apply what you learned.

Share what you learned with others. Express gratitude.  

This is how the Circle of Impact Leadership Guides came to be developed. Circle of Impact
From lots of conversations over the years, about what was happening in organizations, each one contributing a little piece of wisdom and understanding, creating a holistic perspective, I learned what I was suppose to see in leadership. In effect, these are not my ideas, but rather my catalog of what I've learned from other people. These lessons have wide applicability because this is the product of contextual learning, not simply the exchange of information.

The benefits of adaptive learning are many.  Here's what I've learned.

1. We learn that Ideas matter.

They are the key to understanding where we are and how we can adapt to the changes that are constantly confronting us. They connect us to people. They are tools for being more effective communicators. All learning at the most fundamental level is about ideas. Without ideas, we are left only with feelings. As a result, adaptive leaders must also be idea people who are interested in the ideas of others, not just in what they are thinking.

2. We learn that Relationships matter.

When we place ourselves in a position to learn from every person with whom we meet, every single one, we come to understand how our interaction within a social context is where the action of organizations is found. The greater our capacity for forming adaptive learning relationships, the greater our capacity to develop the adaptive capacities of employees.  Those adaptive capacities provide employees the opportunity to lead from their own specific work context. This is part of what I mean by the idea, Community of Leaders.

3. We learn that Structures are either tools for adaptive learning and leadership, or they are obstacles.

If the structure of a business does not provide a way for people to learn from one another, and to apply that learning, then it is stuck in a system of operation that is not sustainable. 

For many businesses, the structure of their organization is, seemingly, the only tangible, secure, stable, set, concrete, real thing that exists. It is a monument to the past, not a platform for constant adaptation and innovation.

4. We learn that learning matters more than knowing.

When our posture towards others is learning from them, we are less concerned about making sure they understand just how much we know.

It this is an issue for you, then practice asking questions about things you do not know. Read books in subject areas in which you have no background. Stop trying to reinforce you own knowledge, and start expanding it. Start listening for the wisdom and insight in others.

5. We learn that if we never stop learning, we also never arrive at a full and complete understanding of anything.

Adaptive learning isn't a tactic we deploy for a period of time to ramp up our current knowledge on a subject. Rather, adaptive learning is a lifestyle of openness to new ideas, fresh insights from people and a reflective approach to applying ideas by doing things differently one step at a time.

6. We learn that adaptive learning changes us so that adaptive leadership is possible.  

Adaptive learning simplifies the way we approach leadership. It becomes about the impact we need to have right now. The old way of strategic planning is having to change to become more adaptable. This approach produces leaders who are nimble, intuitive and able to take advantage of the changes that are constantly happening.To adapt is to change. To change in this way is to make a difference that matters, it is to create impact. Becoming impact focused simplifies leadership.

7. We learn that adaptive learning leads to adaptive leadership which leads ultimately to becoming a Community of Leaders.

An adaptive leader will be most effective in creating a culture of adaptive learning. To do so means that each person takes responsibility for their learning, their contributing and their responsibility to create impact. Adaptive learning starts with the personal decision to learn from others. This nurtures within the individual the personal intiiative from which all leadership originates.  It isn't just the individual initiating change. It is the whole organization as a community functioning as adaptive leaders.  This is what I see as a Community of Leaders.

Realizing that I have lived this way throughout my life, my gratitude grew towards the hundreds of people from whom I've learned. Many are no longer with us. Many have no idea of the impact that they have had on me. Many are friends who are my go-to-people for counsel when I need it. Many are random people whom I've met in passing whose stories and insight helped me gain a deeper appreciation of so many different ideas and ways of leading organizations. If you are one of these people, I thank you.

Connect, Communicate & Contribute

Engagement is the hot leadership strategy these days. On some subliminal level, we know what it means. But on a practical level, it is much more difficult to define. It is like so many ideas during this time of epic transition in society.  Abstractions are easier to understand that actual actions.

I'm involved in a project with the Presbyterian Churches (PCUSA) in North Carolina to raise money for our ministries on college and university campuses. It is more than a fund raising project. It is an engagement one, as we engage all segments, levels and congregations of the North Carolina Presbyterian world to support our work with students, faculty and university administrators.As we have worked through the various strategies that we need to successfully meet our financial goals, we are at the same time affecting change in people's perceptions and actions. This is very much what engagement means in its current use.

Our engagement strategy is built around actions that we are asking people and their churches to take. In this sense engagement, isn't just marketing, but encouragement to action. The emphasis on action, rather engagement, is because engagement is an ambiguous term. It can mean only mental engagement. And ultimately that sort of engagement does not produce results. Actions builds confidence, and confidence builds strength. So the goal of any engagement process should be more people participating, action, doing, taking initiative in three specific areas that we have identified as critical to our success.

We are focused on three types of actions: Connection, Communication and Contribution. If we succeed in increasing the level of connection, communication and contribution, then our campaign will be successful. This is true for any organization.

The simple idea that lies behind connecting, communicating and contributing is the importance of personal initiative. If you want people to be engaged, then they have to take initiative. When their initiative is focused on making connections with people, communicating their mission in terms of a story, and intentionally and strategically contributing by making a difference that matters, then engagement ceases to be a cool abstract business idea, and a living reality within your organization.

I cannot emphasize enough that the key is creating an environment where people feel free to take initiative to connect, communicate and contribute. If there is fear or too many boundaries to cross or obstacles to overcome, then they won't.

What does it mean to Connect, Communicate and Contribute?

Here's a starting point for each.

Connection: Connection

We all move through our lives in relationships with others. Some people are family, others are friends, many are colleagues and the vast majority are people who are nameless faces that we pass by along our life's journey.

There are three keys to connection.

The first key is that through our connections we open ourselves up to a broader, more diverse context.  The perspective we gain helps us to better understand who we are and how we fit in the social and organizational settings where we live and work.

The second key is our connecting strengthens community. When I introduce one person to another, the opportunities that can grow from that connection far out weight the ones we have without those connections. Living in isolation, which is not the same as being an introvert, weakens the institutions that society depends upon for its strength.

The third key is that when we connect, we are placing ourselves in a relationship of potential mutuality of contribution. I can pinpoint people with whom I connect with around the world for whom our mutual support for one another is an important foundation strength for our lives. We don't connect just to receive something from someone, but also to give in mutual benefit.

Communication: Communicating

With the growth of social media, everyone is a communicator. However, what do we mean by communication?

The most common fallacy regarding communication is that it is about what I communicate to others.  It is the old model of information distribution as communication.

The kind of communication that matters, that engages people to participate and contribute, is one that is more like a conversation. It is a two exchange, rather than simply a one-way download of my opinion.

The real purpose behind communication is to establish a connection that builds an environment of respect, trust, commitment, and contribution. This produces real conversations that matter. This is how communication becomes genuine engagement.


I have seen so many organizations during my professional career that were languishing because there was no spirit of contribution.By this I mean, the people who were the organization did not see themselves as the owners of its mission. They were employees hired to do a job.

A culture of contribution is built upon a foundation of appreciation and thanks.

Typically, people see thanks as a response to a gift of some kind. As a response, it is less an act of initiative, though deciding to write a note, rather than sending an email, is a greater act of initiative because the effort and cost are more. 

The purpose here is to understand how increasing contributions by people is a form of engagement. Five Actions of Gratitude - blogpixRED

The Five Actions of Gratitude are acts of personal initiative. They are intentional and strategic. They are acts of mutuality that provide meaning and reality to the connections that we've made. Let's take a quick look at each to understand their function as sources of contribution. I've written more extensively about this under the title, The Stewardship of Gratitude.

Say Thanks: Too often saying thanks is a way we close a conversation. That is not what this is. Instead, we are expressing a perspective that identifies how the connection to someone, group or community has made a difference to them.  Our giving of thanks contributes to the strengthening of the ties that bind a social or organizational setting together.  I've heard it said that Saying Thanks is the "lubrication" that greases the wheels of society, making them run smoothly.  This is part of its contribution.

Give Back: When we give back in service, we are giving, contributing to a person, an organization or a community that has given to us. This is the heart of what we know as volunteerism and philanthropy. For many people, this is where our most significant contributions are made.

Make Welcome: This act of hospitality, or Hostmanship as Jan Gunnarsson suggests, creates an environment of openness, inviting people to join as participants who give, create, contribute their gifts and talent.  Openness and hostmanship are not automatic actions. They are intentional actions of initiative that create the opportunity for an organization to develop a culture of open contribution. Where there is openness to contribute, there is engagement.

Honor Others: When we practice honor, we elevate the human connection that exists in an organization or a community. I cannot think of an more important contribution than to create an environment where each person is honored with respect and thanks for the contributions that they make. Do this, and the motivation to contribute will grow.

Create Goodness: If we were to live to create goodness, we'd spend our days as contributors, and less as passive recipients of others creative goodness. My vision of this is to see an organization where every single employee take personal initiative to create goodness that makes a difference that matters.  To do this means that we'd face all those obstacles and cultrual barriers to engagement, and create a place where people can discover a fulfilling life of contribution as creators of goodness.

Strategic Connection, Communication and Contribution

These actions of personal initiative are not tactics for failing systems to buffer themselves against the harshness of a declining situaiton. Instead,these are strategies of change that help leaders and their organizations make the necessary transition from the organizational forms of the past into those that emerging. These are strategies of engagement because that create a different social environment for people.

At some fundamental level, we'd have to address the organization's structure to determine to what extent it can support a growing environment of connection, communication and contribution. This is the most difficult question because are embedded forms that are resistant to change. They do not adapt well to creative forces from outside of their own control. Yet, the engagement are identifying with these three strategies is an intentional relinquishing of control so that people are free to create their own ways of contributing.

In this sense, leadership shifts from a control mandate to a facilitating, equipping and visioning one. Leaders create an environment of openness so that personal intiative can create new structures for contribution. As a result, leaders become the keep and nurturer of the values of the company. They are constantly reminding everyone of these values of personal initiative, creativity and contribution.  They are protective of this openness that produces engagement.

The future belongs to those people who can create an organizational and community environment where personal initiative to connect, communication and contribute becomes the culture. When we do this, engagement transitions from being the hot topic of the moment to the reality that we find live with every day.

A Good Day To Say Thanks

                                                                                                   Circle of Thanks Picture

Our thanksgiving tradition is older than the nation itself. For many it is a time for family, for others a day of work, and for some a time of service to those less fortunate.

As my contribution to a more intentionally thankful Thanksgiving, I offer a guide for giving thanks. It is based on a simple little tool that I've created called the Circle of Thanks.This is the first tool that is specifically designed for one of the Five Actions of Gratitude. More are to come. I'll be posting them initially each week in my Weekly Leader column.

It is a simple idea.

List the people in four categories who have had an impact upon our life, or whom deserve our thanks. We list family, friends, work relationships and then those people who have influenced us over the years, whether we have a relationship with them or not.

Then list the gifts and contributions that we have received from them. This isn't like the gift of a tie or a box of choclates. It is something deeper, more personal.  It is a difference that matters that we've received that provides that context for giving thanks.

I suspect that the first listing of these people could be quite larger. My suggestion is work you way through the list until you reach a point where you can do this on a weekly basis.

Creating these lists is the first step.

The second is to prepare a list of whom you are going to thank this week, and what your response should be. Sometimes an email is enough. Other times, a gift, like flowers or tickets to a concert, can be a token of your appreciation that speaks more specifically than a simple note.

Last word:

To all those who have been reading my blog over the years, I thank you.

May this day, and each day, bring you thanks and peace.

Thanks and Honor - Veterans Day 2010

Curled Props

The crew of my father's B-29 stationed on Guam during World War II. My father is standing farthest left. Yes, this is after they crash landed. Just another day at the office.

His office, just behind the wings in the bubble turret.

A month before my father was to participate in the Flight of Honor from his  home community, he passed away. Guy Maffett, one of the organizers, in memory of my father, escorted him on the trip with his picture and this flag. Thank you Guy for the honorable citizen that you are. Our family appreciates very much your kindness in honoring our father's memory during our time of loss.

Triad Flight of Honor May 2010
Triad (NC) Flight of Honor May 2010

19th BG group picture
19th Bomber Group, USAF, Reunion, October 2009

My father is in the maroon sweater and white cap on the left side of the picture.


World War II Memorial, Washington D.C.

The notion that we as citizens have a solemn obligation to the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces should not be a controversial subject. Yet it is. We who are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices owe them our respect and honor. We do so because the freedoms and prosperity that enjoy as Americans are not an entitlement, but rather a privilege that requires our dedication and stewardship.

On this Veterans Day, remember not the politics of war and peace, but rather benefits that are ours through the sacrifices of others.

For all who serve and have served, thank you.

Gratitude: Circle of Impact Conversation Guides

This is the last in a series of post describing the message and use of my Circle of Impact Guides.

Five Actions Gratitude

This guide developed out of a desire to identify how a person and an organization should act when gratitude is the motivation. Gratitude, I've discovered, is a response to another person's kindness.

Aristotle wrote,

Kindness is …
”helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.”

I have written about this idea both here and here.

The purpose behind this guide is a belief that gratitude is not just a feeling, but a way we should live. Therefore, the Five Actions can be described in the following way.

We Say Thanks in Gratefulness.

We Give Back in Service.

We Make Welcome in Hospitality.

We Honor Others in Recognition

We Create Goodness through Personal Leadership that Makes a Difference That Matters

How To Use This Guide:

As a team, talk through each of the actions and identify specific steps that you can take to make each one a part of your team's experience.  It is important to understand that at some level each one of these actions is a gracious response to some person or situation.

For example, to Say Thanks Every Day is to recognize the kindness and generosity of others who have made a difference in your life and work. This is true even of your team who may be the beneficiaries of other teams or individuals.

One of the simplest practices is to write a note of thanks. It is better than an email, a tweet or a text message. It is a sign of effort to write a note and send it by mail.

Another example is how we practice hospitality. (I wrote about this in my review of Jan Gunnarsson and Olle Bloehm's marvelous little book, Hostmanship.) Making people Welcome is not just for when they come by for a visit. It is how new people join, and become full participants and contributors. The fewer the barriers to leadership, the higher the level of hospitality that is practiced. Hospitality is concerned with creating an open and opportunity rich environment for people. This is an action of gratitude because we are creating an environment that anticipates reasons to say thanks and offer recognition for the contributions of people.

It is in this kind of environment that people find the opportunity to Create Goodness out of their own sense of purpose or call to take initiative to make a difference.  When a person discovers and fulfills their purpose, that discover that without the assistance from others, some known and others unknown, that this fulfillment is possible. A result of this response in gratitude is that people find that their lives are Personally Meaningful, Socially Fulfilled, and the are Making a Difference that Matters.

When your team can identify how to develop your practices based on the Five Actions of Gratitude, you'll begin to see that many of the issues that formerly inhibited your work together begin to be resolved.

This is a conversation guide not a prescriptive formula. You and your team must decide what each of these actions mean in your context. The conversation will lead to a serious consideration of the importance of your relationships with one another, and how to make them work better.

7 Virtues of the 21st Century Organization

7VIRTUES image

My current Weekly Leader series is on the 7 Virtues of the 21st Century Organization. Check here, here and here

The 7 Virtues are a system of values that can be used to improve the functioning of an organization.

7 Virtues 21stOrg

In this post, I look at the 7 Virtues through the lens of the Circle of Impact Leadership Guides. The Circle of Impact is built around two sets of ideas. The first is that all leaders must address themselves to the Three Dimensions of Leadership: Ideas, Relationships and Structure. The key is to align the three so that they work together. The way this alignment is achieved is by being absolutely clear about the Four Connecting Ideas: Values, Purpose, Vision, and Impact. The key here is that every facet of the organization is focused on Impact, which is defined as change or a difference that matters.

Impact as change or the difference that matters is a very general definition. This means that each organization, and each division within it must define for their own purposes what impact means. As a function of leadership, this requires each person within the organization to be able to state the impact that they seek to create by their work within the system. This is how leadership becomes a shared responsibility, and not simply a positional one.

Circle of Impact- simple

The 7 Virtues

 1. Collaboratively-led:

This idea encompasses the other six virtues into a singular perspective that defines what it means to be collaborative. It means that a collaborative leader will focus on aligning the three dimensions and the four connecting ideas so that the people who are a part of the social and organization structures may have relationships that enable them to fulfill their shared vision for impact. This is what a collaborative leader does.

2. Decentralized, local control:

This function of the structure of the organization, created by policy governance and design, establishes a system of communication and accountability, built around collaboration.

3. Long tail internal operational structures:

This is a function of the alignment of structure with relationships. This means that the people who are bound to one another by a clear purpose and set of values have the freedom and may take the initiative to organize how they work together.

4. Purpose-driven organic adaptability:

This is also a function of the alignment of structure and relationships. In this context, the group or team adapts freely and with great agility to changing circumstances in order to keep their purpose foremost in their relationships.

5. Relational-asset based:

It may seem that this is a function of the relationships, and at one level it is, but the importance to treating the group or company's network of relationships as a relational asset is that these connections bring value that does not exist when the people of an organization are viewed as human resources. Relational resources are the assets to come from having a large, diverse, and widely dispersed network of relationships that feed information, insight, talent and business to the organization. From a structural point of view this is a fourth classification of resources, along side the financial, material, and human. The higher level of collaboration that takes place through these relational assets, the great value they bring to the company. These assets are what are commonly understood as social capital.

6. Values that are operational:

This a function of the alignment of the Ideas and Relationships dimensions with the Structural. Values, which inform an organization's purpose, is the core strength of a business. It is the only thing that is unchangeable. An organization's purpose can change as circumstances change. The structure can change to remained aligned with a vision that is constantly adapting to the current context of business. But the values of a company remain constant, though not necessarily acknowledged or practiced. This virtue, therefore, focuses on applying the company's values operationally. This done by asking the question how are our values represented in this decision or this policy? The greater alignment between values and practice, the greater the integrity, confidence and impact from the collaborative work of the people of the company.

7. Ownership culture of giving:

This virtue is a function of the whole community of the company.  It is the responsibility of the company's leadership to foster a culture of giving. The aim is to encourage people create a culture of giving through their own initiative and expression of gratitude. This is the kind of culture that is represented in the Five Actions of Gratitude (Say Thanks Every Day).

The complaint that I've heard over the years about a more relationally oriented business structure is that these are soft skills, not the hard skills of finance. True they aren't the same, but they are also not contradictory either. Create a culture of the 7 Virtues, and you'll see not only a transformed workforce, but a transformed business environment. If you do it sooner than later, you'll be ahead of the curve, and be recognized for leading rather than following.

The cost of gratitude - a Thanksgiving Day rant

My post yesterday on the mutuality of gratitude did not fully capture one aspect of what I was trying to express. Shawn Alladio's comment really helped me to see this.  I guess I was being too gracious. Thank you, Shawn.

When I say that giving thanks is not about you or me, I mean that it is not intended to make us feel good. It is intended to connect us to another person in a way that transforms the relationship.

Our best expression of thanks today may well be a confession of failing to be grateful to others. By expressing gratitude and appreciation to someone by saying I'm sorry, rather than simply "thanks," we open up the possibilities of change in our relationships.

Gratitude is being treated today as an alternative therapeutic device to move unhappy people toward a more positive, hopeful outlook on life. Being grateful can have the effect of making us feel good. I'm happy for those who have found this for their lives. However, this is not why we are to be grateful people. It is a by-product of something else.

When I say thanks, I want that other person to feel good. I want to connect with that person on a deeper level of human interaction than we had the moment before.  When done with sincerity and humility, it has the power to transform the relationship. To heal, to unite, and to give purpose to the relationship's future. 

There is no genuine gratitude in our lives without the recognition that our lives are made by the contributions of other people. When I thank someone for contributing to my life, I'm saying that a hole has been filled by their kindness, their honesty, their sacrifice or their love.

It isn't about me or you and how we feel. It is about recognizing that other people give us the life we live. Without them, we are nothing. There are no self-made men or women. Those who try to be, who think they are are the small people, confined into the narrow world of their own perception. 

Gratitude opens and expands our perception of the world, because we see the gifts and potential of others. When we do, we can express our appreciation for who they are and what they give, regardless of whether it has directly impacted our lives or not.

The power of gratitude is the power be free from our own narcissistic self-importance to a more humble, open relationship to others.

Let me end with one simple story.

Millie Brown was my fourth grade teacher. I was the one student that she had that year that she had to discipline regularly. Once or twice a week, I'd stay after school and write a page out of the dictionary. Then I'd walk the two miles home.

Ms. Brown changed my life that year. I learned boundaries, and a lot of new words. I'm grateful to her for her commitment to be a teacher who cared enough for me, her student, that she'd not let me get away with being an uncontrollable force in the classroom.  Her impact upon my life remains with me to this day.

Years later, I was able to express my gratitude to her as we served together in our church's ministry to members in the hospital. We'd visit people together. It was a sweet way for the relationship to find completeness, and mutuality.

Today, may your expressions of gratitude cost you your pride and self-importance.

May you find healing and openness in your relationships with family and friends. May those you thank find a person transformed by your appreciation for their contribution to your life

Let us return the soul to Thanksgiving Day. Become a person for whom Saying Thanks Every Day is not a therapeutic approach for feeling better, but rather how we live each day in relationship to one another.

Mutual Gratitude

As US residents prepare for a Thanksgiving gathering of family and friends, I gentle reminder about what giving thanks means.

It isn't about you or me.

The purpose of giving thanks is not primarily to make us feel better. It may do that, but that isn't the purpose. If we are to feel anything, it is humility for appreciating and recognizing the gifts and impact of other people upon our lives.  

A well stated expression of gratitude should honor the person whom you are recognizing.

If you are at you in-laws house, like I will be tomorrow, tossing out a glib thank you only shows your insincerity. It is better to say nothing than be insincere in expressing thanks.

Being sincere in expressing thanks demands that we look deeply into the effort and thought, and the effect of another person's actions.

Expressing thanks humbly and sincerely has the potential for transforming the relationship. When it does, then the expression of thanks becomes mutual. This is the ultimate goal of thanksgiving.

Mutual gratitude is the shared recognition that our relationship matters to one another and that we are grateful for the other person's impact upon our life.

The more specific you can be in expressing thanks, the more likely it will be that a mutual return of thanks will be offered.

May our hearts be filled with gratitude for the recognition of the goodness that comes to us through other people. 

Thanksgiving is more than ...

Yesterday, two friends each sent me emails each focused on different aspects of giving thanks and expressing gratitude.

Thanksgiving is more than a feeling.

Bill Kinnon sent me a Go-To-Market Strategies piece called - When did you last say "Thank You" to a customer? . They offer this word of advice.

Make it personal. You should hand write it. We know...UGH. That's a lot of work. You may be tempted to email your thank you...and maybe you should do that too. BUT, a handwritten, old fashioned thank you note, will take you farther. Why? Because NO ONE else is doing it in today's business world. Also, be as specific about what you are thanking them for, as that makes it much more relevant and genuine. But do not ask for anything in your "thank you." Just be thankful!

This is not just a good idea, but a good thing to do. Today, drop into a local bookstore and buy a box of note cards. Back at the office, take a half-an-hour and write the notes and put them in the mail today. Act quickly as you can to tangibly express gratitude.

Thanksgiving is more than social etiquette.

Tom Morris sent me a link to this NY Times review - Gratitude's Grace Can Be Itself a Gift - of Margaret Visser's The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude.

“The Gift of Thanks” is a scholarly, many-angled examination of what gratitude is and how it functions in our lives. Gratitude is a moral emotion of sorts, Ms. Visser writes, one that is more complicated and more vital than we think.

English speakers are obsessed with the terms “thanks” or “thank you.” We often say these words more than 100 times a day, she writes, in a flurry that many other cultures find baffling.

The notion that we should thank others is not hard-wired into our brains, but learned from our parents. For a child, she writes, “the first unprompted ‘thank you’ is momentous enough to count as a kind of initiation into a new level of human consciousness.” In people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, little words like “thanks,” she notes, “often survive the shipwreck of all other memories.”

I've not read her book. I look forward to it.

Gratitude needs to be a tangible way to create openness and a mutuality of the affections of gratitude. Read this excerpt from her book. It shows me that gift giving as an expression of thanks is too often a covering up of genuine feelings and tangible actions.

Today, we use paper to cover our gifts, and it is not primarily because they are in need of protection that we wrap them. If we mail a gift, we first carefully wrap it in special "gift" paper — the prettier, the better — and then enclose it, as a safeguard during the journey, in something sturdy and commonplace like brown paper or a plain envelope. Gift wrappings are folded with care. The string that binds a mere parcel becomes, for a gift, a ribbon, often with bows and rosettes added — anything to replace with embellishment the toughness of workaday knots. Extra trouble is taken because of the need to declare that, whatever it is, the thing thus enclosed is not a commodity.

A gift nowadays has almost invariably been bought. As such, it is certainly a commodity, but one that is summoned now to become something else. The wrapping is a sign that the object has changed into a gift. When, on increasingly rare occasions, we give something we ourselves have made — edible gifts mostly, such as jams and chutneys and cakes — we often feel little compulsion to wrap them. We occasionally enfold but fail to hide them, by covering them in something revealing such as cellophane. Not hiding by wrapping means that this present was not bought in a shop. It was made to be given away, not to make money; it does not need, therefore, to be converted into a gift.

We do work at shopping, however, quite apart from having first saved the money to buy gifts. As Christmas draws closer, we spend time fighting our way daily through the shopping crowds, returning from each expedition exhausted, with arms weighed down and aching feet. And we complain. Christmas has gotten out of hand, we say. It has become too commercialized. We are all so greedy, so demanding, and so exigent nowadays. It really is too much. These objections may be true, but our struggles and complaints mean in part that the gifts we have bought have manifestly cost us trouble. We may not actually have made them, but everyone is aware — our own grumbling making sure it is understood — that work, freely undertaken, went into their acquisition.

Thanksgiving is more than feelings, more than social etiquette, more than a public display of our own magnanimity.

It is the appreciation and recognition of the impact of other people upon our lives with the hope that its expression is mutual. When it is, that is when the real transformative power of gratitude has the potential strengthen families, communities and even businesses. It is for this reason that we should Say Thanks Every Day.


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 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 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 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, 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.