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There Is Much To Learn From Saint Patrick

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You don’t have to be Catholic to admire and appreciate the life of St. Patrick – the Patron Saint of Ireland.  He was born more than 1,600 years ago but his memory still lives on.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that his holiday is often a day of much fanfare and celebration for people of Irish background.  Saint Patrick himself was known to enjoy a drink or two.  However the celebratory aspect of the day should not overshadow the remarkable life and good works of the man.

As a teenager of wealth and privilege he was kidnapped and taken from his adopted home of Scotland (his parents were originally from Rome) bought to Ireland and sold into slavery.  At the age of 20 he escaped his bondage and found his way back home only to volunteer to return again to Ireland in his 30s as an ordained priest on a missionary quest. He spent the remainder of his life spreading his beliefs throughout the country and converting people from all walks of life.  It’s worth noting that his journey was not an easy one and he was often imprisoned and beaten because of the courage of his convictions and success of his work.

There is much to learn from the life of Saint Patrick including the following:

  • No matter what happens to you don’t forsake hope or allow yourself to be fully defined by your adverse circumstances;
  • A life of privilege is meaningless unless you can anchor it to something more profound and “bigger” than yourself;
  • Committing yourself to a cause you believe in is not for the feint of heart and requires courage and persistence;
  • You can accomplish great things in life if you truly believe in what you are doing and your values align with your work;
  • Confront your fears head on and grow because of (not in spite of)  your bad experiences;
  • Speak out when you see and injustice and help others whenever you can (even if there is a price to pay for this behavior);
  • A life of significance is the result of diligent daily effort.

To my knowledge Saint Patrick was never officially canonized by the Vatican but he is still on the list of saints.  Sometimes a life’s work stands on its own.  If and when you raise a glass in toast this weekend, I encourage to consider toasting Saint Patrick.  He was a special man who accomplished great things despite many difficulties and hardships.  He put the welfare of others ahead of his own and literally was the spark that transformed the religious faith of a nation.

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Leadership Thought #465 – Everyone Is A Critic

When you lead others, everyone is a critic to some degree.  It’s next to impossible to be fully aligned with another person 100% of the time.  As a leader, knowing this, you can’t fall into the trap of listening to every dissenting voice. The path to mediocrity is littered with individuals who gave up their leadership power unnecessarily and allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others.  This doesn’t mean you avoid soliciting feedback, quite the contrary, but you need to be able to filter this feedback and trust your own judgment.  The world looks much different when you are actually accountable for your decisions.  It’s easy to be an expert when you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

You can’t browse the internet, pick-up a newspaper, watch TV or listen to radio without being bombarded by the opinions of so called experts.  In an office environment, you can multiply this by the number of one-off conversations that take place during the course of any given day.   In my line of work, I’ve encountered many middle managers, stuck in their careers, who often believe they are the brightest person in the room.   While they may in fact be highly intelligent (not always the case), they often lack the true courage of their convictions.  It is much easier to be an expert on the sidelines or in the stands than run the risk of actually competing on the field.  It takes minimal energy to snipe behind someone’s back as opposed to thoughtfully advocating for your position and effectively dealing with alternative points of view.

This morning I listened or read many different opinions on how President Obama should deal with Russia’s incursion into the Crimea.  Of course, many of these people aren’t foreign policy experts or have any real inside understanding of the current geopolitical power dynamics involved.  Have you every noticed that most talking heads haven’t actually ever run anything or achieved any significant level of significant professional accomplishment in the field they are commenting on?  They often stalled within the system they are now commenting on.  Even worse are the journalists/media personalities who wax and wane on every topic as they are actually qualified to do so.  They never miss an opportunity to stir up discontent and/or tell us everything wrong with what the leader or institution in question is doing.  Rarely, if ever, do they provide a thoughtful or realistic alternative.  If you are not accountable you can say anything.  We, the public, love this because it validates our own predisposition to form strong opinions without the facts or a selective understanding of only the facts that support our own often ideological position.  Thinking before acting is hard work and many of us prefer shortcuts instead.

Don’t get me wrong; some level of criticism is healthy.  No one is above reproach especially in a free and democratic society.  Weak leaders crush dissent.  They feel threatened when someone disagrees with them.  Just look at Putin. To confuse his weakness with strength is a mistake.  Leaders should welcome different opinions and perspectives. Feedback is essential for innovation and growth.  However, leaders also need to be able to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; the informed thoughts from the misinformed ones; those positions that have the best interest of the organization/institution at heart versus those are personally motivated.  Making the right decision isn’t always easy.  Standing your ground in the face of opposition will test your professional mettle.  Everyone is a critic.  But also remember, that only a much smaller number of us ever risk the criticism in the first place.

Excerpts From The Road Less Traveled

Cover of "The Road Less Traveled"

Cover of The Road Less Traveled

A while back a colleague’s comments encouraged me to revisit the book, The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck.  I am very glad this happened because it resonated much differently with me twenty years later.  I’ve decided to end the year sharing some excerpts from the book which I have found especially enlightening and helpful:

“Life is difficult…This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.  It is a great truth because once we truly see the truth, we transcend it.  Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult.  Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

“What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one…Yet it is in the whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning…It is through the pain of confronting and resolving our problems that we learn.”

“…when children know they are valued, when they truly feel valued in the deepest parts of themselves, then they feel valuable…the feeling of being valuable is essential to mental health and is the cornerstone of self-discipline…when one considers oneself valuable one will take care of oneself in all ways that are necessary. Self discipline is self-caring.”

“We must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We cannot solve a problem by saying, “It is not my problem.” We cannot solve a problem by hoping that someone else will solve it for us. I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.  But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve the problems for me.”

“…the problem of distinguishing what we are and what we are not responsible for in this life is one of the greatest problems of human existence; for the entirety of our lives we must continually assess and reassess where our responsibilities lie in the ever-changing course of events.”

“Frequently our choices lie between the lesser of two evils, but it is still within our power to make these choices…there are indeed oppressive forces at work within the world.  We have, however, the freedom to choose every step of the manner in which we are going to respond to and deal with these forces.”

“What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn?  The painful effort required seems frightening almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is to ignore new information…Rather than try and change the map, an individual may try to destroy the new reality.  Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place.”

“The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action.”

“The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map makers.”

“The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one had told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.”

“Mature mental health demands, an extraordinary capacity to flexibly strike and continually restrike a delicate balance between conflicting needs, goals, duties, responsibilities, directions, etc.  The essence of this discipline of balancing is giving up… the giving up of personality traits, well established patterns of behavior, ideologies, and even whole life systems.”

“It is in the giving up of self that human beings can find the most ecstatic and lasting, solid, durable joy of life.  And it is death that provides life with all of its meaning.  This is the “secret” wisdom of all religion.”

“It is also clear that the farther one travels on the journey of life, the more births and deaths one will experience, and therefore the more deaths – the more joy and more pain.”

“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

“…we are incapable of loving another unless we love ourselves, just as we are incapable of teaching our children self-discipline unless we ourselves are self-disciplined. It is actually impossible to forsake our own spiritual development in favor of someone else’s.”

“Love is not effortless.  To the contrary, love is effortful.”

“Ego boundaries must be hardened before they can be softened. An identity must be established before it can be transcended. One must find one’s self before one can lose it…”

“Whenever we think of ourselves as doing something for someone else, we are in some way denying our own responsibility.  Whatever we do is done because we choose to do it, and we make that choice because it is the one that satisfies us the most.  Whatever we do for someone else we do because it fulfills a need we have.” 

“The principal form that the work of love takes is attention. When we love another we give him or her our attention; we attend to that person’s growth…By far the most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening.”

Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the making of action in spite of fear, the moving out against the resistance engendered by fear into the unknown and into the future.  On some level spiritual growth, and therefore love, always requires courage and involves risk.”

“Commitment is inherent in any genuinely loving relationship.  Anyone who is truly concerned for the spiritual growth of another knows, consciously or instinctively, that he or she can significantly foster that growth only through relationship of constancy.”

“Genuine love is self-replenishing.  The more I nurture the spiritual growth of others, the more my own spiritual growth is nurtured.”

“Great marriages cannot be constructed by individuals who are terrified by their basic aloneness, as so commonly is the case, and seek a merging in marriage.  Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other  but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss…”sacrifices” on behalf of the other result in equal or greater growth of the self.”

“.. all human interactions are opportunities either to learn or to teach (to give or receive therapy), and when they neither learn nor teach in an interaction they are passing up an opportunity.”

“To develop a religion or world view that is realistic – that is, conforms to the reality of the cosmos and our role in it, as best we can know that reality – we must constantly revise and extend our understanding to include new knowledge of the larger world.  We must constantly enlarge our frame of reference…”

“The path to holiness lies through questioning everything…”

“Many scientists simply do not look at the evidence of the reality of God.  They suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, a psychologically self-imposed psychological set of blinders which prevents them from turning their attention to the realm of the spirit.”

“A major and essential task in the process of one’s spiritual development is the continuous work of bringing one’s conscious self-concept into progressively greater congruence with reality…”

“…one of the reasons we fail to take full advantage of grace is that we are not fully aware of its presence – that is, we don’t find valuable things not sought for, because we fail to appreciate the value of the gift when it is given us…we consider such events unremarkable, and consequently we fail to take full advantage of them.”

“An individual’s body may undergo changes of the life cycle, but it does not evolve.  New physical patterns are not forged.  Decline of physical competence in old age is an inevitability.  Within an individual lifetime, however, the human spirit may evolve dramatically.  New patterns may be forged. Spiritual competence may increase (although it usually does not) until the moment of death in advanced old age.  Our lifetime offers unlimited opportunities for spiritual growth until the end.”

“When we grow, it is because we are working at it, and we are working at it because we love ourselves.  And it is through love that we elevate ourselves.  And it is through our love for others that we assist others to elevate themselves.  Love, the extension of the self, is the very rare act of evolution.  It is an evolution in progress.  The evolutionary force, present in all life, manifests itself in humankind as human love.  Among humanity love is the miraculous force that defies the natural law of entropy.”

“If we overcome laziness, all other impediments will be overcome.  If we don’t overcome laziness, none of the others will be hurdled.”

“A major form of laziness is fear…Much of our fear is fear of change in the status quo, a fear that we might lose what we have if we venture forth from where we are now.”

“Evil people hate the light because it reveals themselves to themselves.  They hate goodness because it reveals their badness; they hate love because it reveals their laziness.  They will destroy the light, the goodness, the love in order to avoid the pain of such self-awareness…evil is laziness carried to its ultimate, extraordinary extreme.”

“Most people most of the time make decisions with little awareness of what they are doing.  They take action with little understanding of their own motives and without beginning to know the ramifications of their choices…”

“Is it any better to do the right thing for the wrong reasons than the wrong thing for the right reasons?  We are often most in the dark when we are the most certain, and the most enlightened when we are the most confused.”

“We attempt to defend our consciousness, our awareness, against reality.  We do this by a variety of means which psychiatrists call defense mechanisms.  All of us employ such defenses, thereby limiting our awareness.  If in our laziness and fear of suffering we massively defend our awareness, then it will come to pass that our understanding of the world will bear little or no relation to reality.”

“The call to grace is a call to a life of effortful caring, to a life of service and whatever sacrifice seems required.  It is a call out of spiritual childhood into adulthood, a call to be a parent to mankind…”

“…the human race is in the midst of making an evolutionary leap. Whether or not we succeed in that leap is your personal responsibility.  And mine.  The universe, this stepping stone, has been laid down to prepare the way for us.  But we ourselves must step across it, one by one.  Through grace we are helped not to stumble and through grace we know that we are being welcomed.  What more can we ask?”

Leadership Thought #441 – Keep Pressing Forward

Life rewards persistence.  Too many people give up too soon and never get to fully realize their potential or dreams.  Success isn’t just about luck or good fortune.  It is more about focus, hard work, determination and resolve.  Everyone’s life journey has bumps along the way.  Keep pressing forward even when it’s hard. Obstacles strewn along our path are just opportunities to further build our character.  They also test how much we truly want something.  If success always came easily then it really wouldn’t mean anything. 

Joseph Campbell famously referred to an individual life as a “Hero’s Journey.”  Since I first heard these words I’ve always tried to think of my life this way.  Throughout history and literature, the heroes we tend to most admire are those that overcame great obstacles and/or navigated significant adversity.  We can all relate in a much smaller way to the inevitable rigors of human existence.  It takes a significant amount of courage and self-confidence to bet on yourself and push the boundaries of your potential.   To encourage others to follow you down this road is an even more impressive leadership feat. 

I have the good fortune to have a front row seat to the lives of many talented leaders. They are all different in their own way, however, the best of them, never wilt under the glare of the spotlight or retreat from hard challenges.  They keep pressing forward especially when it is difficult.  They rally the troops and muster the collective strength to handle whatever comes their way.  Instead of giving up, they redouble their efforts and refuse to accept failure as an option.  This doesn’t mean they don’t ever fail, but when they do they fail they learn from it and don’t let it define them.  They grow stronger with time and experience rather than get weakened by it.  The goal should always be to improve your success rate with each successive challenge.

Sadly, many individuals become spectators or passive participants to their own life and career.  Many of us tend to live in reactive mode and conform to societal conventions rather than proactively carving out our own unique path.  It is a fact of human nature that majority of people would rather follow than lead.  When the going gets tough we look to others to provide the answers and shoulder the burden.  We often run when it gets hard.  Ironically, we then complain about the outcomes.  Everyone is truly a critic.  Unfortunately, not everyone exhibits bravery or is self-reliant when needed. 

Life becomes much more bountiful if you embrace all aspects of the journey not just the parts that feel good or come easy.  Find the courage within yourself to keep pressing forward no matter what the challenge. Only retreat when there is no other real option.   Once you have clarity on your goals, move towards them in a consistent and resolute manner.  Believe in yourself and your personal capacity to remain steadfast in the midst of any storm.   I’ll end with a series of Winston Churchill quotes I have always liked:

“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.” 

“Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.”

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.”

Leadership Thought #435 – In Life And Business, There Are Winners and Losers

I know it’s not a popular opinion to have in social and intellectual circles theses days, but life does have winners and losers (and a bunch of people who rarely ever compete for anything).  All of us may be equal in the eyes of God (a sentiment I wholly I agree with), however in every other life situation, effort and outcomes do matter.  I am very worried that a generation of kids and now younger employees has been raised with the belief that everything they do is special and that winning is less important than their own search for self-fulfillment.  Moreover, as I age myself, I see alot of my peers who are embracing the idea that their fate was never in their own hands and the deck was always stacked against them by their parents, the government, big business, their school system, etc.  In a fantasy world these points of view may resonate, but in reality it only gives people an excuse for mediocrity and rationalizing their own shortcomings.  It also creates alot of fodder for psychoanalysts and drug companies.

Sure, there may be those of us who are victims of circumstance and have to overcome way more obstacles than others, but the history of humankind is full of examples of individuals who overcame great odds and accomplished remarkable things.  We should also never forget that in America, our daily challenges pale in comparison to the common plight of people in the developing world.  Just look at how quickly immigrants to this country quickly embrace the American dream and climb the social ladder.  We all have stories in our family of ancestors who came here with next to nothing but somehow figured out a way to fit in and thrive.  Our excuses for our own lack of progress are minimal at best.  You help no one (including yourself) by allowing them to play the victim.

Winning does matter.  Our country is built on the idea of individual freedom, personal initiative, competitive markets and free enterprise.   In the Unites States we are constantly keeping score and rewarding those that achieve in all walks of life.  You can chose to live a reactive and safe life rather than a proactive and riskier existence, but then you are dependent upon others who create the overall conditions of success from which you earn your living.  This doesn’t mean that all successful people do it the right way or have admirable values.  There will always be individuals who cheat the system or take advantage of the less fortunate.  However, I would contend that this number is smaller than everyone thinks and our legal system (contrary to popular opinion) does a good job of ferreting them out.  It certainly is not perfect, but our civic system and the “rule of law” does exist and often works. Regardless, we all learn from an early age that life isn’t fair and all we can control is our actions in response to anything that happens.  There are very few true victims in life…

We should also embrace the concept that there are benefits from learning how to overcome adversity and losing.  The kid who strikes out too often takes more batting practice and learns how to adjust his/her technique.  They may also decide to take up another sport or activity that better suits their abilities.  The student who fails an exam, studies harder the next time and ask others for help if they struggle with understanding something.  The adult who backs themselves into a financial corner (through their own decision making) learns how to make better money decisions.  The entrepreneur, who fails with one business venture, learns what they did wrong and applies it to future enterprises.   You have to be willing to fail to succeed.   There is no disgrace in losing if you truly give it your best and learn something useful in the process.  As a line from a favorite song of mine goes, “you can never win or lose if you don’t run the race” and we all have races we need to run.

Life rewards courage and penalizes cowardice.  Sometimes we have to be tested to truly understand our own personal resolve and abilities.  Some people get lucky and stumble into success but most of us have to carve out our own success path through experience, hard work, determination, perseverance, acquired intelligence, and honest self-reflection.  We should care alot less about what others do or don’t do and instead focus on how we ourselves can grow through experience and get better.  When confronted with less than stellar results we should always be asking the following three questions:

1)      How did I contribute to this situation?

2)    What am I supposed to learn from this?

3)     What positive next steps can I take in the course of my journey with this new knowledge?

Keeping score is never just about winning and losing. It is about being honest about results and using this information to get better.

Leadership Thought #433 – You Must Be Willing To Change To Stay Successful

Inflexibility is rarely a virtue especially when it comes to business.  The landscape of business history is littered with failed business leaders who were either unwilling or too slow to change their thinking.  Just because something has worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work in the future.  The only constant in life is change.  Markets change. Customer attitudes change.  The best method for doing business changes.  Technology changes. As a business leader you must be willing to adjust to your changing circumstances or risk the consequences.

It’s often hard to accept that what got you here won’t get you were you need to go.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a client bemoan the fact that a long term business relationship has suddenly ended or that the market as a whole has shifted its buying behavior not in their favor.  You can never take success for granted.  Being good at what you do will work for awhile but it’s equally important to know how the definition of good is changing and why.  No one wins a race standing still or running backwards.  In addition, it makes no sense to fish in a pond where the fish are no longer biting or where everyone else has cast their line. In business you must keep your competitive edge.

Changing before you have to takes courage.  Initially the signs aren’t always so obvious regarding what you need to do. You may even get conflicting advice.  However, commit your organization to continually striving for positive momentum.  Do your homework: read industry journals/publications; stay connected with key clients; solicit feedback from front line employees; and regularly network with talented colleagues and peers.  However, look for clarity not certainty. There are no perfect business decisions – just don’t be reckless or foolish.  You are rarely (if ever) smarter than the market. 

Life tends to reward those who act and build the capability to adjust course as they move forward. It’s better to be the pioneer of your own future success rather than someone who is stuck in the past, too committed to the present, or waiting for the perfect time to act.  You must be willing to change to stay successful…

 

Leadership Thought #430 – Be True To Your Emotions And Allow Others To Share Their Truth With You

In my line of work you know you have tapped into a serious problem when you encounter disproportionate emotion.  There have been many times where I have sat across from someone and literally watched them break down. I learned a long time ago to let the other individual have their moment and not try to downplay or negate their emotion.  You don’t make someone feel better by making them feel embarrassed or disappointed about how they feel.  All of us hit an emotional “brick wall” at times and become frustrated/upset with the rigors of life and work.  We all need people we can turn to let us be our authentic selves, even when this isn’t pretty or easy to watch.

Men are especially hardwired not to show emotion.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched another man fight back their emotional response to something.  However, you can always see it in the eyes which are indeed the “window to the soul.”  Pain and sadness are easy to spot but not so easy to surface (at least initially).  You can only internalize core emotions for so long until the pressure becomes too much to handle.  Unfortunately, men seem much more comfortable with anger which often shrouds these other feelings.  Many of us also self-medicate in a variety of ways to numb our response to a given situation.

True love and friendship often involves the courage to ask the tough questions and then let silence do the heavy heavy lifting until you get an honest answer. You have to keep digging to get to the route cause of what’s really going on with those you care about.  Just make sure you don’t push too hard too soon and let the other person dictate the pacing as long as there is progress.  You also need to model the behavior you would like to see in others and be vulnerable yourself.  It is a professional prerequisite if you have chosen a career that involves helping other people navigate the often tumultuous sea of life.

I’m glad I grew up in an environment where it was okay to be me and not cover up how I was feeling.  My mother and sisters were especially helpful in this regard.  I honestly believe that wars have been started and businesses have been run into the ground by leaders who were unable to find an appropriate outlet for their emotional baggage.  Lack of honest communication and emotional connection certainly ends alot of marriages.  We all “feel” all the time.  It’s just that most of the time we operate on a fairly even keel basis because the stimuli are fairly harmless and don’t require all that much from us.  However, each of us will inevitably encounter situations that challenge our existing emotional capacity. Embrace these moments as growth opportunities rather than trying to avoid, suppress or negate them.  Be true to your emotions and allow others to share their truth with you…it will make your life easier, richer and more meaningful.

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