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Leadership Thought #464 – Embrace What Makes You Special

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to be what you are not.  There are a lot of books out there that tell you that you can be anything you want to be, but this simply is not true.  No matter how hard I try, there are certain things I just can’t do or won’t be able to do well.  It has saddened me to watch so many people regularly set themselves up for failure with unrealistic expectations about what is possible for them and others.  Instead of trying to force yourself into a role/career/opportunity that isn’t right for you, why not embrace who you are and what makes you special and tap into that?

I firmly believe that each one of us is born with gifts and unique talents we can share with others and excel at. Unfortunately, at an early age we are thrust into an educational/social system that pushes us to conform and defines what success within this system should look like.  And like most ingrained systems, the model is outdated and serving the purpose of prior generations. Very early on life we are taught that there are winners and losers and that winning requires certain characteristics and attributes that only a select few possess.  Moreover, the path towards achievement is narrowly defined and more often than not materialistic in nature.  I believe this partially explains our dysfunctional societal obsession with celebrity and wealth.  Don’t buy into it!

One of things I marvel at in life is how different we all are from one another.  Sure, there are obvious physical similarities, but in the course of any given day I meet people who blow me away with their individuality.  Some people can fix anything with little guidance; others can solve complex mathematical problems in their head, while others are quick on their feet and handle any social situation.  I’ve witnessed creative minds that operate on a level I can’t even fathom.  Some people thrive under stress while others fall apart.  Science is fun for some people and a bore for others.  There are people who are so physically gifted they make any athletic activity look smooth and easy while others stumble attempting the most basic physical task.  There are people who look for the spotlight and others who run from it.  Some people like to lead while many more want nothing to do with it.  Our differences are vast and wonderful. None of the above is good or bad; it just makes you who you are.  And, the more we try and put ourselves in situations where we are pre-programmed to thrive, the happier we will be.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about a state of being called “flow” where you feel perfectly aligned with what you are doing.  Time seems to stand still, you feel an innate sense of joy and your efforts feel almost effortless.  At this moment you are one with nature and your own being.  We’ve all experienced these moments, but sadly they are usually few and far between.  Reality quickly returns and we are back on the treadmill of life, trying to survive our own existence by doing what we feel we should be doing.  I’ve never like the word “should.”  Of course there are family and civic responsibilities we must attend to, however, this is only part of who we are, not all of it.  I’ve been privileged to experience a number of people who have followed what Joseph Campbell termed their “bliss” and lived wonderful lives doing unique things that an objective outside person couldn’t imagine would lead to any level of success, but it did. Never forget that true success is an individual definition.   Happy people make better spouses, parents, siblings, friends and bosses.

Shakespeare stated it perfectly centuries ago, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  To be of maximum service and value to others we must first be true to ourselves.  Please don’t spend a lifetime trying to be someone you are not.  Instead, celebrate and tap into what is great about you already.  Pay attention to the positive signals the world is giving you.  Look for and be open to the “flow” of life and it will find you…


What I Learned From My Dad

Sadly, my dad passed away this past weekend. He was 84 and lived a full life.  Many times he commented to me that he couldn’t believe he lived this long.  When he was a child, he told me, living to 65 seemed like a reasonable expectation.  I am glad he beat his own expectations and gave us many more years to be with him.  Dad came from a generation where you lived up to your responsibilities. He didn’t complain about it and believed that one of the most important things you could do was to teach your children was to become independent adults.  He didn’t coddle us, but also did judge us too harshly.  He was always there if needed.

Pop grew up an only child in the Bronx, NY and was raised by a stepfather at a time when this was unusual.  His dad died when he was still very young.  As a young boy he spent a lot of time roaming the streets of NYC alone, which is hard for me to fathom as father myself.   As far as I can tell, nothing was ever given to him.  He had to earn it all himself.  Dad ended up staying married to my mom for 63 years, had 7 kids and 18 grandchildren.  He built (with his own hands) a log cabin on top of a mountain in rural upstate NY and that is where he retired. A retirement that lasted almost 30 years.

Besides being a loving grandfather, father and husband, he was many things: an ex-marine (of which he was very proud); an educator, a carpenter, a travel agent, an avid reader, and a world traveler.  He could literally talk to anyone about anything. He could also fix most things that were broken and solve just about any problem.  The breadth of his skill, knowledge and experience never ceased to amaze me.  To paraphrase, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was a true “self-reliant” man.

I am grateful for the many things he either gave or taught me including the following:

  • the example of maintaining a lifelong commitment to your wife even when the road seemed rocky at times – he “got” mom and that was important to watch;
  • the gift of my many siblings and the even bigger family this ended up creating;
  • a strong work ethic and the importance of finishing what you stared;
  • that maintaining your personal ethics and values are an important  part of life;
  • a natural curiosity and love of reading and learning;
  • a love of history and an abiding patriotism that only get stronger with time;
  • an appreciation and respect for other countries and cultures;
  • a love of travel and joy in creating family adventures;
  • a deep sense of pride in my own cultural heritage;
  • a self-confidence to tackle any project if you put your mind to it;
  • that pain is a part of life and you need to learn to deal with it without becoming a burden on others;
  • an ability and willingness not to judge others (especially your children) too harshly;
  • showing me that money is less important than your own happiness and a sense of self-fulfillment;
  • the importance being a parent who doesn’t micromanage or overly guide their children’s adult lives;
  • the willingness to let your kids make my their own mistakes as adults without criticism, but then being there to help pick up the pieces if necessary;
  • a love of dogs and the special companionship this can offer;
  • a special appreciation for Christmas (also his birthday) which is ingrained in our family.

It will be a strange holiday season without my dad around this year.  Ultimately all of us have to take the journey of losing our parents and going on with our lives. While their physical presence no longer exists, their legacy naturally lives on in and through their children.  I had a good dad who I believe genuinely did his best despite his own limitations and imperfections. You can’t ask for more than that…I am lucky to have known him and loved him.  Thanks Pop, you will be missed!

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friendship

English: Image of American philosopher/poet Ra...

English: Image of American philosopher/poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, dated 1859. Scanned from Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Lothrop Motley: Two Memoirs by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Published by Houghton Mifflin, 1904. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I felt like doing something different with this blog.  I am a huge fan of the literary works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and was recently revisiting and discussing his essay on friendship as part of a class I am teaching.  I’ve always believed that a life is defined by the quality of one’s relationships.  We all want the same thing: some level of connectedness with other individuals that that both allows and encourages us to live the best life we can live.   While at its very beginning and final end, life may be a solo journey, the rest of it is full of human interaction.  Our level of happiness during the balance of our existence is most often dictated by how we navigate the dense forest of interpersonal relationships.  As usual, Emerson is much more eloquent than I am on this topic and here are a few excerpts from the essay:

“We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken.  Maugre all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether…”

“Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection…”

“…The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed; there is no winter, and no night; all tragedies, all ennuis, vanish, — all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons…”

“…Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fibre of the human heart. The laws of friendship are austere and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals. But we have aimed at a swift and petty benefit, to suck a sudden sweetness. We snatch at the slowest fruit in the whole garden of God, which many summers and many winters must ripen…”

“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know. For now, after so many ages of experience, what do we know of nature, or of ourselves? Not one step has man taken toward the solution of the problem of his destiny. In one condemnation of folly stand the whole universe of men. But the sweet sincerity of joy and peace, which I draw from this alliance with my brother’s soul, is the nut itself, whereof all nature and all thought is but the husk and shell…”

“There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere…The other element of friendship is tenderness…”

“…I wish that friendship should have feet, as well as eyes and eloquence. It must plant itself on the ground, before it vaults over the moon…”

“…We are to dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of one’s life, and embellish it by courage, wisdom, and unity. It should never fall into something usual and settled, but should be alert and inventive, and add rhyme and reason to what was drudgery.”

“…Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort. In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company, the individuals merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present…”

“…Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his/her echo. The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it. That high office requires great and sublime parts. There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them.”

“…We must be our own before we can be another’s…”

“…The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one…”

“…In the last analysis, love is only the reflection of a person’s own worthiness from others…”

“The higher the style we demand of friendship, of course the less easy to establish it with flesh and blood. We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers ever the faithful heart, that elsewhere, in other regions of the universal power, souls are now acting, enduring, and daring, which can love us, and which we can love…”

“…Only be admonished by what you already see, not to strike leagues of friendship with cheap persons, where no friendship can be. Our impatience betrays us into rash and foolish alliances which no God attends…”

“The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity…”

“It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other. Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet…”

Leadership Thought #451 – Beware Of The Pedestal

Beware of putting yourself or anyone up on a pedestal.  There are right ways and wrong ways to feed someone else’s or your own ego.  Just because an individual has experienced significant success in one aspect of life, doesn’t mean they are equally competent in all other things human.  It doesn’t do that person or you any good to blanket the praise.  It is one thing to appreciate and respect individual accomplishment.  It is another to think that similar success could be achieved in whatever else that person attempted.  In fact, it can be dangerous as we heed advice or jump to conclusions about different situations based on who we choose as our role models.  For example, Bruce Springsteen is a very talented songwriter and musician, but there is most likely a difference between his songwriting and his own reality.  He is not a deity, he is a man. Thinking he has life all figured out isn’t fair to him or you.  No one of that stature can ever live up to the hype.

I see the same thing in business circles.  Leaders who have achieved some level of success are held up as paragons of business acumen and virtue.  It takes a pretty evolved person not to fall victim to this trap and believe their own press.  Sadly, if you read the business media, you will notice that many of them are quick to embrace their own esteemed status and offer opinions on many things they know nothing or little about.  The truth is that what works for one person may not work for someone else.  In addition, taking intellectual shortcuts or jumping to fast conclusions based on what you believe to be true is a slippery slope.  The scientific method is still a fairly good guideline on testing your own hypotheses.  One size rarely fits all.  An opinion is merely a point of view unless it is substantiated with facts.  Moreover, circumstances are almost always unique and situational.

Ideologues have always concerned because they believe too much in what they say, rarely listen to other perspectives and demonize or denigrate their opposition.  They spend most of their time proselytizing or defending what they think rather than challenging and growing their understanding of what they believe they already know (or need to know).  They are almost obsessed with creating converts to their viewpoint. They talk at people instead of engaging them in two-way conversations. Their opinion is always what matters most.  Those who don’t drink the kool-aid are deemed ignorant, misinformed, have character flaws, or simply obstacles to progress. We have plenty of this on both the right and left in Washington, DC at the moment.  If nothing changes there is a crisis of leadership coming that will be terribly hard to overcome.  Nature has a way of dealing with broken ecosystems.

All the above being said, I certainly believe there is a lot we can learn from others who have reached the pinnacle of their respective profession(s).   Just make sure you are careful about what you can truly learn from them.  Diversity of input is much more important than embracing like-minded views and/or validating what you believe you already know.  We can often learn from others what not to do as much as what we should emulate. No one has it all figured out and anyone who thinks they do is foolhardy, especially if their life has been somewhat one-dimensional.  The future will always be much different from the past or present.  The more I age, the more I appreciate what I don’t know.  It is the gray areas of life which end being the most difficult to navigate. Sometimes there are no easy answers…

If you are one those people who is already on pedestal I encourage you to be careful about what you espouse and how seriously you take your own opinions.  Confidence can quickly become arrogance.  Just study the history books and you will find countless examples of leaders who end up faltering under their weight of their own pride and ego.  Life has a way of humbling us all. I often tell my clients that when you think you have it all figured out it is time for you to sell your business or let someone else take over.  Leadership is much more about asking the right questions and searching for the right answers then it is applying what you think you already know.  Moreover, avoid becoming expert on what others should be doing and focus more on becoming the best you that you can be.  We are all a work in progress.  There is no leadership/life philosophy or set of techniques that is applicable in all situations.

Pedestals are for flowers and art work not people…

Leadership Thought #449 – Are You Moving Forward Or Being Held Back?

There is a famous saying that, “if you aren’t moving forward, then you are heading backwards.” I completely agree.  There is no such thing as standing still in life.  Time moves forwards regardless.  Too many of us spend too much energy getting stuck in our present circumstances or being held back by our past.  There is nothing we can do about what has already happened.  All we can do is learn from it and strive to become a better person in the process.  In terms of the here and now, your attitude and efforts should always be geared towards positive ends.  Leave the negativity to others.  My mom often used to say, “Make the best of it, whatever “it” is.” As usual, her wisdom is a beacon of light that shines through my life.

Bad things happen to everyone.  Sad but true.  Not everything always works out as planned.  There will be career disappointments.  We all ultimately lose people we love.  Unfortunately, some loves can’t stand the test of time.  Just don’t wallow in your misfortune too long.  The good news is that good things happen as well.  There will be moments of sheer exhilaration.  You will bask in the love of others.  New friendships will emerge and blossom.  You will feel connected to other individuals in ways that make each of you a more vibrant person.  You will accomplish many tasks both big and small that make a real difference in your life and in the lives of others.  We must accept “the ups and downs” of life and always believe that when it gets hard, things can and will get better as long as we don’t get mired in the challenge.  Avoid becoming a victim of circumstance!  When things are going well, please do your best to truly appreciate the experience as the gift it is, remain humble, and use this situation to build the better parts of your human nature to tap into later.

In my line of work, I get a front row seat to the lives of many other people.  This is always a privilege and never a one-way relationship.  I receive as a much as I give and sometimes receive even more.  I’ve witnessed personal tragedies and observed many career stumbles.  It is never easy to watch someone you care about struggle.  Many times, the most you can do is be there for them and listen.  What never ceases to amaze me is an individual’s capacity to weather whatever storm comes their way.  The most resilient people I know keep moving forward even if the daily progress seems painfully slow at first.  They realize that they are, as the poet David Whyte often espouses, “the architects of their own future happiness.”  And, as long as they are alive, this design and build work is never done.

There are many things in life we can’t control; however, what we can control is how we react to what happens.  The key is to keep pressing forward.  Every day is a chance to build or diminish your personal character.

Are you moving forward or being held back? The choice is yours…

Leadership Thought #445 – How We Transition…

As my kids begin another school year school this morning, it is always interesting to watch how both the children and parents are transitioning. In some cases either the kids and/or parents will be a bit anxious or nervous, unsure of what is to come.  In other cases, there is an almost a giddy excitement about the new challenges.  Old friends will greet each other joyfully, while the new children and parents will be feeling their way on how to best fit in.  Some children will walk to school alone, while others will have both parents with them and be accompanied all the way to their new classroom.  Many of the teachers will carry themselves with an air of confidence and enthusiasm, while others will be a bit more reticent and laid back.

We never know what life is going to put in our path along the way.  Sometimes our transitions are predictable, such as moving on to the next year in school.  Other times, transitions can happen without much warning, such as an unseen layoff or big promotion at work.   How we and others around us act during these situations can make all the difference.    Obviously some transitions, especially those that involve personal tragedy will require some time for grieving and healing, however even in these circumstances, there are a few universal lessons we can follow:

  • Attitude, as they say, is everything.  It’s not what happens to us that defines us in life, but how we react to it.   All transition involves some level of change, we can either embrace it or hide from it, but the change is ultimately inevitable.
  • It helps to have a support network around you and to be part of someone else’s support network, because transitioning alone is more difficult.  And, when you see someone who is alone, acknowledge their situation and do your best to offer some kind words of support.  After all, we are all in this thing called life together.
  • When dealing with others who are transitioning realize that everyone doesn’t react to things in the same way.  Meet your family members, friends, and colleagues where they are at emotionally, not where you think they should be.
  • When leading others through change, do your best to assume a confident, caring and reassuring posture.  In times of change, people need to feel their leaders are a guiding light amidst the unsettling backdrop of uncertainty.

I have a slight case of unease in my stomach this morning.  Interesting, how as a parent, the feelings of worry we experience are often more pronounced for our children.  Maybe it’s because we have the benefit of life experience and know that things don’t always turn out as planned.  I had great teacher experiences and not so great teacher experiences as a child.  Some years were great socially, while others were more challenging from a friend and peer standpoint. When you start something new you never fully know how it will end.

What I wish for you is that whatever the change you are navigating, you don’t feel you have to go it alone: seek guidance and support when needed.  Do your best to keep a positive perspective and realize that for all of us, there are ups and downs.  The gift that changes offers us is the potential to grow as a person, to be a positive role model for others around us and to embrace the opportunity of new doors opening in our lives.

Leadership Thought #440 – Avoid Being Put On A Pedestal

Avoid being put on a pedestal by yourself or by others.  I’ve seen good people get too full of themselves when they begin to view themselves as extra special and different from everyone else. It happens in all industries and in all sectors.  Nonprofit leaders certainly aren’t excluded.  It is never good for any of us to be surrounded by people who are too deferential.  Success without humility typically leads to ego issues.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t value or respect accomplishment, but we shouldn’t put a disproportionate emphasis on the attributes of the person.  Superlative outcomes are usually the result of good timing, hard work and specialized focus not generic ability.  In addition, doing good work that taps into your unique talents and makes a positive difference in the lives of others should be enough of a reward.  Don’t get too caught up with celebrating YOU.

It’s also important to remember that no one is ever successful alone.  There are many people who helped you climb the ladder and scale the heights.  Share the credit widely and generously.  You also probably learned some tough lessons along the way and didn’t always make the best choices – something we often forget.  No one ever bats 1000%.   It is the sum total of your experiences, not just the good parts which make you who you are.  Life has a way of humbling all of us.   No one ever fully creates their own luck regardless of what they would like to think.  Wise people understand that we are supposed to learn and grow through tribulation as much as triumph.  The history of humankind is littered with leaders who forget this simple fact.

Arrogance is just your ego run amok.  Arrogant people stop listening to what others have to say.  They tend to make quick judgments about other individuals and their capabilities.   Their patience tends to run thin. Manners start to slowly wither in subtle or sometimes even unsubtle ways.  Basic human kindness also somehow becomes known as generosity (and not in a good way).  If it doesn’t directly affect them, they lose interest quickly.   They stop soliciting constructive feedback.  Unless, of course, the feedback comes from someone they believe to be their equal or superior (note: over time fewer people fit this category).   Their primary goal becomes validating their own point of view instead of searching for the best answer.  They start over-valuing what they know over what they still need to learn.  They begin to live in a bubble of their own making rather than expanding their worldview.

I’ve been around long enough now to know that even the most capable leaders I know aren’t good at everything. When they start overreaching or taking unnecessary risks it is a sign that something is amiss.  Surround yourself with talented good people rather just trying to be great yourself.  Widen rather than narrow your feedback loop.  Success is equal parts science and art.  And, replicating success isn’t as easy as it sounds.  I’m constantly amazed by how people who used to exhibit some degree of intellectual rigor start forming strong opinions with very little knowledge of the facts.  “Ready, fire, aim” becomes the norm. When you think you know it all and start to act like you are bulletproof, then it is time to get out of the leadership game.  Yesterday’s heroes can easily become tomorrow’s goats.  Leave the pedestals to others and instead focus on being the best YOU possible regardless of the acclaim.  We are all a work in progress and require ongoing learning, personal humility and love and support from others to excel in life.  It is not a solo journey…

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