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Leadership and Vulnerability

6 Dec

I read a lot of books. Most of them are good. Some are crap. Some are amazing. When I read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown I marked it down in a new category; “life changing.” Among the many great insights she provides about the power of vulnerability, I wanted to share this nugget because it is specifically about leadership.

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The Courage to be Vulnerable

I recently game a talk at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. The program, which pairs thirty-five to forty elite undergraduate students with mentors and offers comprehensive business training, is ranked as the leading undergrad entrepreneurship program in the United States. I was asked to talk to the students about vulnerability and the power of story.

During the Q&A session after my talk, one of the students asked me a question that I’m sure is often on the minds of people when I talk about vulnerability. He said, “I can see how vulnerability is important, but I’m in sales and I don’t get what that looks like. Does being vulnerable mean that if a customer asks me a question about a product and I don’t know the answer, I just say what I’m thinking: ‘I’m new and I really don’t know what I’m doing?'”

The students, who were all turned around listening to him, turned back in their chairs and looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, that seems lame. Are we really suppose to do that?”

My answer was no. And yes. In that scenario vulnerability is recognizing and owning that you don’t know something; it’s looking the customer in the eye and saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find out. I want to make sure you have the correct information.” I explained that the unwillingness to engage with the vulnerability of not knowing often leads to making excuses, dodging the question, or – worst-case scenario- bullshitting. That’s the deathblow in any relationship, and the one thing I’ve learned from talking to people who sell for a living is that sales is all about relationships…

…In business school, faith communities – any system, even families – we can tell a lot about how people engage with vulnerability by observing how often and how openly you hear people saying:

I don’t know

I need help

I’d like to give it a shot

It’s important to me

I disagree – can we talk about it?

It didn’t work, but I learned a lot

Yes, I did it

Here’s what I need

Here’s how I feel

I played a part in that

I accept responsibility for that

I’m here for you

I want to help

Let’s move on

I’m sorry

That means a lot to me

Thank you

For leaders, vulnerability often looks and feels like discomfort. In his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin writes, “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable…It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. Its uncomfortable to resit the urge to settle. When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.”

As I looked over the data and read through my notes from the interviews I’ve done with leaders, I wondered what students would say to teachers and what teachers would say to their principals if they had the opportunity to ask for the leadership they needed. I wondered what the customer service representative would say to his boss and what she might ask of her boss. What do we want people to know about us and what do we need from them?

As I started writing down the answers to these questions, I realized that they sounded like a mandate; a manifesto. Here’s what emerged from these questions:

The Daring Greatly Leadership Manifesto

To the CEOS and teachers. To the principals and the managers. To the politicians, community leaders, and decision-makers:

We want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire. We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement. We crave purpose, and we have a deep desire to create and contribute. We want to take risks, embrace our vulnerabilities, and be courageous. When learning and working are dehumanized – when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform – we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion.

What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us. Feedback is a function of respect; when you don’t have honest conversations with us about our strengths and our opportunities for growth, we question our contributions and your commitment.

Above all else, we ask that you show up, let yourself be seen, and be courageous. Dare greatly with us.

-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (pages 206-207, 210-212)

As leaders too often we lead with our head and not our hearts. We come off as rational and cold. We say all the right things, but somehow just don’t seem to connect or inspire people. We keep our guard up, we deflect, we rationalize, and we bullshit. We scheme the politics and our relationships. We don’t want to be seen trying. We manage our image and our reputation. And the whole time we think we’re being clever. The truth is we are scared to death. We are scared of being judged. We are scared of showing up and just being ourselves. We’re scared of being seen. Fearless on the outside and scared to death on the inside. Why would others trust us when we don’t even trust ourselves?

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We could all use a little encouragement…

14 Oct

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The following letter was written by Albert Einstein’s father.

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13 April 1901

Professor Wilhelm Ostwald
University of Leipzig
Leipzig, Germany

Esteemed Herr Professor!

Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interest of his son.

I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that … he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means….

I have taken the liberty of turning [to you] with the humble request to … write him, if possible, a few words of encouragement, so that he might recover his joy in living and working.

If, in addition, you could secure him an Assistant’s position for now or the next autumn, my gratitude would know no bounds….

I am also taking the liberty of mentioning that my son does not know anything about my unusual step.

I remain, highly esteemed Herr Professor,
your devoted

Hermann Einstein

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From The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume I. No answer from Professor Ostwald was ever received. Who in your life could use “a few words of encouragement?”

Video

Who Would You Be Without Your Story?

18 Sep

You have to check out this video of Byron Katie working with a lady who believes, “my mother shamed me.” I am always encouraged and liberated after watching these videos. All of my bullshit stories…”I should be successful,” “people should love me,” “I should be treated with respect,” “people should be nice to me,” blah, blah, blah….all of these stories running through my mind. And as soon as I drop the story and accept reality as it is…I find that things begin to change. I can take action without striving for approval. I act out of a sense of abundance not lack. I act out of freedom and not dependence.

These videos make it beautifully clear how our beliefs constantly get in our way. “Who would you be without your story?” Katie always asks. I’m still exploring that answer and I look forward to sharing that exploration with others.

The video is a bit long, but if you have the time, it’s a great way to sit in some truly transformational practice.

*Note: if you’re not familiar with Byron Katie’s work, then she might come across as a bit harsh or judgmental. Understand though that the people who attend these workshops are there to get the truth. They’ve reached a point where they are tired of their story and they a re brave enough to ask for some help. The questions that Katie asks, and the responses that she gives are always intended to help the other person realize their truth.

Desire isn’t a bad thing – it’s just a thing

7 Mar

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An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly – and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock-still, as if frozen. The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, explaining  “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl- “like a withering tree on a rock in winter” – the point of spiritual practice?  Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness  instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

Excerpt from Tara Branch’s book Radical Acceptance (page 143-144).

Radical Acceptance

25 Feb

I just got back from the BOLD Academy in San Francisco and I came away from that experience with a renewed appreciation for the personal change process. I’ve tried to capture that insight below. First of all, what I’m trying to describe is a little nuanced (but infinitely practical) so if it doesn’t make sense, then feel free to blame the messenger. Second, it’s equally likely that you’ll get it and won’t agree with it. That’s fine too. Please let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below. I’d like my ideas to most fully represent the truth and we all have important pieces of it.

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The BOLD house vibrated with energy, but underneath that energy was a community of radical acceptance and support.

I’m ambitious. And if you’re like me then you know that setting and achieving goals is one of the most pleasurable feelings in the world. I love the challenge of pushing myself beyond my limits, failing, and getting up again. And again. And again. This type of grit got me through my tough times and I certainly wouldn’t have succeeded if I didn’t have a compelling purpose pulling me forward. But recently I’ve realized the limitations of this way of thinking. I’ve spent so much time being pulled forward by purpose and trying to overcome obstacles that I’ve failed to notice something else. The world was no longer the same. Change happens so radically today that my dream job may be obsolete by the time I even start a two-year plan to get it. Careers, businesses, and even entire markets are created and destroyed from month to month. So, I began to realize that I needed a new way of doing things. I think the problem is simply that my ego-driven mindset restricts me from making necessary adjustments to an ever-changing reality. I simply don’t know when a danger sign is just self-doubt (and I should push through it) or when it signals that I need to make an actual change in our approach. So, how do you know the difference?

Well, I have a guess. I think the method for knowing the difference is intuitive rather than intellectual. It is something I’m calling radical acceptance and the idea is pretty simple. If you are resisting your own thoughts or feelings then you are not acknowledging reality and the only way to stop compulsive resistance is start accepting – everything. The reason it’s called “radical” acceptance is because it accepts everything…including resistance itself. Confused? I was too. Here is an story of how this shows up.

A friend and I had just finished a yoga class together and a few minutes later I found her crying. She said that during the mindfulness practice, she finally became aware of all of the negative self talk in her head. The voices that told her she wasn’t good enough. The voices that said she needed to try harder. Her practice had opened up new insight, but as she told me this amazing revelation she became increasingly upset. “I just can’t believe how much of my time I’ve wasted,” she said. “These negative voices in my head have been holding me back this whole time. They tell me that I’m not good enough and I can’t believe that I listened to them.” As she embellished how her negative self talk had been such an awful thing and how she needed to get rid of it. I said, “that’s an amazing insight, but be careful that you don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.” She paused and smiled.

My point was that your ego will adapt to whatever thing you fear. If you fear being poor then it will make you feel bad for not making enough money. If you fear being selfish then it will make you feel bad for buying designer shoes. If you fear being superficial then it will make you feel bad for skipping yoga class. Resistance will always tell you that you are not centered enough or not being generous enough or not being spiritual enough. Know that it is all just your ego using resistance against you. And just like you cannot fight darkness with darkness, you cannot fight resistance with resistance. And underneath all of the surface level problems you are facing, the real problem is resistance itself.

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You cannot fight darkness with darkness.

So, radical acceptance is deeper than just awareness. My yoga friend was aware of the negative self talk, but she had not yet accepted it. She was using negative self talk to keep herself from using negative self talk. It is silly, but also tragic. We instinctively move towards happy feelings and move away from negative feelings. We rarely stop and accept them as they are. Radical acceptance is such an effective approach because it isn’t about moving towards or away. It isn’t about compulsive action at all. When you accept everything as it is without an agenda then your actions will be aligned. When your actions are aligned things will change organically. It’s a complete paradigm shift.

Unconditional acceptance as a means for change is a radical notion, but one that ultimately frees us to walk confidently through the fog of attachments. It’s a little nuanced, but I think that’s the point. Our ego is fueled by resistance largely because, according to neurologists, the brain’s primary function is to curate reality. It’s primary function is to delete information from your awareness. So, if you practice a form of radical acceptance training (meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc.) then you can offset your inborn brain/ego/curator/resistance machine that blinds you to what’s really happening. If you don’t, then you’ll be living in black and white (which, since we are radically accepting, isn’t a bad thing…it’s just a thing).

So, be careful with the goal-setting workshops and all of the stories about what you are supposed to want. Start by becoming aware of your thoughts and feeling and start by accepting them. If you don’t want to accept them, then accept that feeling. If that thought makes you feel angry. Accept that feeling. If it makes you feel bored, then accept that feeling. If it makes you hungry, then go make a sandwich. Remember that love must be unconditional or it isn’t love. so if you’re going to really love yourself then you need to accept everything about yourself, every moment. The key point is that even when you don’t want to accept something, you can still accept the feeling of non-acceptance.

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Love is unconditional or it isn’t love.

Again, the ego is fueled by resistance and it will trick you into thinking that you need to DO something to feel love or find peace. Radical acceptance neutralizes this with grace and elegance. You don’t need to do anything to radical accept. It starts the moment you’re ready for it to start and paradoxically, when that happens you’ll find love and peace (and money and whatever else you really needed). The therapist Carl Rogers said it this way, “It seems to me to have value because the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience – that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” (The Carl Rogers Reader, pg. 19)

Radical acceptance as a means for change is about being centered not being pushed or pulled. And we all learned in high school physics that when weight is centered it reduces the object’s moment of inertia making it easier and faster to change direction. If you want to survive the pace of radical change, then you need to center yourself and accept the most current reality. Both in your environment and inside yourself. With complete acceptance of reality you will be free of compulsion. You will be free to act when you need to act. You will be free to rest when you need to rest. Paradoxically, it is only when you radically accept things as they are that you or your organization can respond appropriately to the ever-changing demands of modern life.

In 1906, the South African newspaper Indian Opinion held a competition to define the growing resistance against British rule. Gandhi famously adapted one of the entries – “satyagraha” – to define his vision of social change. We often think about acceptance as a passive act and RADICAL acceptance even more so. But Gandhi never liked the terms “passive resistance” or even “non-violent resistance.” In fact, satyagraha means “insistence on truth.” So, radical acceptance isn’t about change. It is foremost about truth. And yet, magically, it is through accepting truth that we change.   

In Defense of Guilt

22 Feb

If we truly accept who we are, then we accept our full range of emotions. Guilt is an emotion that most of us avoid, but the following excerpt from Susan Cain’s book Quiet suggests that it is an important emotion for developing true empathy.

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The connection between sensitivity and conscience has long been observed. Imagine the following experiment, performed by the developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska. A kind woman hands a toy to a toddler, explaining that the child should be very careful because it’s one of the woman’s favorites. The child solemnly nods assent and begins to play with the toy. Soon afterward, it breaks dramatically in two, having been rigged to do so.

The woman looks upset and cries, “Oh my!” Then she waits to see what the child does next.

Some children, it turns out, feel a lot more guilty about their (supposed) transgression than others. They look away, hug themselves, stammer out confessions  hide their faces. And it’s the kids we might call the most sensitive, the most high-reactive, the ones who are likely to be introverts who feel the guiltiest. Being unusually sensitive to all experience, both positive and negative, they seem to feel both the sorrow of the woman whose toy is broken and the anxiety of having done something bad (In case you’re wondering, the woman in the experiments quickly returned to the room with the toy “fixed” and reassurance that the child had done nothing wrong).

In our culture, guilt is a tainted word, but it’s probably one of the building blocks of conscience. The anxiety these highly sensitive toddlers feel upon apparently breaking the toy gives them the motivation to avoid harming someone’s plaything the next time. By age four, according to Kockanska, these same kids are less likely than their peers to cheat or break rules, even when they think they can’t be caught. And by six or seven, they’re more likely to be described by their parents as having high levels of moral traits such as empathy. They also have fewer behavioral problems in general.

“Functional, moderate guilt,” writes Kochanska, “may produce future altruism, personal responsibility, adaptive behavior in school, and harmonious, competent, and pro social relationships with parents, teachers, and friends.” This is especially important set of attributes at a time when a 2010 University of Michigan study shows that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago, with much of the drop having occurred since 2000. (the study’s authors speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness.”)

From: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (pages 140-141)

We tend to resist feeling negative emotions, but resisting reality is  far worse than feeling bad. When we radically accept who we truly are we are able to learn from all of our emotions.