Alonzo King on Identification

Some say politics – conservatism, liberalism, ism’s of all kinds – is the problem.

Others say its religion – too much, or not having enough – is the problem.

Most agree that those who disagree, who are different (not just in terms of race, culture, creed, but also ideology) – with me, with you, with us – are the problem.

Identification – in all its forms. What of that? Are we not, each and every one of us, caught by, or rather restricted by this very human tendency at one time or another and in all likelihood, most of the time?

Might that be at the root of these other, more obvious problems? But because its at the root, might it also be a tremendous opportunity?

To see.

What would it be like to see the shape and form identification takes in oneself? To be so close to it that you can taste it, but not so close you get swallowed by it.

What would that look like? More intriguingly, what else might be discovered, if for a moment, we could pause labeling ourselves and others, and simply be.

Here is one interpretation through dance of the struggle with that essential question. (Alonzo King’s talk is followed by the dance at 4:55)

The Opposite of Going Postal

A most amazing thing happened at the post office the other day. I was standing in line to mail Christmas packages – a line that weaved through the main office, out the door and around the front of the building – when I heard a young couple arguing about a conversation the man was having on his cell phone. The conversation went something like this:

The woman telling the man: “Ask her if she can do x,y,z in time for …”

The man’s response to the woman: “Don’t nag at me bitch, I got …” at which point he continued talking on the phone, while turning away from her.

noise

The conversation went on like this for some time, punctuated with harsh remarks between both of them. As they continued the woman seemed to retreat inside herself while the man grew louder and more harsh in his remarks.

Lines at the post office are typically slow, but having to witness this kind of conversation made each minute a drudgery to endure. I was only 3 people away from the front of the line so decided to hang in there, otherwise I would have left. It was that tense.

I glanced at others nearby more out of curiosity than to commiserate in silent agreement, but of coarse, most people were peering into their cell phones.

And then one of the two postal agents on duty, I’ll refer to her as Barbara, said loud enough for all to hear but directed toward the young man, “No need for disrespect son, we’re all wanting to get on with our day.” With this, she went straight back to completing the transaction with her customer, as uneventfully as picking up a glass of water to take a sip, then putting it down.

It was one of the most direct, compassionate, un-sensational and extraordinary interventions I’ve ever seen. There seemed to be no personality or opinion or technique, just clarity and presence. The right words at the right moment to reach past the noise inside and out, in him, in me, in everyone.

Instantly, (and I do mean instantly), the young man spoke less loudly and was less harsh. People in line, including myself seemed to drop their shoulders just a bit. A few folks even looked up from their cell phones. It was as if the entire room exhaled after holding its breath for an unnatural period of time.

What a difference we each can make in either direction, adding to the noise or being beyond it.

 

 

 

Listening is love

Tom Spriggs When I was 7 years old I made a trip to England to meet my grandparents on my fathers side for the first time. It was a special trip for many reasons, including meeting my friend Tom Spriggs.

Tom was a trusted neighbor and friend of my grandparents. He and his wife were the first to welcome them to Sway when they relocated there to retire. Sway was and still is a quaint and lovely village in Hampshire England, large enough to have a grocery store (or maybe a few by now), but small enough to formerly qualify as a village according to English standards – larger than a hamlet, but smaller than a town.

My grandmother told me that Tom was a soft-spoken and private man made even more so after the loss of his beloved wife a few years earlier. She had taken it upon herself with characteristic British cheerful dutifulness to include Tom in her day-to-day life and social engagements. My grandfather, who I called Grandpop, built a doorway in the wood fence between their houses to make this easier and encourage visits for afternoon teas’.

I met Tom the second day of my trip while swinging on the fence in front of my grandparents’ house. I don’t recall our first conversation but remember that his gentle manner made me trust him immediately. For the afternoons that followed, he’d invite me for tea or show me his green room with rows of thriving tomato plants or we’d walk the two blocks to downtown Sway where there was a bed and breakfast and pub with pigs and chickens in the backyard.

It may seem odd that a 7 year old child and 60 year old man would have enough in common for a conversation, but we did, and we had many of them. We’d talk about all kinds of things. I told him about the dirt farm I made back home for lizards and slugs that despite its 3 inch mud-clay walls, failed to stop the creatures from escaping after an hour or so. I shared my love of sitting amongst the cornhusks in our garden, munching raw corn while dad hacked down the dead dry grass in the summer time. And that the reason I pressed wild flowers was so I could look at them when I felt sad to remember feeling happy.

Tom, a retired train conductor, told me about his travels throughout England and the interesting people he met along the way. He confided about his life before, when he was a soldier in WWI and how he endured trench warfare for an entire month without food. He was a teenager, one of 250,000 volunteers under the age of 19 to answer the call to fight. England had only 700,000 in the armed forces at the beginning of the war, compared to Germanys’ 3.7 million. He didn’t say much about his experience, just that it was hard to say anything at all.

The thing I remember most about our conversations, more so than what we talked about was how they felt. I was free because Tom was never in a rush. He always had time to chat, or at least, he seemed to. Not just for me, but anyone who crossed his path. Talking with him gave me the same feeling I had when watching the ocean or looking up at the sky through the branches of a cherry blossom tree.

I felt this calmness in nature all the time, but rarely in conversation and almost never in conversation with adults, with their agendas, and assumptions, and hopes and interpretations. With Tom it was different. I remember saying something, then waiting for his response and having the distinct impression of him reflecting on what he was going to say in a way that was both connected to our conversation and me and simultaneously connected to something within him that was also impersonal, infinite. The pauses between our interactions and even his tender and authentic delivery of his words gave me an entirely new experience of what conversation could be like.

Before leaving England, Tom and I agreed to continue our conversation through letters. Decades before the internet existed and at a time when long distance phone calls could get expensive, this was about the only option we had. Thank goodness…I doubt email would have been an equally satisfying replacement to the experience of reading a good letter.

We would write one another for many years to come until Tom’s death at 78. I was twenty-five.

Our correspondance of 18 years taught me about the power of consistency in love and friendship. In a word, patience.

 

15 Ways to Keep It Real as a Leader

PrecisionAbout a year ago I read a post on LinkedIn about Leadership that included a list of what makes a good leader. The author was a CEO of a big company. The list struck me as so black and white that at first I thought it was a joke then I realized that it was for real. This was an unsettling thought namely because, while black white thinking can be a sign of a leader, it’s most often associated with a leadership style the world needs less of. Dictators and zealots.

To be clear, this post isn’t an attack of the author, but rather a criticism of a way of thinking that has no room for mistakes, failure, imperfection, and most importantly, the realm of human experience that is constantly in flux, the part of us that is always and can always learn. Our humanity.

So I wrote a list to counter the author’s, focused on what I’d learned in all my jobs and in life up to this point as well as what I’ve observed indirectly from reading about the lives Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and Mother Theresa to name a few. Here is the list; the original points are in bold, followed by mine in italics.

  • They Never Fail To Lead
  • Always learn how to lead better
  • They Are Never Lukewarm
  • Follow an inner conscience over strong or “lukewarm” passions
  • They Never Tone Down Their Vision
  • Aim for bold visions that are good for all, before grandiose plans that the majority of followers realized in hindsight, were more about power
  • They Never Break Commitments
  • Obey conscience over the risk of disappointing others and tarnished reputation
  • They Never Worry About The Headlines
  • May worry about headlines, but know how to refocus attention on what matters and on what they do have power to influence
  • They Never Say Never
  • Recognize the danger and risk in absolutism (thought, words, deeds), in all its forms, subtle and explicit
  • They Never Need A Pat On The Back
  • Don’t rely on positive validation to persevere, but accept their humanity and as such are able to ask for support when needed without feeling the lesser for it
  • They Are Never Pessimistic
  • Know the importance of seeing life as it is rather than as “negative” or “positive”. A version of this could be Gandhi’s “Pragmatic Idealism”
  • They Never Procrastinate
  • Have different styles of how they are in action (slow pace, fast pace, etc), depending on their background and culture. But all good leaders know the wisdom of right timing
  • They Never Sit In Judgment
  • Have most probably held a grudge or two for a minute or more, but they have mastered the art of learning from it sooner than later
  • They Are Never Narrow Thinkers
  • Have courage to do what’s needed and what’s right despite its appearance or it being “big” or small
  • They Never Avoid Challenges
  • Do not shy away from confrontation, but they know that there are times when confrontation is NOT the best approach
  • They Never Worry About Appearing Vulnerable
  • Know that real vulnerability means feeling at least a bit uncomfortable, otherwise its a look alike
  • They Never Stop Asking Questions
  • Always challenge preconceived ideas, starting with their own
  • They Never Accept Defeat
  • Do not always know if there is a way to a solution, but they know that they have the strength of conviction and faith to endeavor

Reflecting on my actual experience with each of the author’s leadership principles, the words flowed easily. Not at all because I’d mastered them – (any of them!) – but because I’d thought about them, tried to live them, even if for moments at a time and remembered the experience of experimenting them, or rather, my version of them. In thinking about each principle in this way, I had to be honest. Once I did this, ironically, the word “never,” no longer applied. It was not an apt descriptor of my lived experience of these principles. Not because they were wrong, but because they didn’t accommodate the actual flesh and blood experience of living, or trying to live them, only an abstraction of those experiences and very limited ones at that.

There may be leaders for whom, the never-statements are accurate, but even so, that idea is a bit scary. I’ll take an imperfect leader trying to be better over a leader who is perfect by virtue of “never” doing…(fill in the blank), any day.

Aside from writers who convey a leader as a 2-dimensional action figure, I think one of the obstacles making it difficult to cultivate the leader within is in the very way that we think and talk about them. Black/white thinking and arguements and posts, stemming from it – no matter what the topic – do little to aid in the living of that topic. Because its devoid of lived experience, in other words, it’s from the head, of the head. And with a subject such as leadership, this is unfortunate, verging on reckless because the world could sure use more truly great leaders. Ones who speak from the their heart and head to ours.

 

The Power of Presence

 

This video caught my attention because I was curious about the person behind the Mr. Rogers of my childhood memory.

I was irritated at first at Mr. Rogers’ slow pace – I went immediately to judgement, thinking, here we go he’s going to talk the same way he does in his children’s show? I’ll never get through this!

But in just a few minutes of listening to him speak something changed. I found that the more I focused my attention on listening, the more I heard both the words as well as the energy surrounding the words. I heard more, something beyond, or before words. Also, in slowing down to listen, I slowed down. Tension that I wasn’t even aware of, lessened. A different, energy replaced it, helping me not just hear what he was saying, but encounter something calmer inside.

It seems that something shifted for Senator Pastore, the person Mr. Rogers is addressing in the video, as well. The power of presence. What is this quality of presence that inspires us to not just hear but to listen?