Leading In The Eye Of The Hurricane

“Crisis.” You hear that word a lot these days: in the media, in the coffee shop, around the world and around the kitchen table. We speak the word in anxious tones because we equate ‘crisis’ with ‘catastrophe.’ Trust me, I’m right there with you. But I’ve started to wonder. Could the way we traditionally relate to crisis actually limit our ability to respond well to it?

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ In this light, a crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. It is something that shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. By this definition, events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the internet and the 2008 housing crash were all crises. More recently, there’s been Brexit and the U.S election. Whether you view these events as positive or negative, they have fundamentally changed our lives.

So here we are. The wild storm of change is bearing down and you’re leading in it.  People are looking to you for guidance, but you may be thinking, “How do I lead others in terrain that’s alien to me?” Or in plainer terms, “How do I lead when I don’t have a clue?”

[blockquote]The wild storm of change is bearing down and people are looking to you for guidance.[/blockquote]

If you’re leading in times of profound disruption, it’s natural to hunker down, drive yourself harder and work longer – as if somehow you could get it all in order. But you’ll exhaust yourself if you try to tame the hurricane of change. You’ll be overtaken if you try to outrun it and upended if you ignore it.

The safest place to be in a hurricane is the eye, where things are quiet and still. There is such a place within you, where you can go to regain your balance, strength and sense of perspective. Those who are following you need you to go there. They need you at your best so that they can be at theirs. The eye of the storm is where you can go to carry out four “tasks of leadership renewal” that are vital in times of crisis:

  • Catching one’s breath (if even for a moment)
  • Confronting what’s happening now
  • Connecting to what’s essential and enduring
  • Charting the next right step

In upcoming posts, we’ll explore each of these tasks in more depth. In the meantime, I invite you to notice what shifts if you view a ‘crisis’ as a radical separation from what was. Such a departure is, at its heart, a transformation. And in it, we will experience not only the tragedy of loss but also the triumph of invention – if we don’t lose our way.

You Can’t Lead People You Don’t Respect

I haven’t written a post for months. Here in the United States, the most stunning lessons on leadership – often coming in the form of what not to do – have been unfolding on the national stage. But we are so polarized around these two ‘teachers’ that I haven’t been able to mention their names without stirring up a fight.

So this isn’t a post about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It is a reflection on the clearest realization that’s emerged for me from this election: you can’t effectively lead those you don’t respect. You can’t garner allegiance from people you want to deport. You won’t inspire anyone you deem deplorable. People just won’t follow someone who thinks nothing of them. While that lesson’s been on global display, it applies to everyone who leads – whether in families, communities or companies.

I once had a corporate client who told me in our first meeting, “I’m surrounded by idiots, but I don’t let my feelings toward them show.” And he wondered why he couldn’t keep staff and wasn’t getting promoted. In his mind, he wouldn’t have to be harsh if his people were actually competent; he’d have that promotion if only his superiors weren’t so insecure.

I told him one simple thing: “Bill, you can do all the right things and say all the perfect words, but what people will experience is your heart.” Something about that connected with him and we got to work. The main goal of our work was for him to learn how to see and believe in the basic value of every person. This simple recognition is the cornerstone of the ‘grace’ side of leadership.

So Bill started noticing his own harsh conclusions and questioning their validity. He learned to key into every person’s brilliance – even if that brilliance didn’t intersect with the requirements of their job. He engaged in ‘lovingkindness’ meditation to cultivate compassion for himself and others.

Bill never sacrificed his intelligence, his drive or his high standards. He didn’t become “wimpy” or “weak.” He was the same brilliant, ambitious man who was finally able to lead, simply by cultivating a fundamental respect for others. Over time, staff turnover stopped. He helped people ill-suited for their jobs to transition to roles that aligned with their strengths. He was promoted to the C-Suite, actively supported by staff and top leadership. Even more important to Bill, he and his family forged a deeper level of intimacy than they’d ever had before.

To be an effective leader, Bill didn’t need new techniques or better talking points. He simply needed a respectful heart.

How Do We Loosen the Grip of Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias is the new hot topic in diversity these days. But what is it, exactly? Why are we talking about it now? And what do we do about it? Here’s my take on those questions.

What is it?

The best way to define implicit bias is to contrast it against explicit bias. Explicit biases are the conscious judgments that we hold about other people/groups and that intentionally drive our individual, collective and/or systemic behavior. Examples include segregation, sexual harassment, bullying of LGBT people and racial profiling. On the other hand, implicit biases are discriminatory behaviors and outcomes that arise without intent. They’re often born from judgments/beliefs that we don’t even know we have and may not even agree with consciously. Here are some examples of implicit bias:

  • executives’ making important decisions on the golf course
  • the use of unintentionally denigrating turns of phrase (e.g., “He’s so articulate!” “That is so gay.”)
  • expectations of women to be the meeting note-takers and corporate party planners
  • unspoken organizational norms that pressure people to be someone they’re not in order to be accepted or successful.

While one form of bias is overt and the other more subtle, they can have similarly profound effects – not only on those on the losing end of bias, but also on the health, productivity and harmony of our collective engagement.

Why now?

Implicit bias has come to the fore for a couple of reasons. The more hopeful reason is that, having significantly reduced explicit bias from our workplace policies and practices, we can now address the subtler vestiges of inequity. It’s like manually removing the fragments of computer code that are left on your hard drive after you uninstall a program.

The other reason we’re talking about implicit bias now is that, 50 years after the civil and women’s rights eras, we’re stunned at the inequities that still exist. Reducing explicit bias hasn’t made bias disappear; it’s simply driven it underground. It’s still shaping our landscape in powerful ways, but is harder now to detect and address.

What can we do?

To address implicit bias, we have to be willing to see it, to claim the reality of it without collapsing into shame or blame, and to commit to action. I’m going to explore it through the lens of gender, but the principles apply to all dimensions of “diversity.”

We know we need to start with awareness – but what do we look for to check where implicit bias is operating? I’ve developed an “AEIOU” model to help guide your inquiry:

A = Access.  Inclusion in the conversations and relationships that matter
E = Expression.  Permission to speak freely and fully
I = Influence. Power to sway group opinion
O = Opportunity. Receipt of plumb assignments and promotions
U = Updraft. Dominant social status and systemic advantage

Let’s dive in to each of these.

Access. Are there any people or subgroups in your organization who just seem to be more “in the know” than others? Folks who always seem to just be there when the off-line decisions are made? Then this person or group enjoys the implicit bias of “access” tipping in his/her/their favor. They won’t even see that the door of access is wider for them, but others will feel it acutely.

How does this show up?  Working parents – mostly mothers – often face access bias, since a lot of business happens after hours and on weekends. The guys on the golf course don’t intend to exclude women – in fact they may wish that more women would join them there. But events held outside of 9 – 5 implicitly block mothers (and primary care-giving fathers) from important goings-on.

What you can do. Pay attention to patterns. Starting noticing who’s always got the boss’ ear, who always seems to be ‘in the know,’ who hangs out together on off-hours. If you see demographic patterns, implicit bias may be at work. Beware the inner circle; challenge yourself to create a bigger welcome mat.

Expression. Watch to see if certain people or subgroups in your organization have greater latitude than others to express themselves freely. Are some folks allowed to expound on their ideas, while others are frequently interrupted? Are some folks forgiven when they misspeak or show emotion, where others are penalized for it?   These are signs of expression bias.

What does that look like on a practical level? I hear this all the time: that a man can forcefully speak his mind and be seen as passionate. whereas a woman who speak vigorously will be labeled as bitchy, shrill or angry. To avoid getting stuck with those career-limiting labels, women may mute their strong opinions, only to receive performance feedback that they are not perceived as a leader because they don’t speak up enough. It’s a maddening catch-22 that ties women and minorities in knots – while largely escaping the majority’s awareness.

What you can do. Notice patterns in how you interpret others’ behavior. Watch your thoughts when a woman speaks directly vs. when a man does. Watch who gets the airtime in your meetings. Are the members of one particular demographic group “just quiet,” while others are more vocal? If you see these signs of expression bias, build in processes and norms that encourage everyone to speak and to be heard. If someone says that you don’t listen to her, resist the urge to label her a whiner or oversensitive. Consider that she may be accurately describing a reality of which you’re unaware.  Say thank you, explore it and act on it.

Influence. Do some people or groups regularly sway decisions and conversations, while others’ ideas routinely go “splat” on the conference room table?  If there’s a pattern to who influences and who doesn’t, there may be some form of implicit bias in action. One of my favorite satirical cartoons sums up what this looks like in practice:

Miss Triggs










What you can do: Meetings are a great place to notice influence bias. You can keep written track of who gets the group’s attention; who changes the direction of the conversation; whose ideas get adopted. And whose don’t. If you’re too “in the mix” to do this kind of tracking, pull in an organization development consultant to do it for you. You’ll learn a lot.

One of the most powerful things you can do to even the influence playing field is to actively acknowledge the input of the unheard. Like this: “Wait a minute, I want to go back to the point that Peggy made.” or “Bill, thanks for restating Carlos’ earlier suggestion. Like you, I support his idea.” Folks will follow your lead and start paying more attention to the people they’ve overlooked.

Opportunity. Opportunity bias can show up in a lot of ways. Maybe there’s a well-respected woman in your organization whose career is progressing more slowly than male counterparts’. Maybe white employees tend to get the reputation for being “high performing” after one successful project, whereas women and minorities have to mount a series of successes before they’re similarly regarded. Maybe the boss has a couple of “go-to” people for quick-turnaround or high-visibility projects. If the go-to folks share traits in common with the boss, there may be implicit bias at play.

What you can do. Go back over the special tasks and projects you’ve assigned over the last year. Who got them and who didn’t? Pay attention to how long it takes you to trust your male employees vs. the females; whites vs. people of color, straights vs. gays. If you notice that there are groups or individuals that you’ve overlooked, make a development plan to get as many of them as possible into your go-to group.

Updraft. Updraft refers to the phenomenon of ‘privilege’. In nature, an updraft is a warm current of air that lifts and carries something in flight, such that it rises and coasts with minimal effort. Updrafts occur in cultures too, where certain groups enjoy the ease of policies, structures and resources that were constructed with them in mind. Those who are placed into those cushy currents don’t even see their advantage – it’s just how things are. But have you ever heard women or minorities say, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far”?  That sums up life in the headwinds.

Historically, groups in the U.S. updraft have been whites, men, heterosexuals and the wealthy. And although the currents are shifting, these are still the groups that fly with the greatest relative ease.

What you can do: The question isn’t, “Is there an updraft?” The answer to that is yes. Rather, we need to ask, “How can those of us riding the updraft make more room?” “What systems can we reinvent so others may join the warm currents of favor?” Last, and perhaps most important, “How do we in the updraft tolerate the discomfort we may feel when our position in the current is shared by others?”

Addressing implicit bias takes commitment and persistence. And yes – to eliminate the impact of implicit bias is a massive personal and collective effort. Yet there is so much we can do to reduce bias harmful effects on people, productivity and organizational health. And it starts with each of us. Simple as A,E,I,O,U.


Want To Increase Your Personal Power? Try Not Giving A Whit.

I was sitting across the table from Gail, a female executive in the publishing industry. We were talking about how she came to find her power as a woman leader. She said, “The day I stopped giving a sh*t was the day that everything changed for me.”

She continued. “I had an epiphany one day: this job and these people’s opinions don’t define me. I was done trying to pretzel myself into a form that was palatable to everyone else but unrecognizable to myself. And as soon as I figured that out, I felt free. And guess what. That’s when people really started listening to me.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard versions of this story from my female clients. Over and over again, the influence or promotions that eluded women finally came to them when they stopped giving a whit. Here are a few examples:

Brenda gauged her own success by what others thought of her and whether or not they promoted her. What she had lost sight of was what she wanted, what work and environments really worked for her. Once she started navigating from her own reference points, she was able to communicate much more powerfully: not from a place of “Do you like me?” but from “Here’s what I need.” She’s now poised for promotion, and awaits this decision with her worth and inner clarity in tact … regardless of the outcome.

Jill was a real team player, consistently lauded for her willingness to step in and get the job done. Due to attrition in her department, Jill had assumed another person’s leadership duties in addition to her own. Fueled by the “attagirls” she kept receiving for her selflessness, she’d continued doing both jobs for over 18 months. But she hadn’t received better performance appraisals, a promotion or more pay.  She was exhausted, resentful and stressed out. She finally hit her breaking point and didn’t care about the consequences. She stormed into her boss’ office and informed him that she would only do this double duty for two more weeks. His reply? “I was wondering when you’d speak up.” Two weeks later, they hired someone to take on the extra job.

Susan, a law firm manager, reported to the firm’s three senior lawyers. They were all tough-minded, male, and 20 years older than she was. Because of these differences, Susan found it very difficult to influence her bosses. On one important issue on which they wouldn’t budge, Susan got totally fed up and read her bosses the riot act. Their response was, “That was great. You should do that more often.” Her forceful argument is what swayed them, but her not giving a whit is what emboldened her to speak the way she did.

Sometimes, organizations take women more seriously when women take organizations less seriously. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that it’s risky to let it fly. And I fully recognize that many women don’t have the luxury to take that risk; they need this job and can’t afford to rock the boat. But I have also seen women pull the plug on their own authority and success by over-accommodating others’ opinions and perceptions.

The experience of Gail and these other clients offers an interesting challenge: what might you gain by not giving a whit – before you hit your breaking point?

What about you?

  1. Have you ever tried to change yourself to accommodate others, for little or no return?
  2. What was the cost of that accommodation and how do you feel about that?
  3. Have you ever had the experience of taking a risk when you stopped caring about the outcome, and had that risk pay off?
  4. What did you learn from that experience?
  5. What small, reasonable experiments could you make to bring “not giving a whit” behavior forward before you reach your wits’ end?
  6. How will you gauge the impact of your experiments?
  7. What are the boundaries of what you’re willing to try?  What risks would be irresponsible or reckless?

Let us know what you discover!


Grit and Grace…On Behalf of What?

I usually steer away from philosophy in this blog, focusing more on practical leadership topics. But from time to time, I think it’s important to step back from the ‘how to’ of leading with grit & grace and look more deeply at the ‘why.’  On behalf of what does this work exist?

The underlying purpose of Leading With Grit & Grace™ is to help individuals and institutions address what I call the ‘tyranny of success.’ On one hand, it is critically important to establish what we’re good at. This forms the very foundation of our effectiveness. For example, a leader discovers that she gets great results by being understanding with her people, so she adopts a compassionate leadership style. A company sees a spike in profits by downsizing, and develops a core ethos of ‘doing more with less.’ In other words: we take an action; we like the result. So we “rinse and repeat” a few times, and pretty soon, we’ve got a bona fide formula for success.  Great, right?

Not necessarily. We humans tend to fall truly, madly and deeply in love with what works for us, and this can become a problem. Over time, we may stop paying attention to whatever falls outside our loving gaze, and our attentions and actions become imbalanced without our knowing it. Seemingly out of nowhere, our once-reliable strategy for success starts to wreak havoc: not because it’s the wrong strategy, but because it’s built on a partial set of values that we believe to be complete. Sure, it’s great to be good to your people.  But at some point, too much kindness will tank your efficacy.  It’s great to maximize efficiency. But continually stressing your people and resources will ultimately exact a heavy price.

The tyranny of success occurs when we lean on one set of values (and their resulting behaviors) and neglect their necessary opposites: kindness to the neglect of firmness; profits to the neglect of sustainability; ambition to the neglect of service; growth to the neglect of recovery and stabilization.  It is in the forgetting of these necessary opposites that our strengths become liabilities and can begin to do real harm.  It is from this forgetting that burn-out, abuse, complacency, greed, exploitation, and demoralization arise.

So regardless of the scale or context in which we are working, the work we do at Leading With Grit & Grace™ is always about helping people and institutions to transcend the tyranny of their success, and to develop a more balanced and sustainable form of thought, action and impact. It is on behalf of this intention that we exist.

What about you?

What are your (or your institution’s) formulas for success?

What values are at the core of your formula?

What do those values make possible for you and others?

What are the positive opposites of those values?  Which of these positive opposites might you be overlooking or undervaluing?

How might you integrate some of those neglected values more fully to support your success?

Can You Lead Confidently When You Don’t Know It All?

“When do you feel confident as a leader?” This is a question I often ask my female coaching clients, because so many of them struggle with self-confidence. Almost without exception, their reply is, “I feel confident when I ‘know my stuff’ inside and out.” Knowledge is a definite inner authority-booster. But when it’s your primary source of trust in your leadership abilities, you’re in a precarious position, because it means that you’re only self-assured when a) all things are knowable and b) you have the time and ability to know them all.

Good luck with that.

What happens when you’re facing things you’ve never faced before, like a natural disaster or 9/11? Or when the market crashes and you have to get twice as much work out of half as many people? Or when a technological breakthrough in your industry renders your core product obsolete overnight? Do your people then have to wait for you to get up to speed again before they have the benefit of a confident leader?

In the face of unprecedented and unknowable challenges, a leader needs to ground her own authority in more than just knowledge. Here are three other places to look:

1. Principle
One place to find your leadership footing when the path is uncertain is in principles and values. You may not know exactly how to proceed, but you can probably identify what matters. There’s power, clarity and confidence in that. Here’s an example. During the 2013 shut-down of the US Federal Government, many companies that consult to the government were forced to lay off workers for days or even weeks. But the leaders of one consulting firm were uncomfortable making their employees bear the financial penalty for Congress’ failures. So they asked themselves this question: “What values do we want to guide our response to this situation?” Their answer: people are more important than profits. Having articulated that principle, the way became clear: they forewent their own bonuses and asked all employees to take a specific day as vacation, so that the company could shut down its facilities and save a day’s worth of energy costs. Not one employee lost even a day’s pay. Connecting to what mattered most allowed this company’s leaders to stand confidently for a position that was costly to them personally and controversial among their external stakeholders.

2. Presence
A client of mine (we’ll call her Deb) was recently leading a team that was on the brink of a disastrous work deliverable. Despite the team’s best efforts, they approached their deadline woefully unprepared, plagued by in-fighting, and scared to death of tanking an important presentation. Deb had to decide whether to back out of the presentation or go forward. Both options presented significant risk. So when she decided to go forward, she realized that she had to do it with full conviction. First, she gathered her own energy into a clear and focused commitment. Then, standing in her own resolve, she pulled the team together to acknowledge their hard work, assess both the failure and success scenarios, and reassure the team that she would have their backs, regardless of the outcome. The solid certainty of her own presence created a psychological sea-change in the group. Feeling their leader so strongly at their back emboldened them in the presentation. They aced it. And Deb learned an important lesson: that presence itself could have a huge impact on the performance of her team.

3. Personhood
When you’re out of your depth, it’s easy to imagine that somewhere out there, there’s some mythical “perfect” leader for this situation… and it isn’t you. But here’s the thing. The perfect leader isn’t here; you are. So show up. Lead with what you’ve got, whether that’s the ability to lend perspective, to keep calm, to energize, to empathize, to engender trust, to problem-solve, to facilitate, to leverage the right people, to protect and advocate. When you’re out of your knowledge depth, bring everything else you’ve got – because your folks need a leader and you’re the one who’s here. And you, in all your imperfection, may turn out to be exactly what the situation called for after all.


Knowing your stuff is a great thing, and it certainly contributes to your credibility as a leader. But when you rest your confidence solely on what you know, then it’s contingent on conditions and you’re missing out on many other sources of authority and impact.

What about you?

  1. On what internal standards or criteria do you base your own confidence as a leader?
  2. What happens to your confidence as a leader when you can’t meet those standards?
  3. What price do you pay for that loss of confidence? What’s the cost to your team and your organization?
  4. How might you leverage principle, presence or personhood in a fuller way to support your confidence as a leader?
  5. What specific steps might you take to do that?

Do Women In Your Organization Experience Bias?

The problem with talking about sexism at work is that so few men are sexist anymore. Few, if any, of the hundreds of male executives I’ve coached show any signs of the belief that women are less capable, qualified or worthy than men. So why are women’s claims of gender-bias still rampant?

One reason is that institutions (and the cultures that grew up within them) still carry the DNA of their founders and architects. Most organizations were originally built by and for men, because that’s who worked there. It’s natural and rational that the structures, policies and the ‘way we do things’ would favor the people for and by whom they were designed. But as the workplace has become more and more diverse, organizational systems and cultures have stayed largely unchanged. This has created (intentionally or not) a state of privilege  for men: they’ve retained the luxury of working within a construct that was created with them and their interests in mind. So when ‘different others’ say that they experience life in X organization as inhospitable, men often don’t get it. It’s simply not a part of their own experience.

At the individual level, I think men’s hearts have changed and are changing. But the systems they built have been slow to evolve. It takes a strong intention and determined will to start chipping away at the many subtle ways that organizational life preferences one group over another. Why is it so hard? Because it’s difficult to see these powerful intangibles of organization life – especially if they conform to your shape. And it’s painful to change them – especially if they work in your favor.

This month’s Harvard Business Review has a great article on gender bias in the tech industry (“Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem” http://ow.ly/Cl4b4). It’s full of advice on how organizations – tech and otherwise – can interrupt systemic bias.

The first step? Determine whether gender bias is happening.

Women are the most credible experts about the extent of gender bias in your organization. The Harvard Business Review article lays out four patterns of gender bias. So consider asking the women at work whether they experience any or all of these patterns:

1. “Prove it again.” This is the dance by which women are required to prove and re-prove their competence far more often than their male counterparts, in order to be seen in an equal light. Of the 127 women that the authors interviewed, about 2/3 had experienced this pattern.

2. “Tightrope.” This is the stylistic double-bind that a full 75% of the women in the study reported experiencing. In order to be seen as contenders for high level jobs, women must demonstrate ambition and assertiveness. They can’t be “too soft.” Yet when they do come forward with an assertive style, they risk being labeled as ‘aggressive,’ ‘abrasive’ or ‘bitchy:” labels which can stop a woman’s career in its tracks. The tightrope can have very tangible consequences, such as in salary negotiations, where women are simultaneously encouraged to advocate for themselves and disapproved of for doing so.

3. “Maternal wall.” In one study, a hiring panel considered the resumes of two equally qualified candidates, one of whom was a mother. The study found that the woman was “79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards.” The researchers reported that 59% of the women they interviews reported hitting this maternal wall.

4. “Tug of war.” Research indicates that woman who have experienced gender bias are more likely to distance themselves from other women. They’re less apt to reach out to other women, offer mentoring or support, or even align with them. If you’re an ‘untouchable’ trying to make it in the organization, then the last people you want to be associated with are other untouchables. The result? Women turn against each other. 45% of the women interviewed reported experiencing this.

This article is a goldmine of guidance for examining and reducing gender bias at work. It directs us away from the guilt- and blame ridden conversation about individual attitudes and points us more productively to the systemic level, which is where I believe the bulk of bias still resides.

When Depression Enters The Workplace: What’s A Leader To Do?

For exactly one month now, Robin Williams’ suicide has kicked off a worldwide exploration of the treacherous terrain of depression. While we continue to mourn the passing of a comic genius and a beautiful human being, many of us have also been taking a more intimate look at how depression affects us and those we know. I’ve read so many useful articles in the media. But I haven’t seen anything on the intersection of depression and the workplace – and more specifically, on the challenges that managers face when someone on their team is depressed. So I thought I’d take that on – from a very personal angle.

Anyone who knows me knows that I can bitch and moan with the best of them, but that I am basically a sunny person. I love to laugh and to make others laugh. My friends can count on me to giggle at even their bad jokes and to delight in the smallest of things. And yet, depression runs through my family tree and my personal experience. People don’t realize that true happiness and depression can coexist in a person. Robin Williams is proof of this. So am I. Maybe, so are you.

Depression is like being locked in a soundproof booth with heavy, mean-spirited air. Intellectually, you know that the birds are singing, that you are loved, and that the world is every bit as beautiful as it is botched. But in the soundproof booth, you can’t feel the good stuff. The only thing you can feel is the isolation of the booth and the foul smell of the air in there. No amount of effort or willpower can break you out so that the sunlight can actually reach your skin.

Many people suffering from depression are walking into the workplace… your workplace. And the minute they do, they present a very difficult challenge to their bosses and colleagues. I’ve been through two significant depressions in my life. The first one came in my early 30’s, and I was blessed to have had a manager back then who dealt spectacularly well with me and the challenges that my depression handed to him as a manager. His name was David.

I’d like to share with you some of the many things he did right, in case you ever find yourself in his position.

  • From the beginning, David had established himself as someone with whom I felt safe to share my struggles. Yes, he held us to high standards of performance, but he also demonstrated, time and again, his respect and care for us as people. He always affirmed that our humanity and our performance were inextricably linked. So as scared as I was to reveal my depression to him, I trusted that he would receive it compassionately. And he did.
  • The first thing he said was, “You are addressing this in the most skillful and responsible way.” In that powerful sentence, he communicated that my difficulty did not freak him out. He also managed to affirm a way in which I was still competent, which is easy to lose sight of when you’re depressed.
  • Then he inquired about my external support system. Was I getting help? Was I in immediate danger? Did I have family or friends to lean on? He was appropriately trying to determine whether or not I had the support I needed and whether or not he needed to connect me to the company’s counseling resources.
  • Next, he inquired about my internal support system. Had I experienced this before? If so, what had I learned about the things that helped and didn’t? What aspects of that experience would I be able to draw on now?
  • David helped me to stay engaged at work to the degree possible. Frankly, it would have been easier for him to just tell me to take a leave of absence and come back when I was feeling better. But he took the risk to let me stay involved at work by scaling back my responsibilities and accommodating my more uneven ability to perform. Staying even minimally engaged in our work kept me in the mix of life and in touch with my strengths. That’s not necessarily helpful for everyone, but it was key for me.
  • He protected my need for privacy. Not only does depression feel terrible, but it also feels shameful. David did everything possible to avoid adding to that shame. We decided together how he would communicate my periods of absence to the staff, so that I was comfortable about the narrative. And he stuck to the script, whether addressing staff, peers or senior management.

Here’s what David did NOT do, that also helped a great deal:

  • He did not shut down or withdraw from me. We stayed productively and appropriately connected.
  • He did not take my depression on as his problem to solve. He knew where the boundaries of his managerial role were and never crossed them.
  • He never discounted my experience. He didn’t tell me to “snap out of it” or to “buck up.” Nor did he try to convince me why I shouldn’t feel bad.
  • He did not unload his own experience on me. The last thing I needed was someone else’s pain, disguised as empathy, piped into my soundproof booth.

David did not rescue me. That was not his job and he knew it. But at a time when even the simplest tasks seemed daunting to me, he absolutely eased my way. For those of you managing someone who experiences depression, I hope you will benefit from David’s spot-on leadership. His compassion never wavered, and yet he continued to expect and encourage me to produce to the fullest extent that I could. Grit and grace in powerful combination.


Women’s Equality Day: 10 Questions For Organizational Self-Reflection

August 26th is Women’s Equality Day in the U.S. I like the idea of this observance – particularly compared to Women’s History Month (celebrated in March), which I kind of hate.

To me, Women’s History Month is a triumph of corporate box-checking, where organizations dust off their pictures of Susan B. Anthony and traipse out speakers (for mostly female audiences) on topics like “dress for success.” Once the boxes are checked, organizations tend to declare “Mission Accomplished” and forget about it until next March.

But consider this. If you still have to celebrate a “History Month” for a segment of your workforce, then that group probably doesn’t yet enjoy equality in your organization.

I think Women’s Equality Day offers up a useful line of inquiry. It points us not to the past, but to the present and future. It points us not to prior success, but to the distance yet to travel to reach equality. It asks us not to brush our shoulders in self-congratulation, but to ask ourselves honestly where women actually stand in our world, society, communities and organizations.

So heck yes, bring on Women’s Equality Day. And let the questions begin.

  1. Look around the table at each successive level of the company’s power structure. Who’s at this table and who’s missing? If women (or any group) are noticeably missing, then you don’t yet have equality. Period.
  2. What’s happening on compensation? Look around those same leadership team tables. Analyze the compensation of each member. See any patterns?
  3. At what levels do the main drop-offs in representation occur?
  4. What organizational policies and structures might be creating these drop-offs?
  5. What societal forces might be contributing to these declines?
  6. How would your organizational structures and policies need to change to ensure that women had equal standing in this company?
  7. What informal cultural assumptions and practices might be restricting women from the same access, influence and inclusion that their male counterparts enjoy?
  8. Whose voices tend to carry weight and sway opinion in your company? In a circle of opinion-leaders, who tends to galvanize the decisions and actions? Who has to say something before people hear and act on it?
  9. What’s really at stake? If the organization does not see itself as paying a meaningful price for inequality, then meaningful change is unlikely. What price are we paying for the lack of equality? If our women are underused or undervalued, how does that affect profitability? Our brand? Our standing in our stakeholder community? To what extent does it affect our competition for the best and brightest talent? To what extent does it affect our employee engagement and innovation?
  10. Who benefits – and how – from an unequal playing field for women (or any other group)? Don’t pussyfoot around this question; the beneficiaries of inequality will likely be among the greatest barriers to change.

Women’s Equality Day is an invitation to take courageous stock. By all means, celebrate success and progress. But ask the hard questions as well. Confront the distance between where you are and true equality for women and all workplace “minorities.” The only thing you have to lose is your comfort. And there might be so much to gain.

He Leads “Like a Girl”

Thanks to Mo’ne Davis, a thirteen-year old soft ball player with a 70 MPH fastball, it’s a little harder to use “throws like a girl” as an insult.

I’m looking forward to the day when “like a girl” is no longer a criticism in any domain of life. Including and especially leadership.

Several years ago, I was teaching a leadership course to a group of managers within an organization. The organization had just come through a crisis: one of those defining moments in a company’s history when a leader stepped up admirably in a difficult time. What made this leader’s response so skillful was his use of what I would now call ‘grace.’ He led with humility, empathy, kindness, and personal accountability. Despite the chaos, he did not bring in the corporate version of armored tanks and military-grade weapons.

The way he led his organization through turmoil was a galvanizing moment for the organization and a whopper of a teachable moment that I could use in the course for illustration.

In a moment of naiveté, I said to the participants, “This leader’s actions are a testament to the power of feminine leadership.” Before I could expand, the room erupted into laughter. And I mean the belly kind. It was like the notion of a man leading through the feminine was hilarious. Embarrassing. Absurd.

The laughter hit me hard. I don’t even know the name of the emotion I felt, but it was unpleasant and overwhelming. When the uproar subsided, all I could do was to ask, in all sincerity, why the term ‘feminine leadership’ was laughable.

At that moment, I discovered first-hand that we are still not equipped for a conversation about masculine and feminine, because of  how deeply our culture still  discounts the latter. I discovered that acknowledging the feminine aspect of a man’s leadership was tantamount to calling him a woman. Which I wasn’t. But which, if I had been, was considered an insult to him.

When I look at Mo’ne Davis, I see that “throwing like a girl” looks pretty amazing. And yet I realize that until throwing, running, thinking or leading in any way ‘like a girl’ is as deep a compliment as doing it ‘like a guy,’ we still have a very long road ahead.