The Grown-Ups Are Not Alright: Sounding the Call for ‘Grace’

It’s never been like this. In the 20+ years that I’ve been coaching leaders, every client’s goal has been unique and specific to his/her/their aspirations and context. But then the pandemic hit and the world changed. Overnight, individualized coaching plans evaporated and a universal coaching plan arose: how to lead in my corner of a worldwide pandemic.

Since mid-March, my coaching conversations in any given week have been strikingly similar across clients, with the content evolving in step with the forces and pressures. So far, the narrative has unfolded something like this:

  • Week 1: Are we, am I, going to be OK? How do we transform our operations overnight?
  • Week 3: I feel like we’re getting a handle on this. We’re inventing new ways of doing business and connecting. It’s actually kind of exciting.
  • Week 6: I’m tired. It’s really been a push.
  • Week 7-9: It’s exhausting to be on zoom all day. I work more hours now than I did in the office. Work and life are all happening to me at the same time, 24/7.
  • Week 10: In addition to handling the COVID mess, how do I respond, as a person and a leader, to the murder of George Floyd? This is huge and I feel … unprepared / enraged / depressed / shocked / frayed / terrified…
  • Week 16 and counting: Oh my gosh, we’re going to be in this forever. Can we open up or not? We’ve held conversations about race, but what now? What really changes? I don’t know from one day to the next what the fall looks like for my kids. I’m scared if they go back to school and scared if they don’t.”

Leaders haven’t been able to offload one crisis as the next one comes. The challenges accumulate, each one persisting as the next piles on. This is HARD. I think it helps just to name the truth of that, even if it comes as no surprise.

What has surprised me is that, amidst this pile-up of new and incessant demands, leaders seem to be holding themselves to the same standards of productivity and awesomeness to which they’ve always held themselves. I hear them say things like, “I feel like I should be doing more; I should be having a bigger impact.” “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t seem to concentrate.” “I can’t believe that I snapped at my kid/spouse/parent at dinner.” “I’m not as tough as I thought I was.”

As if somehow this shouldn’t be taking a toll.

If your child were a competitive runner and the world dumped a backpack of bricks on her back, would you expect her to clock the same times? No. You’d help her understand that she’s running a different race now, that ‘doing her best’ means something very different now. You’d overhaul her goals, training and recovery strategy, equipment, nutritional plan, and support structure. You’d understand if she got testy as she struggled to adapt to the added weight.

Right now, this world is stuffing a grit-storm of bricks into your backpacks. In March, most of us thought that this would be a sprint.  We’d gut this COVID thing out for a few months and return to normal. But in the U.S., not only is this sprint turning out to be a marathon, but the American cultural meltdown keeps adding even more bricks as we go.

If you’re going to remain sound for the journey, you’ll need to change your run. And in a grit-show like this, that means amping up the grace toward yourself.

I’m not naive. You may feel very lucky to have this really hard job right now, and it’s not like you can just stop being a parent to your children. It’s not like you’re going to spend a day at the spa (which isn’t open anyway) or take a leave of absence. You may not even be able to take a vacation. But I do know that grit needs grace; challenge needs support. You can gut things out for a while, but it is difficult to keep hauling if you don’t also heal. To quote spiritual teacher Lama Rod Owens, “You have to drink as you pour.”

What about you?

Could you:

  • remind yourself that this is objectively difficult?
  • take a few minutes each day to note any signs of stress or distress?
  • honor those signs as calls for care?
  • adjust your expectations to mirror the race you’re running now, as you would for your son or daughter newly competing with a brick backpack?
  • let some stuff drop to the ground?
  • do a project to a ‘good enough’ standard?
  • notice beauty?
  • return to that spiritual or physical practice?
  • forgive yourself for snapping at someone, and see your irritation as an internal call for care?
  • try not to panic if your marriage is feeling the strain?
  • go outside for a few minutes, just to feel the sun on your face and witness the beauty of a tree?
  • intentionally set aside some time for yourself, even if it’s just 15 minutes here and there?
  • do a small technology fast?
  • ask for help?

If this content resonates with you and you want to explore having me on your support team,

Grit Gone Wild: Armed and Dangerous

Normally this blog focuses on ways that individual leaders can blend grit and grace for maximum positive impact.  But the grit-grace imbalance that we often see in the workplace takes place in a larger context and at a larger scale. One person’s leadership sits within a corporate culture… which sits within a larger regional/national culture… which sits within the global context.

This is a time when events in the U.S. and around the world demand the larger view.  We’re being forced to examine leadership at every level: not only in our teams and organizations, but also in our lives, our communities and our countries. Everywhere I look, it seems to me that ‘grit’ seems to have so many leaders – and followers – by the throat.

Grit is the part of our brain and psyche that differentiates, delineates and strives, while grace is the part of us that unifies, connects and accepts. Both elements are useful and necessary. But for both to contribute their best, they each need to be in partnership with the other. Martin Luther King, Jr. sums up what happens when they become disjointed:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

It seems as though “power without love” is the dominant and rising force in so much of the world. The perspective of “I and mine” is overtaking the mindset of “all of us and all of our’s.” Collectively it seems we’ve muted our compassion, curiosity and gentility, and we can see the reckless and painful results. Ask the residents of Newtown, Parkland and Charleston. Ask African Americans; ask the police. Ask conservatives and liberals. Ask LGBTQ persons; ask Muslims and immigrants. Ask the people of Puerto Rico and Syria. Ask the poor and the working poor. Ask the oceans, forests and air.

This is grit gone wild: a radical swing to one side of the psyche’s pendulum, divorced from the mediating aspects of grace that could restore grit to its healthy best. This imbalance isn’t a new phenomenon. We move in and out of balance, from one side of the pendulum to the other. What does seem new in this gritty time is the level to which we are separating and armed at the boundaries.

As we turn against each other, we have so many weapons with which to assert our positions and silence the other. Here are just a few:

  • Systemic privilege
  • Misused positional power
  • Public shame and bullying
  • Destructive technologies
  • Self-righteousness
  • Xenophobia and nationalism
  • Prioritization of individual rights over the communal good

It’s as if we’re stuck in the sinister version of Thelma and Louise, grit-riding ourselves over a cliff.  As long as we keep flooring the pedal of self-interest and righteousness, we’ll hurl ourselves to the movie’s inevitable conclusion – a soaring demise … without the fun ride, the gorgeous sunset or the liberation.

We don’t need to abandon the productive engine of grit. But there’s also a serious imperative to to engage the forces of kindness, connection and care if we’re going to get the outcomes we really want.

The questions for leaders are clear. How are we complicit in grit’s reckless ride?  How will we usher love back in?







Leading The Brokenhearted

I never imagined I’d be writing this post. But I have coached more stressed and grieving people over the past year than I have in my whole career. Challenges of every sort seem to be buffeting us, and their effects accompany us into all aspects of our lives… including into the workplace and into the hands of devoted community and organizational leaders like you. So here goes: an executive coach’s exploration of leadership in brokenhearted times. 

There is no predicting the accident, the diagnosis or the addiction; the mass shooting or the private abuse. The fire, flood, quake or hurricane. The disturbing national event or the cataclysmic organizational shake-up. We think of these as the unimaginable tragedies that happen in other places and to other people. Not here, to us.

But these past many months have reminded us that tragedy can strike right where we stand. The unthinkable happens, and the affected take a bit of time out to register the blow. But then – grieving, disoriented or even traumatized – they show back up to work. They may be walking back into your workplace, to your team. And there you are,  leading people in their most raw and human moments, when their well-pressed suits can’t button up their sorrow. If the tragedy has hit your whole community or workplace, you may even have to lead the brokenhearted while your own heart is in shreds.

If this happens to you, it will be a crucible in your journey as a leader, calling upon you in ways you can’t imagine. Although you can’t predict these moments, you can prepare for them: personally, relationally and structurally.

Preparing Personally 

Who you are is how you lead – and that is never so true as when the chips are down. Your own experience with tragedy will naturally shape how you manage others in heartbreaking times. So it can be helpful to review your own history with trauma, grief and loss, and take clear-eyed stock of their imprint on you as a person and as a leader. The “grit and grace” lens is one simple way to self-reflect.

Grit is a crucial leadership trait in difficult times. It helps you focus on the work at hand, drive to make progress and provide others with a sense of stability and predictability. To what extent does grit show up in you during tough times, and how does it manifest? How has that grit served you or others in tough times?

As useful as grit is, it’s also possible to bring so much of it that others experience you as uncaring or unapproachable. For example, has your own history trained you to ignore or power through your own emotions? Is there any chance that you expect (or hope) that others will do the same? Does vulnerability make you squeamish or judgmental? Becoming more at home with challenging emotions (your own and others’) can help you prepare to be more open-hearted when others are facing difficult times.

Grace. Perhaps your response to tragedy tends toward grace, which is a key aspect of the ‘consoler in chief’ role. Grace offers compassion and comfort to those in pain. But too much grace can get you in over your head. You can become so identified with others’ suffering that you lose your objectivity and find yourself crossing the line from leader to rescuer or enabler. You can be so flexible as to create havoc on the rest of the team and on productivity. So being too helpful can put you, the employee and the company at risk. If you tend to be grace-full to a fault, you might want to set up some guardrails that prevent you from going overboard on overhelping.

The optimal stance, in tragedy as in most things, is a blend of grit and grace, which allows you to be appropriately sensitive without losing your own footing. A shining example of blended leadership in recent times is Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Here’s a clip of Cruz, where her deep care and steely resolve are seamlessly woven together.

Turning grit & grace toward yourself. It’s hard to lead well when the well is empty. In times of tragedy or challenge, it’s crucial to attend to yourself. Most leaders would tell you that self-care is absolutely necessary, yet few actually put that into practice. They treat it as optional: something they’ll get around to when they have the time. But if you are leading the brokenhearted, self-care isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity that requires both resolve and self-compassion. Get sleep. Exercise and eat well. Go easy on the alcohol. Do things that nourish you. Draw on your support system; consider getting counseling for yourself. Structure your time, adjust your expectations and renegotiate your commitments to align with the realities of life in a time of upheaval.

Preparing Relationally 

You can’t know in advance what people will need when tragedy falls.  But you can prepare by knowing what kinds of conversations you’ll need to have when it does.

If you’re leading someone(s) going through difficulty, don’t make any assumptions about what support he/she/they need from you. Don’t assume that what you would want is what they want. Even if you know them well, don’t assume that you know the brokenhearted them.  Tragedy changes us and reveals aspects of us that we may not know or show under normal circumstances.

How do you know what support to give someone? Ask them. Does he need time off, or does being in the office help? How does she want you to answer other people’s questions about what’s going on? What can you share, with whom? What needs to be kept private? Do they want you to check in with them, or would they prefer that you not ask how they’re doing unless they bring it up?

Sometimes people can’t articulate what they need, but they know what won’t work. So if they don’t know what support to ask for, you can ask them what you could do that would be counterproductive or unhelpful for them. A lot of clarity and wisdom can surface there.

Even as you accommodate (as possible) someone who’s reeling, you still have to make sure that the work gets done. This is delicate terrain, where you need to keep grit and grace in balance. The best way I know to navigate this is to explicitly acknowledge the challenges of working while recovering, and make explicit plans and agreements. Talk with the brokenhearted person, and then the team, about how the work’s going to get done while someone is either physically out of the office or is present, but less mentally/emotionally available.

Here’s an example from my own experience. My father died when I was 30; my mother had died several years earlier. That second loss really threw me, and my performance was very uneven while I grappled with it. I’d get totally overwhelmed, out of nowhere. My boss noticed this new unpredictability and sat down with me to create a strategy.  We moved one of my deadlines back by a few weeks, and moved one of my projects to a teammate. We agreed that I would work in the office as much as I could, but that I could leave the office on short notice if I felt overwhelmed. Sometimes just knowing I had the space to leave enabled me to stay. Sometimes, I needed to step away for an afternoon or a day. So I briefed a co-worker on my deliverables and kept him in the loop so that he could step in at any time if needed.

It wasn’t easy, but it worked. My boss’ explicit collaboration with me and engagement with other team members gave me the room to recover without derailing the team’s ability to deliver.

Preparing Structurally 

While you may not have given these worst-case scenarios much thought, your organization probably has. Most organizations have created structures to help you support staff through difficult times. Rather than waiting till a tragedy hits to know what these structures and resources are, you can meet periodically with your HR professionals on the following questions:

  • What actions are within and beyond the scope of your role as a leader, when responding to employees going through challenging times?
  • What are the resources available through the organization’s Employee Assistance Program? How does an employee go about engaging EAP services?
  • What is the manager’s responsibility and process for notifying company officials if an employee appears to be a danger to self or others?
  • What internal programs (such as leave-sharing, disaster relocation funds) has the company established? How do they work?

Leading the brokenhearted is perhaps the most delicate, difficult and important work you will ever do. It will stretch your character, heart and competence in ways that everyday leadership won’t. Though we like to think that tragedy won’t happen to us or “ours,” the truth is that it can land at your feet in an instant.  And while you’ll never be ready, you can prepare.



Personal Renewal: The Neglected Leadership Competency

Ah, management: that sweet gig where you disseminate upper management’s coherent strategies, delegate work to your ample staff, ponder the big picture and get home in time for dinner…

…said no manager, ever.

The great majority of my executive coaching clients report feeling taxed to the max. They put in 10 – 12 hours at the office, handle the home front in the evening, and then hit the computer for a few more hours to tame the email backlog that accumulated during the day’s non-stop meetings.

Burning the candle at both ends often starts as a one-time thing. Then it stretches into a week, and then into a “season.” Leaders often tell me (and their families) that they’ll get back to healthier routines as soon as things settle down. Yet often, the reality unfolds quite differently: leaders become trapped in an addictive cycle of responsiveness and self-neglect. As the cycle continues, the environment only calls for more, and the responding “self” drains down and down.

If you’ve been or worked for a leader who ignored his/her well-being, you know the costs: mental and physical depletion, strained relationships at work or home, unhealthy team dynamics, errors, lapses in judgment, etc. Neglecting ourselves doesn’t just affect us; it affects our teams, our organizations and our intimate relationships.

We can lead well only when we are well.  We know this. We agree with it. And still, so many of us don’t live it. And we have some pretty legit-sounding reasons why:

  • “It’s self-indulgent.”
  • “It’s expected here. Everyone here puts in these kinds of hours.”
  • “It’s just a really busy time.”
  • “I’m handling the stress just fine. In fact, I thrive on it.”

As valid as those reasons may sound or be, they can easily become unconscious, unquestioned beliefs that sabotage our personal sustainability and effectiveness.

When we start to see our resourcefulness flag, we often just power through the symptoms. But in doing so, we miss vital performance feedback from our body. Our exhaustion, irritability, etc. is our body’s “sustainability” performance appraisal. It’s telling us that we’re “exceeding expectations” – and not in a good way. Renewal is the remedial action.

Personal renewal is the single most neglected competency of leadership. It is as critical to long-term effectiveness as strategy or execution. Yet, unlike other leadership competencies for which we are trained, assessed and rewarded, the responsibility for the “renewal” competency is ours alone.

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have… Any time we can listen to the self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”  ~ Parker Palmer

What about you?

Do you relate to personal renewal as a necessity, as a luxury, or as irrelevant?  Where do those beliefs come from?

What are the early signs that you’ve been neglecting the “personal renewal” competency? How does that show up in your outlook, body, relationships, and overall performance?

What are the late-stage signs that you’re in a danger zone of self-neglect?

What is the story you tell yourself to justify overlooking your own renewal?

What are the two or three most important habits that support your well-being as a person and a leader?

What would it take for you to commit to one of those habits in a sustained way?




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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.

10,000 Strong…And Stressed

people rushing on escalatorI attended the Massachusetts Conference for Women last week, where 10,000 women, dressed mostly in black outfits with sharp, masculine lines, convened for a day of learning from top-notch speakers.

It was a terrific conference and a very worthwhile day. Yet, I came out of it disheartened. Why? Because what I heard, over and over again, were the voices of women under heavy stress: over-programmed and under the microscope; low on sleep and full of self-doubt. For example:

  • On her path of becoming an actress, Lupita Nyong’o talked about having to slay the three inner dragons of “self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-denial.”
  • Hillary Clinton and Tory Burch emphasized that the demands on working women with families were too great to tackle alone. Each woman said that their success simply would not have been possible without strong systems of support.
  • Author John Gray shared research that shows that, in Norway, which has the world’s best working conditions for women, women are still pumping out 4 times as much cortisol (the stress hormone) as men.  And remember… that’s in the best of conditions. For those who are working in less enlightened circumstances or closer to the survival line, the stress is exponentially greater.
  • Women continue to be unsupportive of each other in the workplace.  As TV personality Cindy Stumpo said, “Women in their 40’s and 50’s are the ones intimidating my daughters at work.  We’re supposed to be helping the next generation, not tearing them down.”

I established Leading With Grit & Grace® to support women in forging a more potent and sustainable form of leadership, where toughness and tenderness work in tandem for everyone’s benefit. But what’s hitting me squarely in the face today is that, while we women strive to treat others with both grit and grace, we often fail to direct that virtuous balance toward ourselves.

Rather, grit tends to prevail. We are ever-striving… to do more, multitask more masterfully, get that next promotion, pick up the kids, and look our best while doing it all. Is this our best and only option – to keep tightening the screws on ourselves to satisfy the external demands and power past the voice of self-doubt?

I hope not. I’m interested in a different invitation. Amid the many external demands pressures we women face, how can we increase the amount of grace that we bestow upon ourselves and each other?  What would it take for each of us to take responsibility to give ourselves the kind of care, attention and compassion that we say we need and want?

If you struggle with this – or if you succeed at this – please comment and share your experience.







Do You Suffer From “Sorry-itis?”

Early one morning, Peg popped her head into her boss’ office and said, “Sorry, Bill. Do you have a minute?” In a late-morning project meeting, she said, “I’m sorry, but can I ask a question?” Riding the elevator to go out for lunch, Peg was jostled by another rider. “Sorry,” she said reflexively.  And on the last call of the day, something the other person said was garbled. To prompt the speaker to repeat himself, she said… you guessed it… “Sorry?”

Women rightly chafe against being treated as “less than” in the workplace. But we actually participate in that treatment through our own “sorry-itis” – a condition affecting mostly women, in which we apologize to others for absolutely nothing.

Like you, I respect leaders who admit to their mistakes and who own up to the consequences. But sorry-itis is a whole different thing.  In all four examples above, Peg committed no transgression. Essentially, she manufactured needless blame and stuck it to own forehead.  Though each of her “sorries” was no big deal, together, they formed a speech pattern that communicated that Peg is a walking mistake. Every unwarranted “sorry” taught others to devalue her.

When Peg became aware of the extent and impact of her sorry-itis, she wanted to heal it. But she was afraid that she might start sounding like a jerk. So what were her alternatives in the four situations?

  • Popping her head into Bill’s office, she could merely say, “Excuse me, Bill. We don’t have an appointment right now, but do you have a few minutes to go over X?” And if Bill says, no, she can counter with “No problem. What would be a better time?”
  • She had every right to ask a question in a meeting. A more self-respectful way to do it might have been “Before we move on, I’d like to get more clarification on Y.”
  • In the elevator… Just zip it, Peg. The jostler owes the apology here, not the jostle-ee.
  • If she didn’t understand or hear something, she could have simply said “Would you say that again?”

What about you?

For the next week, keep a running log of the situations where you said “I’m sorry.”

At the end of the week, review the log.  What percentage of the time were your “sorries” the warranted acknowledgment of harm or injury?  What percentage of your “sorries” were due to sorry-itis?

When your sorries were unwarranted, what message do you think they sent to others:
– about how you regard yourself?
– about how others should regard you?

If you had one of those situations to do over again, how could you communicate in a way that was both graceful and self-respectful?

‘No’ is a complete sentence. (Anne Lamott)

Gracesters, this one’s for you.

What happens when you imagine saying ‘no’ to someone? Does your chest tighten or your stomach knot up? Do emotions arise? Anxiety, perhaps, or even panic? How do you react mentally? Maybe you get fuzzy-headed or think, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly refuse.”

Now recall a recent time when you actually did decline a request. How directly did you communicate your ‘no’? As its own complete sentence, or buried in apologies, tangents or justifications?

There are intense pressures on women at work – even those in leadership positions – to be agreeable, helpful, and ever-available. “No” flies in the face of those expectations. It can be an especially uncomfortable stance for grace-based women leaders, because it risks creating disruption in the relationship. But as a professor of mine once said, “If you can’t say ‘no,’ then your ‘yes’ doesn’t mean much.”

Despite the discomfort it can create within you, there is great and positive power in a clear, unvarnished and respectful decline. It can help you make more realistic commitments, stand up for your values and earn others’ respect. But “No” doesn’t help just you: it contributes also to the health of your team, organization, family or community.

So the question becomes how to bring your unapologetic “no” forward in a way that works? As you know, it’s not an easy question, but here are some ways to start engaging it.

1. Examine your own history with saying “No” and the internal beliefs you carry as a result. If you’re like many women, you have inherited a tangled set of messages about your power and authority. Try to look at that inheritance, taking stock of your history and its impact on your stance toward boundary-setting. Then try to articulate your own present-day views and values about saying “no,” so that you’re operating from a perspective that feels current and supportive. While a new articulation won’t erase your inherited stories, a new mental model can open up the possibility for new patterns of action.

2. Experiment! There are a million ways to deliver a ‘no:’ sweetly, acerbically, forcefully, passively, fearfully, bitchily, authoritatively, quietly, unshakably, tentatively… Play with them all by taking just a few minutes a day by yourself just to experiment with throwing different versions of “no” into the air. See how each one makes you feel. See if you can identify ways of saying it that feel comfortably powerful to you.

Step it up a notch by taking the ‘no’ experiment into low-stakes interactions, like at the grocery store or with your family (if you have that kind of family!). Try saying ‘no’ in places where doing it unskillfully won’t have big negative consequences. The goal is to get more practice and thus get more comfortable with claiming your own authority in all situations.

3. Examine your organization’s culture. I often hear people throwing around cultural generalizations like, “Oh, women can’t do X.” Or, “Women get killed for doing Y.” Certainly, it’s smart to listen to that cultural lore, because it may carry some career-saving wisdom. But test it, too. Look for current, tangible examples of what actually works and doesn’t in your workplace today. Are some women successful at managing boundaries, while others are not? What seems to separate the respected ‘no-sayers’ from those who are seen as aggressive or bitchy?

4. Consider investing in development. I think that each woman’s relationship to “No” is an integral part of her journey to fullness, authority and well-being. Here are a few ideas for development:

  • Read books or take a course. Relevant topics might include assertiveness, conflict management, emotional intelligence, crucial conversations, or executive presence. I recommend more experiential courses over strictly theoretical ones, so that you’re testing concepts by putting them into practice. In this regard, I am a big fan of Joe Weston’s book and workshops on “respectful confrontation.”
  • Set up an agreement with a “no-buddy,” where you support each other in staking your claim and setting boundaries at work and in your personal lives.
  • If you want to take this on more fully, consider investing in an executive coach for customized support. If confrontation and boundary-setting have difficult historical and emotional roots, consider seeking the support of a therapist.

What about you?

How do you react inside, the closer you get to using “No” as a complete sentence, without padding or softening it?

What do you see as the promises and perils of saying “No” so directly?

When have you said “no” in a way that was both definitive (grit) and respectful (grace)? What did you learn from that?




Don’t Just Do Something; Sit There!

I did a really good thing last week: I went on a 24-hour personal retreat. From noon on Monday to noon on Tuesday, I set down all my ‘shoulds’ and to-do lists and went with a friend to a log cabin in a wilderness preserve about 2 hours from DC. No agenda – just space, time, wooded trails, a journal and some wholesome food.

As we began our retreat, each of us articulated an intention for our time there. Mine was to feel less scattered, to be restored to a sense of inner consolidation and wholeness. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling better. Within minutes of settling on that porch overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, serenaded by the whisper of dry leaves falling, the sharp inner edges smoothed out. I felt spiritually reconnected. I felt relieved to drop down into a mode where I was not making anything happen.

These 24 hours got me thinking about how much my life supports accomplishment and how little it supports personal renewal. Whether it’s in my business, my home, or in my community, the world around me is always calling for me to do more. And I want to answer that call. So I spend most of my time in what I call my ‘executive function,’ the grit side of myself that plans, aspires, organizes, and gets stuff done.

By contrast, there is very little around me that encourages me to slow down, to inhabit a more quiet, receptive mode. I don’t get messages from my environment saying, “Get less involved!” “Be content with what you have!” or “Hey – winter’s coming: time to slow down.” The drive to take things down a notch comes only from within myself – not because “I’m worth it,” but because I need it in order to be at my happiest and best. None of my most creative moments occur when I’m staring at a computer screen – they occur in the shower or on walks. Busyness does not cultivate kindness in me – relaxation does. The harder I’m driving, the less open I am to inspiration or delight.

I don’t know about you, but the world doesn’t tend to hand me renewal time on a silver platter. I’m going to have to keep carving it out for myself.

I am a fan of big breaks, like spiritual, contemplative or creative retreats or even spa get-aways. These can be immensely beneficial – kind of a whole-being reset. But these big breaks can also be beyond reach for many of us. No worries. Even the smallest reconnection with our ‘grace’ sides can have profound effects. So we have to reclaim and build renewal time into our daily lives, structuring in no-cost, low investment micro-retreats. Here are some ideas:

  • Breathing breaks. Unless the building’s on fire or your kid needs to go to the emergency room, most of us can take 60 seconds out to simply pay full attention to our breath. The breath is an express train into the present moment, which is actually the only place where stress does NOT live. Most stress is a fabrication of our minds, which are either fretting about the past or worrying about the future. For one minute a couple of times a day, be. here. now.
  • Mealtime meditations. When was the last time you sat down to a meal and brought your full attention to the act of eating? When was the last time you really tasted your lunch? Noticed the color, shape and textures of what you consumed? Chewed instead of shoveled? Even eating at your desk can be transformed into an opportunity to cultivate receptivity and presence.
  • Gratitudes. I don’t know about you, but once I get into task mode, I can tend to feel put-upon – even if I’ve put everything upon myself! It can be a game changer to take a second to register one thing that you’re grateful for, one way in which you feel blessed. Research has proven that a gratitude practice yields significant psychological and physiological benefits, and it’s easy to do. You can weave it seamlessly into your day – maybe doing it every time you’re standing at the elevator or walking between meetings. Maybe you write down one gratitude as the first note you take in every meeting. I have two ‘gratitude buddies’ – we try to email each other each day with five things we’re grateful for.
  • Nature time-outs. I have a client who sets a chime to ring on her computer two or three times per day. It reminds her to go outside and connect with the natural world for a minute or two. Nature returns her to a larger sense of perspective and a more gracious orientation to time. Nature’s often closer at hand than you think. Step out of your office and walk around the block. At your daughter’s soccer game, take your attention off of how she’s doing for a few seconds and just feel the sun on your face. At a stoplight, turn off the radio and open the window.
  • Music retreats. Music can change your state almost instantly. Put on a quiet piece of music in your office and just listen. Or shut your door and dance around to a favorite boogie tune.

What about you?

What happens to you when your life becomes all doing (grit) and no being (grace)? How does it affect your health, outlook and energy? How does it affect the quality of your relationships? How does it affect your effectiveness at work and at home?

Have you ever established grace-supporting structures or routines in your life? If so, what were they, and what impact did they have on you?

What impact did they have on those around you?

What enabled you to sustain these structures? What got in the way?

Given the reality of your life these days, what are two things you could do on a regular basis to give your grit-ful ‘executive function’ a break?


When ‘Grace’ Deals a Disservice

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Thanks to a Swiss store clerk who made a fateful decision about Oprah Winfrey, I’ve decided to write it now.

Recently, Oprah was shopping for purses in Zurich, Switzerland. She was well-dressed and shopping alone. She asked the store clerk to show her a high-end purse which was displayed beyond reach. Obviously not knowing that this was Oprah, the clerk refused the request, apparently because she felt this customer wouldn’t be able to afford the $39,000 bag. Despite Oprah’s repeated requests to see this particular purse, the clerk steered her only toward less expensive options. Oprah finally left the store, taking her business – and her considerable cash – elsewhere.

From all appearances, this is an interesting story about race. But it is a story that is being widely and ably covered in the media. I want to explore a different angle here: the story of ‘grace’ gone awry.

We cannot know this clerk’s heart or the content of her character. So for the sake of this post, I’m choosing to take her at her word. In an interview after the fact, the clerk said that her underlying intent was to spare Oprah from embarrassment. In other words, the clerk had made an independent assessment about Oprah’s CAPACITY (to pay for the purse), and took action to protect Oprah from the (assumed) humiliation from her (assumed) lack of wealth. Yet under the guise of an intent to help, the clerk took actions that inflicted real harm: a personal insult to a very public customer, a significant hit to the store’s reputation and revenue, and a world-wide PR nightmare for the Swiss government.

As this example shows, actions rooted in grace do not always have beneficial consequences, and this clerk is not alone in creating compassionate harm. I see this often among my grace-based coaching clients, in a wide range of situations, not at all limited to race. They make a private assessment of what would be difficult for someone else, and manage ‘down’ to that assessment in an attempt to avoid creating discomfort for the other person.

Here’s how that can go:

“Fred has been working so hard – I can’t bear to give him one more task. I’ll just stay late and do it myself.” Or…
“I decided to give that presentation to Emily, because Susan is so uncomfortable with public speaking.” Or…
“I know that Jim comes in late alot, but he’s got so much stress at home. I think it’s amazing that he gets here at all.”

There is a foundation of ‘grace-ful’ compassion in all these scenarios. To be sure, the ability to see or imagine the world from someone else’s point of view is a lovely and useful one. The problem comes when there’s an absence of accompanying grit, which contributes clarity, objectivity, and the impetus for direct engagement. Without grit to keep our actions grounded in fact and explicit agreement, our empathy can morph into private and pitying conclusions about what someone can or cannot do. It’s downhill from there, as those conclusions drive us to take actions that actually limit the other’s opportunities: to grow…to exceed expectations…to choose his own path…to make a purchase she can easily afford.

This is how an imbalance of ‘grace’ can give rise to its own special brand of disservice, disrespect and disempowerment.

So what’s a grace-ster to do? Here are a few ideas:

1. Become aware of the line between empathy and projection. Balanced empathy creates curiosity on our part – like “Gee, if I were he, I might feel…” Curiosity tends to cause us to engage, to find out what’s really happening. But projection causes us to impose our unverified conclusions on others, often causing us to limit people when we think we’re protecting them. “She’s too shy to make that presentation.” “That would just create too much stress for him.” So ask yourself whether your empathy is opening up curiosity and dialogue, or causing you to draw and impose your own reality about someone onto him or her.

2. Check your intentions behind your kind actions. If you’re like a lot of grace-sters, cowardice often masquerades as kindness. If you’re avoiding a difficult conversation, ask yourself – “Am I avoiding this because it will harm the other person, or because it will be uncomfortable for me?” You may still choose not to confront that person, but at least you’ll be clear about who you’re really trying to protect.

3. Whatever your empathy is picking up about someone, check it out directly with the person before you act. “Susan, you’ve talked often about how nervous presentations make you. My first instinct is to want to minimize your anxiety and steer presentations to other people. I don’t want to stress you out, but I also think you’d benefit from gaining visibility with upper management, and presentations are one of the best ways to do that. Given your career goals, what’s your sense of the right way to go?”

I’d love to hear your comments, questions and reactions.