Creative Leaders

I’m sad to report that in the past few years, ever since uncertainty became our insistent 21st century companion, leadership has taken a great leap backwards to the familiar territory of command and control. —Margaret Wheatley 

As a direct result of the times in which we are living and leading, I have chosen to coach clients who intentionally work to make this world better than they found it. Interestingly, many of these leaders are people who are sourced by faith… not always by a religion, but usually by a transcendent understanding that we all are connected and are held by something greater and unknowable.

In honor of all leaders who are leading from that place, and as an invitation to all those who are not – here is a wonderful reflection on leadership from theologian Richard Rohr.

“There is no greater training for true leadership than living in the naked now. There, we can set aside our own mental constructs, receive input and ideas from all directions, and lead even more creatively and imaginatively—with the clearer vision of one who lives beyond himself or herself.

“Here are some insights into what every good, servant-hearted, nondual leader knows and practices, whether in community, in the workplace, or in the classroom. Creative leaders:

  • are seers of alternatives.
  • move forward by influencing events and inspiring people more than by ordering or demanding.
  • know that every one-sided solution is doomed to failure. It is never a lasting solution but only a postponement of the problem.
  • learn to study, discern, and search together with others for solutions.
  • know that total dilemmas are very few. We create many dilemmas because we are internally stuck, attached, fearful, over-identified with our position, needy of winning the case, or unable to entertain even the partial truth that the other opinion might be offering.
  • know that wisdom is “the art of the possible.” The key question is no longer “How can I problem solve now and get this off my plate?” It is “How can this situation achieve good for the largest number and for future generations?”
  • continue finding and sharing new data and possibilities until they can work toward consensus from all sides.
  • want to increase both freedom and ownership among the group—not subservience, which will ultimately sabotage the work anyway.
  • emphasize the why of a decision and show how it is consistent with the group’s values.

“In short, good leaders must have a certain capacity for thinking beyond polarities and tapping into full, embodied knowing (prayer). They have a tolerance for ambiguity (faith), an ability to hold creative tensions (hope), and an ability to care (love) beyond their own personal advantage.”

Amazing Grace

This is not a religious post.  Nor a political one. It’s a post about the power of grace in leadership.

In the wake of the slaying of nine African American worshippers in Charleston, SC, President Obama faced a leadership challenge of unimaginable magnitude. He needed to confront injustices and to calm fears. Perhaps most of all, he needed to hold the African American community in his arms to grieve a devastating act.

At the memorial service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney last week, Mr. Obama could easily have hidden behind his office and delivered a dispassionate, “presidential” tribute. Instead, he led with a most vulnerable act: a heartfelt, imperfect rendition of Amazing Grace.

How do we know that this was an act of grace-full leadership and not a manipulative political stunt? Because we know grace when we see it. We can see it in the faces of the people convened to mourn the Emmuel 9. We can see in their eyes the relief of being honored from the highest level in the land. We can see awe and joy amidst the sorrow. We can see people deeply met.

Through this act, President Obama brought to life his own words:

Justice grows out of the recognition of ourselves in each other… The path of grace involves not only an open mind, but more importantly an open heart.

If you lead, you may face some small version of this moment. Maybe you already have. Maybe your company’s pension fund was just wiped out. Or your team’s prized program was just eliminated from the budget. Or a beloved employee died without warning. In these moments, when our identity or reality is shaken, we don’t need a leader equipped only with a good plan, a sound strategy or a compelling rationale.

Sometimes, what we need most is a leader’s amazing grace.

An Absurd Extreme of Gender Bias

Dead for 48 minutes, Catholic Priest claims God is female
Posted Feb 19, 2015 at 2:13pm

A Catholic priest from Massachussetts was officially dead for more than 48 minutes before medics were able to miraculously re-start his heart has revealed a shocking revelation that will change everything you once believed.

The 71-year-old cleric Father John Micheal O’neal claims he went to heaven and met God, which he describes as a warm and comforting motherly figure.

Father John Micheal O’neal was rushed to the hospital on January 29 after a major heart attack, but was declared clinically dead soon after his arrival.

With the aid of a high-tech machine called LUCAS 2, that kept the blood flowing to his brain, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital managed to unblock vital arteries and return his heart to a normal rhythm.

The doctors were afraid he would have suffered some brain damage from the incident, but he woke up less than 48 minutes later and seems to have perfectly recovered.

The elderly man claims that he has clear and vivid memories of what happened to him while he was dead. He describes a strange out-of-body experience, experiencing an intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance, as well as being surrounded by an overwhelming light.

He claims that at that point in his experience, he went to heaven and encountered God, which he describes as a feminine, mother-like “Being of Light”.

“Her presence was both overwhelming and comforting” states the Catholic priest. “She had a soft and soothing voice and her presence was as reassuring as a mother’s embrace. The fact that God is a Holy Mother instead of a Holy Father doesn’t disturb me, she is everything I hoped she would be and even more!

The declarations of the cleric caused quite a stir in the catholic clergy of the archdiocese over the last few days, causing the Archbishop to summon a press conference to try and calm the rumors.

Despite the disapproval of his superiors, Father O’neal says that he will continue dedicating his life to God and spread the word of the “Holy Mother”.

“I wish to continue preaching” says the elderly cleric. “I would like to share my new knowledge of the Mother, the Son and the Holy Ghost with all catholics and even all Christians. God is great and almighty despite being a woman…”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has not confirmed however, if they will allow Father O’neal to resume his preaching in his former parish in South Boston.

Resolution or Inspiration?

Like most of us, I love the new year.   It’s a great opportunity: a blank slate on which to write a promising imagined future.  But what do we tend to write on this promising blankness? Resolutions.  Yuk.  More goals for me to be ‘resolute’ about. More stuff I have to martial my willpower to accomplish or improve. More deficiencies that I’m going to try to “re-solve” for the umpteenth time again this year.

If you’re like a lot of us, there’s something about resolutions that can cause us to channel our inner schoolmarm: heavy, grim, and headed for certain disappointment. And I don’t know about you, but I tend to work harder to rebel against that mean old bag than to obey her.

So this year, I’m firing New Year’s resolutions and looking instead for New Year’s inspiration. Rather than resolving to do or be something (which requires a sort of turning against myself), I’m looking for what’s inspiring me, what’s calling me forward. Inspiration can create as much vision and momentum as resolution, but without the internal friction or shoulds. Yes, there’s still effort – and sometimes pain – involved in making change. But working toward something, vs. against ourselves, usually supplies more motivation, energy and odds of success.

What about you?

You might be much better than most of us at resolutions, able to create ones that work for you and don’t feel oppressive.  In that case, let the change begin!

But if you’ve created resolutions that evoke any sense of ‘should-ing’ on yourself, you might want to question whether you truly believe that real change comes about as a result of a good swift internal kick in the pants.  If your resolutions have a stale or bearing-down quality to you, try switching gears.  Take a moment to put all striving aside.  Drop into your heart, into your body, and relax.  Sit with these questions and allow the answers to arise from the silence:

  • To what do I feel inspired this coming year?
  • What is calling me forth?  Ready to be born?  Interesting, appealing?
  • Is there some shift that feels like it’s pulling me to it, the way the moon pulls the tides?
  • Is there something that I’m ready to release, the way the snake sheds its skin?

However you choose to move into the New Year, may 2015 be your best year ever.



The Risk of Self-Effacement? “Self-Erasement”

One of the qualities we admire in leaders is humility… the ability to influence others without bravado or self-involvement. This is a compelling facet of the ‘grace’ side of leadership, because it fosters connection, loyalty and trust.

But humility has a less noble and effective relative – self-effacement. Unlike a humble leader, who conveys a quiet self-respect, the self-effacing leader scoots out from under her own value. She’s the one that negates a compliment by pointing out a shortcoming. She minimizes her accomplishments. She shies away from credit.

I don’t see self-effacement as a skillful stance for women in the workplace. It may be comfortable (for us and for others), but it doesn’t garner respect. It doesn’t influence. It diminishes us and, by extension, the people we lead. When we are self-effacing, we are self-erasing; we become active participants in the process of being overlooked.

But the minute we see the limitations of self-effacement, we’re eye-to-eye with a difficult challenge. How do we stand for ourselves effectively, avoiding being seen in the extremes of ‘doormat’ (too much grace) or ‘bitch’ (too much grit)?

Here are a couple of dos and don’ts that I’ve gleaned from women leaders who have managed to find that sweet spot: communicating self-respect in commanding and connecting way.

When someone compliments your work

Do look him/her in the eye and say ‘thank you.’
Don’t smile coyly, look down, tilt your head or say, “It was nothing.”
Don’t tell the person all the things you also did wrong.

Do acknowledge others’ contributions if appropriate.
Don’t negate your own contribution. Avoid the instinct to say, “It was all my team.”

When someone indicates that you’re being considered for promotion or plumb assignment

Do consider saying something like, “What an exciting opportunity. Let’s explore it.”
Don’t say, “REALLY? You think so?” Try to avoid at all costs the whole Sally Field “You really like me!” thing.

When disagreeing

Do hold the person with whom you disagree with respect.  It’s very difficult to influence someone if they know you hold them in disdain.
Don’t make nice. As MSNBC news anchor Melissa Harris-Perry once said, “Don’t smile and nod unless you are happy and agree.”

When asking a question

Do raise it by saying “I have a question” or “I’d like to raise an additional perspective.”
Don’t start with “I’m sorry” or “I have a stupid question.”

When negotiating salary

Do your homework! Get data. Know what the company or industry pays (men) for your skills and experience.
Don’t equate salary numbers with your value as a person. The less personally you can take a negotiation, the more power you’ll have in it.

When managing your career

Research shows that men tend to interview frequently for other jobs – even when they’re satisfied with their present position. Women tend not to interview until they’re miserable.

Do interview for a new job every year or so – both to keep your interview skills sharp and to stay in touch with your current value in the marketplace.
Don’t wait to job-hunt until you can’t stand your current job. It puts you in the vulnerable position of needing to jump fast and not knowing know your worth.

 What about you?

Watch your interactions at work over the next couple of weeks. See if you can catch yourself in self-effacing acts.  Each time you notice it, jot down what you did (or didn’t do) that was self-effacing.

Later in the day, you can go back and reflect on these moments in more detail.

  1. What internal or external forces caused you to draw upon the strategy of self-effacement?  Was it merely habit, or was something else going on?
  2. How did that self-effacing move feel to you?  (Comfortable/uncomfortable?)
  3. What effect did that move seem to have on others and on your standing as a full participant in the conversation?
  4. To what degree do you feel that it was self-erasing, i.e. that it sent message that you were somehow of less value than the others?
  5. What’s the cost of that to you?  What might the cost be of other people for whose interests you need to advocate?
  6. If you could go back and do that interaction again, what would do differently?
  7. What would it require from you to do it differently?

I’d love to hear about the results of your experiments! Comment and let us know what you learned.

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.



‘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?




Let The Feedback In: Don’t Let Your Wallet Fly Off Your Car!

I was scared. I was tooling down the D.C. Beltway when another car pulled up right next to me, blaring its horn. The passengers were madly gesticulating to me, but I had no idea what they were saying. All I knew was that they looked angry. Menacing. I thought, “Are they trying to run me off the road? Do they have a gun? What is their problem?” In response, I looked away; pretended it wasn’t happening; occasionally shot over a surly glare. Unfortunately, these nuts only redoubled their efforts, which freaked me out even more.

Finally, they gave up and sped off. Thank goodness.

Shaken, I pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car to regroup. When I got out, I saw my wallet, resting precariously atop my car. It had been there the whole drive, including on the Beltway at 65+ mph. Two kind strangers had put themselves at some risk to give me a high-speed heads-up.

They had given me feedback. And I did what so many people do in the face of important information about themselves – I rejected the message and ascribed malicious intent to the senders.

I see this all the time, not only in myself, but in leaders with whom I work. I recently watched a ‘high-grit’ Division Director receive feedback that her tough style was damaging her team’s morale and productivity. She could be so fierce that people were scared to come talk to her directly. In the face of this challenging feedback, this leader folded her arms, squinted her eyes, clenched her jaw, and retorted with a list of all her employees’ shortcomings. Just like I had done on the Beltway, she acted as if she was under siege by people whose sole intent was to tear her down.

You’ve probably done this a time or two yourself. So the next time you get feedback – however badly or wildly it’s delivered – ask yourself this question: What if this person actually wishes me well? Let his feedback in; make it easy for his message to reach you. Because if you make it too hard for him to get through to you, he may just give up, drive off, and let your wallet fly off your car.

Work Life Balance From Multiple Perspectives

Here’s a great article from HBR that lays out three perspectives on work-life balance: country, corporate, and couple.