Opening the door to emotional content

My last post was about what it takes to deliver a message that has emotional content, whether an apology or an expression of gratitude or a sincere request for help.

The flip side of that post is to ask: what can I do to make it easier for people to show up in an authentic way and speak their truth?

Highly effective teams are those in which the emotional hurdles have been lowered. While it’s not up to the authority figure alone to lower these hurdles, the work often starts with her.

In thinking about how you show up with your team, notice how what you say in the first few minutes of a meeting plays a huge role in determining what is and is not discussed. Be aware of when it’s time to talk less. Notice what happens when you ask more open-ended questions. Make sure that you let silence be your friend, and that you allow challenging or uncomfortable moments to persist, instead of jumping in to resolve them. And always keep an eye on the data you’re getting back from participation: Google’s research finds that the most effective teams have equal participation from all members.

This all might make intuitive sense, but we can often be unaware of our own biases. I’ve always been pretty comfortable speaking up, and I’ve always taken it as a point of pride that I deeply believe that good ideas can come from anywhere. But it took me a while to see my own blind spots: I spent far too little time thinking about how different people respond to roles, hierarchy and authority; I rarely gave much thought to noticing who was more introverted or extroverted and adapting accordingly; I paid too little attention to the active work I could do to build others’ confidence; and I expected that that most people experienced “healthy debate” as, well, healthy.

Mostly, what I was exhibiting was a lack of empathy: respecting other people is one thing, but empathy means that I actually see things from their perspective, rather than generalize from my own. If I’m honest, I often used to find myself thinking, quietly, “well, if he thought that why didn’t he just speak up?” until I finally figured out that every time I thought that I needed to then ask, “and what more could I have done to help make that happen?”

How we Support Each Other

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to sustain someone trying to make a difference in the world, and about the kind of virtual contract we need to sign with each other if we are going to do this work together.

Here’s a starting list for what I’d put in that contract:

I will answer your call, even if I haven’t heard from you lately. Because I know that if you’re calling, it’s important.

When we speak, I will be there fully for you – emotionally as well as intellectually.

I will care for you.

I will express support and love.

I will ask tough questions, and I will be willing to search for answers with you.

I will help you hold up a mirror to yourself.

I will always show up in service of your purpose, which sometimes means holding your feet to the fire.

I will be kind, and tough, gentle and strong.

I will remind you of why you do this work.

I will help you to see that you are stronger than you think you are, and that you are stronger than you feel right now.

Additions welcome…


I come from a family of soloists. So I suppose it’s natural how ingrained it feels for me to put effort into mastering my own craft – once it was the piano, but since then it’s been things like excel modeling, writing powerpoints, analysis…and then on to higher level skills like building effective relationships, strategy, storytelling, fundraising, you name it.

There comes a point, though, when the work we do, in a fundamental way, cannot be done by us alone, when the only way to make the change we seek is with others. Lots of them.

For anyone who cares deeply, like I do, about mastery, this moment requires a whole lot of letting go.

Letting go of the idea that when the chips are down it’s my job to jump in and save the day. Letting go of the simplistic connection between the task and the result. And, perhaps most counterintuitively, letting go of the idea that there’s a most qualified someone to do each something. There might be, but since we are playing a long-term game, the question to ask isn’t “who can do this best today?” but rather “who on the team should take this on so that our ensemble can get the best results in the long run based on everything that lies before us?”

Yes, every cellist needs to play in tune, to be able to read the music and nail the arpeggios. But an orchestra is not just a collection of soloists. And there’s a reason the conductor, who plays no instrument at all, stands at the front of the room.

Good Society in India

I’m in India this week, and today I had the pleasure, and challenge, of facilitating a selection of “Good Society” readings with the Acumen India Fellows.

The opportunity to take a step back and be reminded of the words and deeds of the great thinkers and activists throughout history is a rare one, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite excerpts from these readings.

While these excerpts lose some of their richness when taken out of context, I hope they serve to remind you, as they do me, of the great thinkers we have in our corner as we work to build a future of greater rights and dignity for all.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (link)

“Preamble. Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

“Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”


Letter From Birmingham City Jail (1963) by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (link)

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

“I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”


The Republic, (390 BC) Plato (link)

“He who is to be a really good and noble guardian of the State will require to unite in himself philosophy and sprit and swiftness and strength.”


The Social Contract (1762), Jean Jacques Rousseau (link)

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

“The problem [in creating the Social Contract] is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before… [To do so] Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”


Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen (link)

“The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do – the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve. But this relation is neither exclusive (since there are significant influences on our lives other than wealth) nor uniform (since the impact of wealth on our lives varies with other influences.”

“Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live.”


The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics (1988), Chinua Achebe (link)

“Leadership is a sacred trust, like the priesthood in civilized, humane religions. No one gets into it lightly or unadvisedly, because it demands qualities of mind and discipline of body and will far beyond the need of the ordinary citizen. Anybody who offers himself or herself or is offered to society for leadership must be aware of the unusually high demands of the role and should, if any doubt whatsoever, firmly refuse the prompting.”



A few weeks ago I was speaking to a friend and advisor and he asked me, “what’s your definition of leadership?”

I thought about it, and then thought about it a little more, and a little more… until I realized that I didn’t have a definition. Not a good one, a real one, something that was more than words and that really means something to me.

So I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I came up with, “giving those around you the desire and the belief that they can accomplish great things.”

His definition, he told me the other day, was simpler still: “winning over the hearts and minds of those you’re leading. ”

Hearts and minds. Minds and hearts. Both.

Yeah, that’s right.

The end of the line

One day in the not-so-distant future, you’ll get there.  The end of the line.  The top of your organization.  The top of your field.  Nowhere else to go, because you’ll have arrived.

Most likely, that day won’t be within striking distance of the end of your career.  Far from it.  So there you will be, at the top of your game and the top of the ladder you spent all that time and energy climbing.

And then you’ll have no choice but to make a shift.  They’ll be no sense any more (was there ever?) in the obvious milestones of advancement: title, promotion, compensation.  In all the important ways, those things will be behind you.  At which point your yardstick will cease to be how high you can climb and become, instead, the actual impact you are having on the world, the change you are creating for others.

Imagine not waiting until that future date to let go of striving for the obvious markers of success and progress.  Imagine how letting go now, not five or 10 or 15 years from now, would free up all the energy you’re putting into the climb.  Imagine your confidence and sense of relief in recognizing that someday soon you will get there, which is why there’s no need to (and not much result in) continuing to push the rope.  Imagine your ability to focus on the stuff that really matters: the really important, hard-for-the-right-reasons elements of making a difference.

Isn’t this, in the end, what it means to live a life of service?

Isn’t this why anyone who gets to the “top” discovers that it’s really just a starting line?

A wasted day

Think about it: on a day when you swing for the fences, you might swing and miss.

A miss means a complete miss, a whiff, an air-ball, and all the associated jeering (we think) from the peanut gallery.  Wouldn’t it be embarrassing, and inefficient, to be completely wrong, to put a big idea out there that goes nowhere at all, one that’s just plain wrong?  Wouldn’t it, objectively, be a waste of time to work on something all day long and have it amount to nothing?

We have no time to waste!  Let’s tick through our To Do list, take the meetings that are on our calendars,, chip away at the projects that others have asked us to work on.  We know, at least, that on a day like that we will never have accomplished nothing.  This not only feels safer, it’s also what we were taught to do for a major portion of our lives.  It’s where good grades come from and how we got good reviews at our first and second jobs.

On the other hand, hitting “send” or “publish” on an outlandish, important idea; digging in and doing the work that no one asked you to do; spending time with people who will push your thinking and take your work to the next level…none of that is linear at all.  And so we are faced with our anticipation of the possibility being totally wrong, of our idea missing the mark, of being embarrassed, of discovering that, at least at this moment, we’re not that good at coming up with The Next Big Thing, and, staring that anticipation in the face, we decide to keep on playing small and safe for long enough that soon enough that’s the only thing we do.

The question becomes: which really is the wasted day?  The one where you tried for something big and failed, or the one where you didn’t step to the plate, didn’t take the shot, didn’t put yourself on the line?

Never trying anything can’t be a strategy for getting from here to there.  Nor can waiting until you’re “in charge,” because: 1. You shouldn’t be put in charge until you’ve shown that you can make new things happen; and 2. If you’re put in charge without having learned how to make important things happen, how will you suddenly know how to break away from the task orientation that had served you so well for so long?

Have you ever met with your boss or a peer and had them tell you: “you’re doing great work, but I’m giving you a terrible review because you played it too safe last year?”   Have you ever told that to someone else?

What does it take to get us to start playing big?