What to Make of the Wizard of Oz

We all know by now that there was really no wizard, even if he did keep Oz in thrall for quite a while. He was just a man behind a curtain with a bunch of gadgets, some flame-throwers, and a microphone.

Yet, in the last scene of The Wizard of Oz, he does, indeed, perform some magic.

The scene begins with Scarecrow demanding, “But what about the heart that you promised Tin Man, and the courage you promised Cowardly Lion?!” The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion then chime in, in unison, “and Scarecrow’s brain!”

Without missing a beat, the Wizard proceeds to produce three totems: a diploma conferring an honorary degree of ThD (Doctor of Thinkology) for the Scarecrow from the ‘Universitatus Commitiatum E Pluribus Unum;” a Triple Cross medal from the “Legion of Courage” for the Cowardly Lion; and a heart-shaped clock for the Tin Man.

Upon receiving his piece of paper, the Scarecrow recites the Pythagorean Theorem from memory. Upon being pinned with his medal, the Lion, miraculously, feels brave. The Tin Man’s ticking heart makes him believe in his capacity to love.

What happened in that moment of official conferral in which an object and a story from a “wizard” made them each believe in something that was within them all along?

More confusing still, what do we make of the Wizard who gave them trinkets that transformed the stories they told themselves about themselves, and which, therefore, transformed how they showed up in the world?  Is he a pure charlatan or, as he claims, “a very good man, just a very bad wizard.”

And, before we get too far down the path of asking whether placeboes really work, let’s remind ourselves that every degree or fellowship or job title is nothing more or less than conferring of an official title and set of expectations, and these things are no more or less real than Scarecrow’s fake degree.

Sure, some of these things – degrees from prestigious schools, time spent working at blue chip firms – do communicate that we’ve gone through rigorous selection criteria, been exposed to certain curricula or training, been socialized in a particular way, and jumped through other sorts of hoops. But it is far too easy to get lulled into the belief that each rung up the ladder of life requires us to be picked by someone else. While it’s true that each prestigious marker that we collect opens certain doors, it’s a siren’s song to be tricked into believing that it is someone else’s job to decide when you are worth praise, recognition, and the right to lead.

I’ve known too many amazing people in the social sector who need “just one more” degree, fellowship, or job in a fancy mainstream firm, after which they’ll finally have everything they need to make the difference they hope to make in the world.

The truth is that the opportunities for you to lead are too many and too urgent, the gatekeepers often don’t know what to look for, and what makes the most difference is that terrifying moment when you realize that the important stuff doesn’t come after you get your next medal, piece of paper or ticking heart: it’s already there inside of you.

A place to practice

The only way to improve performance is through a consistent practice of self-diagnosis, reassessment, and behavior change.

The prerequisites are the belief that we have the capacity to change and grow, and the realization that we have not yet reached our full potential.

This work is sustained by trusted allies who are willing and able to give us astute feedback.

It is steeled by our willingness to hear these allies’ truths, even when they feel like criticism.

And, as we hear these truths, and as we see ourselves and our behaviors more clearly, we must, ever so slowly, start acting differently.

But where to act differently? How to act differently? How does this process actually work?

Part of the answer is within the intentional groups we are part of, ones in which we commit to supporting one another’s growth as leaders. For example, both the Acumen Fellows programs and +Acumen courses are run in groups. We have found, like many before us, the tremendous power of cohorts who embark on a shared journey. A skillful facilitator coupled with a group that is willing to invest in a process of group formation can create a holding environment that can be transformative.

The more obvious tools in this process are the bonds of friendship and trust built in these cohorts. Sometimes these groups also evolve into places where open and honest feedback becomes the norm. Most useful, but often hardest to achieve, is for members to use a cohort as a testing ground for new leadership behaviors.

Cohort groups (or, indeed, any group doing intentional work together) are fertile ground for thoughtful, deliberate experimentation of new behaviors. If trust exists, if recrimination is unlikely, and if you’re willing to be a bit brave, you can (like at summer camp) show up in a new way in any of these cohort groups.

What does this look like? It’s as simple as this: if you’re someone more comfortable jumping to solutions, you can choose to spend your time with the group listening more deeply. If you’re averse to conflict you make the choice to step into the fray. If you like to raise your hands first you can see what happens when you give more space to others. If you’re someone who’s afraid to offend you can work on freely speaking your mind. You start as simply as this, and build from there.

It can help to think of the group as a practice ground, a place to break a new leadership behavior into its component parts and try it on for size. Just as a swimmer would never adjust her stroke at an Olympic qualifying meet, and a tennis player wouldn’t mess with the toss on his serve in the first round of a major tournament, we cannot expect ourselves to be suddenly bolder and more truthful when our salary, or our job, is on the line. Nor should we try to have our first courageous conversation when our bosses’ boss in in from abroad for one day.

Instead, we can jerkily try new leadership moves on for size in our cohort group, putting aside our natural desire for approval, or status, or recognition, or safety in service of learning behaviors we ultimately want to utilize successfully with our teams, our Boards, our business partners, or our bosses.

This is not easy to do. We tend to walk the deep trenches carved by the patterns of our own behaviors, hemming ourselves in with the expectations we’ve created in ourselves and in others about how we are going to act.

The peer groups we are already part of, or that we choose to create, are the best place to start breaking out of these old ruts

They

They didn’t listen.

They didn’t understand.

They are too set in their ways.

They are too persuaded by that one person.

They don’t trust me enough.

They don’t share my vision.

They don’t know what I know.

They aren’t willing to go out on a limb with me.

Yes, it’s possible that the world would be a better place if everyone just listened to you and did what you thought was best. Each and every time. Forever.

Or it’s possible that you’re ready to step up to a different yardstick, one in which you set aside excuses and start trafficking in results.

Because those you aim to serve don’t care who’s to blame, they care about what you are able to do, about what your organization provides to them and whether it makes a real difference in their lives.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to start asking “I” questions: how could I have been more persuasive, more engaging, more understanding, or more supportive? How could I have partnered better, listened more deeply, made it safer to take that risk, told a better story, gone above and beyond a bit more? What am I not willing to do, what beliefs and values and stories am I not willing to let go of, in service of our work?

Oh, and lest we forget, to everyone else, each of us is just another “they.”

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…

Ensemble

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.”