Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.

Seth Godin’s Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work

File under: Things I wish I had written & Things to print and have up on the wall.

The question this makes me ask is: is there ever a time that I’m not part of a small team? Is there ever a time when I’m not working on a tight deadline? Is there ever a time when the work isn’t important?

And, if no, then here are the rules of the road around communication, making and keeping promises, having a real Plan B, and keeping it personal, all while remembering not to question goodwill, effort or intent.

Thanks Seth.

A Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work, by Seth Godin

We are always under tight deadlines, because time is our most valuable asset.

If you make a promise, set a date. No date, no promise.

If you set a date, meet it.

If you can’t make a date, tell us early and often. Plan B well prepared is a better strategy than hope.

Clean up your own mess.

Clean up other people’s messes.

Overcommunicate.

Question premises and strategy.

Don’t question goodwill, effort or intent.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” is not a professional thing to say. Describing and discussing in the abstract is what we do.

Big projects are not nearly as important as scary commitments.

If what you’re working on right now doesn’t matter to the mission, help someone else with their work.

Make mistakes, own them, fix them, share the learning.

Cheap, reliable, public software might be boring, but it’s usually better. Because it’s cheap and reliable.

Yesterday’s hierarchy is not nearly as important as today’s project structure.

Lock in the things that must be locked in, leave the implementation loose until you figure out how it can get done.

Mostly, we do things that haven’t been done before, so don’t be surprised when you’re surprised.

Care more.

If an outsider can do it faster and cheaper than we can, don’t hesitate.

Always be seeking outside resources. A better rolodex is better, even if we don’t have rolodexes any more.

Talk to everyone as if they were your boss, your customer, the founder, your employee. It’s all the same.

It works because it’s personal.

Getting through the troughs

I was talking to a nonprofit Executive Director last week about fundraising. We spent most of our time unpacking the heart of every fundraising meeting: the energy you bring into the room.

It’s not just important, it is everything. No matter the words you say, if you say them without the other person being able to feel them then the meeting has already failed.

But what do you do if you’ve had a bad run and you’re not feeling the mojo? Maybe it’s been a tough month or quarter and you can’t seem to put a smile on your face and “stay positive?”

My take is: don’t try to fake it.

Of course you have to be professional, and fundamentally you have to retain your long-term optimism and your deep belief that you’ll get big things done—if you don’t believe in you, no one will. But overly polishing and buffing your delivery will fail most of the time.

Inauthenticity is like a single poisonous drop that contaminates the entire cup of water. Rather than slap on a can-do attitude, bring your truth in that moment into the room. Be willing to lay it bare.

If things are hard, if you are feeling frustrated, if you don’t know how you’re going to storm the next hill, don’t complain, but don’t hide that away. Show faith and trust in the person you’re speaking with; have the confidence to share the real.

Sharing this truth might help you discover what’s really going on, and it will certainly communicate that you need actual help and that this meeting isn’t just another meeting. That’s an honest ask for support that, at a minimum, will be met with humanity and, in most cases, action.

People are craving this sort of connection, and they are more likely to help if they understand that they can, actually, help. Seeing your willingness to be authentic lets them understand the kind of partner you’ll be to them in the long haul—especially when the chips are down.

Transform the spark

There’s a feeling that happens every once in a while…you have a fleeting moment of recognition and hear a quite voice saying there’s something different you could do, right here, right now, in this situation.

Where does that feeling come from?

Its starts with observing and listening with the intent to be changed by your surroundings. This orients you in a different way, allowing you to take notice of things that others are missing.

The moment you see something different, you have the chance to do something different.

This something might be small and it might be heroic. In truth, you probably don’t know what will feel small and what will feel heroic to others, because the quality of this moment has changed thanks to the ‘it’ that only you are seeing.

You might smile or invite someone new into your circle. You might raise your hand for a task that others think they don’t want to slog through. You might anonymously help someone else shine.

When you have a moment like this, the only thing you must be sure to do is act.  Because that moment of observation, that difference in perspective that hit you, is both powerful and fleeting. It’s the action you take that transforms that ephemeral moment of recognition into something tangible that’s experienced by others.

Only then does it begin to ripple out.

 

And what this means is

Whether you are presenting slides or sending out a dashboard to your Board of Directors, every single time you share numbers or graphs or a table, it’s your job to start with simply explaining “this is what this means.”

Of course, in the best cases your slides and numbers will speak for themselves. And, in case they don’t, or they don’t do that job well enough, it’s your job to make sense of them for your audience.

When giving presentations, adhere to the discipline of “clearing a slide” each and every time: name each axis, or each column, or what that trendline represents. Actually say out loud, “on the vertical axis we have fourth grade test scores, and on the horizontal axis you’ll see January 2014 and 2015 – so we can see the effect of the new teachers’ aides who started in March 2014.”

Some goes for piles of data you send to folks: verbally, or in writing, communicate as if they aren’t going to read the attachment. Because in the worst cases, they won’t, and even if they do, they don’t have the context you have for understanding the story the data tell.

Minimally, this sets people on the right path towards looking at the numbers with your guidance and insight. But what you’re actually doing is framing what the numbers mean, guiding and controlling the story that they tell.

On the continuum of data, information, and meaning, you’re in the meaning-making business each and every time.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

I’ve been a big fan of Atul Gawande ever since I read Complications, which is still one of my favorite books. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.  He’s also an acclaimed writer who welcomes his reader into his personal exploration of the assumptions he brought in to his surgical practice and where those assumptions have fallen short.  I enjoy Gawande’s skills as a writer and an observer, and I deeply respect his capacity for introspection, honest self-critique, and his willingness to take on medical orthodoxy even when (especially when) it’s uncomfortable.

Complications hooked me from the first page and helped me understand surgery, and the fallibility of surgeons, in a new way. I also devoured The Checklist Manifesto, which, while not nearly as enthralling as Complications, was so overwhelmingly useful that I couldn’t put it down. It explains, among other things, why they ask you seemingly stupid questions before operations (“which leg are we operating on today?” answer: because when they don’t ask this they often end up amputating or reconstructing the wrong legs) and why commercial flying is safer than driving (hint: checklists!).

I downloaded a free sample of Atul Gawande’s newest book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters Most in the End, weeks ago, but I’d hesitated to start it because, on some level, I wanted to shy away from the topic. Who wants to read a book about end of life care?  Then last week a friend told me how profoundly the book had changed his thinking, and that I had to read it. I started reading it on Friday and I’d finished it by Sunday.

Being Mortal confronts head-on a reality that we all will face: how we manage dying and death, for ourselves and our loved ones. No, it’s not a fun topic, but it is a singularly universal topic, and I’m convinced that without reading this book we will not face death well.

The basic premise of the book is that, in the West, where families have become nuclear (rather than extended), illness, dying and death have been turned over to medical professionals and to end-of-life facilities, both of which are designed to treat illness and prioritize safety rather than care for people. This is why more than 85% of people in the US died in hospitals, not at home, in the 1990s; why we sign on for third-line chemotherapy treatments that have miniscule chances of success and very likely to worsen quality of life; and why we are surprised to learn that high-quality hospice care not only increases the quality of life, it often ends up extending life as well.

In summarizing his findings, Gawande argues:

I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities. We have room to act, to shape our stories, though as time goes on it is within narrower and narrower confines. A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.

The story gets very personal at times, as Gawande weaves in the details of his own father’s illness and death.  He shares the excruciating choices that his father, his mother, and he had to make in the years following the discovery of his father’s rare spinal cancer; the important conversations they all had while navigating the nearly impossible decisions of whether and when to operate, and what sort of care to get in service of his fathers’ well-being and his father’s health in the years leading up to his death.

The book is both moving and overwhelmingly practical. It presents stories and facts and analysis and also gives us the tools to manage our own confrontation with serious illness and death. Most powerful, to me, are Gawande’s guidelines for the conversations we need to have when someone is very sick and near death. They must follow, in Gawande’s estimation, a clear path:

Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

These questions are powerful because they put the sick and dying person back in the driver’s seat, not just as someone making choices from an array of medical interventions – interventions that are, customarily, described incorrectly (doctors consistently overestimate the likelihood of success and consistently underplay risks to patients) – but as someone who knows best what they value in their own lives. It is these conversations that empower real choices and ensure self-determination even in the midst of declining physical and mental well-being.

The book is both sobering and empowering, giving us the tools to confront some of our most challenging moments with dignity. Gawande concludes with a simple reframing: “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.”

I’ll be evangelizing this book for a while, to anyone who will listen – not because it’s a fun read or a good one, but because it’s real and because we are failing ourselves and our loved ones by handing over some of the most important decisions in our lives to professionals who are neither trained nor equipped to answer them without us.

In case you didn’t get my blog today

A couple of people mentioned to me that my blog posts have started ending up in their spam filters.

Seth Godin explained better than I could what is going on here and what you can do about it (below).

I guess if this post also ends up in your own spam filter the only way for you to find out that this is happening is to talk, ceaselessly, with your friends about Seth’s blog posts (or mine), and see if you’ve missed anything.  Statistically this seems like a low-yield strategy, so I’m hoping that if posts you’re expecting from bloggers seem to disappear, you’ll know why and know what to do about it.

Between this and the fact that any thing I see online – not only on Amazon, but definitely also on Amazon – follows me virtually everywhere I go (most recently, these solar panels that I wasn’t even interested in buying), it is starting to feel like there was a “good ‘ol days” of the Internet and those are behind us.

From Seth:

This is not a promotion

The internet and big media are wrestling with chokepoints.

Cable TV companies, for example, are a natural monopoly in the home. Everyone only has one provider. If the provider has an argument with a TV network, they kick them off, the signal doesn’t get through, the viewer gets nothing.

One of the arguments behind the common sense of net neutrality is that chokepoints and tollbooths aren’t in the interest of the users.

Now, of course, online stores, if they get big enough, can act as chokepoints. And so can Google.

If you’re used to getting this blog delivered for free to your gmail account, it might be missing (I understand the irony in telling you this via a medium you no longer get). That’s because Google unilaterally misfiled my daily blog into the promotions folder they created, and I have no recourse and no way (other than this post) to explain the error to them…

(But you do: follow these instructions to get it back). Here’s a video on how to do something you never should have had to do…

And it’s not just my email that’s misfiled. I just discovered that the Acumen course I’m taking online is showing up unbidden in the same promotions folder…

Permission marketing is about delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them. It’s a disservice to reader and writer when an uninvited third party decides to change that relationship.

PS there are lots of ways to follow this blog for free. My favorite is RSS, which has no chokepoints.