Your voice

Yes, your job is to learn from the masters.

This means that, to start to tell better stories, you’re well-advised to study the storytelling techniques of great storytellers – whether Martin Luther King, or Ken Robinson, or Hans Rosling, or Bryan Stevenson.

And, to make sense of all of that, you’ll want to unpack how to give a great TED talk by learning from speaker coach Nancy Duarte or from TED Curator Chris Anderson (special for blog readers: use the REFERAFRIEND discount code to save 80% on Chris’ course).

You may even take things a step further when you realize that it’s not just storytelling that interests you, it’s really about creating a broader framing of an authentic narrative, in which case you’ll bridge to the work of Marshall Ganz and unpack the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.

Or perhaps you are more of a writer than a speaker, in which case you’ll want to start with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car, and grow from there.

(And no matter what you do, you’ll want to get your hands on Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist)

But at the end of the day, technique will only take you so far.

At the end of the day, what the world needs from you is not a dim reflection of one of your mentors, not the echoes of someone who inspires you, not the loose parroting of someone else’s words, approach or demeanor.

What the world needs from you is your voice, your truth (here, now, at this moment), your honest language.

Because what we crave most of all are glimpses of humanity. What we long for are glimmers of the unique perspective that only you bring because of the combination of experiences and attitude and character that come together in you, right now, on a stage or in the written word.

To begin this exploration, ask:

Who are you when you are speaking to a close friend?

How do you sound when you give advice from the heart to your child after an argument with her best friend?

How do you show up when an old colleague asks for advice?

How do people say they experience you when you are at your best?

This real, true, honest you – the one who is brave or humble or funny or grounded or clever or bold or quirky – that’s the you we want to see most of all.

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

I have nothing to say

Most of the time, most ideas worth writing about don’t show up fully formed at the precise moment we stare at a blank sheet of paper.

Indeed, if we expect all of our useful, original ideas to show up only after we settle into the chair, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of frustration.

The ideas come at other moments.  Our job is to remain curious and attentive, so that we stop for long enough to notice our glimpses of passionate insight, of outraged exasperation or of simple, concise observation.

When these moments occur, we must hold on to them for long enough to write down the feelings we have, the core of the insight, and a few scratches about how the argument will flow.

Once that’s done, the writing boils down to the relatively simpler act of putting words around the thoughts so others can see them too.

Kart #7

This past weekend I was the chaperone for my son and 24 of his friends for a go kart racing birthday party. The boys raced in groups of eight for the first hour or so, and then a few of them started to drop out or take breaks, so I raised my hand to jump in to one of the groups.

After I finished my race, an old friend who was on sidelines laughed as he chided me, “Wow, you really crushed those 13 year olds!”

It’s true, my competitive instincts had mingled with the smell of gasoline and the purring of the kart’s 25hp engine, and I’d driven to win. And win I did.

As I was bantering with my son and his buddies about my old man driving skills, a few of them quipped that Kart #7, which I had raced, was “much faster than all the other karts.”

(That may be, I thought, but that doesn’t explain why I kept lapping them. I’m just a much more experienced and better driver).

Near the end of the party, the last race rolled around and there was one empty kart left. By that point, my son, the birthday boy, had switched to Kart #7. As I buckled myself into another kart, I smiled at him jokingly and said, “Now you’ll see that it’s all about my driving skills!”

It’s true, I did win race #2. By a little bit. In the first race I’d finished nearly two laps to each one of theirs, while in the second race I might have passed everyone once.

But if you’d asked me after Race 1, I would have said that most of my success was due of my driving skill, and that Kart #7 might be a tiny bit faster. What I learned after Race #2 was that most of the difference was because Kart #7 was a lot faster, and I’m a tiny bit of a better driver than a bunch of 13 year olds.

I can’t help but wonder the extent to which many of the differences in the ways we see the world result from misattribution of the credit we deserve for our own successes. It’s nearly impossible not to overestimate the roles our intelligence, hard work and skill play in the results we achieve: a success happens, we were smart and tough and hard-working…so it must be that the primary cause of that success were our smarts, our toughness and our hard work.

The truth is that the veil of our own privilege is one of the the hardest veils to remove. Privilege is not something we can see all at once, and sometimes I wonder if we ever have enough perspective to see it fully.

Harder still, once we spot it, is to figure out what to do with it: the world neither needs us to apologize for all that we have been given nor to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Rather our job is to see ourselves – and others – as fully as we can, and then to use all our abilities and good luck and the gifts we have been given to make manifest the better, more just world in which we so deeply believe.

That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

Havdalah Reflection

muslim-ban_havdalah

This weekend, I went with my family to the Havdalah service at our temple. Havdalah is a celebration of the end of the Sabbath, a quiet, simple, beautiful service that ends with extinguishing an interwoven candle in a cup of wine.

We were there with other Fourth Grade parents to watch the kids reenact Havdalah Hispana, a study of the Sephardic Jewish traditions that flourished in Spain. The kids spoke about the hundreds of years of convivencia, peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians in Spain from the eighth Century until 1492, the start of the Spanish Inquisition.

At the end of the service, standing holding hands in a circle surrounded by friends and strangers, practicing shared rituals, I felt safer, more at home, and a part of something bigger than myself.

And at that moment I couldn’t help but think how, at that same moment, in every single mosque in all of the United States, congregants were probably feeling less safe, less certain, less secure. That is why I am so angry, and why what is happening feels so counter to the ideals and the values for which this country stands.

And I ask myself:

Do the people supporting the Muslim Ban not understand the impact of what they are doing?

Or do they not care?

Or worse, is this exactly what they want?

The answer to these questions will help us understand the best ways to respond.

 

Mass protests, surgical precision, the right message

While I’m no expert in DC politics or protest movements, it feels impossible to do anything other than reflect on what’s happed in the US over the last few days, and try to make sense of how best to fight a new Administration that shows such blatant and unmitigated disrespect for anything other than its own ill-informed, hate-filled views. (Warning: this post will ramble more than most.)

To start, I’m struck and inspired by the power of the mass protests that broke out. This weekend’s demonstrations at airports around the US were both immediate and spontaneous, which made me feel, happily, that public, large-scale resistance will be the new normal.  A new standard of civic engagement would be a great thing in both the short-term (holding the line on policies) and the long-term (by creating a much more engaged and empowered population). This, combined with the ACLU’s immediate and effective actions that resulted in a nearly-immediate judicial response, is a template for future resistance.

Second, while mass protest is one important ingredient, we must remember, in the midst of our passion and our outrage, to keep our wits about us. While there are nuances of the inner workings of power and politics in DC that are foreign to me, one thing that has to happen is for a small number of elected Republican officials to feel that the cost of supporting unacceptable and un-American policies is too high (whether they take a stand because of principles or pragmatism doesn’t matter much). We must identify these individuals, understand what motivates them to act, and then engage in the actions that directly raise the cost of continuing to play along with the current nonsense. This is the kind of surgical precision that could quickly limit the power of the Executive Branch.

And third, the message. Hillary was ultimately brought down by a simple and repeatable storyline that had to do with an email server, Bengazi, and “corruption” at the Clinton Foundation. There might have been additional details, but the message that the people on the fence repeated to me was always short and simple. One risk in taking on the current administration is to be sucked into each individual battle while losing sight of a simple, repeatable counter-narrative that has just 3-5 headlines, not a hundred. “Alternative facts” feels like it’s already on the short list just a week in. What else will be the defining narrative that the opposition writes of this administration?

Beyond these three ideas, a few other reflections from this weekend, with no attempt to connect them to each other:

  • Steve Bannon is clearly Emperor Palpatine to Trump’s Darth Vader. Palpatine lurked in the shadows, was nearly all-powerful, and was always strategic. Vader was the figurehead, but he was flawed, stunted in his development, and he never showed much subtlety. But Palpatine was the guy who was really in charge. Whenever this administration does something outrageous, one must come up with a “why” on the assumption that there was a reason. So, while I wasn’t surprised, given Bannon’s record of anti-Semitism, that the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day excluded mention of Jews, I let myself be outraged and forgot (until today) to think about the “why” behind it. Was this an intentional anti-Semitic nod to Bannon’s/Trump alt-right base? Was it part of a storyline that they’ll also create against Black Lives Matter? Did it have to do with Israel? An angry response isn’t good enough, we must understand the motives behind the actions if we are to respond effectively. (Similarly, why did the Administration include, against the advice of counsel, green card holders in the Muslim travel ban? Maybe it was a mistake and the protests were unexpected, but it could just as easily have been an intentional strategy so that the pull-back – which still leaves the US with a policy that’s both stupid and un-American – looks good by comparison).
  • I think it’s possible that a lot of good people just don’t know enough Muslims well enough to understand that this feels like an attack on all Muslims, especially those living in the US who woke up on Sunday feeling less safe and more fearful. A Muslim friend shared how Muslim friends of hers living in the Midwest, surrounded by a sea of Trump supporters were feeling more isolated than ever. It made me wonder if the appropriate response – if you have the strength for it– is to find a kind, good Trump supporter and speak to them in personal terms about how quickly what it feels like to be Muslim in America has changed. It’s a lot harder to spout generalized hatred when a person you know and like says, “This is what this feels like to me.” My personal experience is that, as a Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors, the parallels between what’s going on now and what happened in the U.S. in the 1940s are chilling. And while I don’t yet personally feel less safe today, the line that I felt was crossed this weekend was one in which the President of the United States communicated wholesale prejudice against an entire religion and, in so doing, validated that kind of thinking and that mindset for millions of his supporters. This was underlined for me in the seven horrible minutes I spent reading David Duke’s Twitter feed this weekend, which, outside of making me feel physically ill, gave me a glimpse of a bile that I naively thought was no longer tolerated in modern America and which now seems like it being given voice by the President of the United States of America and his staff. This is terrifying and it threatens the very foundation of our democracy and the values upon which this country was founded.

And finally, my favorite sign from the weekend.

first-they-came-for-the-muslims