How to Respond to Tragedy: On the Front Lines of Hope

We’ve just witnessed the largest mass shooting in US history.

I wish this fact made me feel like the worst of this is behind us. But it doesn’t.

On days like today it is hard to feel like the world is getting safer and less violent, but that’s what the numbers tell us. If we are in fact riding a wave pulling us towards peace and prosperity, there’s also an undertow that we must fight against. Whether it’s U.S. citizens like Omar Mateen pledging allegiance to ISIS to justify mass murder, or simply the daily drumbeat of tragic gun deaths that go unnoticed — on an average day in the U.S., 91 people are killed with guns — the cocktail of fear, ignorance, hatred, bias and easy access to firearms is a deadly one.

Omar Mateen’s hateful, senseless killing reminds us what’s at stake. It reminds us of the push and pull between freedom and security, the tug between hope and fear, the real fight over what the future will hold.

Each of you reading is this is, in some way, engaged in this fight. You are working to support others and improve their lives. You are giving to organizations that are sources of light in today’s darkness. You have committed yourselves to a world in which hatred and senseless violence will never be the norm.

Our only choice, in the midst of grief, is to recommit ourselves to this work: perhaps not to work harder, but to take it all a bit more personally. When we put ourselves on the line a bit more, when we take just a bit more risk — personally, professionally, emotionally, spiritually — we push the boundaries of the change we are making in the world, and in so doing we inspire others to greater heights.

Yesterday morning a colleague reminded the Acumen team of the wisdom of one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott. The backdrop of her celebrated memoir about writing, Bird by Bird, were words of her father to her then 10-year-old brother

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Our only choice, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task — like the task of pushing against a wall of vitriol and fear — is to start.

Here’s to the work you are doing to create light in the darkness.

And here’s to the memory of those who never should have been slain.

The work we choose not to do

Lately I’ve come to see much more clearly the myth of my calendar: the myth that there’s a pinnacle of time management that will make everything OK.

It turns out that there isn’t.

The pieces that I’m trying to fit into my day – the articles I am and am not reading; the meetings I am and am not taking; the talks I am and am not giving – are but a tiny, arbitrary swath of the everything that’s out there that I could be doing that might be relevant and useful.

It’s comforting to think that we’re constrained by all the things we’ve already signed up for, when in reality what constrains us is our unwillingness to let people down in service of our higher purpose.

This is why we can look at people who have learned Mandarin in three months, become world-class tango dancers, or completed the Ironman and say, “Sure, they can do that, but that’s because they have the freedom to spend their time that way.”

This is also why we talk about the changes we’d like to make aspirationally, even wistfully: “Someday [when I’m a perfect person] I’m going to…..” […speak up more in meetings. …start working on that long-term project without anyone’s permission. …sleep enough every night…be courageous…stand up to my boss…learn to code.]  It’s just another way of hiding, since we know that we’ll never be that perfect person.

The real issue is our unwillingness to let people down, our unwillingness to bear the brunt of the ensuing disappointment from people we like and respect in service of something more important.

One way to start a new conversation is to ask ourselves: what would make the way we’re currently behaving intolerable to us? What shift would have to happen to make the things we’d like to ‘someday’ become the things we have to do today? What would have to change so that we have no choice but to start doing the work that WE have, until now, chosen not to do?

The first person we have to be willing to break an old contract with is ourselves.

My Job

Is my job, right now, to tell you what I’ve figured out, and share my wisdom?

Is my job to show you all that I don’t know, and show my openness and vulnerability?

Or is my job simply to write half of the sentence, and let you fill in the…?

Each day, every moment, a choice.

Entry Level

The biggest fear when taking an entry level job is whether you’ll end up doing meaningful work. I still remember fretting that I’d spend the summer of my first “real” internship in the U.S. Senate fetching coffee and making copies (I didn’t end up fetching coffee…the copies, yeah, there was some of that).

It can seem like the way to protect against this is to ask lots of very specific questions about the role: what exactly will my responsibilities be? What will a typical day look like? This can help you a bit, but it can also backfire, because the best places for you might be the ones where these questions don’t get the clearest answers (also, it’s tricky to ask these sorts of questions and still communicate that you understand that your job is going to be to make those around you more successful, and that you’re willing to take a “whatever it takes” attitude.)

Better, I’ve found, to focus on two things.

First, when talking to your potential supervisor, figure out if she seems genuinely to care about the people around her, and that she will devote mindshare and energy to investing in you. For example, you could ask a question like, “can you describe someone who has worked for you who has gone on to do great things?” and then focus as much on the energy she has in answering the question as on the content of what she says.

Second, and probably most helpful: try to work in a place that is dynamic and growing. If a place is dynamic and growing, that means that new and unexpected (but cool and exciting) things are going to come down the pike. And if the place is dynamic and growing, that also means that it’s probably not fully resourced to attack that next great opportunity – that’s where you’re going to come in.

In these sorts of places, you’ll hear lots of answers about the general arc of growth and the future, but you won’t hear exactly the specific thing you’ll get to work on…because people don’t know, yet.

For a fun example, check on this great rap by the Ladies of Hamilton, with the lead part (of Alexander Hamilton) played by Morgan Marcell. Morgan is new to Broadway and she’s part of the Hamilton ensemble. There’s no conversation she could have had with the show’s producers or directors that could have predicted that the Hamilton cast would put out YouTube videos that would be seen more than 300,000 times. But she joined something she believed in, she put in the work, she did enough that her peers recognized her talents, and she worked with people who were proud to shine a spotlight on her when the opportunity arose.

And when it did, she was ready to step up.

(Oh, and @Lin_Manuel, yes, I do enter the lottery every day….)

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.

No windup

I do four kinds of exercise: play squash, run, swim, and do yoga. A more accurate portrayal is that I mostly play squash, and do the other three every so often. This week, though, because of the warmer weather, earlier sunrise, and jetlag, I’ve run four times in 8 days.

One of the things that’s beautiful about running is that there’s almost no windup and wind-down: no place to drive to, no plan to make, no excess anything on either side. In 45 minutes set aside for a run, 40 of those minutes are spent running. Get dressed, lace up your shoes, and go.

Early yesterday morning, tired and cranky, I was wondering why I had dragged myself out of bed to run two days in a row. I had finished tying my shoes and I was standing at my back door looking for some way to stall (what I would have given for a fifteen minute drive to the gym!) It felt like there was a physical barrier I had to push through to get myself up and out the door. I walked out of my house, walked onto the street, kept walking for one more block, started the music on my phone, and finally had no choice but to start jogging slowly.

Similarly, earlier this week a colleague and I found ourselves with only 35 minutes at the end of a long day in which to get some important work done. Neither of us seemed up for it and I almost suggested we not bother. We chatted and stalled for a little, and we nearly got pulled into email on our open laptops. But then we began.

In both cases – the run and the 30 minute conversation that should have taken two hours – it was easy to be fooled that I needed more windup, more buffer, more something between me and the work.

Then I get out there and reconfirm what I seem to need to relearn each and every time: that the windup is nothing more than stalling; and that the correlation between how I feel beforehand and how the work goes is nearly zero.

The foundation, the house, the finishing touches

On my way to work, I walk past a house that’s been empty for more than a year.  The lot was vacant and listless for a while, and then a few months ago they started work in earnest, including demolishing the old house, clearing the lot and laying the foundation. It’s been slow going.

I went away for a week’s vacation, and suddenly the house is up. Not “the house” as in a finished thing, but a three-story wooden structure with walls, a roof, the works.

Now it’s going to take them another six months to finish it.

Those three phases – the pre-work and building the foundation; the framing and putting up of the house; and then doing all the work to finish it – are good reminders of how great teams work and where to place effort.

The pre-work and foundation-building phases are all about the composition of the team: who is on it, the norms of how the team works together; the psychological safety within the team; how (and by who) behaviors that are in and out of line with the emergent team culture are addressed and reinforced.

The framing and putting up of the house is what we typically consider the “work” of the team: the big pieces that are visible and that feel like the team’s formal output.

And then there’s the finishing, which is about getting all the details right: not just laying tile but doing it beautifully; making small adjustments when the door that’s in the plans doesn’t quite work. This is the work of smoothing off all the rough edges to make sure things not only work the way they’re supposed to but that they feel delightful and surprising to the end users. This phase can only exceed expectations if the team members truly care about the product and the end user experience.

What this means is that the work that really matters comes at the beginning – in forming the team and how it works together – and at the end – when the sense of care and ownership bear fruit. Yet more often than not we find it easier to fuss about the bit in the middle, the visible work product that the team is producing.

Great teams – teams with the right people in the right roles, teams with strong and supportive cultures, norms and behaviors – feel like flywheels. Sure, there’s big, hard and heavy work to do, but the pieces are in place to do that work quickly, joyfully, and with leverage.