Book Review-Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

Leadership isn’t easy. It’s difficult, because leadership requires a great deal of strength. I don’t mean lift-a-car-off-a-child sort of strength. I mean the kind of strength to both understand who you are and be who you are. Brene Brown’s latest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., brings her work on shame and vulnerability directly into the path of leadership today.

A Brief History of the World

Because I’m familiar with Brown’s work and leadership in general, it feels like I’ll need to put some pieces together to make this review a bit more readable. To that end, Brown’s written several books – all of which I’ve read. The books she’s written are:

The evolution of her work becomes apparent when you look at the list of books in chronological order. The work expands from an individual becoming more whole to how that growth impacts others. She moves from how we must show up individually towards how we must show up with others. Dare to Lead is about how leaders must become more whole to be able to support and lead others.

The themes of Brown’s work are shame, vulnerability, courage, connection, empathy, and what she calls “wholeheartedness” – something that fits somewhere between the ways that I describe courage, integrated self-image, and stable core. (See my review of Braving the Wilderness for more about this.)

One of the key topics that Brown returns to in her work in general and in Dare to Lead is the topic of vulnerability.

Vulnerability

Brown defines six myths of vulnerability:

  1. Vulnerability is weakness – Though many of us were taught this lesson in childhood, the truth is that vulnerability is strength. The choice to be vulnerable comes with the understanding that, even if the other person betrays our trust, we’ll be OK.
  2. I don’t do vulnerability – “You can do vulnerability, or it can do you.” None of us are invincible. Even Superman was vulnerable to kryptonite. You don’t get to opt out of this part of life, and trying to is just going to make life hard.
  3. I can go it alone – We have this idea that the West was won by rugged cowboys riding into the sunset. It was really won by wagon trains that literally circled together to protect each other. No one can go it alone (and survive).
  4. You can engineer the uncertainty and discomfort out of vulnerability – Just like you can’t remove fear from courage, you can’t remove discomfort from vulnerability. You can mediate it – but not eliminate it.
  5. Trust comes before vulnerability – Here, Brown and I sort of disagree. I’d say that trust and vulnerability grow with each other. Brown is clear that trust is earned in the small moments. I’ve clarified my thoughts and why I think this is critically important in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited. (I’d highly encourage reading this post if you have not.)
  6. Vulnerability is disclosure – Vulnerability can be disclosure, but it doesn’t need to be. Disclosure isn’t necessarily vulnerability. Vulnerability is deciding to trust. Word-vomiting your deepest thoughts and secrets isn’t necessarily vulnerability.

Defining Leadership

There have been many attempts to define leadership, including Burn’s simply titled Leadership, Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, Goleman et al.’s Primal Leadership, The Arbinger Institute’s Leadership and Self-Deception, Lowney’s Heroic Leadership, etc. Brown’s definition of a leader is “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” This perspective matches that of Wiseman’s in Multipliers as well as many of the titles above. At its core, most scholars and authors view leadership as a service to those that are being led.

Courage

One of the funny things about courage is that the people most proficient at it don’t think about it as courage or abnormal. Courage is defined as the ability to proceed in the face of – or despite – fear. From the outside looking in, the people with the greatest courage display no fear – but the fear is still there.

A definition of courage is useful to be sure. However, the definition only allows to people to speak about something and understand each other. It doesn’t help them learn how to get more of it. Understanding that courage is moving despite fear doesn’t cause you to identify specific, key behaviors that allow you to recognize it in others.

If those who are being courageous don’t even expose the key condition – fear – what chance do we have for identifying courage in the workplace and in our lives? Perhaps that’s why “just over 80 percent of leaders, including those who believed that courage is behavioral, couldn’t identify the specific skills.”

Brown’s call for courage makes sense, particularly in the context of Amy Edmonson’s work on creating organizations with high degrees of psychological safety as discussed in The Fearless Organization. While Edmondson focuses on increasing the safety, I explain in my review that the positive organizational effects may have more to do with courage than being psychologically safe.

Psychological safety reduces the size of the fear and makes it easier to be courageous. But, ultimately, there are so many non-work factors that influence our perceptions of safety that it is incomplete to focus only on psychological safety inside of the organization.

In this, however, is the truth that, the lower you make the fear bar, the easier it is for people to have the courage to step over it. If we want to increase courage in ourselves and those that we work with. then perhaps the best solution is to increase the perception of safety. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on the role of perceived safety.)

External factors may change the perception of safety in specific circumstances, but, ultimately, to change the basic tenor of trust, you must change the way that people trust themselves. You can influence this by changing the way you give feedback. Your feedback can reinforce the perception that they should trust themselves.

Perfectionism and Performance-Based Love

It’s good to expect excellence from yourself and those around you, but excellence can sometimes turn into perfectionism. That can set us up for a misunderstanding of our value and the value of others around us. Excellence keeps us striving for the best. Perfectionism expects nothing but the best.

The subtle distinction between being on the journey towards perfection and expecting that we’re already there is a big difference. In my review of Changes That Heal, I explained how, during a trip to Mt. Rushmore, I encountered setbacks but accepted the journey was a good one. By focusing on the journey, I could enjoy what I was getting – rather than being frustrated with what was missing. I sought the perfect trip – instead, all I got was a great one.

It was The Paradox of Choice that made me aware of Herbert Simon’s work on the difference between maximizing – looking for the absolute best – and satisficing – looking to meet standards and then stopping. The key here is that this is done on a decision-by-decision basis. However, what you get when you convert maximization to a personality trait is perfectionism. The good news is that maximizers tend to make more money and objectively have a better life. However, the bad news is that they’re less happy. That’s a problem. Something about maximizing – or perfectionism – primes you for regret and makes you less happy.

We catch perfectionism like a virus. Our parents, in their drive to help us be the absolute best, frame our thinking around maximization – and then, overall, about perfectionism. The problem is this also drives a sense that, when we’re not performing, we’re not worthy of love. This performance-based love pervades our thinking, and it makes us feel like we’re not enough, or we’re not worthy when we’re not being successful.

This is a barrier to fully living, because it prevents us from taking chances and failing. Instead of taking risks, we spend all our time playing it safe. As a result, we’re not vulnerable, and we’re not the employees and leaders that we can be.

Gloom and Doom

We all want to be Tigger, but we’re designed to be Eeyore. Things can be going great. We can have everything in the world to celebrate, but we’re worried about when the other shoe is going to drop. Certainly, there’s got to be something wrong somewhere. It stops us from fully celebrating our successes.

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow explains that we experience negatives more strongly than we experience positives. It seems that evolution has made us wary. Evolutionary theorists believe this was because those who had more caution tended to survive longer to spread their genes. So, basically, we’re all descended from the Eeyores of the world, and we’re trying to behave like Tigger.

Gratitude Is More Than Attitude

There’s a pithy cliché that says, “Gratitude is the attitude.” However, it shouldn’t stop there. Gratitude without action is like joining a gym and not going. You may feel better for a while, but things ultimately aren’t objectively getting better.

Certainly, the starting point is to get an attitude of gratitude. It’s hard to be empathetic and compassionate for others until you have become grateful for your circumstances. However, having gratitude and not acting on it is like having empathy for someone’s condition but stopping short of a compassionate response.

Compassion includes a desire to alleviate another person’s suffering. You can’t have compassion without the actions that move forward to alleviate that suffering. Gratitude may first be an attitude, but how does it inform how you respond to the world. How is it that you choose to behave because of your gratitude?

Numbing Emotion

I’m not a fan of antidepressants. Not because I don’t believe that they can’t help some people sometimes. It’s because I know they’re overused and their efficacy is questionable. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more.) There’s another problem with most antidepressants. The problem is that they tend to flatten out moods more than they lift them. That is, people on SSRIs and other antidepressants tend to not enjoy the highs as much as they did. It’s true that they may not sink as low, but they don’t soar as high either.

It’s not just antidepressants that have this effect. No matter what the drug or behavior is that’s being used to numb painful emotions – even suppressed, painful emotions – it tends to take the peak experiences away, too. The alcoholic may be able to forget the tragedies they’ve seen or done, but the consequence of this is the persistent fear of being discovered or the memories flooding back. That means that even alcohol robs the alcoholic of the joy in their lives because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Based on everything we know about how the brain and emotions work, there’s no way to selectively disable the emotions that relate to pain, anguish, and struggle. (If you’re interested more about how emotions work, see How Emotions are Made.)

Accountability

No one really likes to be held accountable. I mean, let’s face it: it’s criticism when we don’t do what we said we were going to do, and no one likes to be criticized. One response is to just not hold people accountable. However, this sets off a series of events that leads to people not valuing each other or honoring commitments. It’s a sort of cancer that eats its way through the trust of the organization and, ultimately, can bring the organization down.

While no one likes to be held accountable when they fall short, to not do so creates a set of long-term consequences that lead to organizations no one wants to be a part of.

Trusting Others, Trusting Ourselves

One of the truisms about trust is that we view others like we view ourselves. If we’re generally trustworthy, we’ll assume others are as well. Learning to trust ourselves gives us the possibility of trusting others more. In trusting others more, we enrich not just our own lives but theirs as well. If you trust yourself enough, you can learn how to Dare to Lead.

This is a Story

Humans are born storytellers. Whether you believe you’re creatively inclined or not, we’re all masters of storytelling. In this video, we discuss how to use stories in a professional setting – yes, it’s okay to do that – and why they’re so good at engaging and educating.

If you want to share this video, you can get it ad-free. Just click here to sign up, and we’ll send all our communications tips to you via email.

Book Review-How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built

I’m not an architect, but as an information architect, I’m curious about how classical architects approach the problems of buildings that people love. This journey led me to Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. I was first introduced to the book back in 2011 while reading Pervasive Information Architecture. It surfaced again in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile, and in Peter Morville’s Intertwingled. In every case, the reference is to how buildings change (or, in Brand’s language, “learn”) over time.

In information architecture, we’re faced with a rate of change that Brand and his colleagues couldn’t comprehend. While the idea of buildings being torn down in a few decades was alarming to the architects, as information architects, we don’t expect that our architecture will last a decade. The rate of change is too high.

Buildings Shape Us and We Shape Them

Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This is a simplification. In truth, after we have built a building, it shapes the way we interact with one another, and then we revise it to fit our new needs. It then further shapes us, and we repeat the process of adapting it.

The biological point of view is that of ecopoiesis – that is, how an ecosystem is formed. There’s some starting event (building a building for instance) and then continuous co-evolution of the organisms (humans) and the environment (building). It’s true that we shape our buildings and then they shape us – and vice versa.

However, like any ecosystem, the rate of change and adaptation isn’t even across the entire system. Some parts of the system change quickly, and other parts of the system move more slowly. It’s these sheering layers that make changes in buildings so interesting.

Sheering Layers

Brand built on Frank Duffy’s work and solidified a model for different layers of the building that operate at different speeds. Look at the diagram from the book:

Here, the layers are all represented. The idea is that the site is permanent (at least as permanent of tectonic plate movement). The stuff in the inner layer is ephemeral. The changes in the stuff is very rapid compared to the rest of the building. Let’s look at each layer:

  • Site – Permanent.
  • Structure – The most persistent part of the building. The lifespan of structure can be measured in decades to centuries. When the structure changes, the building has changed.
  • Skin – The façade or outer face of the building is expected to go out of style and to be replaced every 20 years or so to keep up with fashion or technology.
  • Services – These are things like HVAC, elevators, etc., which simply wear out over the period of seven to fifteen years.
  • Space Plan – Commercial buildings may change occupancy every three years or so, driving a change in the way internal space is allocated. Domestic homes in the US are, on average, owned for 8 years.
  • Stuff – These furnishings and flairs change with the seasons and the current trends.

The rates of change for different layers occurring at different times creates sheering forces, where the slower-moving layers constrain the faster-moving layers. The stuff can only change and grow so much before the space plan gives way and, ultimately, before the structure itself would need to change. Anyone who has watched a reality television show on hoarders knows that their propensity to acquire stuff is limited by the space they have.

Different Types of Architecture

It turns out that, while all buildings share the same basic layers, there are categories of buildings that operate very differently. Commercial buildings are subject to market pressure and frequently changing tenants, making them more volatile. Domestic (i.e. residential) buildings have owners for longer periods of time and tend to be adapted with smaller changes rather than wholesale renovations on a periodic basis. Institutional buildings are relatively fixed and permanent, as the structure itself becomes a symbol of the institution. Institutions are often holders of trust, and change is resisted as much as possible. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.)

The sheering layers vary inside of these different types of buildings. A commercial building might replace the services at their planned end of life, because the outage is more disruptive than can be reasonably tolerated. Domestic buildings often run their services until a complete failure. Institutions behave more like commercial buildings in their replacement of services but almost never replace their skin, thereby more closely modeling domestic buildings.

Problems with Architecture

Brand spends a considerable amount of time discussing what is wrong with architecture and why it’s such a struggle to get good buildings.

Overspecification

The top culprit seems to be overspecification. That is, little is done to ensure that the building is adaptable to the purposes the occupants have once they’re in the building. Buildings are built so that it’s difficult to get wires through walls, making it harder to adapt the latest technology. All buildings are predictions, and all of them are invariably wrong.

Brand breaks these into high-road and low-road buildings. The former are what architects typically build. They’re bright, shiny, expensive, newer, and difficult to change. Low-road buildings, by contrast, are more adaptable. They adjust to meet the needs of their tenants, and their tenants don’t mind adjusting them to fit their needs. These older buildings may not be a perfect fit for anything, but they’re a good enough fit for most things.

Leaky Roofs

Frank Lloyd Wright may be the greatest American architect of all time, but I don’t want one of his buildings; all his roofs leak. He, in fact, quipped that it is how one knows it is a roof. By the 1980s, eighty percent of all post-construction claims were for leaks. During the same time, malpractice for architects was higher than for doctors. It would be tragic if it weren’t preventable.

We know what makes roofs that don’t leak. We know that flat roofs are going to leak – period. We know that, the greater the pitch, the less likely the roof is to leak. We’ve got all the knowledge, but because of the desire for appearance, we sometimes ignore what we know.

Wrong Metrics

What gets you into Architectural Digest isn’t how tenants love a building. What gets you into Architectural Digest are the pictures taken before people are in the building. It’s all about the design and none about the use. While some progress is being made in getting better metrics that measure – *gasp* – what occupants think, the progress is painfully slow.

If your measure is on pictures that have no relationship (or very little) to reality, it’s no wonder that occupants of the building aren’t happy. Architects aren’t motivated to make the actual users happy with the building they get.

Poor Learning

Brand admits most of the architects he knows are hustling just to survive. That makes it difficult (if not impossible) for them to invest the right amount of energy learning about the latest materials, techniques, and ideas for improving their trade. While there are standards for continuing education now, Brand seems concerned that these aren’t sufficient when architects are under such constant pressure to produce just to survive.

What’s Love?

Still, some architects buck the trends and create buildings that people love – real people who really occupy them. Those architects, as they age, have found ways to create buildings that not only fit the occupants from the start but also adapt gracefully over time. This is a rare condition. My first highlight in the book is “Almost no buildings adapt well.” Adaptability and age seem to be the key ingredients to get people to love a building.

Hire an Architect

Brand is clear that the power in building buildings doesn’t reside with the architects. While they’ll be called in for a few showplace buildings, the developers do most of the action. They may consult an architect at some point, but the architect rarely runs the show.

Because architects are often relegated to a small percentage of buildings where art is more important than functionality, the industry has become stuck. Most people don’t believe that architects are required, because the results they get when using an architect don’t seem to justify the expense.

Habitat, Property, Community

Buildings need to be three things at the same time. They’re a habitat for their occupants. They’re the property. At the same time, they’re also a part of the community. Buildings must fit their occupants and the place they’re in. They must sit on the site that they’re built on (with rare exceptions). Buildings aren’t one thing. They themselves are a sheering layer between the wants and desires of the occupants and the desires of the community.

Markets, Money, and Water

There are three things that change buildings: markets, money, and water. If the market changes and the location (site) is no longer desirable, then changes will need to be made to the building to keep it acceptably interesting to potential occupants. Markets can cause buildings to be built and torn down in rapid succession. (Consider the churn of casinos in Las Vegas as an example.)

Money can mean radical changes to the building. A lack of money can stagnate change or send the building into an inevitable death spiral of maintenance and repair that, in turn, sends occupants scurrying for a new place.

Water is the great destroyer of buildings. David Owen said, “Houses seem to deteriorate from the bathrooms out.” It makes sense. Bathrooms are the place where there is the most water inside of a home, and, too frequently, the water isn’t vented outside. Most homes are built of wood and other materials that don’t do well with prolonged exposure to moisture. Mold grows in the presence of heat and moisture. Homes are designed to be warm enough for their human occupants, and bathrooms are nearly constantly moist.

Not all the changes brought on by markets, money, or, particularly, water are appreciated.

Vernacular

It’s what they say. Vernacular is the native language of a region. When it comes to building, it’s the native way that people build. The way that homes are built in the North and the way that they’re built in the South are different. They’re built different in the extreme temperatures of the East Coast from the houses in the relatively stable temperatures of the West Coast.

There’s not one right way to build a house or a building. However, there are ways that are more suited to the materials available in the region and the techniques that are effective in the climate. Architects do well to understand the region that their creations are going in, so they can mimic the best practices of the region.

Oversize Your Components

The best advice that Brand has is to oversize your components – he expresses this in every way, including the structure. You want to oversize the carrying capacity of the structure, so that new floors can be added. Before computers were available to optimize everything, builders added more capacity to ensure that everything would just work. Oversizing components creates a “loose fit.” That is, the occupants can decide later to adapt the building. As was mentioned above, overspecification is one of Brand’s key concerns.

Open Offices

Before ending, it’s important to note that Brand spends a bit of time speaking of the fallacy of open offices. He explains that people want acoustic privacy but visual transparency. He explains that the initial experiments with open offices didn’t exactly succeed, but that didn’t stop the fad from catching on – much to the dismay of managers.

I’ve run across the open office idea numerous times in my career, particularly as I’m coaching clients on how to be more collaborative or innovative. They can’t seem to let go of the idea that they want a more open, collaborative space – until they’ve done it once. Everywhere you look, you’ll find evidence that it doesn’t work… but only if you’re willing to look.

For instance, in Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull explains the genius behind the Pixar buildings and how they encourage interactivity. At first glance, the open concept is in. However, on deeper reading, you realize that Jobs made a common space where people could go to. It was a space that needed to be crossed for them to get to their private spaces.

Sometimes you just can’t stop a fad with facts, experience, or rationality.

Information Architecture

I read How Buildings Learn to stabilize my understanding of information architecture and learn from building architecture. The few key takeaways that I already knew but was reminded of are:

  • Vernacular – Build to the environment you’re in. In information architecture this means using terms that are familiar and approaches that work well with the users.
  • Plan for Change – Buildings get bad marks for their adaptability. Information architectures fail if they’re not hospitable to change.
  • Change Sheers – Change doesn’t happen at the same rate. There are parts of the system that should be designed to change slowly and others to change much more rapidly.
  • Oversize Your Components – While all predictions are wrong, predicting that things will grow is a safe bet. When you’re considering whether to put something in up front to be prepared… do it.

Whether you’re building an information architecture, a real building, or neither, I’m pretty sure you’ll learn something important from How Buildings Learn.

Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited

It was October of 2013 when I wrote the post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy. While the post is an anchor post, there are a few things that deserve some clarification. (If you’ve not read it yet, now would be a good time, since the rest of this post builds on what is there.)

First, I failed to adequately express that trust leads to perceived safety that allows vulnerability. It was one of the places where I had the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation for more). To be vulnerable, we need to feel safe. This is the primary concern that I have about Amy Edmonson’s work as described in The Fearless Organization. The premise is that you can make a psychologically safe organization, and therefore everyone will be courageous and bring their whole selves. There are so many external factors that influence your feeling of safety that I can’t accept this conclusion. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make our organizations more psychologically safe. I am saying I think it’s not enough. I believe that Brown’s work on helping individuals to be more whole themselves is also required. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness for more.)

Second, though the post explains that trust isn’t a single thing and that trust and trustworthiness are often confused, it doesn’t go far enough to explain the nuances of trust. Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order goes further in explaining how the focus of trust can both be shaped and itself shape entire societies.

Third, in my discussion of vulnerability, there was an underlying current of appropriate vulnerability. But I never clearly articulated that, when it comes to psychological vulnerability, there are some who’ve not earned the right to hear your story. Vulnerability needs to be earned through trust built on the backs of smaller disclosures. John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains that there are bids for attention, and these bids make a big difference. The way we make ourselves vulnerable to others is with small bids for them to build trust. They’re an opportunity for us to take an appropriate risk to see if the other person is worthy of trust.

The Relationship Between Trust and Vulnerability

It’s a catch-22. You must have trust to be vulnerable. You must be vulnerable to build trust. From a single, causal perspective, there’s no good solution. One requires the other. The trick is that it’s a systems thinking problem, not direct line causality. We’re taught to think in a single-iteration causal kind of way. We’re not taught to think about things that influence success. (See The Halo Effect for more.) We fail to realize that we don’t have positive control, we have degrees of influence on the outcome. Trust leads to more vulnerability and vulnerability leads to more trust – in the general sense.

Systems thinking gives us the second part of the solution for this conundrum. Systems are iterative. They keep going, and the outputs feed back into the inputs. The language of systems thinking is stocks and flows. We have a storehouse (stock) of trust that can cause us to be more vulnerable (a flow), and the outcome of that vulnerability – when it’s honored – is greater trust. If you want to learn more about systems thinking, see Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Though The Fifth Discipline popularized the idea of systems thinking, Thinking in Systems is more complete coverage.

Bringing these concepts together is Gary Klein’s work about the mental models that we use to make decisions – including decisions like whether we should be vulnerable or not. What Klein discovered was that people build mental models in their heads. They simulate situations and decide on courses of actions based on those simulations. (See Seeing What Others Don’t and Sources of Power for more.)

When we make the decision to be vulnerable, we make that decision based on the probability that our vulnerability, and therefore trust, will be rewarded or we will be betrayed. The more that our trust is rewarded with a correct prediction – and we’re not betrayed – the more our model will predict that trust is the right answer.

Building Trust with Ourselves

An important aspect of trust is how we trust ourselves. The degree to which we trust ourselves influences how much we trust others and the degree of safety that we feel and therefore how willing we are to be vulnerable. Everyone has some degree of mistrust of themselves. Some trust themselves more and some less, but everyone has some level of doubt.

Like any form of trust, trust is contextual. You may trust yourself to get to work on time, but you may not trust yourself to forgo the chocolate cake for dessert. Your trust – or lack of trust – for yourself will influence how you trust others. It’s often been observed that we get the most frustrated with others for the things that we ourselves struggle with. Our goal is to increase trust with ourselves so that we don’t burden our trust of others with our lack of trust for ourselves.

Commitments

The way to build trust is to create and meet – or renegotiate – commitments. This applies to our relationships with others and with ourselves. If we find that we’re not meeting our commitments to ourselves, we’ll begin to trust ourselves less. (See Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet for more.) It may seem odd to be making commitments to ourselves, but we do it all the time – we just don’t do it formally.

We say, “I’ll take the trash out in the morning” or “I’ll find time for me (self-care) tomorrow.” When we don’t do these things, we reduce our self-trust. It’s natural to have some degree of forgetfulness, and that’s why self-acceptance is important. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) However, you can’t put all the cards in the acceptance basket. We must find ways to improve our ability to meet our commitments to ourselves (and to others as well).

For probably a decade now, I’ve had a reminder on my phone to take out the trash Wednesday at 6:30 AM. Generally speaking, I know I’ll be awake, and I know the trashmen don’t come until at least 8AM. The result is that I don’t have to worry about meeting my commitment to take the trash out. In fact, I don’t even make this commitment to myself anymore. It doesn’t even come up, because I’ve got a system to support it.

I don’t have a reminder system to support my self-care. However, with exceptions for temporary situations, I generally make time for self-care. I’ll forgo it to support a sick child or if I need to help a friend. However, since I typically meet the commitments that I make to myself, I’ve got more than enough acceptance to believe that I’ll resume my self-care soon. Often, I’ll renegotiate to “I’ll find some time for me (self-care) next week.” Given the level of trust I already have, it’s easy enough to accept the renegotiation.

Bad Commitments

I’ve worked with some friends who have struggled with a self-trust that is very low. Many have come from the depths of addiction and have made so many commitments to themselves about what they’ll abstain from – and they find they cannot – so they relapse. The most challenging issue isn’t that others have lost their trust of a friend or loved one impacted by the relapse. The most challenging issue is the fact that they’ve lost trust in themselves. They’ve developed learned helplessness, or they’ve lost their sense of control (or hope). (See The Hope Circuit for more.)

The climb out of this spot is long and hard. Twelve-step programs start by admitting there is a problem, admitting that the person is not capable of saving themselves, and, more importantly, that someone can. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.) The first two steps seem like they’re tearing down the person’s sense of hope – and, to some extent, that’s true. They’re there to ensure that the person is ready to address their addiction. The third step externalizes the hope that things will get better. This transfers the weight of correcting the situation externally and allows the addict to focus on being themselves. By believing that someone or something else can help you, you can regain the hope you’ve lost.

For an addict to claim that they’re not going to relapse, without support, is wishful thinking. At the point that they’ve identified themselves as an addict, they’ve already demonstrated it doesn’t work. When they make that commitment, they’re making one they’ll miss – and further erode their trust. That’s one reason why addicts make commitments for the day. “Today, I won’t drink” is a powerful commitment. It is more likely to work, because it’s not forever. Even when there is a relapse, the addict can retain some level of trust, effectively saying, “Of the 365 commitments I’ve made not to drink over the last year, I’ve only missed the commitment twice.”

Still some commitments are bad commitments to make. Commitments made from reason – like New Year’s Resolutions – that must be carried out by our emotions and willpower aren’t the best choices. You can frame this from the point of view that our willpower is an exhaustible resource, which frequently fails when we’re tired or hungry, or from the idea that our emotions are in control. (See Willpower for more on willpower and The Happiness Hypothesis for the fact that our emotions are in control). Either way, making commitments to yourself that you’re likely to not meet won’t help to build self-trust.

Commitments and Trust

To proceed through trust, vulnerability, and intimacy, we must first practice with ourselves. We must trust ourselves – and that means meeting our commitments to ourselves, whether they’re made explicitly or implicitly. We must learn to accept ourselves and recognize and accept our vulnerability, because we’re all vulnerable in one way or another. All of this is so that we can know ourselves more and more. (For more on knowing ourselves, see my thoughts on integrated self-image in Rising Strong, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Also, see my thoughts on stable core in How to Be Yourself, Dialogue, and Resilient.)

Ultimately, as social creatures, we yearn for connection to others. To connect with others, we need to first connect with ourselves. The path that we use to find our way to others is one that we must first travel alone.

16 Microsoft MVP Awards, what it Means

It was 2004 when I first got an email asking me to answer some questions because I was being considered for an MVP award. I asked a friend, Jason Dunn, about it, because I knew he was an MVP. His response was enthusiastic. I was honored later that year to get my first award for Windows Networking. Shortly after that, they split the category into client and server, so I was converted to Windows Networking – Server. Then, for a while, I was a Commerce Server MVP. Eventually, I was awarded for SharePoint – and now Office Apps and Services.

I was just honored yesterday, as were many of my friends, with another yearly award. Though my initial award was October of 2004, they resynchronized everyone to July renewals a few years back, so everyone’s award (or non-award) comes the same day. Therefore, yesterday, there were a flurry of posts about renewals. I’m happy for my friends, but it occurred to me that most folks don’t know what being an MVP means and why it’s important for so many of us.

What is an MVP?

Technically, it’s “Most Valuable Professional.” It generally means someone who’s being recognized for how they support the community around a Microsoft product or service. It’s an annual award, not the result of a test or a class. It’s recognition for how you serve the community with your knowledge, time, and compassion.

The Microsoft Benefits

There are some Microsoft-provided benefits to the awardees. That’s true, and they’re greatly appreciated. However, the benefits aren’t really about the official benefits. The real benefits are in the conversations you have with Microsoft employees. MVPs get the opportunity to speak with product teams and relay what we’re seeing in the market to the people who are making the products.

There are some truly gifted people creating products for Microsoft, but the problem is they don’t get to see the entire market. My favorite question to hear the Microsoft product team ask is, “Why would anyone want to do that?” It’s my clue that I’m exposing a scenario the product team has not considered before. They don’t always implement what’s needed to do the scenario, but they often do. Either way, I get to know that I did my part to make the products better for everyone.

The Community

While I deeply respect the product teams, the smartest people I know are my fellow MVPs. Whether they share my award category or not, they’re amazing people with intelligence, passion, and compassion. I’ve reached out to MVPs I didn’t know for help, and, by the sheer nature of the fact that we were fellow MVPs, they helped me – and I’m extremely grateful for that.

I posted in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups just how powerful it can be to be a part of a group. There’s an emotional connection and a trust in being a part of a group of folks that you know care about the community and each other.

But I’m on the Outside

One of the truly amazing things about MVPs as a general statement is that most are willing to help anyone. That’s how they got their award: their desire to help. Whether you’re an MVP or not, most will find some time for you and will try to solve your problem. So, while I’m honored to have a special priority with the other MVPs by the nature of the award, the award itself means that you’re a part of the community – because that’s why MVPs are awarded.

Alumni

Over the years, I’ve seen many MVPs not get re-awarded. Their lives and jobs took them in other directions. Maybe they started being passionate about other technologies, or they became less focused on technology all together. Microsoft has started reaching out and recognizing that former MVPs and current MVPs have so much in common – even if Microsoft can’t support the alumni getting the award again, they can keep them in the non-sensitive conversations.

I know that one day, I’ll fall into the alumni category. I don’t look forward to that day. I am, however, grateful to be in the company of so many great men and women and am comforted by knowing that, even when I don’t get re-awarded, I won’t lose the friends I’ve made through the program. They’ve enriched my life.

Book Review-Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

When Brené Brown speaks of the wilderness in Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, she’s not speaking of a place on a map. The wilderness isn’t “out there.” The wilderness is “in here.” It’s learning how to be who we are meant to be. It’s through understanding and accepting our own wilderness that we’ll find true belonging – and the courage to stand alone when needed.

Integrated Self Image and Stable Core

The language I use is different, but the concepts are the same. I speak about the need to develop an integrated self-image. It’s an image of oneself that recognizes all the aspects. It accepts the bad with the good. It recognizes that no one can be defined by a label. No one group that we are in defines us. The result that Brown encourages everyone to find by braving the wilderness is that person inside. Having an integrated self-image is so important that it comes up over and over again in my writing, including in my reviews of Happiness, The Trauma of Everyday Life, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, Beyond Boundaries, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, and Brown’s previous work Rising Strong. Braving the wilderness is the process that Brown recommends for finding an integrated self-image.

However, there’s another aspect to the way that I speak to this. It’s having a stable core. It’s the result of the integrated self-image where you know who you are, what you stand for, and what’s important in a way that stabilizes you from the temporary winds that seek to blow you off course. This concept, too, finds its home in multiple places – Dialogue, How to Be Yourself, The Power of Other, and Resilient – in addition to many of the places where integrated self-image appeared. Having a stable core makes us, in general, much less reactive to other people and to the situations we find ourselves in. However, even with a stable core, people and situations will sometimes trigger us into a place of fear that we’ll have to fight our way out of.

The Person We Once Were

Everyone has hurts from their childhood that they still carry with them. Maybe it’s being chosen last for a game of dodgeball. Maybe it’s being embarrassed by the hand-me-down and therefore out-of-style clothes. The larger the area of hurt that we experienced as a child, the more likely we’ve had to deal with it somehow in our journey to adulthood. However, often there are little, narrow cracks of pain that we don’t confront in our journey to adulthood.

These end up either being a dull pain that we can’t seem to find – and we make seemingly irrational decisions because of – or a sharp, quick pain that catches us out of nowhere.

Braving the wilderness is appropriately comforting the little child that still lives inside of us in a way that tries to soothe the pain so that it doesn’t come back again. We must be careful to not make our attempt to soothe our pain cause someone else pain. (One of the most frequent ways that this happens is when parents try to live out their lives through their children, as I describe in Are Your Children Living Their Lives – or Yours?) However, done effectively, healing the hurts of the person we once were can lead us to a more integrated self-image and a more sable core.

Belonging

Sometimes, I feel like I belong in the Island of Misfit Toys (from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special). In Straddling Multiple Worlds, I explained part of the experience of living between worlds and how difficult it can be. In my review for The Search for Significance, I pulled together Diffusion of Innovations author Everett Rogers’ recognition that innovators and early adopters often feel as if they don’t belong to a community and the reduction in recidivism when released prisoners feel like a community from Change or Die. I even acknowledge that our society discourages belonging like it used to, as explained by Bowling Alone. The central core of Alone Together is that, though we need more connection, belonging, and intimacy, our world today doesn’t offer us that – it only offers the illusion of it.

While belonging is a basic human need, our world is growing ever more specialized, and we’re losing our patience for those who don’t exactly match the profile of interests and activities we have. We connect in a trivial way with others and for shorter periods of time as our interests fade or are replaced with the latest distraction.

In the end, we must accept that we belong to ourselves. We must get comfortable with ourselves and, paradoxically, sometimes accept that belonging happens even when we’re alone. Our unique self won’t always intersect and connect with others in ways that look like belonging, but if we accept who we are, we can accept the levels of belonging that other groups offer. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on belonging and its power.)

Lack of Control

Control is an illusion, but it’s an illusion that we cling to. It’s the safety blanket of youth that we’ve not shed. We told ourselves that one day we’d grow up and make all the rules. In short, we’d be in control. The problem is that we don’t have control of our world any more than our parents had control of theirs. We only have influence on our world.

The first step into the wilderness is surrendering the idea that we’ve got control, because inside the wilderness, there is no such thing as control. Inside the wilderness, we’re vulnerable. When we go searching into the depths of our soul, we don’t know what we’ll find – and we certainly can’t control what we find.

Our illusion of control is like a rope that we hold on to. As long as we hold on to the illusion, we can’t enter the wilderness and learn about our true selves.

Trust

At the heart of the wilderness is learning trust. It’s not about learning to trust other people. It’s about learning to trust yourself. When I wrote Why and How Twelve Step Groups Work, I missed an aspect of their power. I missed their capacity to help you regain the trust in yourself that you’ve lost. They stop the cycle of shame that prevents people from conquering their addictions, but they work on the other side of the coin as well.

The other side of the shame coin is learning to accept and trust yourself. Acceptance is a prerequisite, because everyone will fail – at something at some point. Acceptance is a part of developing the integrated self-image where you realize that there are parts of you that aren’t perfect. Once the prerequisite of acceptance has been addressed, it’s possible to move forward into relearning to trust yourself. (For more on acceptance, see How to Be an Adult in Relationships.)

Most people have developed some level of distrust for themselves. Whether it’s the statement that they “can’t” resist a chocolate cake or the knowledge they “can’t” pass a stray animal without taking it home, each of us has places where we don’t believe our willpower will hold up to the test. (See Willpower for more.) By focusing on these limitations or accepting them as unchangeable, we begin to trust ourselves less. (See Mindset for fixed mindsets that imprison us in our own thinking.)

Learning to trust ourselves is, of course, about the basics of being reliable to the commitments we make to ourselves. However, it is also about being reasonable with the commitments we make. Many folks make New Year’s Resolutions only to fall off the bandwagon within weeks. Our rational rider makes commitments to ourselves that our emotional elephant isn’t willing to go along with in the long term. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the Elephant-Rider-Path model.)

Sure, we need to learn to trust other people. We need to figure out whom and when it’s appropriate to trust, but, at its core, most problems of trust start with ourselves. (See The Power of the Other for more on learning when to trust others, and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for a more comprehensive view of why trust is critical.)

BRAVING

Brown has a checklist for evaluating perspectives and behavior that makes the convenient acronym “BRAVING.” The components are as follows:

  • Boundaries – Was I clear about my boundaries, and did I respect them?
  • Reliability – Was there congruence between my values, my actions, and my words?
  • Accountability – Did I own my mistakes, apologize, and make amends?
  • Vault – Did I keep the confidence of others, sharing only what was mine to share?
  • Integrity – Did I choose courage over comfort?
  • Nonjudgement – Was I able to ask for what I needed? Did I allow others to ask for what they needed without judgement?
  • Generosity – Did I interpret the actions, intentions, and words of others in the most generous (positive) way possible?

Whenever we want to evaluate how we did in a situation, this list provides a framework for evaluating whether we’re living true to our values and in a way that helps build up not only us but others as well.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness can be quickly defined as “perceived social isolation.” However, that simple statement takes a bit to unpack – in fact, John Cacioppo wrote a whole book titled Loneliness. We’ve all felt lonely. In fact, when we feel like we don’t belong, we can feel that sense of loneliness. Loneliness is a serious concern, because it’s often invisible to the outside world. (See The Fearless Organization for more on invisible acts.) It’s dangerous, because isolation “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” (See Emotional Intelligence for this quote from this 1987 article in Science.) Cacioppo and Brown both echo this concern.

The key the 1987 article missed is that it’s the perceived isolation that matters. You can be in a room full of people and be lonely but not alone. In fact, feeling alone in a room full of people is perhaps the loneliest feeling possible.

I get to speak at a lot of conferences. Some are conference where I feel right at home. Some of the places I speak at I’ve spoken at for years. It’s sort of like a family reunion when I show up. There are speakers that you know and love but don’t get to spend much time with. There’s the set of speakers who are odd enough that you sit and quietly smirk at their antics. The attendees are people you’ve seen year after year.

Other places, I walk in and feel no connection whatsoever. They talk a different language. They care about different things. They aren’t familiar in any sense of the word. I’ve literally been in a room with 500 people, and I can’t tell you a time that I’ve felt more alone. For me, it’s OK. It’s a short-term thing, and I get to come back to a home where I’m anything but lonely. However, I can’t imagine living in a world where you only ever felt separate and alone.

If Nothing Changes, Are You OK?

Most people believe that they’d be OK if something else changes. If I got a promotion at work. If I got a new car. If my son gets into the college that he wants. There’s always something outside of us that can make us happy or at least OK. The problem with this thinking is that we don’t have control of the things outside of us. (See Stumbling on Happiness for more.) The key to happiness isn’t in our ability to change external circumstances. The key to happiness is in being able to accept our circumstances.

On the road to happiness, the first stop is acceptance. We must accept the reality of our circumstances and be OK with them. Once we’ve come to accept that we can’t change our circumstances, we can be happy with them.

I understand that the first response to the preceding is “hogwash.” We believe that we can change our circumstances – and we can. However, we don’t have “positive control” of them. We have influence over our future circumstances. We can shift them, but we don’t know exactly how things will turn out. More importantly, we’re changing the future version of our circumstances, not the circumstances of today. As a strongly-biased “future” person, I’m all for pushing to change tomorrow’s circumstances. (See The Time Paradox for more on future-focused people.)

The problem is that happiness is lived in the now. It’s in the today. It’s in the present moment. In that context, what matters is my acceptance of the reality of now. Not that I can’t or shouldn’t want to change things tomorrow to be better – that’s great – but I can’t change things in the now.

I Like Persons, Not People

I’m an introvert. I’m charged up by time spent reading, researching, and writing. It’s the way I find my core. I love one-on-one conversations about deep topics. I find that, individually, a person can be amazing. However, people – as a group – aren’t my favorite. Please don’t get me wrong. I love presenting to a group and watching the lights come on as I explain a difficult topic. I love the moment of confusion right before the revelation. I love the ability to help people. However, fundamentally, I’m not a people person. I’m a “person” person.

I can’t form connections with people. I form connections with persons. I learn about their struggles and their triumphs. I learn about their passions and their sorrows. It’s a precious gift that I try to graciously accept. The beauty of persons is that I can accept them as they are individually. I don’t have to see a sanitized, stripped-down version of who they are. That always feels empty and hollow to me.

Change Ourselves, Not Others

The journey into the wilderness isn’t for other people. It’s for us. We can’t tell others to go into the darkness for us. We must go for ourselves. We need the vulnerability of the journey to teach and guide us. We need to know that we can be vulnerable and survive. We need to learn the truth of nature is that all growth is vulnerability. The time when bacterium is the most susceptible to being killed is immediately after replication. It must become vulnerable to grow. So, too, we must become vulnerable to thrive.

We can’t do our work hoping other people will change. We must do our work hoping that we will change. We must trust that the process will change us in the same way that heat changes iron to steel. Native American Indians used to send boys into the woods for a trial. The trial ended with the boy returning from the wilderness as no longer a boy but a man. It’s time for all of us to go Braving the Wilderness, so that we can come back out changed for the better.

The Signal and the Noise

Ever notice how easy it is for conversations to be drowned out in a crowded place? It’s frustrating when you need to communicate with someone right next to you, but there’s too much noise to be heard. This video will help you cut through the noise and get your signals through in your corporate setting.

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Book Review-The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth

What would it be like to have an organization that you could bring your whole self to? What would it be like to be comfortable in sharing all your thoughts in your organization? That’s what Amy Edmondson is trying to find and develop in The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

Sources of Fear

What places strike fear in your heart? It is walking into a graveyard – even during the day? Perhaps there’s a sense of foreboding as you drive past a place where you saw a horrendous wreck. Maybe you get the heebie-jeebies when you walk into the principal’s office to talk about your child, because you remember getting called into the principal’s office as a child. Should any of these places make you feel uncomfortable or fearful? Maybe not, but it doesn’t change the feeling.

This is the fundamental problem with creating a psychologically-safe environment in your organization. While it is possible to create an objectively safe environment, both physically and psychologically, that doesn’t mean everyone will feel like the environment is safe. How they feel about it is more important than reality.

In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I explain that trust is a gift. It’s not a matter of being trustworthy – it’s a matter of someone deciding that trusting is the right thing to do. They’ve accepted a level of vulnerability on the chance that it will work out better for them. There are no guarantees, only hope that trusting will create better results.

We can – and should – make it easier for folks to trust by being worthy of trust. But, at the same time, we must recognize that fear comes from deep within, and sometimes it bears little resemblance to the actual facts of the situation.

Fear Beyond the Walls

In many cases, the fear that exists in the mind of employees doesn’t even originate inside the walls of the organization. It may be something they “caught” from their family of origin from their dad being laid off, turning their world upside down. It might be from the judgmental voices they expect to hear if they once spoke up and were fired because of it. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood speaks to the differing views that generations have to things like job stability and how our parents may have been more – or less – fearful for their jobs.

Too many people today live paycheck to paycheck. If they lose their job, it is a serious financial hardship that can have devastating effects. It’s easy to not be afraid when you’re secure – if you don’t need the job so it doesn’t matter. It’s quite a different thing if your family won’t eat in a week if you don’t keep the job. The fear level rises, and it’s outside of whatever may be happening in the organization.

Too many of us have heard us or our colleagues say “I have kids in college” when asked why they’re not speaking up. On the surface, this makes no sense. Kids in college has nothing to do with making a suggestion in a meeting. However, at a deeper, fear-based level, it makes perfect sense. They’re supporting their children through an expensive time, and if they lose their job, they won’t be able to do that. The fear extends beyond financial to their ability to provide for their children and even their identity. It’s a truth that pierces the very essence of their situation.

Fear of losing a job is present even when it makes no rational sense. The average tenure of the organization can be measured in decades (as it is for one of my clients). It’s possible that no one in the history of the organization has been fired – or at least fired for bringing up controversial ideas. However, that reality doesn’t matter. There’s still a part of the person who worries whether their idea or comment or suggestion will be the reason the organization breaks the trend.

Fear Inside the Walls

It’s been a stressful day. The news is there are new regulations that will hurt the business, and everyone’s jumpy. Jane makes an innocent mistake that costs the company a few thousand dollars. Under normal circumstances, it’s not even enough to raise an eyebrow. While mistakes aren’t desired, they’re understood. However, today isn’t an ordinary day. Sam berates Jane only for a moment before catching himself. The entire room stares at him in disbelief. He’s made a scene. He’s made a mark.

The problem with creating an organization full of psychological safety is that psychological safety is, fundamentally, trust – and the trust has been broken. Trust itself is a funny thing. It’s built over a lifetime and crushed in a second. Sam’s outburst will have far-ranging impacts on the perceived safety in the organization for years to come. Even if others can’t articulate it, they’ll feel a bit less likely to speak up the next time they have an idea. They’ll be a little less willing to take a risk, and the company will suffer for it.

The real problem is you can’t truly prevent every possible way that trust and safety will be violated. You can – and should – work towards lower levels of incidence, but, at some level, mistakes – including those made by managers – are to be expected. Instead of trying to prevent all failures, you’ve got to switch to a strategy that works on resilience and recovery rather than planning and prevention.

Courage

Fear is a natural part of life, whether we like it or not. It takes courage to overcome our fears and move forward. Courage is, in fact, that idea. Courage is not the absence of fear but rather moving forward in the presence of fear. (For more on courage, see Find Your Courage.) While Edmonson focuses on psychological safety, there’s a truth that nothing is completely safe, and therefore courage is required. There will always be some fear lurking around in the dark recesses of our mind, and courage helps us get past them.

It’s not that creating a workplace of psychological safety isn’t a good, noble, and necessary goal. It’s that it’s insufficient. What you do by creating a place of psychological safety is reduce the need for courage, not eliminate it. On the one hand, the idea is to increase safety and therefore reduce fear. On the other hand, we must accept that even objective safety can’t quell the need for courage to overcome whatever fear remains.

Learning

The role of safety in learning is multi-layered. There’s plenty of research on children who struggle to learn in school because the conditions of their home life are challenging. Programs like free and reduced lunches, before school breakfast programs, and a host of others are designed to mitigate the impacts of these extra-school challenges to learning. However, they’re not able to eliminate the factors. One of the biggest factors that these programs have a hard time mitigating is the fear that is felt by students. They know they’ll be fed at school, so there’s some level of knowing that they will have some food, but they don’t know whether they’ll have a place to live or whether there will be a life-threatening fight that night.

Most employees won’t face this level of fear in their organization, but fear still depresses some capacity for learning. Edmonson makes the distinction between learning activities that are done alone and those that are group learning. The learning activities that are done alone are relatively undisturbed by the lack of psychological safety, where those which require group interaction are substantially more depressed – presumably because the increase in interpersonal risk and the fear associated with it.

Invisible Acts

Learning is an invisible act. You can’t see it happening. It’s difficult to measure, as the measurement interferes with the learning process itself. While learning is a positive invisible act, there are many invisible acts that aren’t positive. Every time someone fails to speak up, it’s invisible, and quite often it means less value for the organization.

We can become fooled by the idea that we’re not facing negative news so everything must be just fine. The problem isn’t that there are no negative things happening in the organization, the problem is that we’re not seeing the negative things that are happening.

The unfortunate reality of organizations with low psychological safety isn’t that they report more problems than their comparison organizations – they often report much fewer. The problem is that the act of not saying what you think, not reporting a problem, and not taking a risk is invisible. While failure is seen, not trying is hard to find.

Failure Is Inevitable If You Try

Many years ago, a friend of mine told me that she admired me, because everything I did just worked. From her point of view, I had no failures. From my point of view, I’ve got all sorts of them. For instance, there’s my $2,000 mistake ordering lights from China. I make mistakes every day. I’ve got a long list of failures. My only secret, if there is one, is that I keep my failures from becoming fatal.

It’s not that I like failures or that I look for them. I am not “pro failure,” I’m “pro learning” and even “pro trying.” I’d rather try and fail than not try. That’s a fundamental shift. Some folks are so afraid of failure that they’re unwilling to risk it. However, I’m so afraid of not trying that I can’t imagine not risking it. In the long run, I know that taking risks will yield better rewards, assuming I can survive and keep taking reasonable risks.

Fear and Stress

In the end, psychological safety in any organization is minimizing the fear people have, so it’s easier to be courageous. The reduced stress means that they’ll live better lives, and we’ll get better results. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for stress’ impact on the person, and Drive for its impact on the organization.)

If you’re interested in better lives and better organization performance, maybe the starting point is creating The Fearless Organization.

Worm Hole Physics

You don’t have to understand physics to see some serious benefits of using a wormhole. Commutes are a thing of the past. Distance loses its inconvenience. This engagement video gives you a glimpse of what working with wormholes might look like when you use live video, audio, and screen-sharing with Teams.

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Book Review-Leadership

The title is simple. The book is long. However, Leadership is a comprehensive look at political leadership that James MacGregor Burns executes well. I’m not personally much of a fan of political books. However, as I read Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, it became clear that Rost derived a great deal of his thinking from Burns’ work, and thus it was important that I read it to understand more clearly Rost’s thinking.

Leadership, Power, and Relationships

In rapid succession, Burns explains that leadership is a special form of power, and power is a special form of relationship. Power is the ability to influence others. Burns explains that leadership is a non-coercive form of power. That is, there are no consequences for people to follow the leader. They desire to follow the leader, because they perceive it is in their best interests. Coercive leadership relies instead on the follower’s desire to avoid consequences.

Rewards and Punishments

For a long time, it was believed that rewards and punishments were processed as two different directions by the same part of our brains. However, the latest neurology indicates that happiness and pain aren’t processed the same way at all – and, as a result, rewards and punishments may not be processed the same way either. In 1985, Watson and Tellegen produced a model that maps emotions on a two-factor structure of affect. One definition of affect is “touch the feelings of (someone); move emotionally.” They separated the positive affect from the negative affect and created a diagram that showed the resulting emotions as various degrees of each. (See Emotion and Adaptation for more on the two separate systems that process positive and negative perspectives.)

Daniel Pink in Drive explains how subtle changes like time pressure dramatically change (reduce) performance on creative tasks. Burns seems to intuitively know that the results you get from a positive approach and the results you get through instilling fear might be radically different.

Authority

In generations past, things were harder – but also simpler. It was a simple matter of survival. You obeyed the leader, whether that was a lord or a monarch. The power of the leader was almost limitless. On a whim, they could exile you from the community, almost certainly dooming you to death. You accepted your place, as you toiled just to survive and for the survival of your family. Everyone worked because they needed to. The line between life and death was razor-thin and always too close for comfort. (See The Evolution of Leadership for more.)

Authority, then, was necessary to hold back the chaos and allow a single leader to direct the group. This was an organizing principle that allowed humans to work together and to slowly grab hold of control of the planet. Authority was power, and power could sustain the society. Everyone knew their place in the community, and little concern was given for upward mobility, as too much was focused on what it takes just to survive.

The complexity of our interactions has enhanced our expectations. Total authority like monarchs and lords isn’t possible any longer.

Reactivity

How people respond to rewards and punishments isn’t consistent. To some, pain is a nuisance; to others, it’s a critical issue to be addressed. Criticism bounces off some people like rain on a duck’s back, while for others it cuts deep into their core. Reactivity to coercion isn’t the same either.

In my career, I’ve been, at times, called difficult to manage. Looking back on this in the context of Burns’ work, it seems like I have a very low reactivity to coercion. I wasn’t afraid of losing my job, and, as a result, the coercive, veiled threats didn’t work on me. I do remember stunning a project manager by telling him I’d quit before doing what he asked – and I would have.

Coercive techniques lose their efficacy when people don’t react to them. Fewer people feel as if they’re at a precipice, therefore fewer people react in fear. The same factors that made me difficult to manage makes younger generations difficult to manage as well. They believe they can always return to their parents’ home, where previous generations may not have felt that way – at least not in such great numbers and with such surety.

Previous generations warned of the potentially dire consequences of quitting one job before having the next lined up, but, in some cases with younger adults, this seems about as normal as washing your bed sheets. That is not to say that they change jobs more frequently than we did – the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t bear that out. However, they feel much less fear about those changes.

The good news is that lower reactivity means that there’s a greater opportunity for healthy conflict.

The Role of Conflict

In our world, whether shaped by history or not, we generally perceive conflict to be bad. We think that nothing good can come from conflict. However, the truth is that most good things come from conflict. Conflict itself is neutral. How you respond to conflict makes all the difference.

The Christian Bible says that “iron sharpens iron,” revealing that we’ve known conflict and bumping into one another has the capacity to make us better. A more contemporary example might be the results that Pixar gets through conflict in their movie-making process, as Ed Catmull explains in Creativity, Inc.. Sometimes the sentiment of conflict is carried below the surface of our consciousness. We see examples of people who maintain inner conflict between their current capacity and their desire, resulting both in flow (see Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman) and peak performance in a field (see Peak).

Despite conflict’s obscure value, there are times when conflict, disagreement, and dialogue aren’t called for. (For more on how to dialogue, see Dialogue.) Sometimes, leadership calls for decisiveness. The mark of a good leader is realizing when this is and isn’t necessary. Every move toward decisiveness necessarily cuts off others’ opinions. They’ll have to trust that this is the special case – not the norm – to continue to want to bring their whole selves to the organization.

Self Esteem

There’s a delicate walk that good leaders take. On the one hand, they provide sometimes critical feedback that allows those they lead to grow. On the other, they build those they lead up in ways that allow them to have enough self-esteem and perceived self-efficacy that they can continue to function. Good leadership is mindful of the need for people to save face, no matter which culture they’re in. After all, The Ego and Its Defenses is clear that the ego is well-armed to protect itself should that become necessary. It’s up to the leader to not call the ego to arms.

When leaders can support the self-esteem of those they lead, they expose the capacity for them to hold others in high esteem and open the door to their learning.

Capacity to Learn and Be Taught

A long time ago as I was learning to lead, a brilliant leader and friend of mine explained that there are coachable – and non-coachable – behaviors. That is, sometimes, the things that get in folks’ way aren’t things that they are willing or able to confront yet, and, as a result, they aren’t open to coaching on that topic.

There’s a perennial debate about whether you should hire for experience or enthusiasm. Is it better to have the benefit of experience or the exuberance of youth? Should be you be focused on finding someone who has done it before or who is willing to run headlong into a problem and overcome it in a potentially new way? This focus hides the real question that’s burning inside the brains of hiring managers everywhere. Will this person be teachable – and teachable in ways that matter to our organization?

We want experience. It makes things quicker and easier. However, we don’t want bad experience, nor do we want to have to provide experience for someone who isn’t willing to learn. We see in the youthful enthusiasm a willingness to be taught, and sometimes that outweighs the hard-earned experience that the wiser members of the talent pool have.

Leaders need to find – and hire – the followers that can help to sustain them. Intellectual leaders are particularly in need of followers and patrons to keep them going.

Intellectual Leaders

Leadership isn’t often thought of as a state of internal conflict, but that can be the case for intellectual leaders who struggle between the pure approach and the practical one. They struggle with careful correction and encouragement. They walk the line between having the analytical data and the courage to proceed with their gut.

All this conflict takes a very large toll on the leader. They need followers who can help them sustain their resolve in the mission and the objectives to be met. They need patrons who are willing to support them while they’re working on the mission when it isn’t working yet. Without this company, we may find that the leaders fold under the weight of the task they’re undertaking and their own conflict.

Pressure and Relief

Internal pressure in the leader isn’t the only pressure in society. Whether it’s oppression of women and their right to vote or oppressive organizations that are choked by the poor quality of their leadership, not everything is right in the world. We find that, wherever pressure can build, it will be relieved. The relief is sometimes accomplished in peaceful ways, which help the oppressed accomplish their goals of more equitable treatment. But, sometimes, that isn’t the case, and entire societies are rocked by the explosive force as the system is blown apart.

In the Egyptian revolution of 2011, citizens used Twitter to organize and began a revolution on January 25th that caused President Mubarak to resign. It was a part of the Arab Spring that occurred in late 2010 and into 2011. The series of protests had profound effects on the region, and they demonstrated that the velocity and ferocity of people united in their struggle could be amplified and accelerated easily through the use of social media in ways that are difficult if not impossible to prevent.

Political leaders in non-democratic states were caught off guard by the ability for the populace to organize and activate their power. Organizations everywhere realized that authoritative leadership isn’t working like it used to.

Leaders and Followers

In the way that democratic leaders function, there’s an interesting question about who is really leading whom. As an elected representative, the politician is supposed to be working for the good of the constituents that elected them and the government at large. To fulfill this role, they must be constantly monitoring the needs of the people and then following the direction that they’re headed. This opens the problem of figuring out where the majority of the people are heading – and how to balance waiting for their clear direction and the expectation that you’re out in front leading them.

While Rost in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century discourages the use of “follower” and “leader” as paired terms (because there’s no such thing as followership), Burns accepts that there are times when people are leading, and there are times when leaders are catching up to their followers – or adjusting their course based on the needs of their followers.

Burns also defines leadership as a special form of power and power as a relationship between people. Just like super-massive planets can tug on the stars they orbit and cause them to wobble, so, too, can followers shape the path of leaders.

The Need for Belonging

It’s lonely at the top. Pick up any leadership book, and you’re likely to find that quote or at least that sentiment somewhere in its pages. Humans – you and I – were designed for connection. Without that connection, we’ll find that we’re missing part of what it means to be human.

Leaders need other leaders who can support and build them up and followers who can strengthen their resolve. Without powerful followers, leaders eventually succumb to the pressures of the world and give up their quest.

If you’re looking for how to strengthen your leadership and find others to build you up, perhaps the first step is reading Leadership.