Book Review-12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

“Freud had a point. He was, after all, a genius. You can tell that because people still hate him.” That’s what brought me to 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I’m a part of a list where folks discuss various aspects of positive psychology. A 20-page, academically written paper was sent to the group criticizing Jordan Peterson’s work 12 Rules for Life. Ultimately, as I skimmed through the paper, I felt like it sounded like sour grapes (see the fable). Peterson had sold two million copies of the book and been on the talk show speaking circuit. It felt like the people criticizing his work were frustrated that he wasn’t clear enough in his message (he was “opaque”) or that he was seemingly contradictory. That was enough to cause me to read it. Anyone who can create enough of a stir to get someone to write and cite for 20 pages was interesting to me.

The Backstory

In order to understand the context of the book, we need to understand that it started from a Quora post. Quora is a website where people can post questions and answers. Peterson answered a question “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” with a mixture of dead serious and tongue-in-cheek answers that the readers of the site loved.

As I was pondering the 20-page paper, I began to realize that, if you read the entire list with the dead-pan seriousness of an academic, it would be very confusing. Sarcasm is very hard to pull off in writing. Often, humor is attempted, and it’s lost on the audience. If you’re literal, you’ll miss the subtlety of how the structure is nonsensical. It’s like handing a builder one of Escher’s drawings and telling them to get to work building it. It can’t be done. So, I donned my humor cap, kept my sarcasm wand handy, and dove into the 12 Rules for Life.

The Chaos Within

The world is a messy place. It seems to define chaos, as everything that we attempt to control wiggles its way out of our control and eventually goes sideways. From Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi to the explosion of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia to more mundane bridge failures, we cannot escape the fact that there is a chaos of our world that is hard to control. However, each of these disasters – and many more – are born not of external chaos but the chaos inside the hearts and minds of the people involved with the projects. This chaos – the chaos inside – is challenging to address and all too often overlooked.

The chaos comes from the ways that our images aren’t fully integrated. The ways that we see ourselves is fragmented and disjointed. We’re afraid of many things – most of which aren’t real. Hitler killed millions for fear that the Jews would somehow overpower his Aryan race. (See The Holocaust.) One can frame the event as a power move or as Hitler’s desire to make the world a better place. I see it as fear that, if he didn’t do something, the Jewish people would take over. That was apparently only one aspect of the chaos within him.

Iconoclasts believe they can make the world better. However, often they find themselves conflicted, confused, and disjointed. They cannot see the world as it is because they cannot see themselves as they are.

Take Responsibility First

Before you can set upon the journey of enlightenment, you must carry the burden of responsibility. You are responsible for yourself. You are not defined as a victim though you may have been victimized. You are responsible for your own healing just as you’re responsible for the results you receive. We can’t move forward if we’re spending all our time looking back at others to blame them for our misfortune.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all privileged. If we can read, we’re privileged. We’re privileged both that we have the skill and also that we have the time to exercise the skill. Too many people are burdened with the needs of basic survival and have no use for such frivolities as reading. Though Socrates wasn’t a fan of writing (and therefore reading), he did believe that leisure was a time for studying. Where leisure for us may be something totally trivial and useless, to the ancient Greeks, it was an opportunity to be more learned. (See Finding Flow for more.) It was something they aspired to be.

It’s not that there aren’t going to be uncontrollable things that negatively impact us and our world. It’s that no matter what they are, we must take responsibility for our part of the situation and commit to the process of healing ourselves whether there are others there to help us or not.

Chaos Within Order

Everything in life is made in layers. Our forests are made of trees, and our trees of leaves. There are patterns everywhere if we’re willing to look. Our seasons come and go, but, ultimately, they are just a cycle. Leaves are each different, but, together on a tree, they appear orderly as a part of the tree. So, too do trees seem orderly when viewed from the context of a forest.

Order or chaos often is a result of our perception – not an objective reality. David Bohm in On Dialogue explains that an acorn is not an oak tree. It’s the aperture through which an oak tree emerges. Chaos emerges from order – and order from chaos. We perceive only a small slice of what reality really is – one example is that we only perceive a moment in time.

Fear and the Lack of It

If we can delude ourselves into believing in order and our ability to control, then we can believe in our capacity to shelter our children from the realities of life. (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion – or delusion – of control.) The problem with this delusion is that, when something happens outside our control, we’re ill prepared for it. While the high anxiety of low income and the instability of it isn’t good for us, neither is feeling too safe and too orderly. We can’t learn to cope with the real evils of life if we’re unwilling to confront the reality that we live in.

Those who live without any fear in their life are bound to find a time when fear asserts itself. Without any skills for coping with fear, it can crush the uninitiated. Chicks that are “helped” out of their shell are likely to die, because they didn’t learn to struggle. (See The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children.) So, too. can children die a psychological death if they’re helped to avoid real conflict and fighting and are suddenly thrust into a frightening situation. It turns out that the absolute absence of fear isn’t good for us. So, parents, would you prefer to make your child safe – or strong?

Strong Partnership

When we move from our childhood relationships and the reverse when we’re parents ourselves and instead focus on the relationships of peers, we’re confronted with the realization that partnerships work best when both parties are strong. A team of oxen will pull at twice the effort of the weaker ox. Yoked together, the stronger must stay in lockstep with the weaker, and therefore can’t take on more load than the weaker ox.

Our relationships are like that. We can’t carry the other person in a relationship of peers. We’ve got to find ways to be strong together.

Faulty Tools

Standing at the firing line trying to hit a target 20 feet down range, it seems like there’s no way to hit the bullseye. All the bullets are going in low and right of the target. Even fully supported on a gun rest, the shots are going low and right. No matter how still the gun is or how many attempts are made with the sights pointed right at the bullseye, the problem persists. Faulty tools will result in a faulty outcome. In this case, the sights can be adjusted to bring the bullets closer to the bullseye, but that’s not always the case.

Sometimes, when we’re looking to improve ourselves and our situation, we use the wrong tool – like trying to use a hammer to drive in a screw. Using the wrong tool won’t give us the right results. If you’ve been around tools for long enough, you’re bound to break one or two. Whether it’s a wrench that splits in half in your hand or a carabiner that snaps while you’re pulling a stump, faulty (or improperly used) tools fail to deliver the results. Once you’ve failed with the faulty tool, you’ll have to find one that works.

Delinquency Spreads

It seems to make sense on the surface. Bring in ex-convicts, who know what it’s like to get convicted of a drug-related crime, to talk to students about the horrors of drugs and how they can mess up your life. The result should be that the students should want to avoid drugs, right? Drug Avoidance and Resistance Education (DARE) thought so. However, the results said differently. In many cases, DARE students turned out to be more likely to use drugs. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.) So much for the idea of scaring kids straight.

Delinquency tends to spread more than stability. If you don’t believe me just ask the Kelloggs, who found that their adopted chimpanzee was teaching their son to bite the walls. Delinquency even spreads across species (see The Nurture Assumption for more).

Children Are Damaged

They’re damaged when the people who are supposed to care for them are unable to correct them for fear of alienating their friendship. Instead of being focused primarily on their responsibility to instruct, guide, and raise up, some parents seek a friend in their children.

Peterson continues beyond just saying that children are damaged by this parental failure. He says that discipline is a responsibility. It is not anger nor revenge, it’s a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgement. Failure to hold children accountable dooms them to having to learn important lessons of responsibility and consequences later in life, when they will be much more costly. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more on this.)

The Growth of Resentment

Mass shootings are a tragedy. Any shooting is a tragedy, but mass shootings seem to have a sense of pointlessness to them. By June of 2016, there had been over one thousand mass shootings in the United States. It’s far more than just Columbine. How these events happen isn’t a mystery. They happen as resentment grows until hatred spreads to everyone instead of just the people who have “wronged” the attacker.

Just as the Dalai Lama recommends exercises to bring about more compassion (see My Spiritual Journey and Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism), so, too, do the attackers replay their perceived victimization and rehearse their feelings of resentment until those thoughts expand beyond the anger with few people and encompass all of humanity.

Bargaining with the Future

Mischel did a simple test of delayed gratification with preschoolers. A single marshmallow now, or two in a few minutes. His simple test had ripples down the lives of the preschoolers. Those who could delay gratification ended up more successful in life. (See The Marshmallow Test for more.) Peterson agrees that the successful among us bargain with the future. That is, we’re willing to make sacrifices today for rewards tomorrow.

This can’t happen until the environment comes stable enough that the investments we make for the future can pay off. In a world filled with uncertainty and chaos, there’s no point in investing in the future, because there may not be one. Stress is evolution’s ultimate solution to the problem of short-term needs and making debts into the future. Stress allows us to consume more resources quickly to avoid the lion but at the expense of our immune system, digestive system, and others. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)

Self-Trust

Veterans sometimes come home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Peterson explains that most PTSD comes not from what was veterans saw but instead from what they did. The break, it seems, doesn’t come from the stress outside of the veteran but instead from the lack of self-trust that comes from realizing they did something that they now find morally reprehensible. Certainly, this isn’t what happens in every case, but it seems to be happening in some.

How can you trust that you’ll do the right thing if you find that your best thinking led you to doing something that you now deeply regret? There may be an answer in Milgram’s work. He showed that most people would issue what they believed to be potentially lethal electrical shocks with very little manipulation. Perhaps when they’re able to see that they’re not alone in their capacity to do evil things, they’ll realize that they should accept they’re not perfect. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and The Lucifer Effect for more on Milgram’s work and How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Willful Blindness

Sometimes we don’t want to see. Sometimes seeing is uncomfortable and disconcerting. It disrupts our view of the world and in doing so makes us question everything – or at least many things. Rather than moving forward into the darkness, we turn back into the safety of what we know or what we believe we know. The problem is that this willful blindness distorts our perception of reality, and it dooms us to be held in a prison of our own making.

The early Christian church believed that everything revolved around humans. God created the heavens and the Earth, and his crowning achievement was mankind. It goes to reason, then, that we were placed in the center of the universe, and everything else orbited around us. Galileo was shamed, imprisoned, and punished for what we know now is the truth, that the Earth orbits the Sun – not the other way around. The beliefs of the church made them willfully blind to the reality of the observations that were being made. In contrast, the Buddha said that we must accept fact. If our belief contradicts facts and observations, then our beliefs must change, not the facts.

The prison happens when we refuse to go past the edge of the light of what we already know. If we refuse to explore into the darkness for fear that we might learn something that will change our beliefs, we’re necessarily trapped with a more incomplete view of the universe. Only with willingness to go forth in courage and learn can we begin to apprehend the universe. Nietzsche said that a man’s worth was determined by how much truth he could tolerate – and that means letting go of willful blindness.

The Past is Alive

Have you ever been reminiscing with old friends or your family and come across an event that you remember one way and they remember another? Maybe it’s what car you were in. It could be that you thought you were at the lake instead of stuck at home. It could be the people who were there at the event. Whatever the discrepancy, have you been surprised to find out that your perception was wrong? Maybe there’s photographic evidence. Maybe there’s a record of what happened. But in a moment, you realize that your perception of the past isn’t objective reality.

Our memories are not, unfortunately, dispassionate observers recording all the details like a video camera. Our memories are reconstructed and ephemeral. They don’t really exist for more than the moment. Each time we access a memory, we either impart new emotional residue to it or we take some away. Because of this, the past isn’t a fixed point that we can reference in our journey through life. Our past is a drifting dreamland, where what seems solid reveals itself to be nothing but smoke.

It’s not just our past and memories that change. What we know and what we knew are changing. Ancient cities are discovered that were thought to be made only of story and legend instead of clay and stone. The victors write the history books, and they can write them from their slanted point of view – whether that accurately conveys the real situation or not. Our views in the present about the evils of racism, slavery, nuclear power, and greenhouse gases influence our perception of the past.

Many elderly people look upon their youth with fondness and yearn for simpler times when things were better. Rewind the clock 100 years, and you increase suffering, death, and struggle. However, somehow, these objective realities are no match for the way that the person perceives the past. They can hold onto the best parts of the past – and maintain the best parts of today. The problem with this is that it can’t possibly be that we’d have advanced medicine of today back then and the simple, less-hectic life. You can’t have one without the other.

Risk Optimization

Have you ever done something just to feel alive? Did you take a measured risk because you were tired of the relative safety of your life? Maybe it would help if I provided some ways that people seek the appearance of danger. Maybe you got on a roller coaster at your favorite amusement park. Intellectually, you know it’s safe, but your vestibular system is screaming to the rest of your brain that this isn’t normal and therefore can’t be safe.

What about that corner that you rounded at twice the recommended speed just to see what would happen? Or the fight you picked with the bully at school, because you knew the teachers were standing close by?

The fact of the matter is we don’t seek to eliminate risk. Many would say that we cannot eliminate risk, that it’s a fool’s errand. (See The Black Swan for more about risk.) If we can’t eliminate it, we must seek to optimize it. We seek enough risk to motivate us – and not so much that we find ourselves overwhelmed by its presence. As we look at our life, we must realize that we’re not looking to totally eliminate risk, we’re looking to optimize the amount of risk we take into a comfortable range. (See Who Am I? for more about the motivator of savings – which is how we mitigate risk.)

Oedipal Mother

Peter Pan is an idealistic character, whose story of never growing up has enchanted many. However, the story behind the story is tragic. James Barrie’s story starts when he was six, and his mother’s favorite son, his brother, David, dies in a skating accident at thirteen. James becomes his mother’s confidant and supporter, entangling his view of himself with his mother’s views. His mother’s mental illness trapped David at the age of thirteen while James aged. Ultimately, this caused James to desire to remain at thirteen as well and gave rise to the story of Peter Pan. (See The Globalization of Addiction for more on this story.)

This is but one tragedy of many where a parent refuses to allow their children to grow up. They believe they live only for their child, and therefore their child’s appropriate attempts to distance themselves threatens the very existence of the parent. The bargain that is made is that the parent will do anything for the child, and, in return, the child will never leave the parent. The result is that nothing is ever the child’s fault. Everything wrong is because someone other than the child made a mistake. It’s a very dangerous bargain.

It’s at the heart of why I wrote The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable. I didn’t want to see more children damaged by unhealthy relationships with their parent, which choke the children like an emotional boa constrictor.

Meaning

Philosophers have debated the meaning of life for millennia. There is no found or agreed upon answer to the grand question. However, finding the meaning of our lives is an important part of learning to cope with the challenging nature of life. It’s how Simon Sinek explains to motivate people in Start with Why. Peterson explains that a person who has a “why” can endure any “how.” Why we’re doing things at a global level, at a work level, and at a personal level makes all the difference to our willingness to persist when things get difficult. (See Grit for more on persistence.)

Perhaps if you’ll find your “why,” your meaning, in 12 Rules for Life.

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. Brené 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.

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.

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.

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.

Skunk Works Leadership

I finished writing my review of Skunk Works and I realized that beyond the amazing aircraft that they created, they developed a culture that managed to side-step the government bureaucracy and get things done. Somehow during the mountain of paperwork, they managed to be as agile as a gazelle. This is something that large organizations aspire to today. They feel the pressure to be more competitive, adaptive, and agile because of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we find ourselves in.

The hope here is to find a few nuggets of how the Skunk Works was successful, so that other organizations trying to mimic the results have a blueprint they can use.

No Blueprints

The irony of trying to build a blueprint is that, often, the blueprints came after the part was made at the Skunk Works. There were many times when designers would work with machinists and assembly personnel to figure out how to make something work. They’d mock something up on cardboard, the machinist would make it, and then return the cardboard or part to the designer to get it drawn up.

From most perspectives, this is backwards. However, at Skunk Works, that’s just how things worked. The team worked together to address the need or solve the problem, and then they’d make sure that their individual commitments to the rest of the organization were met. Agile software development would take a page out of this book decades later in deciding that ceremony wasn’t important, people and interactions were important.

You Can’t Contract Your Way Out of Conflict

Own your own business for a while, and you’ll make friends with an attorney or two. It happens because they’ll save your bacon at some point – and because you’re going to be talking to a lot of them. A wise friend of mine explained that contracts are funny things. You write a contract, so it’s clear what should happen when things go wrong – and then you hope nothing goes wrong. You write a contract so you can trust what the other party will do – and you know that you can’t write a contract with someone you don’t trust. It just won’t ever work.

The point of this is that, at Skunk Works, the relationships people had mattered. It wasn’t position, power, or prestige. If you weren’t working together to solve the problem, you weren’t working.

Clear and Present Danger

The Soviets at the time Skunk Works was created represented a clear and present danger to the United States. What we didn’t know was the degree or aspects of the danger. That’s what Skunk Works would eventually end up solving for the US. They’d level the playing field with advanced jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft that provided the best understanding about what was really happening inside the Iron Curtain.

Skunk Works always had clear targets. At the largest level, it was to be able to protect the United States’ interests. At the micro level, the targets for the aircraft could be specific. The SR-71 Blackbird project was targeted to fly at over 80,000 feet and Mach 3. (For more see, The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird.) They achieved these goals, in part, because they were specific. They had something that the team could shoot for and desire to be a part of.

Secret Handshakes

Being a part of Skunk Works was something special. It was something that few people could say – and to some degree, it was something that even the people inside couldn’t say except to each other. It created a special sense of community inside that circus tent. This was the crack team. They were going to save the US from foreign interests. Everything was riding on them.

There may not have been any secret handshakes, but the secrecy of their projects bonded everyone together in a way that not every organization can accomplish. There was something to being a part of the group – it meant something. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

The Fewer the Better

While they weren’t many people, they were handpicked to be the best at their jobs. What was assembled became a testimony to Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The model that the Skunk Works operated under didn’t require more people. In fact, Johnson recognized early on that Skunk Works raises and promotions had to be different, because there wouldn’t be as many people for them to lead. The group wouldn’t require leadership in the same way that the rest of the organization thought about it.

Rather than focusing on empire-building by collecting the most people working for them, Skunk Works managers would focus on output and results. Instead of worrying about competing with others, they’d be focused on how to collaborate with their peers – and compete with the enemy. (This is a lesson that Richard Hackman would drive home in Collaborative Intelligence years later.)

Lessons for Today

It’s great that Johnson and Rich were able to build and maintain a culture at Skunk Works with such amazing characteristics. But how do the leaders of today leverage this wisdom to create a culture of their own that’s capable of incredible results? Here’s a few ways.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek explains, in Start with Why, that people need a shared purpose. While most organizations today don’t have an enemy the size of Russia to target, they can target a change they want to see in the world. This change provides a central theme for everything that the organization does. Organizing principles make it easier to work together towards the common good.

Clear, Compelling Goals

It may start with “why,” but it doesn’t end there. It ends with the specific goals that individuals and teams need to accomplish to allow the organization’s mission to be successful. The specific goals – sometimes very difficult goals – drove the engine forward. The SR-71 Blackbird was only 84% efficient at burning fuel, leaked like a sieve on the ground, and had a horrible habit of the jet engines “unstarting” during flight. Because the goals were clear, these “annoyances” were acceptable. When you’re building something that’s generations ahead of anything anyone else can do, there are going to be drawbacks.

In your organization, clear goals allow you to focus on the requirements, the “must haves,” and allow some of the other things to land wherever they need to.

Compete Outside, Collaborate Inside

Too many organizations have managers pitted against each other in a struggle for resources and power. The real enemy should always be outside the organization. Hackman’s Collaborative Intelligence makes it clear that internal competition doesn’t create well-performing teams. Of all the things that we can learn from Skunk Works, I feel like this is the one we forget most often.

Results

Skunk Works wasn’t easy. It was hard, demanding work, and people didn’t “pussyfoot around” when there was a problem. Results – the ability to get things done – was always at the forefront of mind.

Communicate

In Johnson’s rules for Skunk Works, he made a point that evaluations (budget reporting) had to be timely – and problems needed to be disclosed as quickly as possible. Knowing bad news late does you no good. You need to know bad news as soon as possible, so you can mitigate the risks caused by it. If there was one thing about Skunk Works, it was communication – for better and for worse.

Collocate

For the first time, the people who needed to work together to get things done actually worked in the same space. Instead of designers lobbing designs over the wall and machinists handing them off to assembly, everyone worked together because they were close together. Agile software development learned the value of the product owner and the software development team being close together. It improves the measurable communication – and it builds bonds of trust that allow you to transcend the normal rules for working together.

Trust

Too few people in organizations trust each other or the organization. At Skunk Works, everyone knew that if you did your job to the best of your ability – even if you failed – Johnson (and then Rich) would have your back. You trusted the people you worked for and with. That makes all the difference. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.)

Failure

It seems odd that failure should be a part of success. However, it is perhaps the most important part of success. Without the ability to fail safely, you won’t know about failures until too late, and the organization won’t be able to learn from the failures. So, paradoxically, failure allows you to succeed – when you’re willing to accept and acknowledge it.

Back to Skunk Works

According to the current literature few organizations have matched Skunk Works’ level of functioning. Books like An Everyone Culture and Reinventing Organizations make it clear that our organizations are falling far short of their aspirations. Perhaps if we’re willing to take a look back to the Skunk Works, we can see just some of the ways that we can make our organizations more powerful.

The Evolution of Leadership

It’s impossible to really understand what things were like a generation ago. We apply our perspective from today and come up with a distorted version of the past. We can’t imagine how leadership worked at the turn of the last century, with authoritative leaders creating a group of employees only slightly removed from slavery. We look at a new generation of workers and wonder why they behave differently than us when we were starting our careers – and fail to recognize that this is both true and untrue at the same time.

It’s time we hopped a ride in the way-back machine to get a better picture of what things used to be like, so we can understand the changes that are happening – and what it means to us.

Safety and Fear

The common thread that we’ll find as we walk through the changes in society, and therefore leadership, is the prevalence of safety and its relationship to fear, both physical and psychological. Human behavior is shaped by fear and safety in large and small ways. When looking from the leadership lens we see that we need to lead in ways that are more aspirational and less authoritarian. Why is that case? As it turns out, there’s a reason that drives this change in leadership styles.

Physical Safety

Our ancestors primarily considered their physical safety. Given their mortality and the struggle for water, food, and shelter, they didn’t have much room to consider how they felt. The introduction of “the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence was, at the time, a foreign concept. Most people were locked in the struggle for mere survival, and happiness wasn’t a concept that was worthy of consideration for all but a select few.

The driver when it came to safety was our physical well-being and the well-being of our families – because they were a part of our safety net.

Driving Safety

It’s 1926, and Route 66 is becoming the experience of a lifetime for many travelers. It’s a call to adventure and an opportunity to explore the country in ways that hadn’t been possible before. The road was a continuous stretch from Chicago to California – but it was just that: a stretch. Automobiles had been made practical through Ford’s innovations of mass production, and since 1908, they were an affordable way to travel. Ironically, Ford shut down manufacture of the Model T shortly after Route 66 was completed. (Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Model_T.)

Reliability of the automobile isn’t what it is today. The first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 wasn’t initially a race as much as it was an endurance test. Getting automobiles that could travel 500 miles without breaking down was a challenge. Sure, there was a winner, and the goal was to cross the line with the highest average speed; but of the initial field of 40 cars, only 12 finished. Another 14 still had engines running, but flagged out when they were disqualified – the remaining 14 cars weren’t functional by the end of the race. (Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1911_Indianapolis_500.)

These were the top automobiles of their time, and fewer than a third finished 500 miles. Route 66 was roughly 2,500 miles. Breakdown wasn’t so much of a possibility as a probability. If you did break down, you had a toolbox on board to try to resolve the problems yourself, because, in this world, there weren’t cell phones, and the service stations weren’t close together. You’d also expect to have food and a tent in case you needed to camp out along the route. (Source https://www.historic66.com/.)

It is difficult for us to conceive of a time when traveling was so hazardous and error-prone. Today, we punch in an address in our GPS receiver and wait for turn-by-turn directions to our location. Just a generation ago, we taught map skills to children because it was important to understand how to route ourselves. We expect that cellular signals will reach mobile phones so that, even in the rare case of a problem with our car, we can call someone to help us with a repair, a meal, a room, or directions.

We feel safer in many different directions. We believe that problems happen much less frequently, with lower severity, and we believe that we’re able to recover more rapidly. Few of us keep stable food in our cars today, much less camping equipment or tools in case we need to plan on camping out or repairing the car ourselves.

Food Costs

The truth is that we were able to take risks like traveling the “mother road” of Route 66, because our discretionary income was increasing. Sure, the 1930s were marred by the Great Depression, but there were other factors that were moving towards greater affluence. Consider that, in 1900, the average American family spent approximately 40% of their income on food. By 1950, that number was down to 30%. Today, our cost for food is less than 15% of our income (on average). (Source: https://www.bls.gov/opub/100-years-of-u-s-consumer-spending.pdf.) In the space of 100 years, we freed up 25% of our income.

Reducing the cost of food means that fewer people were at risk of starvation. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still families struggling today to keep enough food available, but the number of families for which this is a problem is substantially lower than it was a century ago. The problem of food safety (enough food) is still an important social issue, but the prevalence of families for whom this is a consistent struggle is decreasing.

House Sizes

Many families took their new-found discretionary income and poured it into their houses. In 1950, the average home size was less than 1,000 feet. By 1973, the size ballooned to about 1,500 square feet. (Source: https://www.daveramsey.com/blog/housing-trends.) From 1973 to 2015, the average size of homes ballooned another 1,000 feet, while the number of people living in each home went down. The net effect was a near doubling of space per person in the space of about 40 years. (Source: http://www.aei.org/publication/new-us-homes-today-are-1000-square-feet-larger-than-in-1973-and-living-space-per-person-has-nearly-doubled/.)

The perceived financial safety transferred to Americans making larger investments in their houses. In 1950, the average house price was $7,354. The average home price today is $236,400. Even adjusted for inflation, the cost of a 1950s home would only be $44,600. That’s nearly a 5-fold increase in the last 70 years. We’re feeling safer about our financial futures and we’re turning homes into castles – almost literally.

Mortality

It may be frustrating to not get to our destination, but it’s more challenging to realize that we’re not going to live to see our grandchildren. In the 1800s, the average life expectancy was 35 years. Today, the life expectancy is around 70 years. In the last 200 years, we’ve doubled the life expectancy of humans across the planet. (Source: https://slides.ourworldindata.org/global-health/#/title-slide.) Measured differently, in 1900, about 2,500 people of every 100,000 would perish each year. Today, that number is approximately 750 people – roughly one-quarter. (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data-visualization/mortality-trends/index.htm.) Our fear of death is real – but it is waning because we know that the average lifespan keeps climbing.

Instead of a persistent fear of death and injury, we’ve quelled our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.

Hyperactive Fear

The landmark study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) taught us that a tumultuous childhood has long-range impacts. (See a wealth of resources about the ACE study at https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html.) The primary stress response system is the HPA, and activating it too much causes a predisposition of continued activation. That is, once you create a high degree of fear in a child (or an adult), you’re likely to see them be sensitive to fear in the future. They’ll respond with fear more readily than someone who hasn’t been similarly primed. (See How Children Succeed for more on the impact of the ACE study on children.) It turns out that the clock winds back even into the womb, as David Barker discovered in his research around the fetal origins of adult disease (FOAD). Some adult diseases can be predicted based on the stressors to the mother during pregnancy. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on ACE, HPA, and FOAD.)

In short, the impacts of stress on children – even before they’re born – have long-term consequences for their ability to control themselves and their long-term health. Walter Mischel and his colleagues showed that the ability to delay gratification has substantial long-term impacts for a child’s life through their “marshmallow test.” (See The Marshmallow Test.) When we reduce the fear that children feel and the stresses placed on them in utero, we can place them in a position of being more able to regulate their own emotions and quiet their fears and desires. As the societal stressors are reduced one by one, we’re literally changing the wiring of our brains and making them more thoughtful and less fear-based.

Psychological Safety

Amy Edmonson is responsible for crystalizing the term “psychological safety” as a representation of how safe members of a team feel about the team itself. In some teams, there is a real belief that they can be themselves – their whole selves – and in other teams there exists a perception that you must only do what is expected of you, and you shouldn’t share your all.

Bodies and Minds

It used to be that people hired the bodies, and the minds were just along for the ride. However, with today’s more taxing requirements for creativity and innovation, it could be said that we hire the minds, and it’s just the body that transports the mind to work – even if that’s just across the hall to the home office.

It’s hard to understand that, before the extreme automation that we’ve developed today, we really did need people performing backbreaking work. It was necessary for people to do many of the jobs that today are handled by robots or other kinds of automation. Today, not everyone even sweeps their floors any longer. A robotic vacuum does scheduled cleanings, makes a map of the places it’s cleaned, and notifies you when it needs its bin emptied or if it’s gotten stuck. It’s no surprise then that the physical aspects of work are no longer key. Today when we lead, we need to do more than just command other people’s bodies where to be. We must inspire them to think in ways that are useful.

Minds Aren’t Easy to Manage

We all love to believe we’re in rational control of our faculties. It’s a convenient lie to believe that we can command ourselves to do things. However, few New Year’s Resolutions are kept: dieters, on average, gain back 107% of the weight they’ve lost. Clearly, our conscious decisions don’t always work.

Drive shares how a small amount of stress – time pressure – can change the degree to which people can be creative about their solutions. Getting the best work out of the people you work with is something that takes a Multiplier, but that guidance isn’t particularly clear about how you lead every day by getting the most out of others.

Making of Managers and Not Leaders

Until the last two decades or so, it was enough to lead by directing, or managing, people. However, this is no longer the case. Today, we must find ways to inspire the hearts and minds of people. This is substantially more challenging than just bossing them around. However, that’s how leadership has evolved.

Book Review-Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization

Why is change so hard? Whether we’re trying to change a culture, a team, or ourselves, change is hard. The core answer from Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization is that change is hard precisely because it’s designed to be hard. We’ve developed a resistance or an immunity to change to protect ourselves from unnecessary, too frequent, or too extreme changes. The result is a natural immunity to change. While this serves us well in most circumstances, some of the most difficult challenges in our lives are changes we want to make, desperately need to make, and for which our immunity has activated to prevent our best efforts to change.

Should I Change or Should I Die?

It seems like an easy answer: we should change. However, as Change or Die points out, 90% of cardiac patients don’t make the recommended lifestyle changes even after a heart attack. Criminal recidivism rates exceed 67.5% in just three years. Even after their freedom has been taken away, criminals don’t change their behaviors. The question becomes why is this? What is it that allows someone to put themselves in danger of death when their stated goals are to live?

The answer lies in the contradiction between the stated goals and the hidden, conflicting goals that are only exposed through our behaviors. We can identify our goals, our desired behaviors, and ultimately what the unstated goals are that drive those behaviors. Typically underlying these conflicting and unstated goals are big, hidden assumptions about the way that the world works.

Defining Goals

Each year, millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Six weeks later, very few people are still working towards their resolution. They’ve made a rational decision about what they want – but they’re not doing it. The most common resolution is to lose weight. The health benefits in a nation of predominantly overweight and clinically obese people are obvious. No one is confused that there are long-term health issues that are substantially influenced by being overweight. The research around this isn’t changing.

What does change are the hidden goals that can’t be articulated. You can chalk the problem up to a Rider-Elephant-Path problem, where the rider makes a rational decision, but the emotional elephant isn’t going to do that. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on this model.) You could say that it’s just too hard – but the relative challenges of weight loss are well known. It’s even well known that most people fail in the long term, returning to weights that are 107% of where they started. There’s a hidden goal of protecting our self-image of the person we see ourselves as – and not changing it even if ostensibly we have a goal to change.

Mental Models

There are different ways that we see the world, and, in the context of Immunity to Change, the belief is that there are three progressive ways that we see and experience the world:

  • Socialized Mind – Here, there’s a clear recognition that it’s necessary to be a team player and work with others. Direction and orientation largely come from outside of oneself.
  • Self-Authoring Mind – Self-direction and the desire to direct others arrives as problem solving and independent thinking emerge. Direction is largely internal.
  • Self-Transforming Mind – The inherent contradictions that troubled the self-authoring mind are accepted. The realization appears that we all live interdependent lives.

This set of mental models is like how Steven Covey explains the maturity from dependence to independence and, finally, to interdependence in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. However, there’s a twist to the self-transforming mind. In addition to the awareness of interdependence, it’s also capable of looking at the filters in place and evaluating them. Said differently, a self-transforming mind need not just look through their perceptual filters; a self-transforming mind can directly examine and evaluate the filters. I mentioned this in my review of Resilient, how you can evaluate what’s happening without becoming a part of it.

Types of Challenges

What if all challenges could be broken down into just two categories? One category of challenges is technical. That is, once you know the solution, you can use it every time to solve the same problem. It’s simple cause and effect, problem and solution. In this model, you need only know what the solution is and execute it to solve the problem.

The second kind of challenge is an adaptive challenge. The challenge is constantly adapting and changing as you try to solve it. This is what might also be called a “wicked problem” by Horst Rittel. (See Dialogue Mapping for more.) Behavior change lives in this space where not all the components are known – or even can be known. The process for changing behavior through Immunity to Change is one that seeks to illuminate the dark places of tacit knowledge and beliefs and seeks to make them more explicit. (See Lost Knowledge for the distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge.)

Illuminating the Hidden Commitments

Our immunity to change comes from our deep-seated and hidden expectations, perspectives, and commitments that keep us trapped in where we are and what we believe despite our conscious desires to change. We want to be better as a leader but can’t let go of tasks that others could do quicker and better than us, because we need to feel like we’re “hands on” and are really contributing value.

The problem is often that we’ve not had a chance to really understand ourselves. We spend our time rushing from one thing to another, barely pausing to consider whether what we’re doing is what we want to be doing or is consistent with the way that we see ourselves. (See How to Be Yourself for more on this.) In our dealing with other people, our lack of understanding of ourselves shows itself. In my reviews of Dialogue, I wrote about the inner game of dialogue. I spoke about how our internal views and perspectives leak out everywhere, even in our attempts to dialogue with one another.

X-Ray

Immunity to Change focuses on the idea of an X-RAY that has four columns, which provide a view of why the conflict exists and why it’s not a simple technical fix to resolve the issue. The columns are:

  1. Visible Commitment – What is the commitment that the person wants to make in their world?
  2. Doing/Not Doing Instead – What are the behaviors that are currently in operation instead of the desired behaviors?
  3. Hidden Competing Commitments – What are the invisible commitments that are preventing success? Whether these are about the commitment itself or about the perceived identity of the person, what is preventing success?
  4. Big Assumptions – What are the assumptions that drive the hidden commitment? What are the perspectives that sustain the hidden commitment?

An Everyone Culture, a book I’ve previously reviewed by Robert Kegan that was published after Immunity to Change, adds one additional bit to column 3. That is a worry box. It’s what you’re worried about – as a prompt to help you better articulate what is holding you back. If you can walk through these four columns and get clear the idea is that you’ll know how to change.

One Big Thing

Sometimes, when people begin a journey of growth, they become overwhelmed with the opportunities for improvement. It’s important to recognize that we don’t have to grow or change in every area all at once. The reality is that most people’s success is inhibited by one or two key skills You don’t have to be great at them, you need only to reach a level of minimum competency.

In The ONE Thing, Gary Keller tries to lead us to focusing on just one thing but, in doing so, acknowledges that we may need to have one thing in multiple areas of our lives. The goal is not to drive that one thing – in each area – to the point of being excellent. All that is necessary is that we reach competency.

In fact, Benjamin Franklin, who was famous for many things including his productivity, tried to push himself sequentially to develop a set of virtues. He found each time he focused on another virtue, one of the ones he believed he had mastered faltered. (See Primal Leadership.)

We cannot be best in everything, but we can sequentially try to improve ourselves. Though we may experience periodic setbacks – like Franklin – in the end, we’ll find that, if we just work on one thing at a time, just to the level of competency, we’ll keep improving ourselves, and we may even find that we like ourselves.

I Like Me

If we’re really good at continuously challenging our immunity to change, and we continue to work on our ability to change – to overcome our Immunity to Change – we may just find that we like ourselves. It could even be enough to say that you have no regrets – because you like the person you are, and everything you’ve done has led you up to this point.

Book Review-Beyond the Wisdom of Walt: Life Lessons from the Most Magical Place on Earth

What happens when you step out of Disneyland or Walt Disney World? You take the shuttles, monorail, or boats back to your vehicle… But what then? What happens after you’ve been to a place of magic and you come back to the “real world?” Do you bring a bit of the magic with you to nurture and spread, or do you leave it all behind with the hopes of returning real soon? Jeffrey Barnes’ vision in Beyond The Wisdom of Walt: Life Lessons from the Most Magical Place on Earth is for you to take the magic beyond the parks.

Barnes’ first book, The Wisdom of Walt, explains Walt Disney, his life, and his passions. It explains the man, the movies, and the parks. It highlights for us where the magic was to make it a bit easier to find and a bit easier to understand. Without diminishing the quality of the experience, he shares with us the magician’s tricks so that we can look in wonder at what shaped the story without ruining the illusion. However, Beyond is different. It’s different, because instead of confining the story to the parks, Barnes seeks to help us find a way to integrate the best of Walt and the parks and bring that to our everyday lives.

It’s Kind of Fun to Do the Impossible

“Impossible” is just a word, but it holds so much power for most of us. It’s impossible to write a book or get a patent. Except that it’s not. We know that it’s possible – we just believe it’s impossible for us. The funny thing is that it’s not impossible. It’s just hard. Disney knew that what most people believed was impossible was just hard, and he was always willing to do the hard work.

For me, writing books has become almost passé. I know that writing a book is just like writing a bunch of articles and stringing them together. I know that writing an article is like writing a bunch of summaries on topics and stringing them together. I know that no matter how much you hate writing, you can write a book if you dedicate yourself to it. I once had an English teacher tell me that I should never do anything with writing. To say my writing back then wasn’t good would be very generous. I didn’t use that as a personal mission to become good – it just happened to me naturally as one thing led to another.

Barnes explains in Beyond that The Wisdom of Walt took twenty years and 142 days to write – and the 142 days is all that mattered. 142 days is less than a half a year. What would it be like to have written a book this year? It’s not impossible. It’s just hard.

In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler speaks of some of the incredible feats that extreme athletes are able to do. They seem almost super-human. No human could possibly do these things, but they do. And why? Well, there’s a mix of a lot of purposeful practice (see Peak) and a state of mind called flow. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman.) What we believed was impossible was – in fact – very possible. If you need something specific, the sub-four-minute mile was considered impossible. Someone who accomplished this would surely die because it was beyond human capacity. When Roger Bannister did it in 1954 – nine years after a slightly over four-minute mile run by another gentleman who maintained the record – he only got to enjoy the glory of being the fastest man for two months before someone else bested his time.

Impossible is just a word. Nothing is impossible. It’s impossible to create an amusement park that doesn’t draw in an undesirable carnival atmosphere, but Disney did it. It’s impossible to build a company, a way of life, and a culture around a mouse, but that’s exactly what happened. It’s impossible to put a man on the moon and return him safely home – except that’s what America did.

Had you asked me five years ago if I’d ever get a patent, I’d have told you it was impossible. I didn’t have any particularly deep knowledge of chemistry, mechanics, molecular engineering, or any of the other skills that I thought would warrant the issuance of a patent. However, together with my wife we devised a way to make it easier for patients to be safer in the hospital by some changes to the humble dressing that protects from infections. Three years later – yes, three years – we’ve got a patent. It was impossible – right up to the point where it wasn’t.

Walt Disney got the chance to make the impossible happen. He got the chance to change reality and you can too.

Creating Reality

Walking down Main Street, U.S.A., there are two competing thoughts. The first is, this isn’t real. It isn’t like any real place you’ve ever been – and at the same time, it harkens back to a time that we all wish was real. This thought is interrupted by the realization that, though it may be, in some ways, a front, it is also objectively real. You can see it, smell it, touch it. It must therefore be real – whatever that means.

It’s difficult to accept that Disney created lands and worlds, but we know that he did. We know that he shaped his reality around his dreams and visions. So why can’t we create our realities? I’m not suggesting that we create our own theme parks, but aren’t there small ways that you can create your reality today?

I can hear the voice inside your head (because I think it got there by way of mine) that says: “But you’re not Walt Disney.” That’s right. You didn’t go bankrupt. You didn’t have a father that never understood your art or what you were doing. You, in fact, may be more likely to succeed at creating your reality than he was.

Progression

I should be careful to add that Disney didn’t make wild, unfounded bets. He made small attempts and then progressively larger ones. He didn’t start with Snow White (his first full length animated film). He started with animated shorts and perfected the skills necessary to move to the next level. The opportunity to create (or shape) your reality isn’t a license for recklessness. It’s a license to move forward.

Barnes explains that he’s descended from General George Pickett, who led the disastrous charge at Gettysburg. His wife, Niki, is the voice of reason that helps him make slow and steady progress instead of wild charges into the unknown. That steadying force is important. Whether internally motivated or externally provided, we all need someone who can temper and help us to regulate the passion to move forward and the persistence to move through barriers.

Barriers

It’s in the way. The thing that I want is on the other side of this barrier. Getting past it seems like a frustration, a waste of time, or just plain depressing. However, sometimes the barriers are exactly what we need to develop our character in ways that allow us to reach our dreams and shape our realities.

I’m reminded that if you “help” newly-hatched sea turtles get to the ocean, you condemn them to death. They need the struggle to find their way to calibrate their sense of direction. Chicks will die if you “help” free them from their egg shell. While no one likes struggle, it’s the struggle that makes us who and what we are – and we’re better for it.

Disneyland exists, because Burbank didn’t want the carnival atmosphere they expected from Disney’s plan for a Mickey Mouse Park. The Seven Seas Lagoon exists, because the geology wouldn’t support a parking lot that was planned for the location. Instead of pictures with a sea of cars in front of the park, we have pictures with an actual, beautiful, sea in front of the park. Barriers sometimes stop you from the easy and ordinary and force you into doing something extraordinary, something worthwhile.

Doing Something Worthwhile

Simon Sinek implores leaders to Start with Why when leading others. It’s the “why” that is the purpose. Strangely, it was a quote from Jack Lindquist that made Disney’s mission make sense to me. “We are not a cure for cancer, we are not going to save the world, but if we can make people happy for a few hours for a day, then we are doing something worthwhile.” The key was that something worthwhile.

Barnes relates the story of Walt’s father (Elias) coming to see his brand new studios. Unable to help his father understand the practicality of the studio, he finally described it in terms of how it could be used for a hospital. To Walt’s dad, his drawings and his movies weren’t “practical.” Practical was a proxy for “useful.” Elias’ question seemed to be whether or not what Walt was doing was contributing to the world. While Walt spent the entire tour speaking as if the studio could be a hospital, he was telling a story that his dad could hear and understand. As the master storyteller, one couldn’t expect much else, but Elias missed the point. He missed the point not just of the studio but of his son’s legacy.

It isn’t that the Disney brothers cured cancer. However, they did change the course of human evolution. They’ve helped millions of Americans see a world that encourages us to be the best that we can be. Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point explains the power of small things that make a big difference. The streets are clean. The “cast” are friendly. The world seems just a bit safer – a bit better – inside the parks. For a moment, Guests (Disney reportedly insisted that the word “guests” was always written with a capital G) can believe in a world that’s a little bit brighter and a little bit better than it actually is.

Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” For Walt and Roy, the change was to make the world a bit happier, and hopefully their desire for happiness could spread.

Hard Work, Patience and Persistence.

It’s easy to think that the theme parks work on magic. However, the sobering truth is, as Lee Cockerell says, “It’s not the magic that makes it work; it’s the way we work that makes it magic.” Even today, operating the parks is hard work. Creating them was hard work. All the magic comes from hard work.

Walt Disney went bankrupt. He lost his first major character to Universal. He fought and struggled. He worked hard to make his visions a reality. From animated shorts to full-length films, he fought for what he believed in. A little-known fact is that most of Disney’s movies lost money on their first run in the theatres. However, he didn’t stop.

The project that became the 27,000 acres of Walt Disney World were a reality that Disney himself never got to see. He died six months before groundbreaking. Unlike other projects that Disney waited to see, this one he had run out of time for. His smoking habit had finally caught up with him. However, while he was living, he waited until his team had developed the skills to do feature length films. He waited to build Walt Disney World until he felt the timing was right. In the end, his brother and his team completed his vision for a theme park on the east coast.

The combination of hard work, patience, and perseverance is what built the experience we know today. The question for all of us is how are we going to use these same qualities to go Beyond the Wisdom of Walt?

Book Review-Leadership for the Twenty-First Century

Leadership is a tricky word to define. That’s why, in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Joseph Rost takes more than two-thirds of the book to try to define it – and probably still doesn’t get it quite right. You might expect that I wouldn’t be a fan of a book that spends so much time on something that most would agree should be relegated to a foreword or, at the very most, an introductory chapter. However, the story is more complicated than that. There’s a lot of wisdom in looking back and realizing how poorly we’ve defined the term and the issues that this has caused.

Rost walks through decades of different perspectives on what leadership is and wades back in the waters of time to try to find the root of what leadership is. He believes that you can only work on improving something once you know what it is. As it comes to leadership, few people have stopped to ponder what it really is. Most have some vague sense that leadership is management.

Management and Leadership

When you have managers enter a room for a leadership meeting, it’s just another day in the office, and, at the same time, it comingles the terms “management” and “leadership.” If your managers are the ones doing the leading, then how are the terms different? Unfortunately, when used in this way, they’re likely not different. Leadership loses its special meaning when it’s just a synonym of management. Management, too, loses its distinct meaning when anything considered leadership can be lumped in. It’s not that one is more necessary or better than the other – just that they’re different.

Some would argue that leadership is successful management, but that lays down the gauntlet as to what successful management is. Considering that the same managers for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Lego were called successful during one period of the company and unsuccessful during the next using the same strategies, were they leading all along or not? The answer is perhaps that we’re looking at the wrong measures. Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence suggests that you can’t look purely at output measures. You must consider how the team is working together to know whether they’re effective or not. Perhaps leadership has the same qualities, which transcend short-term output and lead to longer-term goals. At the same time, without clear criteria, leadership takes on mythical properties.

Myths and Legends

Great leadership is the stuff of legends. People able to lead were like the knights of the round table, slaying dragons and saving the land. We lifted good leaders on pedestals and gave them massive salaries commensurate with the value we felt they could bring to organizations. This myth-making created CEOs whose income is orders of magnitude above those who worked below them.

Whether or not a CEO deserved the salary and bonuses they received isn’t the point. We saw the CEO as the chief leader and therefore worthy of enormous compensation packages. No one bothered to question whether the CEO was just lucky in their last role or whether they really had something special. No one bothered to pay attention to whether anyone was following them or not. We idealized the leader into something that couldn’t possibly be true, and no one was willing to speak out about “the emperor’s new clothes.”

Probabilities

The problem is that no one wants to admit that the CEO isn’t a mythical leader who always wins the day. We live in a probabilistic world. (See The Halo Effect.) Because of that, we must realize that a CEO may – or may not – be able to lead an organization through the current times. Some CEOs will have a better probability of success, but there are no guarantees.

Because there’s no way to know what the forces are and whether the CEO’s skills will be enough to overcome the barriers placed in their way – and there’s no way to know how luck is going to fall – we must take a risk and guess at success, and we don’t like to do that. It’s easier to believe in a myth than it is to accept the difficult reality that leadership – even good leadership – isn’t always successful.

Leaders and Followers

Rost’s essential point is that leadership isn’t and cannot be expressed in a single person. Rost’s point is that leadership is the name for the relationship between a leader and a follower. You can’t extract a leader and transplant them to someplace else and expect that they’ll immediately be followed. There are behaviors and things that can be done for a leader to encourage followers – but the followers still get to choose whether they want to or not.

By refocusing the conversation about leadership to one of relationships, Rost avoids the trap of creating a mythical leader and simultaneously recognizes the criticality of relationships and persuasion. Leaders don’t preside over followers, they join in a relationship with them, where the followers are persuaded to participate for the betterment of their collective goal.

Persuasion and Coercion

Persuasion is getting someone to do something that you want – or that your group collectively wants – without the use of force or threat. If you must threaten someone, then it’s coercion. However, the challenge is that coercion is not in the explicit threat, but it is also in the implicit threat. While no one might say that you must do this, or you’ll be fired, the implication is all too often well understood.

Persuasion makes people WANT to do something, and coercion makes it clear they MUST do something – or suffer the consequences. A person who is being coerced lives in fear, and fear isn’t good for creative tasks. (See Drive and Creative Confidence for more.)

Four Essential Elements

Rost summarizes his perspective on leadership with four essential elements:

  1. A relationship based on influence
  2. Leaders and followers are the people in this relationship
  3. Leaders and followers intend real changes
  4. Leaders and followers develop mutual purposes

Effectively this describes the parties in the relationship, the structure, and the purpose. There are, however, some nuances.

There’s no need for a person to always remain the leader and others always the followers. Co-led and self-organizing groups are OK. In Rost’s view, both the follower and the leader are active participants in the relationship. If someone isn’t active, they’re neither leader nor follower.

The intent to create real change is difficult, because the scope and scale of the change is very different. Leaders and followers may seek to solve world hunger or merely satisfy their hunger for a while. They share purposes – view of the world in the future – rather than specific, tangible goals. They may not always agree on the exact path moving forward, but they agree on the destination they’re trying to reach.

Direct and Indirect Effectiveness

Being a leader means expending energy in the development and maintenance of the leadership relationship. That energy necessarily must come from somewhere else. That “somewhere” is often personal, direct productivity. A leader sacrifices their individual output in the service of the greater good of maintaining the relationships.

Done correctly, the productivity of the followers drives the goals forward faster than would ever be possible by an individual contributor. A large or even moderate group of followers with a reasonable degree of alignment can be a powerful force.

Still, a leader must be able to accept the fact that they feel like they’re personally getting fewer things done – in service of the greater good.

Leadership as a Transformational Process

If leadership is different than management, then what makes it different? One consideration is that it’s transformational. What is happening is more than the direct results that are being achieved. Instead, the people in the relationship – both the leader and the follower – grow and become more than they were. Not only does leadership transform the objective reality through results, but, more importantly for the long term, the people involved transform.

In the context of Rost’s work – based from Burns work – is that the transformation moves the people to “higher levels of motivation and morality.” While this is interesting, I’m not sure that it quite captures transformational leadership. Motivation is a slippery topic, because it’s not single dimensional. It ebbs and flows, and it is very situationally-dependent. Whether we’re looking at our willpower to push through something (see Willpower) or hope that something will get better through our efforts (see The Psychology of Hope), motivation isn’t a fixed thing.

Morality is its own sticky mess. The Righteous Mind places morality on six foundations that have differing ratios – but not real levels. Moral Disengagement wanders through the ways that we lose our moral bearings without indicating ways that we transform into more moral creatures.

I tend to think of the transformation of leadership in terms of increasing our capacity. This carefully side-steps our direct results and acknowledges that someone who has been through transformational leadership has a greater ability to do things in the future.

What Others Are Saying

With all the discussion about the research Rost had done – and the research that the people he was quoting had done – I thought it would be interesting to review the leadership books that I’ve read and taken notes on to see what they had to say about leadership. Just as Rost found, I found that some of the books that I put into the leadership category didn’t define it – a fact that had escaped my notice while reading the book. However, I was able to pull quotes from my notes for several. There are listed below in alphabetical order by the primary (first) author’s last name:

  • Organizational Traps (Argyris) – “Effective leaders are still seen as exhibiting four competencies, namely, adaptive capacity, engaging others by creating shared meaning, voice, and integrity.”
  • The Wisdom of Walt (Barnes) – “Leadership is not about managing things as they are today. Leadership is about transforming reality into your vision for a better tomorrow.”
  • Coachbook (Bergquist & Mura) – “Effective leaders, therefore, must be ‘not only concerned with what is but also with what might be.'”
  • Creativity, Inc. (Catmull & Wallace) – “When companies are successful, it is natural to assume that this is a result of leaders making shrewd decisions. Those leaders go forward believing that they have figured out the key to building a thriving company. In fact, randomness and luck played a key role in that success.”
  • Good to Great (Collins) – “…these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”
  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey) – “Leadership deals with the top line: What are the things I want to accomplish?”
  • Extraordinary Minds (Gardner) – “…influence occurs significantly in a set of exchanges between the minds of leaders and the minds of followers.”
  • Tribes (Godin) – “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea”
  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Goldsmith & Reiter) – “Becoming a better leader (or a better person) is a process, not an event.”
  • Primal Leadership (Goleman et al.) – “…leader creates resonance—a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people. At its root, then, the primal job of leadership is emotional.”
  • Originals (Grant) – “As entrepreneur Derek Sivers put it, ‘The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.'”
  • Servant Leadership (Greenleaf) – “I believe that the essential quality that sets servant-leaders apart from others is that they live by their conscience—the inward moral sense of what is right and what is wrong.”
  • Influencer (Grenny et al.) – “We call this ability to create changes in human behavior influence and the people who do it influencers. At the end of the day, what qualifies people to be called ‘leaders’ is their capacity to influence others to change their behavior in order to achieve important results.”
  • Dialogue (Isaacs) – “I will define leadership here as the capacity to hold the container for gradually larger sets of ideas, pressures, and people as the different crisis points unfold.”
  • An Everyone Culture (Kegan et al.) – “When Next Jump studied how things fail, the leaders concluded that the number one recurring pattern was the inability of people to manage their emotions, what the leaders call ‘character imbalances.'”
  • Leading Change (Kotter) – “Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles.”
  • Reinventing Organizations (Laloux) – “Consciously or unconsciously, leaders put in place organizational structures, practices, and cultures that make sense to them, that correspond to their way of dealing with the world.”
  • The Advantage (Lencioni) – “The only reason that a person should be on a [leadership] team is that she represents a key part of the organization or brings truly critical talent or insight to the table.”
  • Heroic Leadership (Lowney) – “Jesuits became leaders by understanding their strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview; confidently innovating and adapting to embrace a changing world; engaging others with a positive, loving attitude; energizing themselves and others through heroic ambitions.”
  • The Halo Effect (Rosenzweig) – “James Meindl at SUNY Buffalo concluded after a series of insightful studies that we have no satisfactory theory of effective leadership that is independent of performance.”
  • The Titleless Leader (Russell) – “When asked, followers were able to describe exactly what they need from a leader with remarkable clarity: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.”
  • Theory U (Scharmer) – “The essence of leadership is to shift the inner place from which we operate both individually and collectively.”
  • The Fifth Discipline (Senge) – “If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create.”
  • Seeing David in the Stone (Swartz) – “I realized that great leaders knew the lesson of the stone. They approached each new mission with the humility of a sculptor. They knew that if they put themselves above people, people would oppose them.”
  • Multipliers (Wiseman & McKeown) – “As leaders, probably the most important role we can play is asking the right questions and focusing on the right problems.”

What is – and What Can Be

In the end, manager see what is and leaders see what can be. Managers see today and the current reality. Those in a leadership relationship see what can be. Perhaps seeing what can be is what Leadership for the Twenty-First Century should be.