What if I Won the Lunch with Obama??

obama-hopeI know I have about as much chance of winning a lunch with President Obama in Chicago as I do winning the lottery with a ticket. I have been a sucker for this fundraising strategy since 2008. This time responding to the DCCC email, I felt a certain thrill. What if I actually won. What would I ask him? What would I say?

I would have to work so hard to ground myself and maintain my voice. What next?

First, I would thank him for withstanding so much ridiculous criticism with grace, for serving with such intelligence, and for being a great role model for leadership.

Then I would ask him how he avoided burn out working so long and hard as President.

What are some of the surprising leadership lessons he learned in the White House?

If he could go incognito anywhere in the world, where would he go? What is his idea of a perfect day?

What did he read on his vacation? What does he look forward to reading in January?

I’m not sure what I’d want to share. I believe I’d be happy to just enjoy the conversation. With my adrenaline surely pumping, how would I remember it?

What would you say or ask if you won?


Leadership Lessons from the Tour de France

I have been setting my alarm at 6:00 a.m. everyday since June 2nd to watch the Tour de France stage before I have to get going.  There are always leadership lessons if you pay careful attention.

barrier down
1 K barrier collapsed due to fan interference; photo Telegraph.co.uk

Sometimes the lessons are learned from others’ mistakes. The race organization ASO has much egg on its face for a series of logistical catastrophes. On Stage 7, the inflatable red 1 kilometer marker collapsed and caused a crash. When the race entered the Pyrenees it was clear that the ASO was not investing enough in safety as many spectators interfered in the race. Then on Mont Ventoux, the ASO moved the race short of the mountaintop because of severe winds but didn’t move the fan barriers. At 1 kilometer to the new finish the crowd closed in resulting in an accident, a broken bike and Chris Froome, the race leader (yellow jersey), dashing up the road.

Could this have been avoided? Absolutely. The ASO decided to move the finish line the day before, so they had time to move the barriers. The ASO excuses just grated on everyone’s nerves. It might have caused more angst, but the tragedy in Nice shifted the focus.

Teamwork really matters in cycling. When the race announcers Matt Keenan and Robbie McEwan talked about the Kiwi cyclist George Bennett, they listed “10 Requirements Besides Talent to be Successful.” I sat up and paid attention. They are: 1) be on time, 2) work ethic, 3) body language, 4) effort, 5) energy, 6) attitude, 7) passion, 8) doing a little extra, 9) be prepared, 10) coachable. This is a good list to use for choosing members of any kind of team.

Robbie McEwan added a 11th requirement: stay upright. He was referring to George Bennett’s run in with a spectator on Stage 9. For some crazy reason a spectator decided to cross the road as the cyclists came roaring around the corner. Bennett put out his arm and she fell backward out of the road. Asked about it later and the New Zealander said he “Sonny Billed” her. (Sonny Bill is a fantastic rugby player for the All Blacks.)

daily mail Sonny Bill
All Black Sonny Bill Williams; photo Irish Times

Preparedness brings luck. This has been illustrated again and again by Peter Sagan, Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin, and Mark Cavendish. Their preparedness has enabled them to take chances and advantage of situations resulting in stage wins and more.

Almost every year I am reminded of this lesson: Never give up! This year on Stage 4, the race commissioners had to review a photo finish before deciding that Marcel Kittel edged out Bryan Coquard by mere millimeters.

Irish times photo finish
Stage 4 Photo Finish; photo Daily Mail

Disenthrall Ourselves Now

Sharing an email I received (and reprinted here with permission) from one of my life mentors Kathleen Kraft.

Ken Burns

I found some of my most valuable insights come from Stanford University Commencement talks.  This year Stanford invited historian Ken Burns to address the June 12 graduates.  His comments are surprising…and chilling.  In part, he said…

“For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and long-standing relationships. I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and – they feel – powerless people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that – as often happens on TV – a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t. It is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.

As a student of history, I recognize this type. He emerges everywhere and in all eras. We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong. These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again – all happening at once. We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires. The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust, so much a part of American life, is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral Internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.

We no longer have the luxury of neutrality or “balance,” or even of bemused disdain. Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan, torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers. In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing something right. He is not. Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago. He is an insult to our history. Do not be deceived by his momentary “good behavior.” It is only a spoiled, misbehaving child hoping somehow to still have dessert.

And do not think that the tragedy in Orlando underscores his points. It does not. We must “disenthrall ourselves,” as Abraham Lincoln said, from the culture of violence and guns. And then “we shall save our country.”

This is not a liberal or conservative issue, a red state, blue state divide. This is an American issue. Many honorable people, including the last two Republican presidents, members of the party of Abraham Lincoln, have declined to support him. And I implore those “Vichy Republicans” who have endorsed him to please, please reconsider. We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization and reject the troubling, unfiltered Tourette’s of his tribalism.

The next few months of your “commencement,” that is to say, your future, will be critical to the survival of our Republic. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty.” Let us pledge here today that we will not let this happen to the exquisite, yet deeply flawed, land we all love and cherish – and hope to leave intact to our posterity. Let us “nobly save,” not “meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

Born for This, and This, and This

Today I had a reward day. After a rough start with some weird office politics, I had the joy of meeting up with two of my former colleagues (separately). They are both women I hired at Housing California who did amazing work and continue to grow as people and in their careers. They both took a moment to thank me for being myself. They cited specific things I did to make work fun and fulfilling. It was a better reward than a paycheck.

Tony Martin with better teammate photoIt made me think about my values and why I believe how we do things is as important as what we do. Many career counselors focus on the what.  We ask children, “WHAT do you want to be when you grow up?” I have had many roles in several fields and for me the common thread is HOW I go through the world. Do I treat people with respect? Am I encouraging people to reach their full potential? Am I limiting time wasting tasks and avoiding petty concerns and instead helping people to focus on the bigger questions the more strategic actions?

Born for ThisChris Guillebeau has a new book, Born For This. I started reading it with enthusiasm. I am thrashing around again to find real meaning and satisfaction in my work. I had great hope that it would help me gain clarity around what I should really be doing.  This book certainly has some good ideas about how to get unstuck if you are in a job you hate. It takes the romantic idea that we are born for a certain career and says that career satisfaction is not limited to people who have always known what they want to do. Guillebeau suggests that if you pay attention each of your jobs will give you important clues about what you were born to do.

While the second part of the book has some great life hacks for how to help the process of self-discovery along, I lost momentum. Today I realized why I lost interest. I was getting distracted by the search for the ideal field or role. Whereas in my life I find that I can work towards any number of goals and find meaning. Instead I am looking for the environment where my skills and talents can best be used in service of something larger. Today I was reminded the who and the how is more important to me than the what.

I have always had to earn a living and so I have done some pretty weird jobs from assistant director of the Cavalcade of Horses, cleaning toilets at a Christian camp, to a nonprofit Executive Director. The places I found the most work satisfaction did not always match up with what others were most impressed by. As I think about deep job satisfaction, I am asking: When was the last time I really shared a laugh with people at work? When did I last make a deep friendship at work?

Yes we are “born for this” at work: we are each endowed with a unique set of gifts and a something to offer our teammates. We do our best work when we are able to be ourselves.

It is time to search for the right work environment with a team who appreciates me.


Remembering a Powerful Mentor Pearlie S. Reed

I read Don Richardson’s post on Facebook: Pearlie S. Reed died. Funeral arrangements were made. As I numbly read about the hotel with a room block in West Memphis a wave of sadness mixed with gratitude overwhelmed me.

Pearlie official
Pearlie S. Reed’s official USDA photo

I was a 28 year extremely green Executive Director of the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts and Pearlie was the State Conservationist for the USDA Soil Conservation Service. He had to be Senior Executive Service to get the job in the nation’s biggest agricultural state. I just had to be willing to accept the woefully small salary.

He was infinitely patient and immediately began coaching me in every way I was willing to learn. I already had many terrific role models as teachers and employers. Pearlie towered over all of them in many ways. Without a doubt, he has had the biggest impact on me as a leader.

He taught me empathy before Brene Brown coined the phrase. I remember when I first started as Executive Director I was attending all of the Area Meetings and meeting all of the Directors. The current President and Vice President of the Board were also participating in these meetings. At one particular meeting I was seated at the head table with the President and with Pearlie but the Vice President Helen was not. Helen was a hard working officer who had a particularly fragile pride in her position. She was clearly hurt by the oversight. I felt awkward but I did not know how to handle it. Afterward I mentioned to Pearlie that Helen’s nose was bent out of shape and she was angry with me. He gently suggested I look at it from her point of view and then helped me think of several other ways I could have handled it. He did not make the case that it was her due, he just matter of factly calculated that a little effort would avoid a tempest that was a waste of everyone’s energy.

Watching Pearlie in action was a Master’s Degree in leadership. He had the superpower of listening. He could not speak even when the silence was very uncomfortable. I realized that he did this because unlike me he rarely spoke unless his thoughts were fully formed. Silence also worked to his advantage. Others in the meeting, in their nervousness, would often babble and share all kinds of information, which was especially useful in negotiations.

Pearlie talking
This is more how I remember Pearlie–sharing an idea with a little smile.

Some people found Pearlie intimidating. He was the hardest working, most ethical, wisest person in the room. I believe that his integrity often triggered the gremlins in others–like being around a priest and suddenly you start to think of all the times you cut corners or left early. And of course, there were still plenty of people who resented his talent because he was a black man.

He was the first person I had known from the South. Pearlie grew up in rural Arkansas before school desegregation. He was one of 18 children and his parents instilled a work ethic in him. He told me once that he could either work or study when he got home from school, so he studied as much as possible. He and his siblings more than succeeded in their fields because they had a drive for a better life and the discipline to make it so.

Pearlie was not a person who shared a lot about his personal life. He did not ask about your personal life either. This made the good ol’ boys in the USDA who liked to chew up half of every meeting with small talk about sports and family crazy. I loved it because I had  a lot of shame around my dysfunctional family. It was lovely to just concentrate on work issues. I learned over time to temper this somewhat as a manager. Because Pearlie shared so little about his personal life, everything he shared I scooped up and treasured like it was a pearl of wisdom.

Working alongside Pearlie I observed prejudice in action. This was also an important education. I experienced some additional obstacles as a woman, but nothing like the vitriol I saw aimed at Pearlie. He may have been angry in private, but I believe he was usually able to turn it to his advantage and put his energies toward his vision of a more inclusive USDA. He achieved his vision of transforming the Soil Conservation Service into the Natural Resources Conservation Service when he was Chief and he tackled the systemic discrimination in farm policy while serving as Assistant Secretary of the USDA.

I could go on because the memories are rolling back to me. Adversity makes people stronger. As a parent I am torn between wanting my children to gain strength through overcoming challenges AND protecting them from any unnecessary pain. Pearlie’s example reminds me that leadership is 20% perspiration and 80% the attitudes we choose. Circumstances do not necessarily make as big a difference as we think. Strength of character matters more.

Pearlie S. Reed was an extraordinary human being and leader. Some people make ripples; Pearlie made waves.

Rest in peace Pearlie.

The family has asked that donations be made to the Pearlie S. Reed Scholarship fund in lieu of flowers. If you are interested: send donations to University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff Alumni Scholarship Endowment Fund, Office of Alumni Affairs, 1200 N. University Drive, Mail Slot 4929, Pine Bluff, AR 71601.

Practical Wisdom on Trust

The marble jar is a key metaphor for trust…

I have been grappling with how to create a culture of trust in the workplace for the last 3 years. I have led one team in discussions about Stephen M.R.Covey’s book The Speed of Trust and Charles Feltman’s The Slim Book of Trust.

There is another solid contribution on trust now available. Brene Brown, who broke into the public consciousness with her research on shame and vulnerability, is hosting a website called Courageworks.com. Here you can find massive open online courses (MOOCs) based on her research. The first course is The Anatomy of Trust.

Without tromping all over Brene Brown’s copyright, she provides a handy acronym for remembering the basic elements of building trust: BRAVING. The first three are Boundaries, Reliability, and Accountability. You will have to take the class to learn the rest. There are exercises tailored to individuals, teams and groups and organizations.

boundariesThe Anatomy of Trust is available free of charge at http://www.courageworks.com. As with most MOOC’s you work at your own pace, so if you want to you can watch all of the videos at midnight and do the exercises at 2:00 a.m. There are two instructional videos for a total of about 27 minutes. The five exercises took me a couple of hours to complete, and your time of completion will depend on how much you want to think about the questions or discuss them with others. This is also a 27 minute Q&A session recorded in January that is optional but recommended. As with all learning, you get out of it commensurate with what you put into it.

BB Boundaries quote

I am still “rumbling with trust”. Like all of Brene Brown’s teaching, you have to be prepared for some messy middle stuff before you experience the reward of transformation. I am grappling with really getting boundaries in my bones. I definitely recommend the investment of your time in this course.

Leadership 101: Know Thyself

Dreams MothersTo be a leader you must know yourself. Or as they say today: Know your personal narrative. President Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father did more to secure my vote than all of the campaign messaging combined because I knew from reading his biography that he had done of the work of understanding himself and his relationship to others in the world.

This month for the Lutheran Ladies Literary Club we read Dreams of My Mothers by Joel L. A. Peterson. Mr. Peterson fictionalizes his biography but my guess is that it is mostly understood first hand. For a first effort, it was quite good. And as an exercise in coming to terms with his personal narrative, it is an exemplar.

It also gives us a peek into what it was like for poor women in Korea during the war and then near the American military bases as they had to make hard choices about their hearts and bodies. In the story Hee Ae works as a maid with benefits for an American soldier and becomes pregnant. The shame of giving birth to a half-American baby in a society bound by familial ties and racial purity seals her fate as a poor woman. Then the baby is accidentally scalded badly and has the further stigma of being a cripple. Babies born to American soldiers overseas have neither the rights of American citizenship, and in the case of Korea, nor the rights of Korean citizenship. Her son Nam would not be able to get an education or easily find work in South Korea in the 1960-70s.

The woman struggles with her inner demons and eventually decides that the best hope for her son is to give him up for adoption to an agency with ties to churches in America. And half-way across the world, the Holy Spirit was nudging a woman Ellen Lindquist in Minnesota to adopt a boy from South Korea. And so Nam becomes Noah Lindquist and has all of the opportunity and privilege that being an American gives in this world.

He did face prejudice for his crippled hand and for being “Oriental,” however the love of his family—mother, father and four siblings—helped him achieve great worldly success. Indeed, his parents especially instilled in him many fine values both through their teaching and mainly through their example.

The climax of the book occurs when Noah is in Japan as a Rotary scholar and has the opportunity to travel to South Korea and meet up with his first mother. This is when he fully embraces his identity as American Noah Lindquist.

My favorite passage is when an ex-pat in Japan tells him, “Being American isn’t being white or Western. It is about freely embracing a set of ideals and beliefs. And it is these shared ideals and beliefs, which are not coerced, and the shared efforts in striving to perfect their realization that binds us as a people and as a nation.” (p. 237)

My journey to know my story has been less about race and more about gender and what it means to be a daughter of the West. Wallace Stegner’s books had a profound impact on me as did Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own. I still feel I am learning who I am as I live my 53rd year and become a grandmother. To be a strong leader I need to know what is the bedrock that I am standing on for my values and my beliefs.

Predicting Surprises

jack popped

My colleague recommended reading Predictable Surprises, a book by Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins, and then it was discussed in the Human-Centered Design course. And finally another colleague learned about it in his management short course at Harvard. So I read the book.

Predictable surprises are disasters you should have seen coming–events or a set of events that take an individual or group by surprise, despite prior awareness of all the information necessary to anticipate the events and their consequences. (p 1)

The book focuses on three themes: cognitive failures, organizational failures, and political failures. There are 6 general characteristics to predictable surprises:

  1. Leaders know a problem existed and that the problem would not solve itself.
  2. Predictable surprises can be expected when organization members recognize that a problem is getting worse over time.
  3. Fixing the problem would incur significant costs in the present, while the benefits of action would be delayed.
  4. Addressing the predictable surprise typically requires incurring costs, while the reward is avoiding a cost that is uncertain but likely to be much larger. And perhaps more importantly, leaders know they can expect little credit for preventing them.
  5. Decision makers, organizations and nations often fail to prepare for predictable surprises because of the natural tendency to maintain the status quo.
  6. A small, vocal minority benefits from inaction and is motivated to subvert the actions of leaders for their own private benefit.

jack in the box popped

I can think of many predictable surprises that challenges me as a leader and our society at large. Working on Delta solutions is a case study in predictable surprises. They offer up examples such as Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. They also mention the meltdown of the financial system in 2007-8. If you want to skip reading the book, then please go see The Big Short. This movie does a terrific job of explaining what happened. Just do not believe the hype–it is a tragedy not a comedy.

If you are involved in trying to solve a problem such as climate change or even something narrower such as leading a change initiative in a company, I recommend Predictable Surprises.

The book does not offer many solutions to avoiding predictable surprises–although recognizing them is a management advantage. My conclusion is that it is another strong reason to create and actively maintain a risk register and to make managing risk a discipline.


Just Mercy for the Mentally Ill

Just Mercy

Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk (see below) is like a teaser for his excellent book, Just Mercy. I was especially interested in the chapter “Mitigation” about the mental health crisis and how our jails became substitute mental hospitals. Deinstitutionalization (the closing of mental health hospitals and the release of patients without replacement treatment and housing) occurred at the same time as the ramp of mass incarceration. Mentally ill people became victims of society’s appetite for imprisonment, often for drug and alcohol abuse and sometimes for behaviors their communities would not tolerate.

“Today, over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness. In fact, there are more than three times the number of seriously mentally ill individuals in jail or prison is a terrible place for someone with mental illness or a neurological disorder that prison guards are not trained to understand.” (p. 188)

He mentioned working with Pete Earley to raise the profile of prisoners on death row. Earley was one of the most popular speakers of all time at Housing California’s annual conference. So I pulled my signed copy of his book Crazy.  He tells the story of trying to get help for his son suffering with a mental illness and his year long investigation of a Miami-Dade County jail. I skimmed the book again but did not read it because I can only take so much learning about how screwed up our justice and mental health systems are in one week.

It makes me appreciate “stonecatchers” all the more. Bryan explains the term in the last pages of Just Mercy reminding readers of the New Testament story of Jesus stopping a stoning of a adulterous woman by challenging the Pharisees: those without sin, cast the first stone.

The Equal Justice Initiative law project helps people on death row and works to end the death penalty; working to end excessive punishment and improve prison conditions; Free people who’ve been wrongly convicted and stop racial bias in the justice system; help the mentally ill; and stop putting children in adult jails and prisons. (p. 293) I applaud EJI’s leadership on these issues.

“You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something… We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains is our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.” (p. 289)




Responsible Communication: Choosing Our Words

Our choices make up the sum of our leadership. A mature person realizes they are always “in choice.” This includes responsible speech.

Snarky business owner's sign.
Snarky business owner’s sign at the AMGEN Tour of California 2015 City of Lodi finish.

There is much confusion about free speech in the USA, especially during this election cycle, what with money being called speech and lies that would have ended campaigns drawing nothing but headlines. Leaders usually are held to a higher standard than the entitlement to say whatever they like. Leaders exercise responsibility when they act and are careful with their words. Oh where are the leaders today?

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s thesis in her excellent book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, is “if language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it in something like the way good farmers care for the soil.” (p 3) Years of hyperbolic advertising, yellow journalism, misrepresentations in political speech and fraud in business has depleted and polluted the English language. As English is the dominant language of the internet (80% of information is in English) and business, it is urgent to address the decline in literacy and commitment to truth.

She makes the case that to be good stewards of our language we need to do three things: 1) deepen and sharpen our reading skills; 2) cultivate habits of speaking and listening that foster precision and clarity; and 3) practice poesis–be makers and doers of the word. (p 9-10)

McEntyre gives 12 strategies to steward the English language:

  1. Love words.
  2. Tell the truth.
  3. Don’t tolerate lies.
  4. Read well.
  5. Stay in conversation.
  6. Share stories.
  7. Love the long sentence.
  8. Practice poetry.
  9. Attend to translation.
  10. Play.
  11. Pray.
  12. Cherish silence.

It has inspired me to make my word for the year: truth. I intend to focus on reducing my own tendency to hyperbolic enthusiasm, to take a Great Course on crafting better sentences, and to memorize poetry. It is a start.

There is an urgency that I hope you share with me. I just watched The Big Short at the movie theater. It can only be described as a comedy if you like black humor. High levels of deceit (and greed) in the world’s banking system led to a complete meltdown in 2008. The complicity of the regulatory and government agencies resulted in no one being held accountable and nothing enacted to avoid a repetition of the same calamity. The stakes are high on so many fronts.