15 Ways to Avoid Extremist Thinking as a Leader

PrecisionAbout a year ago I read a post on LinkedIn about Leadership that included a list of what makes a good leader. The author was a CEO of a big company. The list struck me as so black and white that at first I thought it was a joke then I realized that it was for real. This was an unsettling thought namely because, while black white thinking can be a sign of a leader, it’s most often associated with a leadership style the world needs less of. Dictators and zealots.

To be clear, this post isn’t an attack of the author, but rather a criticism of a way of thinking that has no room for mistakes, failure, imperfection, and most importantly, the realm of human experience that is constantly in flux, the part of us that is always and can always learn. Our humanity.

So I wrote a list to counter the author’s, focused on what I’d learned in all my jobs and in life up to this point as well as what I’ve observed indirectly from reading about the lives Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and Mother Theresa to name a few. Here is the list; the original points are in bold, followed by mine in italics.

  • They Never Fail To Lead
  • Always learn how to lead better
  • They Are Never Lukewarm
  • Follow an inner conscience over strong or “lukewarm” passions
  • They Never Tone Down Their Vision
  • Aim for bold visions that are good for all, before grandiose plans that the majority of followers realized in hindsight, were more about power
  • They Never Break Commitments
  • Obey conscience over the risk of disappointing others and tarnished reputation
  • They Never Worry About The Headlines
  • May worry about headlines, but know how to refocus attention on what matters and on what they do have power to influence
  • They Never Say Never
  • Recognize the danger and risk in absolutism (thought, words, deeds), in all its forms, subtle and explicit
  • They Never Need A Pat On The Back
  • Don’t rely on positive validation to persevere, but accept their humanity and as such are able to ask for support when needed without feeling the lesser for it
  • They Are Never Pessimistic
  • Know the importance of seeing life as it is rather than as “negative” or “positive”. A version of this could be Gandhi’s “Pragmatic Idealism”
  • They Never Procrastinate
  • Have different styles of how they are in action (slow pace, fast pace, etc), depending on their background and culture. But all good leaders know the wisdom of right timing
  • They Never Sit In Judgment
  • Have most probably held a grudge or two for a minute or more, but they have mastered the art of learning from it sooner than later
  • They Are Never Narrow Thinkers
  • Have courage to do what’s needed and what’s right despite its appearance or it being “big” or small
  • They Never Avoid Challenges
  • Do not shy away from confrontation, but they know that there are times when confrontation is NOT the best approach
  • They Never Worry About Appearing Vulnerable
  • Know that real vulnerability means feeling at least a bit uncomfortable, otherwise its a look alike
  • They Never Stop Asking Questions
  • Always challenge preconceived ideas, starting with their own
  • They Never Accept Defeat
  • Do not always know if there is a way to a solution, but they know that they have the strength of conviction and faith to endeavor

Reflecting on my actual experience with each of the author’s leadership principles, the words flowed easily. Not at all because I’d mastered them – (any of them!) – but because I’d thought about them, tried to live them, even if for moments at a time and remembered the experience of experimenting them, or rather, my version of them. In thinking about each principle in this way, I had to be honest. Once I did this, ironically, the word “never,” no longer applied. It was not an apt descriptor of my lived experience of these principles. Not because they were wrong, but because they didn’t accommodate the actual flesh and blood experience of living, or trying to live them, only an abstraction of those experiences and very limited ones at that.

There may be leaders for whom, the never-statements are accurate, but even so, that idea is a bit scary. I’ll take an imperfect leader trying to be better over a leader who is perfect by virtue of “never” doing…(fill in the blank), any day.

Aside from writers who convey a leader as a 2-dimensional action figure, I think one of the obstacles making it difficult to cultivate the leader within is in the very way that we think and talk about them. Black/white thinking and arguements and posts, stemming from it – no matter what the topic – do little to aid in the living of that topic. Because its devoid of lived experience, in other words, it’s from the head, of the head. And with a subject such as leadership, this is unfortunate, verging on reckless because the world could sure use more truly great leaders. Ones who speak from the their heart and head to ours.

 

On Change – An Excerpt from Rumi

Image of ChangeI had a difficult weekend. Still grieving the premature loss of my father months ago, I suppose. After wrestling alone most of yesterday, I found a gentle place. And then a friend sent me this excerpt from Rumi.

Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?

        ~ Rumi

In fact, I don’t know which side is better – familiarity or the unknown –  and that is as much scary as it is wonderful. Shall I experiment that today? Time will tell.

 

Dance to Listen Better – What I Learned in Cuba

The following post recounts an experience I had during my first of many trips to Cuba from 1999 – 2012.
Dancing Man in Havana“Quiero una cerveza,” I tell the bartender

“Crystal o Bucanero?” he asks.

The two main beers of Cuba, one on the lighter side, the other, slightly more dark. Dame una Crystal,” I say with the pleasure that comes from being able to make a choice uncomplicated by having too many options.

Pouring the beer into a half-chilled glass, I suck it down. It’s a hot day in Havana. Just then an older gentleman approaches from a nearby table. Quieres bailar?” he asks with subdued confidence.

“Gracias, pero no hay musica,” I tell him, looking around the bar then back at him for agreement.

“No importa. Venga,” the gentleman replies, his right arm reaching out towards me.

Josef is a tall slender man, who looks part African and part Asian. He has strong lines on either side of his mouth that deepen when he grins revealing yellow-stained front teeth rimmed with gold. Despite this and the slight reek of cigar smoke, he’s enchanting. “Bueno,” I nod in acceptance.

He takes my hand and escorts me to a spot several feet from the bar then gestures for me to stand beside him. “Mirame, mira mis pies” Josef says, pointing both fingers at my eyes, then back to his feet. Standing with his feet ten inches apart, he leans forward just enough for his arms to dangle free before him. He takes one step to his right then brings his foot back to its original position. Then he takes one step to his left and brings it back.

This is easy – I got this, I think. “Four steps…that’s it?” I say.

I bend my knees and step right, then back to center, left, then back to center, just like he showed me. After a few more attempts, I speed up, making me believe that I’m doing well. Turning back to Josef, in anticipation of his praise, his expression tells me otherwise. Scratching the back of his head with a perplexed look on his face, he taps his chest and tells me I have to listen to the rhythm from inside. Marking each step slowly, he claps out the rhythm, “Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco; Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco.”

I recognize it immediately from my Cuban dance class. It’s a rhythm of the clave – two smooth wooden sticks that when played together provide the foundational pattern for Afro-Cuban music.

Closing my eyes, I try to focus on his voice and the rhythm. Clap, clap, (pause) clap-clap- clap. How am I supposed to keep my belly relaxed and my knees bent at the same time? And my feet, it’s as if they have their own brain. (Now I know how men feel about that other body part of theirs.) This should be easy for me, but it’s not. It feels foreign. And what’s up with this should in my mind? No doubt it’s from my identity as a dancer. A dancer with twenty years of experience! But who cares about all that experience if in this moment, I can’t even follow a simple step.

I wish I could do the step the way Joseph’s doing it – on the beat and with total commitment.

Focus. Relax. Listen. I tell myself. Keep it simple. Breath. Move from the breath in sync with the rhythm. That’s the only task.

I look over at Josef, who looks back at me, bending his knees even more, as if to challenge me to do the same.

I focus on my feet; right, then back to the original position, then left, and then back to center. Breath, focus, sink into the rhythm. For a moment my hips, torso and shoulders seem to move in concert and with the least amount of effort.

Lowering myself even closer to the floor to match Josef, my thighs begin to hurt and my legs shake. I look down, lose focus and almost fall over myself. Josef’s elegant and precise movements are beyond reach for now. Our wordless dialogue continues for a moment before I have to stop and rest. Catching my breath, I ask him, “Que hace a un buen bailador?

With a glint of mischief in his eyes, he says, “Tienes que escuchar a Dios,”

 

Note: While the man in this photo is not the actual Josef I danced with (unfortunately, I took no photo), this gentlemen exudes Josef’s joy and warmth.

Hate Starts Small Which is the Best Time to Catch It

A Typical Day

It’s 2 in the afternoon on a Sunday when I see Mei-Lian, my landlady’s Gardner, squatting beside the bushes outside my apartment. A quiet 60-something woman from Mainland China, she greets me with a warm, “hay-wo.” She’s holding a pair of long arm plant clippers in one hand and fresh plant cuttings in the other. Over the years, I’ve noticed that she’ll prune a plant that’s not overgrown but ignore the one beside it with dead leaves. I glance at the blooming Bougainvillea just to her right and feel a slight shiver run up my spine. The thought crosses my mind that it could be the next victim of Mei-Lian’s hit-and-miss pruning approach.

I moved into my current apartment from the unit below, despite it being smaller and more expensive, in part because of the view of this Bougainvillea. I loved how its cinnamon-magenta flowers fill the left side of the window, blocking my view of the Hollywood Squares-like apartment complex across the street.

“Hello,” I say back to Mei-Lian with a slightly forced smile. Normally, I’m happy to see her but the thought of my Bougainvillea getting over-pruned triggers a kind of rigidity inside me. I go inside my apartment and pour a glass of chilled green tea, hoping my mood will do the same – chill. But for good measure, decide to cDSC_4811.JPGall my landlord to check that he remembers our agreement that the Bougainvillea not be cut down. Minutes later, after a short but pleasant conversation with him, I’m assured by him our agreement still stands. Relieved, I go take a nap.

Interrupted

Thirty minutes later a buz saw wakes me up with a jolt.  It can’t be…I think to myself, rushing outside in a surreal combination of post-nap daze and hyper-alertness.

“What are you doing!!?” I yell, “This bush doesn’t need pruning!!”

Mei-Lian, standing at the top of her ladder, moving the saw through the Bougainvillea from left to right, turns it off to answer me. Smiling she says, “is k, is k…bett now.”

Enraged and a bit nauseas, I can taste the bitterness of adrenaline. “What are you doing!!!!???,” I repeat, in the vain hope that words, if conveyed with intensity, can be as effective as actual physical action to stop her in her tracks.

But it’s no use. With a nervous laugh, she turns on the saw and finishes the job until the once blooming beauty is reduced to a woody nub.

I walk away, feeling betrayed and disrespected. How could this happen? I had an agreement? I went back to my apartment, dropped onto my couch and sobbed, feeling unheard, disrespected and powerless to protect something I cherished. I thought bad things. Hurtful things. I knew that Mei-Lian was not malicious, and that there may well have been a miscommunication between her and the landlord. (In fact, this turned out to be the case).

In thinking about it a short time later, I don’t know what was more painful, not having control to stop someone from doing something that was hurtful, or feeling rage toward a peaceful and gentle person.

Her action, whether wrong or right, brought out the worst in me. I got a taste of the animal within. I think this is what was MOST painful, that the thing that enraged me, Mei-Lian’s unwillingness to stop an action that was causing distress, was the very thing that I did toward her in response.

During our interaction and moments afterward, I continued a verbal assault on Mei-Lian in my mind. At one point, even referring to her as “those kind of people don’t care…”

Thinking further, I realized that by framing our interaction in terms of them/us I felt better about myself.

What an ugly and important thing to see in myself, how easy and convenient it is to  objectify another person so I can feel better. Not a great moment for me, but actually a really useful moment to remember.

Slippery Slope to Intolerance

Isn’t this a kind of slippery slope from indifference to intolerance that can lead to hate and even hurtful action. Slippery because the smallness of it makes it so subtle, as to tell oneself – I’m only human, I have the right to be upset…blah, blah, blah.  And there’s truth to that, a lot of truth. I am only human – we are all only human. Feeling emotions is are part of being human.

It’s what happens after that, the story we tell ourselves and hold on to over time that’s the tricky part. The slippery part.

Have you ever noticed that it’s often victims who speak up against injustice – as they should. But the voice that’s often missing is that of the bully accepting responsibility.

Would that change, I wonder, if more of us saw our part early on?

Time Heals All Wounds If…

They say time heals all wounds. Maybe so. But I think in order for that to happen, we have to be diligent to try and see our part BEFORE and INSTEAD of blaming others. We have to take care to not hold on to the boxes we put others in. It’s our choice whether or not we keep them there in our mind and hearts.

As of today, the Bougainvillea has completely grown back. But as for my pride, I’m working to keep it pruned, not to a woody nub, but not overgrown.

The Power of Presence

 

This video caught my attention because I was curious about the person behind the Mr. Rogers of my childhood memory.

I was irritated at first at Mr. Rogers’ slow pace – I went immediately to judgement, thinking, here we go he’s going to talk the same way he does in his children’s show? I’ll never get through this!

But in just a few minutes of listening to him speak something changed. I found that the more I focused my attention on listening, the more I heard both the words as well as the energy surrounding the words. I heard more, something beyond, or before words. Also, in slowing down to listen, I slowed down. Tension that I wasn’t even aware of, lessened. A different, energy replaced it, helping me not just hear what he was saying, but encounter something calmer inside.

It seems that something shifted for Senator Pastore, the person Mr. Rogers is addressing in the video, as well. The power of presence. What is this quality of presence that inspires us to not just hear but to listen?

An Epic Dream

There are many types of dreams, Healing dreams, Recurring dreams, Lucid dreams, Nightmares, etc. One type of dream that’s less common, at least in my 50 years of living and sleeping are Epic dreams.

Epic dreams, sometimes referred to as Great or Numinous dreams are vivid and compelling, so much so, detail can be remembered for decades. They’re rich with archetypal symbolism and leave the dreamer feeling that she’s discovered something precious and rare upon awakening.

I’ve had one epic dream so far in my life. It was in November of 1993, I was in graduate school at the time.

I was in a huge, empty house with many rooms. I was compelled to walk through the house until I reached the last room. With my nose against the wall, I realized that I could go no further. There was a long moment in which I decided that I could move through the wall. To do this I intentionally expanded awareness to the level of my cells. As I did so two things happened: I saw and felt space between my cells and I moved through the wall.

Change

When I woke, the experience shocked me – I’d never before been so acutely aware of myself as a `process of becoming,’ as such. That is, it seemed that the only way to actually move through the wall was to focus attention on both my thinking self and my doing self. Another way to describe this is that to move through matter I had to embody a quality of being simultaneously aware of it self as the observer and observed. I had the strong impression that if I were to identify with one or the other, I’d lose a certain dynamic quality and become inert, making it impossible to move through the wall.

Even more bewildering was the fact that I could not draw upon Cartesian reasoning to further elucidate how change occurred to result in me moving through the wall. That is, if a person changes – both in state and position – how does one explain the occurrence without presupposing a division between Observer and Observed or subject and object? I could not presuppose this division because was not how I experienced it, which would be, ironically, unscientific.

The dream reminded me of encounters I’d had as a dance therapist, an artist, a friend – listening deeply to another or oneself…a kind of somatic experience of inner space.

In this state, it seemed to me that change occurred as the result of a certain quality of attention. I reasoned that if there were a way to understand the nature of change of this quality of attention, then perhaps it could be more accessible…more possible.

I wrote my Masters Thesis starting with the question, How to think about how change happens without assuming originating separate parts? I proposed concepts from David Bohm’s philosophical interpretation of Quantum Mechanics along with concepts from Somatic Epistemology to derive a non-dualistic framework for thinking about non-causal change. That was in 1997.

Why I Love Oakland

 

Lake MerrittI LOVE Oakland.

It’s not about the Warriors win this past year. Though that’s super wonderful.

It’s not about the recent hipster’ness of this town and it’s (long overdue) overnight popularity.

It’s not because it’s the abused and so-called ugly step sister of the San Francisco.

It’s because when I take my dog out for a walk, I’m asked by a small group of women sitting by the Lake about my opinion on race relations. Specifically, how do I feel when I’m approached by a group of blacks. It’s worth noting that the group asking me this is an inquiring group of African American women.

We had a rich dialogue that I think was good for all involved. I learned something, the woman who initiated the conversation learned something, etc.

That we can have this quality of dialogue between strangers on a topic that is historically and to date, emotionally charged, (rightfully so), is the real gift. The opportunity hidden in the everyday.

THIS is what makes me stay in this country – free speech and it’s potential for quality dialogue. I’m grateful for the leaders who had the foresight to create a structure that could, however imperfectly, create the conditions for encounters of the sort I experienced today.

There is SO much more than consumerism (and being a consumer) possible in this amazing country.

(note: Original post was in Facebook earlier in the year, 2015)

The Value of Insecurity

Does it ever go away, the insecurity that lives in my skin ever since I was a girl.

I’m walking to meet a friend and have to go along the lake which takes me past a large group of people salsa dancing. Just seeing this group makes me anxious (a bit of context soon to follow). I want to walk in the opposite direction, but I can’t. I have to get to my friends house.

So my challenge is how to pass without appearing desperately insecure.

That’s a sucky goal indeed.

As I approach I work to separate individuals from the crowd in the hopes that this focus will shift my fear-soaked thinking into an objective mindset, free of ego emotion.

No chance…the fear is already in place.

And yet, another part of me is watching my thought process and emotions, tawakehe salsa crowd, the individuals there, and my interaction with it all.

The few folks I identify are people I’m insecure around for different reasons. One, a fellow dancer I’ve seen in class over the years who, despite several attempts at having a conversation, seems completely indifferent to me. Another, a photographer who produces stunning travel photos, but who has a habit of dropping his attention mid-conversation the second someone more interesting/beautiful/popular strolls by. Then there’s the dance instructor, an exemplar of talent and beauty, but not much for taking even a minute to get to know you beyond sound bite sentences.

I’m not paranoid, but I am critical. Sometimes, I just get fed up with pretension. Not just in others, but in myself. Especially myself.

Why is it hard to walk past this crowd in a way that’s authentic to how I’m feeling? What compels me to appear indifferent?

It’s fear of rejection, no doubt. But if I’ve already been rejected or believe that I’ve been rejected by this group, so why do I still give it power to the point of becoming pretentious myself? Why doesn’t the knowing of this, in and of itself, loosen its grip on my behaviour?Sigh…

I make myself stop and say “hi” to the photographer guy. We start a conversation, until the dance teacher approaches, at which point photo guy shifts his focus toward the dance teacher. I stand for a minute feeling like the proverbial third wheel, trying to distinguish my fears and projectins from reality. After a couple of minutes, I realize I’ll be late for my friend’s house and use that as my cue to exit.

Leaving the salsa crowd, I feel different than before; calmer, but every bit as insecure as the moments before. I don’t know if it’s confidence, but it’s good. Something between insecurity and confidence. Something human.

 

(note: This post refers to an experience I had a few years ago. I chose to post it now however, because it’s still a part of my behavior that challenges me in some situations.)

Forts: Nature Tells Us How to Build

I grew up in Los Gatos, a small town just South of what’s now Silicon Valley. Our one story house at the end of Jones Road was perfect for my brother and I because it was located on a quiet cul-de-sac surrounded by nature. There was a wild, partially contained hundred-acre park that began where the street ended. Here, we could hike for hours, and discover new things like black widow spiders, gopher snakes and blue belly lizards.

Our very own back yard was a much smaller version of this natural wonderland, with ample trees and bushes surrounding a grass-covered hill, perfect for tobogganing down in the summers, after Dad cut down the dry stalks.

By the time I was eight my brother and I had built a fort in and around almost every tree and bush in our backyDSC_7580.JPGard, including he towering Eucalyptus, so high it swayed with the weight of our little bodies, the Acacia, with its buxom branches strong enough to support hours of intense play, and the Manzanita tree with it’s bush-like shape and super smooth branches that poked in every direction.

Each one offered a different challenge to overcome and with it, a unique opportunity to experience something new. We didn’t know, for example, that the Acacia tree was perfect for climbing and building on until we reached across its gigantic trunk to grasp a protruding knot in exactly the location we needed it to be to be able to scale its width. The fort we built within its branches ended up being the most stable of all the forts we built, partly due to our skill, but just as much a result of what the tree gave us – super climbable trunks and a strong girth upon which we could position wood planks for our fort’s floor.

We learned that to build a fort – it was as much about what we wanted to create as it was what the tree wanted to give. It was a relationship of sorts, unique not only to its nature, but to our interaction with it’s nature.

I gained an understanding of our back yard by experiencing it first hand. The only exception to this for both my brother and I was the rambling Blackberry hedge that lined the border between our house and our neighbors’.

There was something about this hedge that was both intriguing and a bit scary. It gave us fruit and the young leaves were a beautiful, translucent green. But if you didn’t position your hand in just the right way and time your selection of the berry you wanted in sync with its readiness to be picked, then chances were high you’d be stuck with a thorn or get one of those nasty little cuts you can’t see, but that hurts every time you use your hand.

None of this changed the fact that we didn’t know what was deep inside its thicket. We could conjecture that it was just layer upon layer of prickly vegetation, and therefore, inhospitable, but we hadn’t actually experienced it. And this fact made the notion of building a fort there, irresistible.

So one Saturday morning, after breakfast and chores, John and I focused our minds on the serious work of planning our fort in the Blackberry hedge. We brought every tool we had in our combined arsenal, driven by a single question – what if you could make a fort inside this bush?

My brother, who was especially skilled at architecting a vision, knew intuitively to start cutting around the area with the visibly largest branches. I followed behind, using dad’s thick cowhide gloves to remove broken limbs in John’s path. Two hours in and we’d made a hole deep enough to almost completely obscure my brother’s frame from mom’s viewpoint in the kitchen.

It wasn’t until we sat down to lunch that I noticed scratches on both of us, head-to-toe. Over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we resolved that if we wanted to reach our goal, we’d have to go deeper, and if we wanted to go deeper, we’d have to dig smarter.

So right after lunch, back at the hedge (now with a noticeable gape, that we dubbed the front door, over lunch), we bore full gear, complete with hiking boots, overalls, long sleeved shirts and ski masks.

By days end, we reached our goal – an area big enough to allow us to sit side by side and ponder our next fort. We created instant walls by draping old blankets on the interior sides. Even so, we couldn’t lean back like we could on the Acacia tree.

Still, it was dark inside and there was a feeling of being protected from the world outside. And this was something we didn’t know before we started.

The Universe in Tide Pools

It’s the fall of 1973 and mom’s packing the car for a trip to the beach. Not any place – our special beach, a strand of remote coastline in Northern California between Santa Cruz and Pacifica. We call it brain beach instead of it’s official name, “Bean Beach,” because it’s cow-sized rocks – poc-marked with holes – look more like a human brain than beans.

We get to the coast in time to catch the early morning fog. My brother, John and I charge toward the shore, leaving mom to bring all the beach stuff. We run fast to meet the tides edge, stop just short of it, then kick and scoop water with full gusto, sparing no effort to get each other wet.

Tide PoolsThen, without skipping a beat, we make a b-line towards the jagged edged cliff at the end of the beach. The tide moves fast, allowing just a few hours of access to the area around the corner. The tide pools.

Rocks at brain beach are not only full of lots and lots of small holes, but they are luxuriously smooth, at least the part between the holes. The kind of smooth that gets slippery with ocean spray, but feels so good to walk on when dry. But you have to be careful of the edges formed when the area between the holes wears thin from the pounding waves. That part of the rock breaks, leaving a butter knife sharp edge. We navigate the edges and slipperiness in pursuit of our treasure – the tide pools freshly filled with ocean water.

There is nothing dull about these water-soaked kingdoms. Their contents predictably include combinations of starfish, sea anemones, all kinds of seaweeds, muscles, crabs and various crustaceans, and yet each and every tide pool is a world unto itself. Unique and mesmerizing.

I’d find a favorite pool and sit on my haunches nuzzling my feet in a way that makes me feel secure against the waves power. With each one, comes the promise of a new discovery, a micro-adventure. The pools fill up – bringing seaweed to life, anemones opening like flowers, and an occasional crab, its claw peaking out from under a rock.

Then, just as fast, water rushes out making that same seaweed collapse, the anemone, constrict and the crab retreat back under its rock. There’s a slight crackling sound that comes with the instantaneous change from water to sunshine.

And this is just one tide pool.