A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

19 April 2013

Are You Waiting for a Hero?

My mom sent me an article today that got me thinking.  The article, which does not appear to exist on the web currently other than behind a subscription wall, is by Margaret Wheatley and Debbie Frieze, and it is excerpted and adapted from ideas in their book, Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now.

The article itself is called "Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host."  Well, while it may take a rocket scientist to deal with all that complexity, it sure doesn't take one to know we are living in a complex age.  The prevalence of products and advertisements that promise a "quick fix" is ample testament to our frustration and confusion as we struggle to cope with daily chaos.  Crushed under the quantity and rate of incoming data, too many calendar appointments, bewildering news, advancing technology, we would love for someone to "fix it" -- to resolve all this complexity into something we can handle quickly and easily.  We need "Cliff Notes" for life!

In the article, the authors talk about one phenomenon that emerges from complexity.  We become "entranced by heroes." In other words, we fall in love with a fantasy of someone who knows just what to do; someone who has all the answers and can lay out a simple plan that the rest of us can follow to safety.  And this plays out in interesting ways.

How many times a day do you, or does someone you know, say "THEY should fix that." The nameless, faceless "they" need to fill the pot holes, change the laws, balance the budget, fix the schools -- and sometimes our wailing isn't even that focused.  Someone needs to fix the whole way the government or the economy or the society works.  Someone.  Not you, not me, just "someone."  That "someone" is the hero we want to respond to our desperate cries -- but of course, that hero doesn't exist.

No one person is going to solve any of these problems.  Even a group of "experts", like a body of elected officials, a board of directors or a team of scientists, is unlikely to have all the answers.  The more we wait, and complain, and pressure "someone else" to solve all of our problems, the worse the problems get.  And just to add insult to injury, the longer our appointed "heroes" stay in their positions of power, the more entrenched they become in the unhealthy hero culture, overly enamored of their power and feeling increasingly compelled to come to the rescue with an easy answer or concise plan.

So what to do?

Ms. Wheatley and Ms. Frieze suggest that a different leadership model is needed.  They call it the "leader as host."  Whereas a hero would expect, and would be expected, to do all the work and have all the answers by him- or herself, a host is a facilitator who invites collaboration among many people and groups to work the problem together.  Not unlike hosting a party (or a global trade summit), the task of a leader-as-host is to find harmony among differing points of view, smooth over small disagreements before they become enormous problems, and create an atmosphere where people can communicate and work effectively together.  When you host a party, you don't assign a hierarchy to your guest list, nor do you give your guests strict step-by-step instructions on how to attend your event.  Likewise, a leader-as-host sees people in an organization as humans first, roles second.  Hosts know that good ideas can come from anywhere, and that rank is not the same thing as value.

The world will always love its heroes, but hero work is hard, thankless, and ultimately robs others of their essential strength.  Hosts, on the other hand, can use their authority to empower others and serve as a coordination center for collaborative problem solving.

Are you waiting for a hero?  Or here's another thought-provoking question: Are you being a hero?  And if you are, who is waiting helplessly for you?

12 February 2013


Today's rumination is perhaps a bit more personal in nature than many.  AND* I think the topic is quite relevant in a range of situations, from the very personal to the very public.  Humans communicate with each other (whether well or poorly) in every situation that involves humans.  And this is about that.

Over the weekend, a friend of mine said something I found quite hurtful.  This person being my friend, they undoubtedly did not mean to hurt me with their words (pardon the deliberate grammatical error; I prefer to leave the gender of the person in question unspecified, and English stubbornly refuses to permit this).  Nevertheless, there I was, hurt.

Reflecting later on the hows and wherefores of my hurting, I did what I imagine most people do -- reviewed in my head a long litany of other missteps by this and other friends, and all the slings and arrows I have suffered over my long and pitiable life.

In the process, I noticed something important.  I noticed that my memory also included more than a few occasions when I had myself said or done something hurtful to someone else -- and some of those occasions bore an uncanny resemblance to the occasion that happened to me over the weekend.  I realized that my friend's clumsy (and hurtful) comment was in some sense a mirror -- a thing that, when I looked at it, showed me something about myself that I needed to see.

What do you do when you feel you have been wronged?  My own reactions have run the gamut -- from lashing out to folding in on myself to overanalyzing to, well, blogging about it.  I like to think that here in my wise old age (43, for the curious) I have come to a place where I can find a lesson in every experience, and use it to help me learn what I need to understand about myself and the role I play in any situation that involves me.  I can recognize the flaws in my own character, and allow other people's behavior to inspire me to behave better, without falling into the trap at the other end of the spectrum where I blame myself when someone else is mean to me.

I'm not really looking forward to the conversation in which I hold my friend accountable for the comment.  I recognize, though, that the conversation has to happen.  Handled well, it will make both of us better people -- and even handled poorly, it will be educational.  In any case, if in the future either one of us gives a moment's extra thought before we speak, the mirror will have served its purpose well.

I welcome your stories about "mirror" moments, should you care to share them.

*When I write the word "AND" in all caps, it's usually because I have overcome a strong urge to use the word "but" in an apologetic way when apology is not required or appropriate.  This post is all about the therapy!  :-)

17 January 2013


I've changed the setting on the blog here so that readers who are not registered users can comment.  Comments will still all be moderated.

We'll see if this causes ten thousand spambots to rain down on my blog -- if it does, I may need to lock it down again.  But I know it's a nuisance to have to register or log in to make a comment.

Here's hoping for some signal to make the noise worth it.

16 January 2013

Intention and Resolve

As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about words.  In January, words like "resolution" and "willpower" fly thick and fast around the media, the internet, and the mouths of change-minded individuals hoping to experience outcomes in 2013 that are different from (and better than) those of prior years.

In particular, the words "resolution" and "willpower" bug me.  "Resolution" has come to mean "a thing you talk about at midnight on December 31 and have completely given up on by the end of February." As always, the gym is packed for a couple of weeks in January.  Years ago I became a lifetime member of Weight Watchers by attaining and maintaining my goal weight.  I admit it, I started in January, along with 40 or so other people.  By April, I had reached my goal and the number of people at the meeting had dropped to around 25.  Shortly after that (probably early summer of that year) I became the receptionist at my meeting.  By late December, our meeting had dwindled in size to a scant dozen consistent attendees.  But that first meeting in January brought 40 or more people through the door.  And the pattern repeated every year for as long as I worked that meeting.  Companies like Weight Watchers can forecast a massive jump in their revenue in January.  They are rarely wrong.

So we make "resolutions", and the pattern is consistent.  Sure, you can be the exception -- I was, and the 12 people who were left at my meeting in December were.  But over time, I think the whole concept of "resolution" has become part of the problem, riddled with unspoken connotations of failure.

The word "willpower" is just as bad.  It's a great word on the surface, evoking notions of heroic determination and focus.  But it, too, has become entangled in connotations.  Willpower is the thing you invoke to endure suffering.  It involves dragging yourself out of bed to go to the gym and grimly staring down a chocolate cake.  Willpower is the thing you employ "no matter how much it hurts."

Why is it that resolutions require all this pain and agony?  It's like Lent, only worse -- a post-celebration slog of self-denial and punishment, as though we need to pay a penance for living our lives in joy.

So how could we do it differently?  In my case, the long-ago lessons of Weight Watchers are still valuable.  Sometimes you mess up, and there's no point in dwelling on that.  That was yesterday. What are you going to do today?  I have some weight I need to lose as a result of choices I made last year that weren't good for my body, as well as some circumstances that were honestly beyond my control (recovering from oral surgery left me unable to chew a lot of "healthy" foods properly, and left me too knackered by pain and exhaustion to get much exercise for a couple of months).  But rather than make a "New Year's Resolution" to lose weight, I'm simply making some different choices.

My intention for the first several months of the year is to get back to my goal weight at the rate of about a pound a week.  I have good tools to do that (a step-counter I got for Christmas and some easy-to-use iPhone apps), and I have clarity in my intention, both in what I want to do and how I want to do it.  I know how to do it -- obviously I've done it before -- and I know the reasons why it's important to me.  I also know what the rewards are of doing it.  I'll feel better, I'll fit back into my favorite clothes, I'll like what I see in the mirror.  I'll enjoy the sense of accomplishment of having done this thing that is important to me.  And once I'm there, I'll be able to add back a few favorite "treat" foods that I'm choosing to avoid for now in order to realize my intention.  Notice that all of my language around this is positive.  It's not about denial, or "going on a DIE-t."  If anything, I'm going on a LIVE-it!  And because of this clarity around what I want and why I want it, I can fulfill my intention with resolve -- meaning when I'm faced with a choice of whether or not to go out for a walk, I can think about all the reasons why I love walking.  I'm enjoying the sunshine, encountering birds, squirrels and other local wildlife along the way, and even setting my distance target based on a spot down the road where there is sometimes a friendly horse in the pasture who comes and greets me.  My walk is not a chore at all -- in fact, sometimes it's the highlight of my entire day.

And when it's time to stare down the chocolate cake?  Well, I'll admit it was tough to say no to the birthday cake that showed up at church last Sunday.  But I gave myself permission to say yes, and then chose to say no anyway.  I'm pleased and excited about the progress I've already made, and I want to keep the momentum up.  No pain, no suffering, no struggle.  Just a choice to pass on the cake in favor of holding up my intention.

What are your intentions for 2013?  How will you find the resolve to carry them through -- not through suffering or self-denial, but through positive choices?

10 January 2013

Big Rocks

I'm sure you've all heard the story about the professor who did the demonstration with the big glass jar and the rocks, talking about time management, right?

For the three people left in America who haven't heard this story, in a nutshell, it goes like this:

The professor states that the jar is like your life, representing all the time and energy you have available.  He fills the jar with big rocks, and asks if it is full.  The students dutifully reply that it is.  He then adds a bunch of small pebbles, which of course fill in many gaps.  Again, the students now claim the jar is full.  The professor repeats the process with sand, and then water, then asks the students what the point of his demonstration is.  The students say the point is that it is possible to spend time more efficiently by cramming more stuff into the jar.  The professor shakes his head, saying no, the point is that you need to put the big rocks in FIRST.

To that end, I spent some time thinking about what my big rocks are for 2013, and here they are, in no particular order:
  • Writing.  If I mean to be successful and productive as a writer, obviously writing needs to be a big part of my daily life.  Hey, look!  I'm doing it now!
  • Reading.  It is the consensus of many people wiser than I, that if one intends to be a good writer, one must be an avid reader.  I read more last year than the year before, and intend to improve on that trend again this year.
  • Personal care. Making the most of my life starts with making the most of my health.  So I want to continue my efforts to eat mindfully, make physical activity a daily routine, and generally pursue wellness.
  • Spiritual community.  I have become much more active in my UU church community in the last year, and I am finding that valuable for me.  So I want to keep that as a priority this year.
  • Family.  I want to make sure my beloved life partner knows how much I treasure and appreciate him, so spending quality time with him is very important.  There is also a family project happening with my Dad and that side of my family over the next two years, in which I want to stay fully engaged.
  • Developing my professional story and platform.  In order to expand my business and my professional credentials, I need better clarity on, and a bigger audience for, what I do.  So one of my big rocks will be to apply more, and more focused time on that this year.
  • Travel. I find that getting out into the world is important for my mental health.  It helps me remember how big the world is, and it sparks my creativity.  A writer has to have things to write about, and seeing new places inspires me.
I have some smaller rocks that are important too, but these are my main areas of focus for this year.

Have you thought about yours?  I'd love to hear about them if you care to share.

05 November 2012

Creating a Scene

I recently attended a session facilitated by my friend Grant Stewart, whose assorted credentials include acting.  He shared a quote from one of his acting teachers that, with a little adaptation (which was indeed the point of the session), applies to a broad range of situations.  The saying goes, "the energy released solving the problem creates the scene."

In the context of acting, you have a situation, some characters, and a problem (that which creates the motivation for the actors to coexist on the stage and do something).  The process they go through -- the words they speak and the actions they take -- seeks to resolve the problem, and in so doing, releases the energy that "creates the scene," or in other words makes their performance worth watching.

It also makes their performance worth giving.  The question "what's my motivation?" is perhaps the most definitive of all questions that come out of an actor's mouth.  To step onto the stage and release the energy of the scene is the point and purpose of acting.

Suppose we expand this idea into a more general situation.  Pick a problem, any problem -- a project with a deadline, a need to innovate products or services, a complex misunderstanding -- and consider what has to happen.  You have a problem that must be solved, and the energy released solving that problem creates... what?

If you are successful, the release of energy creates a team.  It creates a sense of accomplishment, a source of pride, joy, and excitement, a clarity of purpose, and a cohesion among the people who worked together to solve the problem.  It also creates a feed-forward loop that puts that team in an even better position to succeed with its next undertaking.

Here's a shock -- when I was listening to Grant talk about this, I was thinking about the x2 launch.  It was a perfect example of a team being created and strengthened by the energy released solving a problem.  Just off the top of my head, here are a few reasons why I think it worked as well as it did, and perhaps some ideas you can take to a current team or problem you are facing:

  • Ownership. In a stage production, especially one with a limited budget, every person in the theatre knows exactly why he or she is there.  Whether playing the lead role or sweeping the stage, each member of cast and crew has a critical role that they understand and embrace as essential to the success of the show.  The x2 launch was the same way.  When I arrived at the mail room at 5:31 PM  from a dead run across the building with a package that had to go out TODAY, Chris took the package, smiled, and said "no problem." Chris in the mail room understood that his role was just as important as mine, which was just as important as Michael Seedman's or Casey Cowell's.  We all had to be equally committed to make the magic happen, and we all were.
  • Open doors. It was a well-known policy at USR that if you had a good reason to do it, you were not only allowed, but expected to hijack a meeting. The day I crashed into the VP of Sales' office with some key competitive intelligence we had just received, nobody gave a second thought to why the lowly coordinator thought it was OK to interrupt the managers; they tossed their agenda out the window and turned their meeting into a strategy huddle on how we would respond to the new information.
  • Clarity. Unlike a Shakespeare play, a business venture doesn't benefit from endless layers of flowery prose. "Synergizing our assets to marginalize our competition and conceptualize a profitable go-to-market strategy that maximizes favorable outcomes for our key stakeholders" elicits exactly one behavior: head-scratching. "Being first out of the gate with a kickass product that will turn the world on its head" is a goal people can get behind. We understood what we needed to do to launch x2, and every person at every level quickly figured out roles, responsibilities and specific tasks to get it done.
Certainly these weren't the only reasons why we were successful.  But these three pieces of the USR culture puzzle sure would fit into some gaping jagged holes I have seen in other organizations.

16 October 2012

15 years ago today

1000 ISPs Live With x2 Technology -- October 16, 1997.

In honor of the 16th anniversary of the launch of x2 today, I have gone back and set up links on my x2 story posts so that you can start at the beginning and click seamlessly through to the end.

(Actually, it was because one of my former coworkers asked for an easier way to read the story, but hey -- any excuse will do.)

I find it fascinating that I can still locate 1996 and 1997 press releases about this stuff.  There's still a website called 56K.com , and although it's probably not as useful (or as widely read) as it was 15 years ago, it's a fun little trip down memory lane if you're into that sort of thing.

After today, though, I think it's time to move on to more current affairs.  Time to choose another tale to spin.  I'll give it some thought, and I will take requests.  For today, though, happy x2 anniversary, especially to all my old Robobuddies.  Download a toast to the great time we had.  It's on me.  :-)