Welcome All!

If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Philosophy and Leadership

According to Robert Nozick (20th century political philosopher taught at Harvard) we are rational agents endowed with self-awareness, free will, and the possibility of formulating a plan of life and carrying it out. Nozick describes individual human beings as self-owners. His thesis of self-ownership is a notion that goes back in political philosophy at least to John Locke. It refers to the claim that individuals own themselves – their bodies, talents, abilities, and labor, and thereby the fruits or products of those talents, abilities and labor. We could argue in great length whether we indeed do. We could also argue about the premise of Reinhold Niehbur, an American theologian, social activist and philosopher who speaks of the sinfulness of human nature, that is, the egotism of individuals and groups. World leading Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal (“A time for Empathy” and “Our Inner Ape”) claims the opposite from his studies of chimpanzees and bonobos and argues against a ‘selfish and aggressive gene’ and for the innate drive in many animals including humans to relate, care, and feel empathy. To me de Waal’s assertion is more attractive for the obvious reason, but I won’t start the debate here. Let’s stay close to home and focus on the individual person and his responsibility and ownership. I will just ask you whether you own your life, your beliefs, your values, your choices, your leadership style, and your outcomes? Do you? To answer this question, you will need the will and the ability to ask yourself questions. This is where philosophy comes in.
Philosophy to me is wondering, pondering, reflecting, searching – not for the fun of it, but to challenge my beliefs, thoughts, and interpretations and to open up new directions of thought, going places with my thinking I’ve never been before, and pondering questions like “How can we know anything?”, “ What is the source of truth?”, “Can we really believe what we see?”, and “Why is there evil in the world?” All this wondering, reflecting, and questioning can enhance my vision, help me appreciate differences and ambiguity more, and it can help me be less prone to preconceptions, judgments, rigid beliefs, and boxed-in thinking. And I am purposefully stating “less prone” since we will always be blind for certain things and I might always be unwilling, consciously or not, to let in certain information and ideas.
So philosophy to me is asking questions, in particular the “why” question. It is exploring the motivations and drives behind my thoughts and actions and those of others. Philosophy is delving into the why’s in this world, going deeper than just my individual. Philosophy is the love for wisdom that comes from relentless questioning. My first response to one of our children asking whether they can ask a question is often “Honey, I love questions”. And so I do, but how about you?
Some leadership related questions to start you off with:
è Why do you do what you do? What kind of thinking and which beliefs form the foundation for your choices and actions?

è Why do you really get up in the morning? What is your purpose in life and with your organization?

è Which are your guiding values? How do you practice them, live them, teach them?

è Why do you spend time on the things you spend time on? Does this line up with your values?

è What is it that your business is selling, producing, serving, trading, inventing and how does this relate to your values and your purpose in life?
From here you can continue with questions about motivation, truth, objectivity, and so much more. The journey toward understanding yourself, others, and the world around you is always a humbling one and a journey that never ends. Start your journey, continue your journey, enjoy your journey.

Precision People Management

Even though there are more similarities than differences between the genders and races, and even though we share an awful lot of our DNA with the chimpanzees and the bonobos, I’d like to stress the one and most important common denominator that we humans share: our uniqueness.

Our own fraternal twins obviously differ quite a bit from each other, but even my friend’s identical twins who share very similar DNA have different interests and motivators. Whether this is inherent in their genetic make-up or whether it be the result of their striving to develop their own identity, the fact remains that even identical twins differ in many ways. In fact, each person on the planet has their own unique ideas, interests, talents, skills, and motivators. Is this being fully understood in organizations where so often only one set of motivators is used to motivate or influence employees?

In everyday life, our choices are ever increasing. With my meal comes not just a salad. I have to decide which salad, with which dressing, whether I want the dressing on the salad or on the side and whether I’d like the salad with or before my meal. And this, of course, refers to the easier choices. Try designing your blog pages or look for insurance and choices abound. These seemingly endless possibilities and options do not always imply that companies are trying to tailor to our unique desires and needs. In many cases competition is fierce, encouraging providers of products and services to try and win our attention and our business by creating the illusion of more choices where in reality they are just variations on the same theme. Either way, I wonder why there are still so many organizations, HR departments, and managers who treat most of their employees as if they were all from the same stock with the same interests and motivators. Just as in marketing, where the one-size-fits-all approach has given way to precision marketing, I believe precision people-management could greatly increase engagement, motivation, and accomplishments thereby making the organization more successful and a better place to work.

It was Frederick Herzberg who asserted that the powerful motivator in our lives is not money, something I hope you have figured out yourself along the way. The most powerful motivator for most people – there are always exceptions – is the opportunity to learn, to grow in responsibilities, to contribute to others, and to be recognized for achievements. If these are lacking or underemphasized it can result in feeling unappreciated, frustrated, and underutilized. The great organization, leader, parent, or service provider sees the uniqueness in every individual, and takes the little time that it takes to learn more about this specific person and what makes her or him get up in the morning, and to learn more about what drives this person and what makes her or him go the extra mile and still smile. There are many great standardized tests and other tools to assist you in this endeavor, or you can just use common sense and the centuries old tools of observation and questions.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Importance of Thinking and of Letting Go

Our thinking, based on our beliefs about the world and ourselves, forms the foundation of our views, our choices, and our feelings and thereby of the results we create. This is the fundamental belief of cognitive psychologists, and this belief forms one of the foundations of my life and my career as a coach, trainer, and speaker. Epictetus worded it long ago: “We are not disturbed by people or events, but by the view which we take of them”. Isn’t this great – it provides us with the potential of a great deal of control over ourselves and our lives.
We spend a lot of time thinking. We can think about and form fond memories of the past. About travels, people, encounters, accomplishments, books, conversations, and many small things that are often bigger than we think at the time. We also spend a great deal of time thinking about the future. About what’s to come, about what we plan to do and carry out. We think about our future health, our career, our children and grandchildren, or about retirement and many other important aspects of life. This thinking can contain happy anticipation of great times with loved ones or of all the things we want to do when we retire. But more often than not, much of our thinking about the past and about the future contains elements of regret, sadness, worry, fear, and other emotions typically viewed and experienced as negative. As long as our thinking helps us make sense of the past, the present, and the future, and when it aids in healthy functioning in the here-and-now, I consider it healthy thinking. When our thinking about the past and the future gets stuck in ‘would-and-could-have-beens’, in what-ifs, when it makes us go round in circles and results in severe or prolonged feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, despair, and worry, I consider it to be unhealthy thinking.
Letting go of what has been and what cannot be changed, while making use of it by learning from it, is the best you can do with that part of the past which you would have liked to see differently. Looking back you can attempt to see the meaning in events that were too close and involving to be understood clearly when they were transpiring. Equally, letting go of worries about what is still to come while influencing that very ‘future’ by healthy thinking and choices is the most you can do about the future. And in the meantime, thinking, feeling, being in the here-and-now with awareness for what’s going on in your environment and inside of you, can help you refocus and rejuvenate.
Of course, we will always think of our past and our future, it’s one of the beautiful capabilities of the human race. Our thinking can result in happy conclusions, wonderful memories, innovative ideas, and creative solutions. But let’s keep it at that and let’s limit the negative thinking cycle which is also so very characteristic of the human race.
It is a fact of life that you can never fully protect yourself against setbacks, misfortunes, and other sad situations in life – many believe they even serve a purpose. Either way, at some point we all have to deal with difficult and possibly traumatizing situations like the loss of loved ones or of jobs, for some of us natural disasters, and for way too many people in this world with poverty, hunger, repression, and war. In many of these cases it is perfectly normal and ‘healthy’ to feel emotions like despair, anger, and sadness. These emotions serve a purpose, like helping release frustration, communicating messages to others, they serve as warning signs, they organize and motivate action, and they help influence others. But if they don’t, or in the wrong way, then you should examine your thinking and what it creates.
So while you can never (and maybe shouldn’t want to) fully protect yourself against challenging events, you sure can protect yourself against your own destructive thinking. Although it might sound rather extreme, absolutely nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. And our attitude towards people and situations determines our state of health. I love to quote Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl who stated that the last freedom that no one can ever take away from us is the freedom of attitude, whatever the situation we are facing.
It is my conviction that power, wisdom, and health come from within and that they find their origin in healthy thoughts and attitudes, and in knowing when to let go and accept what is or has been. With everything else: whatever you decide, commit to it, go for it, and have fun.
As Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” tells us, the Art of Life is all about giving up your attachment to clear-cut realities and embracing paradox and ambiguity. This in particular, asks for healthy thinking and attitudes. There are many good books, trainings, and workshops that can assist you in moving towards healthy thinking, like the books on the R.E.T.(Rational EmotiveTherapy) by Albert Ellis, one of which is called “How to keep people from pushing my buttons”.

I wish you a rewarding “healthy thinking” journey.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Change, Technology¸ and Time

Our advancement is directly related to technology and our dependency from technology is increasing on a daily basis.  Many of us embrace the laptop, I-pod touch, I-Phone, I-Pad,  face book, twitter, LinkedIn and everything that is still to come. In the past decennium we’ve developed many brilliantly designed and time-saving tools. Then how is it that we have (or more correctly feel) we have less time than ever? We are constantly online, available, responding, checking, chatting, and researching out of a fear to miss out on something if we’re not constantly on-line and in touch. In the meantime we forget the importance of time off to reflect, contemplate, relax, and create. In the near future you might have a hard time remembering the joy of real life friends and live contacts as opposed to face book friends that we’ve never actually met and electronic conversations.  A plea for non-advancement and non-change? Hardly. Just a plea for non-change regarding our priorities in life, like the joy and advantages of real-life face to face time (not counting the I-phone 4 face-time possibilities), the advantages of seeing body language and facial expressions, the value of  laughing, arguing, or crying while in the same physical space. I might be old-fashioned, but I think I know when to enjoy my kindle, I-touch, I-phone, and other modern tools and when to put them away and be present, really present, for others and myself.
Some researchers suggest that our ability for ‘deep thinking’ is negatively affected by the many temptations and interruptions instigated by the possibilities of the worldwide web and social media. Technology is so fast you can feel you’re lagging behind constantly and you can feel overloaded - one of the first signs of stress and burn-out.  I recently heard a news broadcast about a mother being sued by her husband for neglecting her real child while completely obsessed by her computer baby. But let’s not make it too dramatic, since most of us can manage the virtual and the real life (if I may still separate the two) relatively well. I merely encourage you to not trade in your old-fashioned priorities for spending real time with loved ones and colleagues. Walk to that desk rather than sending yet another e-mail, tweet or text message.  Consider the benefits of a handwritten Thank You note as compared to an  electronic message. Consider the added value of staring out the window and contemplating the day ahead, your recent choice, the difficult situation requiring attention, or the way you live your passion and your values.
The University of Oregon recently introduced a new term: techno-stress and the Health Journal talks about the necessity of breaking free from techno-stress by unplugging daily to avoid technology overload. The interesting thing is that we all hear and read about it, and as is so often the case, chances are high that you are convinced that you are doing really well. As with so many situations or dilemmas, it’s always ‘the other guy’ who is guilty or suffering from it. But do you ever really disconnect these days? A question only you can answer. I know this: I surely appreciate the handwritten card from my family. I really do appreciate my girlfriend dropping off home-made cookies to take on our road trip. And I so enjoy walking with a friend, hearing children play, and discussing one of many topics with all technology turned off. It’s called taking care of myself and valuing people-time. Back to the question of change, technology, and time: as with anything else in life, it’s a matter of awareness and of choice. What you’re not aware of you can’t influence let alone change or bring back to an original state. Once you’re aware, you can choose your attitude and your action. Sounds simple, can be pretty tough at times. And while I’m writing all this on our road trip to Chicago, I suddenly burst out in laughter while looking at the dashboard of our car that I’ve turned into an office desk. Who am I fooling here? I better start staring out that window.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Contemplations on failing and being wrong

The question I ask myself today: “How do I deal with failing and being wrong?” Why do I freak out at the possibility that I’ve done something wrong? Many messages tell us we need to be right all the time, that failure is bad. Wrong message. Attachment to my own rightness misses the point of being human. It can be very dangerous to be convinced that you’re on the right side of things. Do not stop entertaining the possibility that you are wrong - being wrong entailing the opportunity to learn about your preconceptions, your blind spots, areas you can improve in, or areas where others are just better or more knowledgeable. It happens.
Thinking you are right and that you know everything might make u feel smart and safe, but when you pretend to know everything you miss opportunities to learn. I’d like to replace Descartes’: “I think, therefore I am” with Augustine’s “I err, therefore I am”. When you’re convinced of your rightness you’re convinced that your beliefs perfectly reflect reality. How about other beliefs and realities?
How do you explain all those people who disagree with you? We often assume they’re ignorant, not as smart as we are, or we suspect malicious intent. How about “I don’t know” or “Maybe I’m wrong” or “Maybe there are more perspectives than just mine”. When you acknowledge your own limitations, others can do the same. Want to try it?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inspired by empowerment

Yesterday I had the pleasure and honor of being part of a graduation ceremony at RESOURCE Inc. in Minneapolis. The Bright Futures Program of the Employment Action Center (EAC) of this organization graduated its first group of young females – teen mothers who are keen to improve their lives. These young ladies graduated from the Empowerment Course that they attended on a weekly basis – a course that was recently added to the many diverse services the EAC has been providing for many years.
While assisting in handing out a delicious meal the group’s facilitator shared with me how the women had overcome their initial objections, hesitations, fears, and worries. How they had opened up, how they had cried and laughed together, how they had supported each other, and how they had witnessed each other grow, everyone at her own pace and with her own challenges. The energy, pride, and admiration with which the facilitator spoke about ‘her students’ was nothing less then remarkable. Her heart and soul were clearly invested in using the Empowerment Program to touch and improve lives.
During the ceremony itself, each participant was provided a certificate of completion, but, most touching and powerful was the personal recognition that every woman received. This recognition described a remarkable personality trait or a stunning accomplishment, whether big or small – the ritual visibly touching facilitator as much as student. At least equally powerful was the passion, presence, vigor, and personal approach the facilitator displayed when addressing each individual - qualities that explained the strong connections that were apparent. Once again it showed that no matter how well designed and written a program, its results and impact rely heavily on the person implementing it. I am happy to have played a small part in this endeavor by proposing, designing, and writing the Empowerment Program, but, above all, I am happy and encouraged to see how a facilitator, a leader, guided by passion, purpose, and values can work wonders with a curriculum and with people. How such an inspiring, empowering leader can awaken courage, willingness, and drive in others and make such a huge difference in someone’s life. This is yet another example of great leadership, one that too often goes unrecognized.
After more than an hour in a hot room filled with excitement and joy we came to the end of a journey, or better: the end of the first leg of what I hope to be a life-long journey. “Flowers in bloom”, it read on the festive cake that was cut by an engaged program manager. I hope they keep blooming.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Differences, Diversity, and Leadership – Part 2

We all know too many examples of people being treated unjustly, being excluded and bullied because they look, seem, or are different from others, whether it be because of intellectual capabilities, mental or physical disabilities, skin color, political beliefs, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or any other reason. One of the underlying dynamics involved in this division between different people or groups is feelings of insecurity mixed with ignorance which often leads to intolerance and superiority behavior. Unfortunately, there are examples in abundance on a daily basis. Sadly enough, the topic ‘bullying’ is dominating an increasing number of media programs and school actions and we hear news casts on bullying that results in suicides. So how strong is our knowledge on dynamics like bullying and how well do we know ourselves and our own prejudices, judgments, and motivations for our actions regarding differences and diversity?
Whether you are a parent, teacher, coach, business leader or anyone else, only with leadership by compassion, by living the values, by gaining from differences and by showing yourself personally accountable will we accomplish the seemingly rare instances of truly valuing differences and seeing beyond them without having to feel insecure and threatened. Let’s take a closer look at differences and diversity. Education, social standing, religion, personality, belief structure, past experience, affection shown in the home, and a myriad of other factors will affect human behavior and culture, including behavior related to dealing with differences. For the sake of transparency, predictability, and security, as far back as many centuries ago significantly less complex societies were setting norms and using standards. Setting them automatically implies that you can deviate from these norms and standards and it will be no surprise that people for long have felt the strong need to categorize. Humans have a tendency or better, a need to categorize everything, including people. It simplifies our world and makes communication, business, education, and other areas easier and more effective, or so we believe. Stereotyping, often the result of categorizing, is one example of a potentially dangerous activity  because it tends to exclude or discriminate against people and it tries to convey something about an entire group of people, leaving individual differences out in the cold. Stereotyping also tends to include judgments on right and wrong or better and worse which will not benefit the ones that are considered ‘outside’ the standard group.

Back to business and leadership. To what extend and in what way do you and your organization use and celebrate differences? What values regarding diversity do you talk and walk? As Gregorio Billikopf of the University of California states: “Often, observations on cultural differences are based on our own weakness and reflect our inability to connect with that culture”. Faulty observations and generalizations are abundant, but the fact remains that there are many differences between cultures, between groups, and between people within groups. According to one of Michael Argyle’s studies, Latin Americans make more eye contact, face each other more, and touch more when they speak than non – Latin Americans. Or think of an Asian business partner saying “Yes”, meaning: “I hear you” rather than “I agree”. Cross-cultural observations can easily be tainted and contaminated by many factors. As we interact with people from different cultures, there is no good substitute for sharp observation skills, receptiveness, inquisitive questions, and common sense. Of course there are cultural differences, but these differences between cultures and peoples can and should add richness to all of our lives by providing us different views and ways, sparking interest and curiosity, and, above all, by providing a doorway to our own preconceptions, generalizations, and blind spots.

Maybe closer to home, many couples tend to have long-standing quarrels over serious and trivial things. Existing differences surface as people move in with each other. The most important thing, however, is how these differences are handled. Do you view them as interesting, do they spark your interest in the other person, do they help you contemplate your own beliefs and your ways of doing things, do they add juice and humor to your life and your relationship? In your relationship and in your company, is dealing with diversity a challenge, an opportunity, a way of life?

More and more companies are well on their way with great programs for increasing awareness and for enabling a different way of thinking and acting, but the road to valuing diversity and to striving for inclusion is still long and difficult. Just to name three fields, medical professionals often complain that they have trouble dealing effectively with patients from minority cultures or subcultures, many foster parents struggle in their care for children with different cultural and religious beliefs, and in too many companies people feel discriminated and treated unfairly because of their ‘being different’. How can your believing, acting, and being bring about change?

Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Back and front follow each other.

From the Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu

Monday, April 11, 2011

Whole Systems Leadership

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of a Leadership Conversation with Mary-Jo Kreitzer, the inspiring director of The Center for Spirituality & Healing of the University of Minnesota whom I first met a couple of years ago. The Center, as I will call it, provides a view on leadership that is similar to my view and, above all, well worth checking into. Out of my passion to spread and to share I refer you to their site:

Whole Systems Leadership in Brief
Leadership is behavior, choices, an attitude and not a position. Leadership is a way of doing, but more so, a way of being. It’s not as much about positional power and expertise as many people believe it to be. Leadership implies dealing with complexities and interdependence. The Center’s and my leadership premises are based on system thinking, on the gestalt psychology (with its focus on awareness) about which I’ve been writing on this blog, and on continuous learning - ingredients that make leadership adaptive and that enable appropriate responses to complex situations and dynamics.
The Center’s website on Whole Systems Leadership provides you with their vision, with a listing of the six core characteristics of whole systems leadership, with many great suggested readings on the topic, and with questions, exercises, and a learning module.
Enjoy. Be inspired. Take on new perspectives.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Differences, Diversity, and Leadership – Part 1

When you see the word ‘diversity’ you might think of diversity as a moral imperative or a societal goal, which I believe should be a given. It should be supported by everyone - wouldn’t that make a great world? Or you might think of the ‘business case’ for diversity: a company with a diverse workforce with both genders, many generations, and ethnically and racially diverse employees has a competitive advantage and will perform better in a global marketplace than a less diverse company. Quite a few studies suggest that diverse, heterogeneous teams promote creativity, innovation and product development.

When I think of diversity, I think of two kinds of diversity. First, I think of diversity based on factors like ethnicity, gender, color, age, race, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation. Second, and certainly not less important in the workplace and in life, I think of diversity as the numerous individual differences between people and the uniqueness of each person as is expressed in one’s communication style, career choices, parenting style, conflict resolution style and other unique expressions that influence and constitute a person. All these differences make us think and act differently from one another. We approach challenges differently, we solve problems in our own unique way, we differ in our perspectives, suggestions, interactions, and decisions. I believe that an effective and healthy family, team, business, or community requires recognizing, respecting, and utilizing these differences and each person’s unique perspectives.

If you look at the dictionary you find that the word ‘different’ is acquired via Old French from Latin, meaning become or be unlike. Searching for synonyms of ‘different’ you find words like dissimilar, unlike, unequal, peculiar, distinct, divergent, other, and diverse. Diversity is what our planet is made off. Without diversity we would not survive. Whether it be plants, animals, humans, services, products, climates, political systems or any other area, diversity and differences make life possible. As we all know, however, diversity and differences between and within groups often leads to division. Differences between people and groups can follow two paths.

The first path takes you to a place where differences are being valued. They complement each other and add value, beauty, new perspectives, and strength. They lead to curiosity, to an open mind, to acceptance, and to growth due to differences. All this goes far beyond ‘tolerating’ differences, which often boils down to accepting them (sometimes only reluctantly), without actually using them, let alone benefiting from them. The real case for diversity I think implies recognizing, respecting, valuing, and using differences of all kinds. Diversity requires an open mind but probably more so self-knowledge and self-confidence – the absence of feeling threatened. This leads to the second path, where differences are seen as a threat, where they create distance and magnify all that is unlike yourself or your style and your own ways. This path can easily lead to division, putting others down, bullying, condemning, dominating, excluding, and repressing – something that is much too prevalent, and not just in countries that are seeing courageous protests in opposition of this repression.

How people deal with diversity and differences is influenced by many personal, psychological, social, political, cultural, and economical factors, but, more importantly, it’s every person’s responsibility. We should all be held accountable for how we approach diversity and how we treat people and groups that we perceive to be different from ourselves, whether it be at home, in the workplace, at school, in the store or anywhere else.