Tag Archives: leadership

“I Know What I’m Doing and I’m Fearless.”

Note: This post uses Barack Obama as an example to discuss a broader point, though it’s not a post about his policies. However, if you are someone for whom any mention of the President makes your blood boil, you may want to skip this post. Go in peace.

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I’ve always admired the university tenure system. Academic tenure’s original purpose was to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. (That’s Wikipedia’s explanation of tenure–whether it works like that in practice or not, it’s an admirable concept. Good scholarship depends on it.)

For many years, my friend Gini and I have talked about what we call “spiritual tenure.” Spiritual tenure is not granted by any external body–you grant it to yourself. Spiritual tenure is being able to speak the truth as you see it, with integrity and without fear. Spiritual tenure does not shield you from consequence, like academic tenure might do. But it does give you the personal strength to recognize when it will cost you more to shrink, to keep your opinions quiet, to keep your self to yourself, than it will to stand in your own truth and let the chips fall where they may.

Perhaps you saw this image make the rounds on social media recently:

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Meryl Streep has oodles of spiritual tenure.

When Gini and I were younger, we did a lot of work around the spiritual lives of young women, mainly because we were annoyed by the Oprah-esque, “life-begins-at-50″ messages that we saw all around us. As if we were merely women-in-training, biding our time until our moment of enlightenment arrived. We didn’t want to wait for wisdom, we wanted to seek it out and celebrate it even in our tumultuous 20s, imperfect though that wisdom may be. I remember a book came out around this time called The Quarter-Life Crisis, talking about the sense of drift that people can feel in their 20s. When the authors were interviewed on the Today Show, Katie Couric sniffed, “What, do you guys have an aunt in publishing?” Nice attitude.

Now that I am solidly in my 40s, I’m reluctantly realizing that the Oprahs of the world have a point. Spiritual tenure is something I’ve been able to grant myself gradually over time. (At the same time, the young women I know are so much more evolved and self-possessed than I was in my 20s. My hat is off to them. Maybe they’ll get tenure sooner than I did.)

Anyway, I thought about spiritual tenure again this week when I read about President Obama’s interview with Marc Maron in which he said, “I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless.” Indeed, the man has had a pretty notable week, what with the Supreme Court’s decisions on the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality… and his soaring eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. There’s something very attractive about a leader who operates without fear. I’m not talking about bravado or over-confidence. And certainly fearless leaders still make mistakes. I’m talking about being purposeful, even graceful, with the actions you take as a leader.

In fact, Obama’s entire quote has even more power. He was talking about what he’s learned about himself and compared his experience to that of a professional athlete past his prime. “You might slow down a little bit, and you might not jump as high as you used to,” Obama said, “but I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless.”

As I continue in this transition period, in which I’m not currently a pastor but am exploring other identities and callings, I’m thinking a lot about this fearlessness, and cultivating a sense of spiritual tenure. I’m trying to speak up more and qualify my words less.

I’m curious what your own milestones and markers have been for this kind of work.

There’s a coda to all of this. That quote in the Meryl Streep photo? Didn’t come from her. It’s from a Portuguese author named José Micard Teixeira. He’s quite a bit younger than Meryl Streep, which goes to show–some spiritual tenure committees work fast. May yours be swift too!

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Image: Pete Souza captures Obama’s reaction on hearing the Supreme Court decision about the ACA. Official White House photos.

What’s Your Pain Tolerance? Essential Questions for Leadership

I meet monthly with a group of pastors to talk about ministry, leadership, family systems stuff and more. (We also catch an occasional Nats game.)

Today our facilitator shared this handout which inspired much discussion:

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The most effective leaders strive to be in quadrant B: high “pain tolerance” in self and in others. Pain tolerance in this case means willingness to experience discomfort in order to move a system forward, fostering growth and needed change.

I’d argue that quadrant C and D leaders are rare—if you have a low pain tolerance for yourself, you’re not likely to want to attempt the work of leadership. But many of us probably cluster in quadrant A: willing to endure plenty of personal discomfort, but less willing to inflict it on others. We squirm when we have to hold people accountable and support them as they risk and grow.

Being a pastor undoubtedly compounds this quadrant A dynamic: we are tender-hearted types who want to comfort the afflicted. And news flash: everyone’s afflicted. (Philo reminds us to be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.) So quadrant A leaders can come up with every excuse in the book for letting people off the hook.

And yet, for us Christians anyway, transformation is the name of the game, and that means some pain. Flannery O’Connor writes, “All human nature resists grace, because grace changes us and change is painful.”

What do you think? And where do you see yourself in this diagram?

Source: Leadership in Healthy Congregations

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Ten Lessons on Stepping into Leadership… from Jimmy Fallon

I haven’t seen The Tonight Show in years, and my main late-night indulgences are Colbert and Stewart. So I haven’t watched much Jimmy Fallon. Except for “Barack Obama Slow-Jams the News,” which still cracks me up two years later. (The Prezi of the United Stezi!)

But I did catch Jimmy’s inaugural monologue on The Tonight Show this week, which led me to seek out several other clips. Here’s the monologue:

Jimmy Fallon is succeeding a giant of late-night television, and he’s entering a crowded field. At 39 years old, he’s taking a leap onto a larger stage and needs to prove himself in some ways. As I watched, I was struck by the smart stuff that was going on under the surface, whether calculated or not, and I started to relate Jimmy’s debut to other situations leaders find themselves in.  (What can I say? It’s what I do.)

Leaders sometimes find themselves following beloved leaders, some of whom are older, more experienced, and firmly entrenched in the culture. Or we may find ourselves having to step into a new role thanks to a promotion or other circumstance. How can these transitions succeed?

Here are just a few things that came to mind as I watched Jimmy take the helm. Might some of these relate to you as a leader, or in other roles you play? Some of these would apply not just to leadership, but any new creative endeavor:

jimmy-fallon-tonight-show-hed-20141. Locate yourself in history. Fallon made explicit mention of every Tonight Show host (and turned it into a joke by listing “Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno.”). This was a reverent nod to the folks who’d occupied the chair before him, but also a clear statement: my name belongs on that list now.

2. Make the role your own, but don’t go overboard. The set and format were very similar to the previous incarnation of the show, but with several small tweaks, and a few big ones. For example, Jimmy Fallon brought the show back to New York after many decades in L.A. (Carson started out there but moved the show to California ten years into his tenure.) You’ve got to find the right balance between continuity and novelty.

3. Mix self-deprecation with really knowing your stuff. As a young woman pastor wanting to be taken seriously, this was always my approach. It would do me no good to demand respect and get strident when I didn’t get it. So my approach was to be completely disarming, even self-deprecating, while still projecting extreme competence. The former takes the wind out of the sails of your detractors; the latter ensures they don’t write you off. Fallon achieved this balance with his characteristic aw-shucks modesty, coupled with running the show very well and taking his role seriously.

4. Make your family visible. This doesn’t apply to every situation, but it was sweet the way Fallon mentioned his wife and daughter and cut to his parents in the audience. Many leaders I meet (especially younger ones) don’t want a brick wall of separation between work and family. We want to be integrated. Having your family visible humanizes you. Also, knowing more about you makes people want to root for you.

5. Call in every favor you can. The sheer number of guests and cameos on the first show was dizzying! Check this out:

This isn’t just great TV, it’s great strategy. Don’t go it alone. Calling in favors builds excitement and makes you feel more comfortable too.

6. Spend it all right away. This relates a bit to the previous point. Don’t keep good ideas in reserve. Use them immediately, trusting that other ideas will come to take their place. I’m sure there will be other surprises for the rest of this week, and beyond. But taking the previous clip as an example, isn’t there something so abundant about the way that parade of celebrities came on stage, one after another? Too fun.

Speaking of which:

7. Don’t forget to enjoy the moment. Fallon sure looked like he was having a blast, didn’t he? I watched the episode mainly for curiosity, but now I want to tune in just to see what he’ll do next. (It’s one reason why I prefer Colbert to Stewart these days. Nobody looks more tickled to be doing his job than Stephen Colbert.)

8. Keep your goals modest. As leaders, we sometimes have an overinflated sense of what we can accomplish. We have to remember that we’re stepping into a system that existed before us and, we hope, will outlast us. Jimmy Fallon made his goals clear: to “take care of this show for a while” and to make his viewers laugh, to send them off to bed with a smile on their faces.

9. Be gracious with your “competition.” I put this in quotes because not every leadership role involves competition. But you will notice that Stephen Colbert made an appearance in the clip above. Fallon and Colbert are slotted opposite one another. But having them together is a statement that there is room for both of them.

10. When in doubt, bring on U2. Enough said:

Did you watch The Tonight Show? What did you think of Jimmy’s debut?

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The Vietnam Memorial: A Parable for Leadership

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The other day I heard Maya Lin talk about her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. I’ve visited the wall many times, and it’s always crowded with people, many of them deeply moved by the v-shaped black granite gash in the earth.

The memorial seems brilliant, even inevitable now, as if the memorial couldn’t have possibly looked any other way. But at the time, it was controversial, scandalous. Many Vietnam veterans fought it. They wanted something more traditional. A few concessions were made—a flag, a statue of a soldier—but through it all, Lin remained convicted and steadfast to her vision and her design.

The night before the memorial was dedicated, Lin was touring the space when a Vietnam veteran walked up to her. He was a big guy, an imposing guy, and he was livid at what he saw. He lit into her, practically pinning her to the wall with his rage, asking, How dare she do this?

As I listened to this story, I imagined what it would have been like to be Maya Lin, and to be the focus of such ire. Then I realized that of course, it has happened to me, though on a more modest scale. One time in the church I used to serve, we made a decision to change the way we served communion. It was the right decision, and we communicated our purposes the best we could. But a man left that day and made a beeline for me: How could you do this? How dare you do this? I received his rancor as non-anxiously as I could, but inside my heart sank and I was flooded with doubt.

I was expecting Lin to admit to similar feelings, but she responded differently. As she listened to the veteran, and heard all of that pain tumbling out, she thought to herself, It’s working. The wall is doing exactly what I’d hoped it would do.

Pastors, leaders, and any of us in the transformation business: take heed. When you touch people emotionally, people may lash out. But that’s not necessarily a sign to stop. It can be a sign to stand firm, or if you dare, to go deeper.

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photo credit: fensterbme via photopin cc

Negotiating, Finding a Mentor, and Burning the Midnight Oil: More Thoughts on Leaning In

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After many months in the holds queue at the library, I finally got the e-copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In on my Kindle.

I’ve been hearing about this book for months, and it’s possible I’ve read more words about it than there are words in it. Some of the reaction amounts to high fives and attagirls; others criticize Sandberg’s supposedly limited and naive perspective, as if centuries of patriarchy will magically evaporate if enough of us raise our hands in meetings.

I don’t think that’s Sandberg’s thesis, and it’s disingenuous to criticize a book for not being some other book. Yes, there are systemic problems that make it hard for a woman to lean in. (She addresses those, by the way.) And yes, Lean In is very socioeconomically specific. But it’s still an empowering, worthwhile read.

The research about how men and woman are perceived differently in the workplace is jaw-dropping. Both sexes will downplay a person’s achievements if you attach a female name to them; the same résumé with a man’s name at the top will be judged more favorably. An assertive woman is seen as a bitch; an assertive man is just, well, a man. I was encouraged by the changes corporations and business schools have made to their cultures that have helped give women an even playing field to compete and thrive; those stories deserve to be heard widely. (One doctor changed his approach to rounds; instead of relying on people to raise their hands, he alternated calling on men and women, and of course found that women knew their stuff as well as or better than their male colleagues.)

Her section on negotiating for yourself was useful. Research suggests a simple two-pronged approach: be scrupulously nice in a way that builds community, and back up your negotiation with strong supporting info. (I’ve often said that my formula for being taken seriously as a woman in leadership is 1. being humorously self-deprecating, 2. giving people the benefit of the doubt, and 3. really, really knowing my stuff.) And I liked the story of the woman who was seeking a job and asked her, “What’s your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?” Sandberg had never heard that approach to a job interview.

Her chapter on mentoring was of particular interest since that’s a growing passion of mine. Sandberg writes, “We have sent the wrong message to young women. We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.'” Love that. She also urges women to be specific when asking for help. Asking for a lunch date to “catch up” is a bad approach; people are too busy for that, and it communicates that you haven’t done your homework to know what this particular mentor might be able to provide to you (and you to her, because the best mentoring relationships are mutually beneficial). She tells a few stories of young women who received mentoring advice from more senior women but didn’t consider it mentoring because they didn’t meet for an hour a week. “That’s not a mentor; that’s a therapist,” Sandberg quips.

The discrepancy in how women approach mentors makes sense in light of Deborah Tannen’s classic work on how men and women communicate. Very broadly speaking, men tend to be action and task oriented; women are relationship oriented. So it makes sense that women are going to ask for an hour-a-week, catch-up-and-be-friends kind of relationship… and then be disappointed when busy executives (or senior pastors) can’t fulfill that role. If we can be more specific and task-oriented when engaging a mentor, we’re more likely to be successful.

I’ve met so many women who’ve lamented the lack of [female] mentors. The same story gets told again and again with different names and details: [Potential Mentor] let me down, she never called me back, she wasn’t helpful at all, she saw me as a threat, etc. etc. I now wonder if part of the problem comes down to how we ask women to mentor us, and to what end.

On the complexities of leaning in when you have kids: Sandberg tells a story about one of her teams that was deadlocked on some issue. One of the men on the team spent the weekend crunching some numbers that broke the logjam on Monday. Sandberg wonders why more women don’t go and do likewise. Well, if you have kids, it’s probably because you’re running soccer carpool, buying the birthday gift, getting a long-overdue haircut, etc. etc. (Fathers who are involved with their kids’ lives will face similar challenges.) Sandberg diagnoses women’s inability or unwillingness to be that “weekend warrior” as a lack of confidence, but if you’re a parent, more often it’s the simple chaos and unpredictability of home life. Yes, we can and should lean in. But the times we can drop everything on a moment’s notice are rare. Our lives don’t turn on a dime.

Did you read Lean In? What did you think?

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Image is from the Tumblr Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies, a collection of cringe-inducing stock photos that go with women-having-it-all articles.