Selfless Leadership: Rachel Held Evans

Many came forward with testimonials of how her writing and personal encouragement changed the trajectory of their lives. ~Julie Zauzmer

Photo by: Maki Garcia Evans

I sat in my condo on Saturday, shortly after noon. I glanced one more time at the blog written by Dan Evans, husband of Rachel Held Evans. For two weeks Dan had been writing in her blog providing updates about her health crisis. He hadn’t provided an update for several days. I thought, “this can’t be good.”

As I scanned the recent blog post I jumped ahead to the single sentence paragraph: “Rachel died early Saturday morning, May 4, 2019.”

“No, that can’t be possible,” I said out loud, to no one. “No, that can’t be!” I read the sentence several times before the truth really started to sink in. How could a young woman (only 37) with two young children, enter the hospital with the flu and an infection, and lose her life a few short weeks later?!

Like many others, I’m still processing the suddenness of her death. I didn’t know Rachel, at least not exactly. I heard an interview on NPR with her sister who said that whenever people would ask Dan what Rachel was like, he would say “just read her books, because that’s who she is.” So maybe I did sort of know her.  

While Rachel’s writing was about her faith; the way she lived her life was a model of leadership. After reading numerous tributes, it was easy to identify a number of attributes that put Rachel at the top of my list of examples of selfless leadership. Here are four that especially stood out to me.

Amplify and Encourage Others

“Rachel used her significant platform to amplify and encourage others. She not only took her well-deserved spot at the table of writing and teaching; she also pulled up countless more seats for others to sit next to her.”

Use Influence to Create Opportunities for Others

“’Rachel held doors open she didn’t have to,’ wrote Candice Marie Benbow. ‘She used her influence to help create opportunities for people she believed deserved[d] them.’”

Engage with Grace and Truth

“Even those she disagreed with, sometimes fiercely, she found a way to engage with grace and truth. She showed us how to hold multiple perspectives in tension.”

Make a Difference

Make a difference, and that’s exactly what Rachel did in her short life. Over the weekend, #BecauseofRHE was trending on Twitter. Endless numbers of people sharing how the trajectory of their lives had changed because of Rachel Held Evans. It’s hard to imagine a tribute more evident of selfless leadership.

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Leaders: Are you a noble soul?

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.  ~John Milton

Leaders need to be reminded that gratitude is the last of the three qualities of a positive climate – compassion, forgiveness and gratitude – highlighted in Kim Cameron’s research on positive leadership.

It’s surprising to me how much research has been done on gratitude with very similar findings and conclusions, yet we don’t strive vigorously to integrate gratitude practices into our daily lives or our organizations. Gratitude is relatively easy to implement and the effects are both powerful and significant.

Leaders overlook gratitude.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been taught, encouraged, and even programmed to focus on what we can measure. In many organizations, what is most easily quantifiable may dominate how we prioritize our day. Felix Frankfurter, former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said that “gratitude is one of the least articulate of the emotions, especially when it is deep.” Because we struggle to put it in a nice and neat “outcomes box,” we are quick to overlook gratitude as we rush through our day.

Gratitude really is easy to put into practice. In study after study it’s been found that doing things like visiting someone to say thank you, writing letters of appreciation, sending a note or card, and the daily (or weekly) gratitude journal has a significant positive impact on individuals and their performance. This isn’t some secret motivational tactic known by only a few select organizations. It is common knowledge backed by scientific empirical evidence.

Leaders build their gratitude muscle.

Dean Savoca, of Savoca Performance Group says that, “Gratitude is a muscle to be built, just as we build a physical muscle. It takes practice and exercise.” He offers some ways to begin to build your gratitude muscle.

  • Before you go to bed, ask “what three things am I grateful for today?” and write them down.
  • Use the philosophy of CANI (Continued and Never-ending Improvement). Whenever you complete something, ask yourself two questions. What was great? What are opportunities for CANI? This can help to create an “attitude of gratitude” and appreciate what you’ve done well and identify where you can learn and improve in a way that supports your future success.
  • Think of someone who has helped you recently, or has really out-performed in your organization. Write them a note, visit them, or give them a call and let them know how much you appreciate them.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” And what organization couldn’t use a little more joy throughout their hallways, their conference rooms, and their social media.

Leaders are noble souls.

It’s simple, it’s doable, and it’s very effective. Aesop stated it quite well, “gratitude is the sign of noble souls.” Shouldn’t all leaders really be noble souls?

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Leaders: Stop being so “nice”!

When bosses are too invested in everyone getting along they also fail to encourage the people on their team to criticize one another for fear of sowing discord. They create the kind of work environment where being “nice” is prioritized at the expense of critiquing and therefore improving actual performance. ~Kim Scott

“I wasn’t direct with my guidance, I was subtle, I think he read between the lines.” “I don’t need to tell her specifically why I let her go; surely she can see why.” “I didn’t tell him why I was resigning; he’s got to know.” These are all actual statements I’ve heard, and it’s only a sample. We far too often prioritize “nice” over an opportunity to improve actual performance.

Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor became a bestseller very quickly. I was initially turned-off by the title because I made assumptions about what she meant by radical candor. Then someone enlightened me and now I too use the mantra of radical candor. In a nutshell, it means to simultaneously challenge directly and care personally.

To simultaneously challenge directly and care personally is not easy. Here’s why. Sheila Heen, co-author of Thanks for the Feedback, says that “feedback sits at the intersection of two human needs: 1) the need to learn and grow and 2) the desire to be accepted just as we are.” To challenge directly so someone can learn and grow while simultaneously letting them know they are accepted just as they are, is well, not easy.

Don’t Opt for Being “Nice”

It is so challenging, that far too often we opt for being “nice” and don’t say anything at all, or try to subtly hint at what we really want to say.

I’m in no way suggesting that we become mean. I’ve seen many scenarios where people weren’t challenged directly. I would argue that the person withholding the challenge did not really care personally about that individual. Because if they did really care, they would have challenged them. In other words, being “nice” is more about you than it is about the other person.

Scott puts it this way. “You need to rise above your empathy and realize that it’s your own feelings you are protecting, not theirs. To get past ruinous empathy, leaders must recognize that indulging near-term empathy ignores long term implications. You could be setting people up for bigger failure, and more hurt feelings, later. Convincing yourself that “it will all work out” absent your intervention is simply denial. Think about how they will feel when their shortfalls prove fatal and you have to fire them.”

Ruinous Empathy

I consider ruinous empathy to be passive-aggressive behavior, and that’s not at all helpful. Yes, leaders need to be empathetic, but this is ruinous empathy.

I recently had a senior executive tell me that they have never given anyone constructive feedback, they only give positive feedback. But, then shortfalls have proven fatal. And, they didn’t have to be fatal. I guess the older I get and the more examples I see; I truly believe a quote I heard a couple of years ago. “To hire someone and not tell them how they are doing, is cruel and unusual punishment.” It’s not nice! It’s ruinous.

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3 Leadership Lessons from Cellist Yo-Yo Ma

We found that for leaders to make something great, their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.  ~Jim Collins

I thinkJim Collins’ work (author of Good to Great) is reflected in not only the talent, but the life of the extraordinary cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.

Not long ago I had the privilege of seeing Yo-Yo Ma in concert. It was the second time for me and he never disappoints. Three words that describe Ma are also attributes Collins’ uses to describe great leaders: focus, passion, and humility.


When being interviewed, Ma said, “I can be incredibly focused, and you know, incredibly willful.” This incident in Philadelphia describes just how focused he can be. 

Once, while playing in Philadelphia, his chair tipped over. As Ma fell backward, the audience gasped. A musician behind Ma caught him just in time. Amazingly, Ma kept playing through all of it and sat back down without missing a beat.

Collins said “Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.”


Ma said, “Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity because if you’re passionate about something, then you’re more willing to take risks.” 

If you’ve read Collins’ book, then you’re familiar with the hedgehog concept. The point where your answers to three key questions overlap. 1) What are you deeply passionate about? 2) What can you be the best in the world at? 3) What drives your economic engine? Passion is something that Ma understands and clearly demonstrates when he performs. It’s also quite evident that he is deeply passionate. It goes without question that he’s the best in the world.


In a biography of Yo-Yo Ma by Susan Ashley he is described as “a true superstar, but one would never know it upon meeting him. Ma is soft-spoken and humble.” 

This was something I witnessed at the recent concert. I’ve been to many concerts, hundreds, and what I saw Ma do is extremely rare. When his featured cello concerto was finished, the audience immediately stood to their feet and he took a short and modest bow. Then, he walked over to the first-chair cellist and gave him a big hug. He proceeded to very personally greet each of the other cellists. Finally, he stepped back with the remaining musicians and included them in receiving the applause. It wasn’t about him; it was about the music. Just as Collins’ said, “leader’s ambition has to be for the greatness of the work, rather than for themselves.”

Ma being interviewed: “People will ask, ‘Are you famous?’ And I always answer, ‘My mother thinks so.’”

Inspiring leaders, who are focused, passionate, and humble, can be found in many places, even center stage at Symphony Center. Thank you, Yo-Yo Ma for both your musical and leadership inspiration.

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Leaders give people space and grace for cultural whiplash!

What sews nicely in one culture may cut in another. But with a little effort and creativity, you can find many ways to encourage and learn from alternative points of view while safeguarding valuable relationships. ~Erin Meyer

I was exhausted at the end of last week. On Friday evening when I looked back on my week, I discovered what was causing me to say, “I’m so glad it’s Friday.” I had cultural whiplash.

My week started with facilitating two days of training with a small group of individuals and each one was from a different ethnic background. The next day I was with a group where they all shared a common ethnic background and I was the clear minority. Then I ended the week working on a project where you would think I had more in common with this group, on the surface they look a lot like me. However, they are in a geographic region that still represents a strong influence from one specific Anglo-Saxon group, different from my own.

As I made my way through the week, there were certainly times when I wanted to hit “rewind” and get a second chance at some of my interactions. I took comfort in thinking about examples author Erin Meyer shares in her book The Culture Map. This is her area of expertise and she describes scenarios where she too, goofed up.

Leaders educate themselves.

Meyer says, “Millions of people work in global settings while viewing everything from their own cultural perspectives and assuming that all differences, controversy, and misunderstanding are rooted in personality. This is not due to laziness. Many well-intentioned people don’t educate themselves about cultural differences because they believe that if they focus on individual differences, that will be enough.” 

I would argue, that you don’t need to work in a global setting to have differing cultural perspectives. Various neighborhoods of a metropolitan city or the east side and west side of the same state can have differing cultures. This is something we all need to be more intentional about learning and become more culturally flexible.

Listen more. Speak less.

Meyer also says, “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act.” Sometimes we may be a little too anxious to try and fit in. We may need to give ourselves more time to just watch, and just listen. It takes practice and persistence, much like developing physical flexibility.

Give others space and grace.

I would add to Meyer’s suggestion, that when we see and hear others messing up, as I did last week, that we give them some space and grace. We’re not going to get it right the first time, or every time. Many of us find ourselves in situations where we are trying to understand a number of cultures within a short timespan as I experienced last week.

Leaders: When do you need to listen more and speak less? When do you need to give others a little space and grace?

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