Monthly Archives: December 2020

Will you give life or drain it in 2021?

In every encounter we either give life or we drain it; there is no neutral exchange. ~Brennan Manning

When I began the year, 2020, with the desire to explore bold grace as a leadership approach, I never imagined what would unfold in the following months. The year now known most commonly as “unprecedented.”

One of the debates over the past year, and there were many, was the dispute over what matters most – a person’s character, or the position the person supports. In other words, could someone be of  poor character but be highly regarded because of the position they support. Could someone hold a position that might be considered morally questionable and still be deemed as a person of character.

I have drawn my own conclusion; it’s not an either/or choice. I believe that we can’t separate what we do or support from who we are or our being.  

Defining Bold Grace Leadership

As 2020 draws to a close, I began reading Moral Leadership for a Divided Age by David P. Gushee and Colin Holtz.  The authors quote two women who wrote Black Womanist Leadership. I believe their definition of leadership gets at the core of bold grace.

“Toni C. King and S. Alease Ferguson, in Black Womanist Leadership, define leadership as ‘the desire, ability, and efforts to influence the world around us [bold], based upon an ethic of care for self and other [grace] and fueled by a vision that one sustains over time [bold grace].’” As authors Gushee and Holtz, said “King and Ferguson rightly call attention to character and action…”

It is my goal not to simply glide into 2021 without pausing to both reflect on 2020 and then refocus as I move into 2021. If I want to stay true to the idea of bold grace, then I need to refocus on not only what I want to do in 2021, but also who do I want to be. What action do I want to take and what character do I want to reflect. Because one will surely influence the other.

We Give Life, or We Drain It

Our encounters throughout life are intertwined with both what we do and who we are. As Brennan Manning said, “in every encounter we either give life or we drain it.” Giving of life or draining it is a result of both our character and our actions.

I’m guessing that we can all most likely agree that 2020 was filled with circumstances that felt draining. Unlike 2020, we know what’s before us in 2021, at least more so than we did 12 months ago. With that knowledge how can we be life giving? What can we do and who do we need to be to allow our encounters to be filled with character and action that gives life.

Begin 2021 with bold grace in both action and character.

I am responsible.

I want to take personal responsibility for the miscommunication. I know that’s not done much these days, but I am responsible. ~General Gustave Perna

I have to admit, when I heard these words last week, “I am responsible” from the General overseeing the distribution of the COVID vaccine, I was taken aback. I honestly could not recall (and still can’t) the last time I heard someone in leadership actually take responsibility on a national stage. Things happen, plans go wrong, mistakes are made. We seem to have forgotten that we really are human and that means we are fallible. If that’s true, then why not just admit when things don’t go as we had hoped or even meticulously planned?

One reason is that we are more concerned about our own self-image than we are the people who were harmed by our mistake. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD said in Psychology Today, “It can be the ultimate expression of egocentrism, or even narcissism, to focus only on your own self-image.” She goes on to explain that “by admitting the wrongdoing, you show that you value those you’ve harmed as much as – or more than – you value your own need to seem infallible.” She concludes by saying, “Ironically, it’s when you acknowledge your weakness by admitting to wrongdoing that you show your strongest side.”

Stop Being Anxious and Take the Blame

Anxious leadership, according to Edwin H. Friedman, is manifested through someone who is reactive, displaces blame, seeks a quick-fix, etc. Anxious leadership only exacerbates the already anxiety-ridden culture. A leader with a non-anxious presence who is self-aware, secure, centered, an excellent listener, grace-giving, forgiving, and suspends judgment can move an organization through challenges and uncertainty with ease and confidence. 

Peter Bregman wrote in HBR (April 8, 2013): “Take the blame for anything you’re even remotely responsible for.” Bregman says: “This solution [taking the blame] transforms all the negative consequences of blaming others into positive ones. It solidifies relationships, improves your credibility, makes you and others happy, reinforces transparency, improves self-esteem, increases learning, and solves problems.” Yet we resist.

I Am Responsible

It takes bold grace to own your blame, and that shows strength. Being defensive makes you slippery. Taking responsibility makes you trustworthy. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) famously wrote, “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Consider a 21st Century version, “to err is human, to admit is divine.”

To say “I am responsible” requires bold grace. Thank you, General Gustave Perna for reminding us what that looks like.

Emotional Labor—Now More Than Ever

Emotional labor is the act of connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy for you to do in that moment.  ~Seth Godin

In his book, Linchpin, Seth Godin states that no one pays you to do physical labor anymore. You are paid for emotional labor. It’s the act of doing work you don’t feel like, the act of having a conversation that might be difficult, etc. It’s the hard work of digging deep inside and producing an idea that scares you. It’s connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy for you to do in that moment.

What is emotional labor?

I grew up on a farm in Kansas. My developmental years were dominated by physical labor. Having three older brothers, my participation in the physical labor of farming was limited. However, as several of my brothers graduated and moved on to other careers, I needed to lend a hand out in the fields. One of my periodic jobs was to drive the tractor and pull a baler while either my brother or father stacked the hay bales on the trailer that was also attached behind the baler. While we had to work in tandem, it was nearly all physical labor, very little emotional labor. Except for the occasion when I would let up on the clutch too quickly which wasn’t good for the baler or the person attempting to stand on the moving trailer. In those moments a little “emotion” was expressed by my brother. My father was more tolerant of my less than perfect clutching abilities.

But we really could get by (for better or worse) without a great deal of communication or emotional labor. Today’s workplace is a dramatic shift from my childhood. And since some of you are thinking it, I’ll go ahead and say it, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Emotional labor takes time and effort, and in our fast-paced society we don’t always want to give emotional labor the time it requires. Someone new is hired in a leadership or managerial role and they jump right into the “task” of doing their work. We short-cut and side-step getting to know the people with whom we spend the majority of our time. We wonder why the leadership team (or any team for that matter) doesn’t quite seem in sync. Or, we refer to our last half-day team building retreat from three years ago and then question why we don’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. 

It needs to happen every day.

Emotional labor is not a one-time event or fully covered in employee onboarding. It’s hard labor that needs to happen every day. It’s the act of doing work you don’t feel like, the act of having a conversation that might be difficult, etc.

I’ve watched leadership teams go from awkward and inefficient artificial harmony to moving rhythmically and easily with each other–efficient and graceful. This happens only after investing heavily in the work of emotional labor. Connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy to do in that moment, that’s leading with bold grace.

Leaders Standing on the Grave-Mound of the Past

Only by standing on the grave-mound of the past will you see the vision of the future clear before you, alluring in its possibilities.  ~Eugene O’Neill

Standing on a grave-mound of the past? I never know where I’ll find an inspiring thought about leadership. This time it was in an art gallery. As I wandered through a gallery, I noticed a quote the owner had placed prominently over the main desk. The entire quote by Eugene O’Neill reads:

If you want to become an artist you must come out of your shell…You must come out and scratch and bite, and love and hate, and play and sing and fly, and earn your place in the sun. You will have to starve and weep and know great sorrows and great joys and great sacrifices…Only by standing on the grave-mound of the past will you see the vision of the future clear before you, alluring in its possibilities. 

As I read the quote I thought about the numerous illustrations of a leader as an artist. Then I also thought the word “artist” could simply be replaced with the word “leader” and it would certainly still hold true.

Standing on the Grave-Mound of the Past

I was especially intrigued by the phrase, “only by standing on the grave-mound of the past…” What a vivid image! If it’s a grave-mound, then it must be something we’ve buried, put to rest, moved beyond, but certainly not forgotten and likely closed that chapter with ceremonious recognition. We know where that grave-mound is, we have marked the exact location, and we may even come back and visit it from time to time. But it’s when we boldly stand on that grave-mound that we’ll be able to see the vision of the future in all clarity. Not only will we see it, we’ll be allured (i.e., attracted, magnetized, charmed, pulled) to its possibilities.

In all honesty, I have to admit that I also thought about what I was strictly taught as a child. That it was disrespectful to step on a grave. Does that mean we have to disrespect the past in order to see the future? I doubt it, or really, I surely hope not. Standing on a grave-mound could be viewed as using the past as a season of learning in order to see the future more clearly. 

Revealing the Future

I’ve worked with a number of organizations that have a rich and deep history wrapped in a great deal of emotional attachment. So when the time comes to demolish the flagship building or end the inaugural program, it’s not always met with optimism or hope for the future. In every example I can recall, I don’t believe the current leadership had any disrespect whatsoever for the past. They were using the past (the mound) to see just a little farther into the future; they were standing on the grave-mound in order for the future to be revealed to them.

Whether on a personal or organizational level, we all need to have the courage and boldness to stand on the grave-mound of the past and be allured by the possibilities of the future. We need to allow ourselves to lead with bold grace