Recognizing wisdom is a matter of observation. Life is seldom tidy and learning occurs at the edges when we may least expect it. Learning often occurs when we least expect it: a defeat, an act of compassion, a note of love.
Recognizing wisdom is a matter of choice. It comes from within us. We decide to keep our minds open so that we give it proper attention when we experience a learning moment. Easy to say, certainly, but hard to implement because we are so wrapped up in the bustle of our own lives that we ignore the obvious.
The sheltering our pandemic has induced has made it easier to pay attention. Our public lives are limited; we are closed off from the broader commerce of the world. We stay in touch via electronic media, but we remain rooted to our same location. That forced isolation creates an opportunity—not altogether welcome—to observe our surroundings. After all, there is not much else to do.
Smell the flowers, yes. But make time to breathe. Listen to the air going in. And out. Discipline yourself to notice what you have not seen before. Pause for effect, not just for others but for yourself.
Implementing wisdom may be a harder nut for the reason that a good lesson requires change. As we so often hear, change is good, as long as it does not affect us personally. Adopting a new lesson is personal, a commitment to think differently, to do differently. Overcoming our shortcomings requires work to form new habits: physical (diet, exercise, rest), mental (modes of thought), and spiritual (purposeful reframing).
Acting on wisdom
How do we act on wisdom?
Work hard to understand yourself.
Attend to what you have observed.
Do not fear your shortcomings.
Use them as your guides to move forward.
Take heart from your failures.
Gain lessons from your mistakes.
Forgive yourself so you can forgive others.
Demonstrate kindness to yourself as a means of expressing kindness to others.
Practice, practice, practice.
“A person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he values,” wrote Marcus Aurelius in Meditations. When you value learning and the company of others who share the same value, wisdom will accompany you.
When Ocean Vuong learned that his uncle had died, he took a long walk through the streets of New York City. His uncle whose death was a suicide was only three years older than Vuong; the two had been close. As Vuong walked, he noticed something, which he explained in an interview with Krista Tippet, host of NPR’s On Being.
“I kept seeing these fire escapes. And I said, what happens if we had that? What is the linguistic existence of a fire escape, that we can give ourselves permission to say, ‘Are you really OK? I know we’re talking, but, you want to step out on the fire escape, and you can tell me the truth?’”
Vuong, an author, poet, and MacArthur fellow, relates this concept to hide our sense of vulnerability. That is, if you are feeling low or depressed, you hide it rather than reveal it. “I think we’ve built shame into vulnerability, and we’ve sealed it off in our culture — ‘Not at the table. Not at the dinner table. Don’t say this here… This is not cocktail conversation.’” Vong adds, “We police access to ourselves. And the great loss is that we can move through our whole lives, picking up phones and talking to our most beloveds, and yet, still not know who they are. Our ‘how are you’ has failed us. And we have to find something else.”
Vuong, who immigrated from Vietnam as a child, is touching on a very private topic. Marshall Goldsmith, the world’s leading executive coach and best-selling author, speaks of the concept of being on stage, that is, always being upbeat. It is true for coaches with their clients as well as for executives being coached. We know how to put up a good front. As business people, this is fine; it is standard practice among professionals.
At the same time, if we keep our vulnerability bottled inside and tell no one, we induce isolation. We cut ourselves off from sources of comfort, solace and counsel. We gradually withdraw into a kind of shelter of our own making. We may trick ourselves into believing we are protecting ourselves when in reality, we may be imprisoning our true selves.
My colleague Terry Jackson Ph.D., a change management consultant and executive coach, likes to say that we all need hope. Hope is foundational to our ability to look beyond our present circumstances. Without hope, there is only darkness. With hope, there can be light, even if it too may not be as bright as we would like it. If we shelter our inner selves from others too much, we also rob ourselves of finding hope, the kind that comes from knowing that we are not alone.
It is not easy to reveal one’s vulnerabilities. That’s why you need a “fire escape.” For Vuong, a writer, the fire escape is a linguist metaphor for “being off stage.” What is required is trust and bravery. You need to trust the person with whom you share your story. And you need to be brave about what you will share.
Be of service
This sharing is an opportunity for others to serve us. As Terry Jackson says, service is our true purpose. While we think of helping others, we can expect the same from others. Give them a chance to serve us. In time we can do the same. Service enables us to fulfill the needs of others and at the same time fulfill our purpose.
And so, we must find our fire escapes, a place to be ourselves, openly, honestly, and hopefully.
Making the complex understandable was a specialty of Dr. Feynman. Even though seriously ill with cancer, Feynman signed on to the committee investigate the Challenge space shuttle explosion in 1986. In testimony before a congressional committee,
Feynman dipped O-ring composite material into a glass of ice water to demonstrate how cold makes rubber brittle. It was an O-ring failure that triggered the explosion.
Feynman was a brilliant scientist, yet unlike so many scientists, he was a gifted teacher and beloved by his students at the California Institute of Technology. In addition to physics, he shared life lessons. Here are eight classes he wrote that have become widely known and have implications for students of leadership. (Feynman’s words are in bold.)
Work hard. Discipline is essential to mastering your craft. It takes years to learn it.
What others think of you is none of your business. Don’t become distracted by opinion and hearsay. Focus on your job.
It’s OK not to have all the answers. Very important. Leaders are not know-it-alls. When you flout how much you know, you realize that no one cares. No one likes a show-off.
Experiment, Fail, Learn and Repeat. Leadership is often a matter of experimentation. Leaders base decisions on assumptions they believe are correct. If results do not equal expectations, it is important to try again.
Knowledge comes from experience. There is no shame in failing; shame comes from disregarding the lessons learned from failure.
Imagination is important. Leaders need to make it safe for people to think big. Encourage people to pursue ideas as a means of adding to the greater whole.
Do what interests you the most. Teams only move forward when the goals inspire them. The pursuit of big goals is true in sports as it is in life. Think big and act bigger.
Stay curious. Curiosity keeps a leader’s imagination fresh. A curious leader is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and its application to problems in need of a solution.
Following these lessons apply not merely to nascent scientists but are sound principles for leaders to follow for two reasons. One, they keep the leader’s ego in check and remind her that failure is part of the human condition, humility is essential, and the pursuit of knowledge takes commitment. Two, they remind the leader that it is his responsibility to foster curiosity and enable people to try and try again. Failure comes from having put yourself out there. Organizations only grow when leaders and followers alike are willing, as Feynman encouraged, to “experiment, fail, learn and repeat.”
Leadership by nature is not a set of aphorisms. It is both practice and art, as well as an example. Rules such as those by Feynman and others remind us that it is also a quest, a journey that requires self-learning that applied well leads to self-knowledge and, ultimately, the self-confidence necessary to lead others.
“Employers need to be mindful of the pace of work demanded from their teams and the impact on the teams’ effectiveness,” said Dr. Millard Brown, senior vice president of medical affairs at Spring Health and a practicing psychiatrist by training, in an interview with me. “There are times when a hard push is necessary. Leaders need to balance the hard push times with other times to take a breath and catch up.”
Self-care for leaders sets the right example. “Leaders should actively encourage self-care by team members and lead by example,” Brown said. “Keep an eye out for employees who demonstrate a change in work engagement and proactively seek to understand and support any concerns.”
The problem with burnout is that it feeds on itself, particularly in crisis times, such as we are living in now. “Most of us likely need to spend more time with self-care, as we are often harder on ourselves than we are on those around us,” Brown said. “As burnout takes hold, we tend to neglect our self-care further.”
Companies can help prevent burnout from occuring. The challenge is to act promptly and proactively. “Once an employee reaches the complete burnout stage,” said Brown in the news release, “recovery can become a challenging and long-term process that significantly disrupts both the employee’s life and the organization’s efficacy.”
There should be no shame in burnout. “Do not judge me by my successes,” said Nelson Mandela. “Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” The ability to rise again is a form of resilience.
Getting back up again is not easy. It takes two forms of courage. One, to recognize that you are not as strong as you thought you are. Two, you are stronger than you think you are. This approach is not a mind game. Recognize we all have shortcomings, and by acknowledging them, you can forge a path forward.
Louis Carter and David Burkus, two colleagues of mine from Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches, have written about going back to the office. I quote them and their work in this new article for SmartBrief.
Here is an excerpt.
There is always a tension between the wishes of management and what employees are willing to do. The challenge is for those in authority to provide a means for employees to achieve the mission by following the organization’s strategic direction.
One such issue arising and worth of study right now, even before it happens, is the workplace’s future. According to a new survey by the Best Practice Institute (BPI), 83% of CEOs want their employees to come to work back in the office. Only 10% of employees are interested. Of those who responded, safety was the prime concern. “Over 60% of employees responded they wouldn’t be comfortable returning without trusting the company’s confidence in communicating co-worker illness, clear instructions on health and safety policies, and the option to work from home.”
Management wants a physical presence
Louis Carter, CEO of BPI, told me in an interview. “Research shows that any change, especially during a highly volatile time, will most likely cause a great deal of stress. People are already very concerned about their health and catching COVID (and rightly so), and going into work present a huge amount of potential for additional stress. Those who did indicate they would come into work gave us clear expectations of what they needed to make it easier for them to come back to work.”
David Burkus, Ph.D., organizational psychologist and author of Leading from Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams, says it is necessary “to recognize that it’s about way more than just where people work from during normal business hours. People had the opportunity to rework when and how they do their work as well. So even those who want to return to the office are unlikely to want to return for the standard, Monday to Friday from 9 to 5. There’s no way around a need for flexibility, so the best thing you can do is recognize that it’s not a binary choice. Most people will end up choosing a little bit of time at the office and a little bit of time at home. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s probably better.”
I am seated at the piano because I am remembering my grandmother. She was a gifted piano player. She also taught music and played in her church.
Every morning before my grandfather went to work, she would sit down and play songs. And he would sing along. It was a great way for both to begin their day.
Part of my practice routine is playing hymns. While I was raised in a faith-based tradition, but I am not observant these days. But I do find comfort and solace in the hymns. They are timeless.
They also have an energy about them that gets us motivated.
And so today I want to play a hymn called “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”
When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met off the shore of Canada in summer of 1940, United States had not yet entered the War. Amid the talks, they found time to hold a Sunday service on the deck of a British warship.
“Eternal Father, Strong to Save” was one of the hymns that was played. It was a favorite of Churchill, but also of Roosevelt. I know such a hymn gave these statesmen solace just as it does us.
There’s a famous quote from the grizzled football coach Vince Lombardi.
“I don’t necessarily have to like my players and associates. But as their leader, I must love them. Love is loyalty. Love is teamwork. Love respects the dignity of the individual. This is the strength of any organization.”
Love is important.
Vince talks about it from an organizational standpoint, and from a people standpoint.
It’s about respect.
And when you show respect to people, you demonstrate that you care about them
And in return, they will show you loyalty.
Not because they have to, but because they want to.
The other day a colleague of mine, commenting on a short video I did on the topic of trust, noted that I had not mentioned listening. And so he made a list of things necessary to improve listening and communicating.
My friend, who asked that I not use his name, has shared these thoughts with the young leaders he mentored and coached. And he has graciously allowed me to share them here.
Keep your word. If you say you are going to do something, do it.
Listen well. Genuinely listen. Ask questions that allow others to know you’re listening.
Don’t speak over people. Don’t finish their sentences for them. Good eye contact is helpful, and important.
Maintain confidentiality, when appropriate and for sure when asked.
When needed, roll up your sleeves and join the task to help.
Ask your people what they think and why. Do it often.
When you disagree, argue the facts, not the personality.
Do not criticize your direct reports in public. Do it in private.
Support members of your team. Have their backs, especially when they are in a tight spot. Support does not confer agreement.
Likely you have heard many of these before, but it’s always good to be reminded of how we can become more attentive listeners. “There is perhaps no greater gift you can give to another person,” goes the saying, “than by paying attention and let them know they are being heard.”
Listening is an investment in another person. It is a sign of respect. Doing it regularly and with kindness demonstrates that you value the contributions of others.