Patti Davis: The Virtue of Silence

“Years ago, someone asked me what I would say to my younger self if I could. Without hesitating I answered: ‘That’s easy. I’d have said, ‘Be quiet.’ Not forever. But until I could stand back and look at things through a wider lens.”

This comment is from Patti Davis, daughter of the late President Ronald Reagan, in an op-ed for the New York Times reflecting on the decision of Britain’s Prince Harry to publish his memoir. Davis had done the same years earlier. Her tome addressed her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, Nancy, and her father.

Davis used the book to explain herself and, by doing so, to get more understanding from those around her. A worthy ambition, undoubtedly, but perhaps too revelatory at the time. Davis writes, “Not every truth has to be told to the entire world, even about famous families.” She adds, “But not everything needs to be shared, a truth that silence can teach.”

Nature of Truth

Reflection leads to introspection and, in turn, a thought about the nature of truth. “There isn’t just one truth, our truth — the other people who inhabit our story have their truths as well,” says Davis.

Our self-awareness evolves over time; we see our shortcomings. For example, what adult does not regret saying something to their parents in the heat of the moment? Yet, years later, with the benefit of hindsight, we recognize not that we were untruthful or hurtful but that we were ignorant of another person’s perspective. 

Value and virtue

There is grace in silence. “When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer.” Those are the words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton

Our self-righteous perceptions of truth can get the better of us if we are not careful. Harry Truman used to write angry letters, then place them into a drawer and never send them. Abraham Lincoln did the same. One executive I know advises others irritated with a colleague or a situation to vent their feelings in a draft email. Then, set the draft aside to revise later when passions cool or delete it entirely. 

In our world of “gotcha comments” – that permeate our social discourse – how refreshing it is to stand back and disengage. Some call this digital detoxification. Whatever you call it, silence, like patience, gives us a measure of self-discipline. We cannot control events, only how we react to them.

One caveat. There should not be silence about the abuse. So often, those who reveal it unburden themselves from the unjustified shame they have been harboring. Silence must not be used as a tool of suppression; it must be offered willingly to see ourselves with greater clarity.

So yes, silence can work for us if we open ourselves to the experience. “Silence gives you room, it gives you distance,” writes Ms. Davis, “and it lets you look at your experiences more completely, without the temptation to even the score.” That is good advice for all.

First posted on on 1.08.2023

What You See May Not Be What You Get

Directing a film is like managing a small team. As such, it demands more than organizational skills; it requires reading people. Take it from Steven Spielberg, one of the giants of modern cinema.

“What looks subtle to the eye when I’m standing next to the camera and watching actors engaging in scene study as the cameras are turning, and what you see as the – with your eye, and you think it’s subtle, and you think it’s perfect, when you see it back on film, everything is louder and bigger than life on the screen,” said Steven Spielberg in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air

“I learned from a very early age directing television… and I made a lot of mistakes by just trusting my evaluation of performance on a set and then realizing that, oh my goodness, I let my actors all go too far. How come it’s louder on the screen when it seemed perfectly natural on the day?” Spielberg confessed that it took him “years to figure out how to modulate performances so the actors would be at a level that I was seeking.”

What to observe

The lesson to take from Spielberg is two-fold, keep a close watch on the action, but don’t trust your own eyes. You have to be willing to do your own after-action review to see if what you thought was going well was going well. Here are some suggestions that may help.

Prepare. Getting a project off the ground is like a film. First, you marshal the resources and gather the team.

Engage. Let the team do its work after you set the parameters. Then, allow them to improvise as a means of achieving better results.

Evaluate. Initial results can be encouraging, but they can be misleading. Have the guts to see that what you see first will complete the mission.

Revise. Keep an open mind so that you can work with your team to improve processes and outcomes as you go along.

Gain perspective

There is something else necessary: experience. Spielberg cut his teeth beginning at age 22, directing episodic television. He had the experience of working with first-rate actors as a young man. A lesson he learned was as talented as they were, he was the director. It was his job to put the pieces together. In short, even though he was the kid, he was the boss.

Leading a team is much the same process. You respect the talents of your people by providing them with the resources necessary to do their jobs well. And you let them do it. But you need to follow the action to make sure they are adhering to schedule and budget and giving them the freedom to do their best work. In short, it’s a balancing act. It is not something you learn from a book; you gain by studying leaders around you and then making your own choices.

“Your film is like your children,” says the German director Werner Herzog. “You might want a child with certain qualities, but you are never going to get the exact specification right. The film has a privilege to live its own life and develop its own character. To suppress this is dangerous. It is an approach that works the other way, too: sometimes the footage has amazing qualities that you did not expect.” 

The same sentiment can be applied to leadership. Those you lead can amaze you.

First posted on 12/18/2022

What’s Behind Every Successful Leader? The Team. The Team. The Team.

“All leadership writing depends on the dubious premise that an entity was successful because a person was in charge, rather than while they were in charge. The ‘halo effect’ is the name given to the tendency for a positive impression in one area to lead to a positive impression in another.”

That observation is from a recent column by Bartleby in The Economist about what lessons we can learn from the manager of the team that wins this year’s World Cup. Bartleby notes the standard concepts – “team spirit, data, purpose, and stars” – contribute to the goal of winning the golden trophy. As Bartleby notes, only one manager, Vittorio Pozzo of Italy, has ever won back-to-back Cup titles. So what role does the manager play?


Whether they are called managers or coaches depending upon their sport, those who succeed are leaders first and foremost. Yes, they manage the details, but more importantly, they get players to believe in themselves. Such cohesion is essential in international competitions where players come from different pro teams. What we can learn from winning managers in sports – as well as in for-profit and nonprofit enterprises – is that confidence matters.

Good leaders get the players to believe in themselves as individuals and teammates. When that occurs, people pull together – not because the boss says so, but because they want to. It may be hard to keep them from work. What unites them is team purpose, a belief in the mission, and confidence in their ability to perform as a unit.

Pulling together

The benefits of such cohesion are not simply results but positive behavior change. Work is hard and can be dreary, but when employees are engaged (to use an old buzzword), they want to come to work. Why? Because they want to participate with their colleagues in something greater than themselves.

Mistakes will occur, but when people pull together as a unit, there is a collective disposition that addresses problems not in a “gotcha” manner but in a “teach me” manner. 

As Patrick Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.” Such a sentiment is the core concept of psychological safety, an idea pioneered by Amy Edmondson that dictates that people can contribute when they feel valued.

Yes, the leader matters, of course, but as Bartley argues – and common sense dictates – it is the team’s performance that matters more. This approach may be why well-liked managers do not always succeed. What matters more is respect. That emotion comes from the feeling that what we do matters and that we can achieve our intended results as individuals and as a team. 

Leaders enkindle a spirit within their followers that pushes them to want to achieve, not simply for themselves but for the team’s good. When that occurs, the organization achieves its mission. 

Note: The phrase, “the team, the team, the team,” was a favorite of Bo Schembechler who coached Michigan football from 1969 to 1989.

First posted on 12.13.2022

Trevor Noah Says Farewell with Humor (and Grace)

Usually when an entertainer leaves a live show for which he has been host, there are the usual thank you’s to staff and crew, a sprinkling of hosannas to special guests, and plenty of humor. Trevor Noah’s leave-taking of the Daily Show, his television home for the past seven years, was all of that, and more.

At the top of the finale, Noah opened with characteristic humor. “When I started the show, “I had three clear goals: ‘I’m going to make sure Hilary gets elected, I’m going to make sure I prevent a global pandemic from starting and I’m going to become best friends with Kanye West.’ I think it’s time to move on.”

In many ways you can look at Noah’s tenure as a love letter to America. Noah, after all, is from South Africa. He is biracial, son of a Xhosa mother and Swiss father. His memoir, Born a Crime, tells that story in ways that show from whence his comedy as well as his deep understanding of the human condition stems. In fact, it is the latter that gives such measure to the former. 

Lessons learned

In his final monologue from his desk, Noah said he learned three lessons doing the show. Lesson one, “issues are real, but politics are just an invented way to solve those issues … It’s not a binary. There are not just two ways to solve any problem.”

Noah opined that “politics is transformed into a giant game of football. And like football it turns everybody’s brains into mush.” Better, he advises to think of the issues facing individuals and the country through a human lens rather than a partisan lens. 

Lesson two, “never forget how much context matters… We have a lot of information but we don’t have the context to process that information.”Noah noted that we respond to news we see through our own biases. The wider context of what we are seeing and hearing is lost.

People are “a lot friendlier than they would have you believe.” Social media may tempt us to think of the polarity between people. But for Noah, his travels throughout the country enabled him to see the better side of people, even those who may disagree with him politically.

Lesson three, said Noah, was that doing the show “taught me to be grateful foreverything that I have, that I don’t even realize I have… Grateful to the wonderful people who helped me make every single episode.”

Special mention

One group who taught Noah received special mention. “I’ve often been credited with having these grand ideas. Who do you think teaches me, who do you think has shaped me, nourished me, informed me? From my mom, my gran, my aunts, all these black women in my life but then in America as well. I always tell people if you truly want to learn about America, talk to Black women. Because unlike everybody else Black women can’t afford to f—- around and find out. Black people understand how hard it is when things go bad.”

Context matters and so does heart. Trevor Noah is only 38 and he will be entertaining and yes educating us for decades more to come. His departure from the Daily Show was less a goodbye than a closing of one chapter and the opening of another. All done with style and grace.

First posted on 12.12.2022

The Detroit Lions: Playing Hard, Winning, and Maybe

One second on the clock.

The New York Jets tumbled into formation for a 58-yard field goal attempt. A long shot for sure, but fans of the team on the other side of the ball, the Detroit Lions, were conditioned for the worst.

After all, the Lions had lost games at least three times on late 55-yard-plus field goals. And so often in their history, the Lions had lost games in the final minute, snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory.

The kick was up and SHORT.

The Lions win. And now boast an even 7-7 record. 

Ordinarily a .500 record is nothing to brag about, but you take what you get when you are the Lions. The team began the season with high hopes, even appearing on the HBO Series Hard Knocks. Then in true Lions fashion, they stumbled out of the gate. Badly. Going 1-6 in their first seven games. 

Same old Lions, as fans are wont to say, because they have lived it. For 65 years. The team has won a single playoff game since 1957. They even went 0-16, the same year they started a quarterback with a broken arm. Really. (Of course, it wasn’t his throwing arm, but still.)

What the Lions teach

The Lions are a lesson for any team, department, or organization that becomes accustomed to underperforming. So how do you right the ship? Well, you get the right people on board and let them go.

The Lions have a coach, Dan Campbell, who has gotten his team — many of them rookies or second and third-year players — to believe in themselves. Getting the team to believe in itself, mainly when its history is one of defeat and defeatism, takes work. Campbell has been a target of fan vitriol for bone-headed calls and more, but one thing since he was hired, his team has not quit on him. They play through the whistle, as football players like to say.

“As the head coach, Campbell is the Lions’ CEO,” writes Justin Rogers of The Detroit News. “He’s responsible for setting and adjusting the tone of the culture. And, when it comes to calming guys’ nerves, he’s the perfect man for the job. He’s demanding, yet doesn’t take himself too seriously. And that may be an understatement. He doesn’t sweat being perceived as the dumb jock or giving a corny speech in a team meeting. He’s beyond comfortable in his own skin, and if a team is supposed to take on the persona of its head coach, getting them to get back to playing loose won’t be an issue.”

What coach Dan Campbell has done applies to non-sports teams. He has lived by the dictum of legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes real good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”

Another factor is their quarterback, Jared Goff. He led his previous team, the Los Angeles Rams, to the Super Bowl, then was summarily traded to the Detroit Lions for long-suffering quarterback Matthew Stafford. Goff was, in essence, sent into the equivalent of NFL Siberia. Not once did he complain in public. Instead, he handled himself with poise and professionalism. His fellow players saw in him a quarterback who could lead them.

The Lions boast a defensive line with a young rookie from Michigan, Aidan Hutchinson, who has racked up seven sacks this season. A friend who played college ball says that Hutchinson’s motor is always running. That is football speaks for a player’s drive, determination, and mobility.

On the right path

As the playoffs loom, the Lions have shifted from being doormats to the team that no one wants to play because they are playing well and upsetting the oddsmakers.

Being realistic, the Lions’ chances for the playoffs remain slim. And the Lions being the Lions, the next door they open could be a trap. Their history is one of the pratfalls. But this team seems different, and having rallied from a 1-6 – a mark that in the past would have spelled collapse – to winning six of their past seven games means they are doing something right. And that gives Lions fans something to believe in and for managers and teams facing long odds to find comfort.

One more quote from Bear Bryant that may apply to the Lions and every struggling team is, “It’s awfully important to win with humility. It’s also important to lose. I hate to lose worse than anyone, but if you never lose you won’t know how to act. If you lose with humility, then you can come back.” And so maybe that’s the secret to the Lions’ turnaround; they have been humbled and have not quit.

First posted on 12.19.2022