Turn Your Organization into a Community

Purpose, as is often said, our why. It sparks our vision—our becoming. It develops our mission—our doing. Purpose catalyzes us to achieve, but it does not say HOW we can achieve it. Many people achieve greatness by acting more as a bulldozer than a tractor. A bulldozer flattens. A tractor pulls. In the former, the bulldozer steamrolls obstacles, even people. In the latter, a tractor drives ahead, drawing others in its wake.

There is a way to make purpose more compelling and appealing. We call it grace, a catalyst for the greater good.

Purpose is not inherently full of grace. Instead, it is powered by ambition, drive and ego. And those are positives when they are used by true leaders, one more interested in bringing people together than in steamrolling opposition.

How grace transforms purpose

Grace complements purpose. If purpose is our why, then grace becomes our how – the way we do things here. Grace shapes the values that bind members to one another. Values underscore people to feel wanted. They believe they have a stake in the outcome. They know they belong. Grace transforms an organization into a community. 

Grace is inherent to the human condition. Some might say our DNA includes it because we, as humans, true to our tribal natures, are inclined to help those closest to us. Grace, however, knows no biological kinship; it creates spiritual kinship. We are connected to others.

Think about

Here’s a thought experiment. Consider your place of work.  Does your organization exhibit grace? 

An organization without grace is one where people feel fearful, uncertain, and perhaps unloved. Without grace, there can be no community. There may be an organization, but there is no connection. People feel they do not belong.

My colleague Mark Goulston, M.D., a business psychiatrist and best-selling author, often talks about the need for people, especially those at risk for self-harm, to “feel felt.” Organizations can be alienating. Communities are embracing. In short, people feel emotionally connected to others. They, in the words of Dr. Goulston, “feel felt.”

An organization with grace is a community. A community shares ideas, collaborates more closely and endures hardships. It knows sacrifice for the greater good. It is rooted in purpose. Its members understand what the organization wants to achieve, and they are committed to working toward the vision, accomplishing the mission, and living the values they espouse.

Organizations are administrative. They are formed to do something. They are artificial constructs. At the same time, because they are human creations, they can be made better. They can become communities where people feel they belong and can contribute to something greater than themselves.

Enabling grace

Grace facilitates our connection to one another. Grace complements psychological safety, a concept that thought leaders Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School have developed. When people feel safe, they can speak their minds, share their thoughts, work cooperatively and collectively. Psychological safety encourages collaboration. 

With grace, we do the following:

·      Put others first.

·      Listen before speaking.

·      Look for problems to solve.

·      Encourage people to speak out.

·      Instill hope in the face of adversity.

·      Drive out fear.

·      Act with courage.

Doing so enables us to integrate purpose into our lives and create community with others.

First posted on Forbes.com 9.10.2021

Three Lessons in Speaking Out

Anyone following the news in the past year or knows of Fiona Hill, the White House advisor for Eastern European affairs. She was called to testify before Congress as a “fact witness” related to the Trump Administration’s interactions with Russia and Ukraine. Her testimony was solid, and she gained positive recognition for her steadfast demeanor and professionalism.

We did not know that Fiona Hill was also acting—not dissembling but delivering her presentation in an ice-cold room. As she told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Hill had been given a heads up by a woman colleague who said that men in suits liked the room cold so they would not be seen sweating under the lights. That is cold comfort for women, of course. 

The backstory

Ms. Hill’s insights into the presentation, which come from her memoir, There Is Nothing for You Here, provides an inside look at the relations between Trump and Vladimir Putin and the Administration’s handling of the Ukraine issue.

Before she testified in public, she was subject to scrutiny. Immediately, the team of lawyers told her, ‘Well, we’ll need to have someone to do your hair and your makeup, and we’ll need to kind of figure out how you look on the day.’ And I felt, ‘Really? Do they do this for men as well?’” As she explained, she thought she had put such things behind her, but as she concluded, “I always thought when I was younger, like ‘God, I’m not going to be 14 forever, and eventually this won’t matter.’ And you get to be 54, and it still matters, particularly if you’re a woman.”

Years earlier, however, Hill’s undistinguished looks may have given her a front-row seat to history. It was 2004, and she was seated next to Vladimir Putin. Hill was told later that it was because she was not beautiful and would not draw attention to herself. A man, she was told, would be noticed and the subject to speculation about who he was. A woman in her late thirties who was dressed plainly would not.

Steel yourself to speak

These stories, and many more, illustrate the discrepancy between how women and men are treated in public settings. None of her stories are unusual, save for the backdrop of international affairs and history. What is remarkable is Fiona Hill’s strong sense of self. And for that reason, her insight into public presentation has relevance. 

Plan ahead. For presentations, know your audience. What do they expect from you, and what will you deliver? Ideally, you constantly tailor your presentation to the audience, but you may want to hold sensitive topics back until asked in certain situations. 

Know the terrain. Fiona Hill knew the room would be cold, and she took the advice of a woman colleague who told her to plant her feet firmly on the floor as a means of physically grounding herself against the chill. Such a stance also enabled Ms. Hill to stay calm and allow her adrenaline to kick in.

Believe in yourself. Self-awareness is essential to demeanor. What you know about yourself can give you the confidence to stand up to challenges, either verbal or career-wise. In addition, taking stock of your strengths will buttress the negative emotions that may arise in times of crisis.

Fiona Hill has served her adopted country for decades as an analyst and advisor.  When the light of history shone its brightest on her, she delivered a lesson in maintaining composure as well as credibility.

Adapted from Forbes.com 00.00.2021

Colin Powell: Legacy Matters

Listening to the comments of those he worked with, we come away with a picture of Colin Powell that is very much aligned with our impressions of him, but more so now that he has died.

A general. A warfighter. A peacemaker. A diplomat. A mentor. 

Retired admiral James Stavridisspeaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Powell’s sense of civility and grace. Our impression of generals is too often that of bold, brash and take charge. Powell did the latter well, but he did it with a worldview shaped by his background and his service as a frontline combat soldier. 

No one hates war more than soldiers do, Stravridis said, quoting William Tecumseh Sherman and applying it to Powell. Having seen the cost of war up close and personally in Vietnam, he sought to avoid it. But, if it were inevitable, as seen in the first Gulf War, it must be waged vigorously and with the end in sight. 

Sadly, no exit strategy was in sight, as Secretary of State in 2003 made a case for war in Iraq because it was believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, at least by the Bush administration. None were found. Powell advised President Bush against the war and later came to regret his role in it and admitted it publicly. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” Powell told Barbara Walters on ABC News, acknowledging that his presentation “will always be a part of my record.”

Working the system

Fortunately, Powell contributed much more. He was a pragmatist. As a diplomat, Powell understood how governments work and how governance needed to be in place. 

Powell was a people person. Richard Haass, a friend of more than 40 years who first worked with him at the Pentagon, recalls seeing then Col. Powell make phone calls every morning, something Powell referred to as checking the “trap lines.” Haass explained that Powell was seeking information. 

Information was a currency Powell could use to understand the bigger picture. And when used appropriately could lead to greater understanding between individuals and even government agencies. “Anybody who becomes a senior officer had better have some political instincts or you’re going to get ground up,” Powell told the New York Times. “We are a political nation. It is not a dirty word.”

Powell was proud of being the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black Secretary of State. Quite a leap for the son of immigrants from Jamaica. Yet, as John Meacham noted on Morning Joe, Powell said his race should not matter. What should matter is a commitment to service and the competency to do the job well.

A mentor to many

There is another side of Powell that amplifies his humanity. Powell was a mentor to many young women and men in the military and State Department. Stravridis recalls that when he was named the NATO Commander, the first person he went to see was Powell, who had once held that position. Stavridis told him to remember to do his job and remind himself that he was not Charlemagne. That is, keep humble and understand you can only do so much as an American general in Europe. 

Lloyd Austin, the current Secretary of Defense, said, “I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He always made time for me, and I could always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel. We will certainly miss him. I feel as if I have a hole in my heart.”

Colin Powell—soldier-statesman, mentor-leader—left a leadership legacy to remember.

First posted on Forbes.com 10.18.2021

Decision-making: How to Take the Long View

Connie Schultz, a columnist for USA Today and author, posted this tweet. “For many reasons, I hope to live a long and healthy life. Today it’s so I can read the essays and hear the songs written by grown children who lived through this pandemic. They will have their views of us.”

Inherent in that tweet is a question: how will tomorrow’s consequences judge today’s actions? Answering the question now is choleric. We are bound up in the passions of the moment as well as the heartbreak of the suffering around us.

Gaining distance

While we live in the present, it is essential to take the long view, especially for significant decisions.  Decision-making requires the discipline of distancing. 

Consider hinge moments of history. The closer in time we are to an event, the more significant the visceral impact. For example, if I tell you the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, you can imagine an ancient city burning. If I tell you the Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11/2001, you know exactly where you were the moments you saw the Towers collapse. 

And by extension, those who were children on that day do not feel the horror of that moment. Still, all have been impacted by what followed. [By tragic coincidence, the servicemen and women killed in Kabul during the pullout of U.S. forces were infants or toddlers on 9/11, the event that triggered the invasion of Afghanistan.]

Looking to history is a way to gain perspective, but when thinking ahead, you can adopt the mindset of a historian to think about the consequences of an action. Historians benefit from hindsight, yes, but their methodology of who, what, why, and how is helpful in scenario planning. 

Rearview decision-making

Frame your next major decision as a thought problem, the kind that enables us to do a bit of scenario planning. Regard it as a tool to examine our choices for now and the consequences of those decisions in years to come. Here are factors to consider.

  • Impetus: why are we making this decision now?
  • People: who will we engage to help us?
  • Resources: what assets can we apply?
  • Adaptability: how can we remain flexible as well as agile? 
  • Evaluation: what are our criteria for success?

Emotional quotient

Returning to Connie Schultz’s tweet, she wrote that she wanted to “read the essays and hear the songs written by grown children.” Essays appeal to our intellect. Songs convey emotion. Music is a means of expressing something beyond words: feelings and insights too precious, or perhaps too elusive, for words alone. 

And so, when considering big decisions, we want to make rational choices, but let’s not forget the humanity of the moment. What will be the impact of the decisions on us not simply as cognitive beings but truly human beings?

Decisions made are decisions done.

Consequence is what becomes of them.

Regard decisions as written in stone,

Or as mere stepping stones?

Undo them? Or persist in them?

What we do matters as much as how we do it.

With logic, reason, and, let’s hope, some heart.

First posted on Forbes.com 9.17.2021

Find Strength in Humility


One thing they don’t teach in business school is humility.

That was a line I would sometimes drop in my presentations, and it never failed to get a laugh. Everyone it seemed—regardless of whether they had attended b-school or not—knew the kind of self-importance and, yes, arrogance that newly minted graduates might display. Their MBA swagger lasted until they hit their first roadblock at work, and it threw them for a loop. That setback may have been an early lesson in humility.

Today, in our world struggling in the wake of Covid-19, humility is more accepted. We have all been humbled. The world we knew in January 2020 is no more, and the world we are creating is not yet born. There is no certainty in the wake of the virus, economic uncertainty, racial injustice, climate change, and contentious politics. 

Acceptance of reality

Those who accept that reality are demonstrating a sense of humility. That, however, does not mean they are rolling over. Indeed humble people are highly self-aware individuals. They know their strengths and their shortcomings. Author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.” 

Yes, humility is a gift of strength. It is an acceptance of one’s humanity—frailty and fragility, but also hope and grace. We know we make mistakes, but we have the grace to forgive ourselves so that we can move forward, not simply for ourselves but those who follow our lead.

Making a difference

“To lead the people,” said Lao Tzu, “walk behind them.” Humility inspires people to follow, and when they see you behind them, in support of them, they are more inspired.

A humble leader is content to put others first for two reasons. One, she knows that the real work is done by people who follow a leader’s directives. Two, she is content within herself to recognize her strengths. She echoes the words of Martin Luther, “True humility does not know that it is humble. If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue.” 

A friend of mine experienced the benefits of humility firsthand while undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous growth near the side of his nose adjacent to his eye. The removal went fine. But at the time of suturing, the dermatologist asked my friend if he minded her seeking a second opinion on the closing of the wound. 

My friend thanked her and told me later that four of her colleagues came to view the room. What gratified my friend was the humility his surgeon displayed when asking for the counsel of colleagues. She did not fear that my friend or her colleagues would think less of her. She was only interested in the welfare of her patient.

Humility is a virtue, but there is nothing soft or squishy about it. Humility is forged in adversity and gives us the backbone to continue our journey.

Humility is a virtue, no doubt.

But gaining humility requires more than virtue.

Hard work. Sacrifice. Selflessness.

Humility demands a sublimation of ego, but not of will.

Willpower gives us the strength to step back,

So that others may go forward.

Humility enables us to see the light in others,

Rather than our reflection.

First posted on Forbes.com 8/27/2021

Apologies 101: Make Things Right

You know you made the right decision. 

And the decision was well made.

The problem is the results were not.

So now you’re on the hot seat.

People are clamoring for your head.

What do you do?

Apologize!

Every good apology has three operative elements: acknowledgment, acceptance and amends.

Acknowledge the wrong. First, say you are sorry for what occurred. People may be suffering. Acknowledge the pain and the loss. Make it known you understand their pain. Demonstrate empathy by showing compassion.

Accept the consequences. Shoulder the blame. Make it known that you hold yourself accountable and will work to rectify the situation. In the wake of the failed invasion in the Bay of Pigs, President John Kennedy, just four months in office, said, “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.”

Make amends. People are disappointed, frustrated, and maybe even disillusioned. They don’t want speeches; they want actions. Talk about what you and your team will do immediately. Get working on the problems and take corrective measures.

No excuses!

Keep in mind an operative principle of apologies. It’s not about you. It’s about them. A leader who discusses everything he did to avoid the mistake may tell the truth, but those suffering do not want to hear it. Instead, they want to know that the person responsible for the error is focused on making things better.

Good apologies all contain one key element: no finger-pointing. A senior leader often makes an apology, even when she may not be directly responsible. But as the top person, it becomes your job to own the situation. So you don’t point fingers. Instead, you swallow your pride, and you take the heat.

Anyone can make excuses except those in charge. “Never ruin a good apology with an excuse,” said Ben Franklin.  You can provide the backstory, but when you do make it clear that you are not excusing yourself, you are merely giving context. Own the decision and its consequences.

Doing this will make people recognize that you have something we all want: a backbone. By making amends and correcting the situation, you create a path forward for your team, your organization, and maybe your reputation.

Move forward

No leader makes the right calls at the right time. But great leaders make things right when things go wrong. As Winston Churchill once quipped, “Success in life is the ability to move from one mistake to another without losing enthusiasm.” Defeat is not the end unless you let it define you. 

There are, of course, mistakes that require the leader to step down. But, in the grand scheme of things, those occasions are rare. When they involve moral transgression, removal from the position is a good thing. When they include mistakes in judgment, regard them as “teachable moments.”

Apologies are but the first step toward creating a better future. Forget this at your peril.

First posted on SmartBrief on 8.20.2021

How to Remember 2020

No one wants to relive 2020. It was a year of pandemic, racial strife, economic crisis and climate catastrophes. This year, 2021 promises to be better; people are being vaccinated, jobs are returning, and a degree of congregant life is returning. Social injustice remains a scourge, but there is an awakening and renewed need for and action with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Amid this hope, if we close our minds to 2020, we will be doing ourselves a disservice. We experienced a world turned genuinely upside-down. If we shut our minds to what we experienced, we will have missed a great lesson. It is a lesson forged in loss of proximity, jobs and health. We cannot forget, nor should we, what we experienced as a culture and as individuals.

Lessons to remember

And so, we need to grieve. Millions around the world have died. Many millions more have lost jobs. Some even their identities as people who work and contribute. We must commemorate these losses in our memories and keep the memories of loved ones close to our hearts.

We need to be resilient. Good news. We are. We did not endure the suffering of this past year by lying down. We stood tall as possible and continued working when possible, educating our children, and most of all, caring for the sick. We, as a people, answered the call. Our losses have transformed us. We are resilient.

We need to act with empathy. What occurred with disease and hardship was a discovery that viruses do not distinguish between rich and poor, though the latter are more at risk. We re-discovered our humanity, the very fabric that binds us together as humans. Caring for one another is innate.

And we need to celebrate. We have endured a year that was something unprecedented. We survived. We made it. That is no small accomplishment. Our joy in what comes next should not blind us to our losses. Instead, it should remind us of their sacrifice. 

Challenge for leaders

Leaders can serve as beacons of hope. Reminding us of the past but pointing toward a better future. The values we held in January 2020 will be the values that help us create the “new normal.” It will build upon what we have learned and is enriched by the sacrifices we have made.

In the final battle scene of Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), lying mortally wounded, pulls Private Ryan (Matt Damon) close and says, “Earn this.” It was the captain’s last order; make the sacrifice of war worth it in your future life.

Our challenge is the same. And we can earn it with our example. Let us work together to make our future more prosperous, more generous, more compassionate. That would be a fitting tribute to a year of trouble and tribulation. We have endured.

We suffer together. We persist together.

We will emerge, let’s hope, a better people.

But if we are, it will involve personal change.

Each of us is doing what we can.

Adapted from themes of Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World.

First posted on SmartBrief.com on 5/28/2021

John Baldoni: Grace Notes Promo

The Icemaker Died

The other day, right before the Fourth of July weekend, the ice maker in our refrigerator died. The weather was hot, and the gin and tonics were ill-suited to warmth. 

Days later I called a repair service, noting lightheartedly that not having an icemaker was hardly a big deal. The service rep lowered her voice, saying that I would be surprised at how many people regard having a broken icemaker as a catastrophe. “If not having an icemaker is the worst thing to happen to me this year,” I quipped, “then it will be a good year.” The service rep laughed in agreement. 

Too often, we get distracted, annoyed even when things, little things, don’t go our way. It’s easy to become frustrated, and in doing so, we forget just how fortunate we are. A flight delay. A missed dinner. A dying appliance. These annoy us, but in the grand scheme of life, they are trivial. In years to come, such inconveniences are not likely to be remembered.

Gain perspective

We must put life into perspective. Easy to say. Our irritation blinds us to reality.

We have endured a year and a half of disappointment and delusion—as well as exclusion and isolation. And we’re still here. The pandemic persists, but we are coming back slowly to a different form of life. Not the same, but different. In some ways, it is richer because of what we have experienced.

We have been tested, and we have survived. Not everyone did. More than 600,000 Americans died. Millions lost their jobs. Three million women exited the workforce. Those are tragedies. They are benchmarks of actual loss. Annoyances come and go. Losses live as scars in our memories.

A novel lesson

The novelist J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.” For him, this statement was true. Tolkien was a young officer in what his generation of Britons called The Great War. He fought at the Battle of the Somme. After the war, Tolkien returned taught medieval literature at Oxford. He also raised a family and told his sons stories that would become great novels of fantasy in time. Fires and dragons do die out, leaving in their wake the possibility of renewal. 

So, take a deep breath.

Exhale slowly.

Remind yourself of your blessings

Take another deep breath.

Exhale slowly. 

Smile in gratitude.

First posted on Forbes.com 7/23/2021

Two Faces of Courage

In his book, Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy, then a senator, wrote about three pressures that kept his fellow senators from acting with courage. that kept his fellow senators from acting with courage. 

While Kennedy wrote about what he called “political courage,” his insights apply beyond the legislative chambers. Anyone in leadership is prone to such pressures. 

The three pressures

“The first pressure to be mentioned,” wrote Kennedy, “is a form of pressure rarely recognized by the general public, Americans want to be liked – and Senators are no exception.” The same applies to many people in positions of authority. It is so much easier to get along with people if they like you. At the same time, if the price of being liked is to forgo hard decisions, the costs can be ruinous. The role of a leader is to make hard choices. Often those choices are not between right and wrong, but rather between two rights (whom to hire or whom to promote) or two “bad” (what people to let go).

Kennedy got to the root of political expediency with his next statement about pressure. “It is thinking of the next campaign – the desire to be re-elected – that provides the second pressure on the conscientious Senator.” Politicians run for office and want to stay there. Same for executives. Their campaigns for higher office are not in public, but they are long and arduous. They involve doing what it takes to move up the proverbial ladder. They may endure hardships in the form of long hours, time away from family, and even competition from rivals. Better to keep your head down and go with the flow than decide that while good, your boss is, in reality, bad for the team.

“The third and most significant source of pressures which discourage political courage in the conscientious Senator or Congressman,” Kennedy wrote, “is the pressure of his constituency, the interest groups, the organized letter writers, the economic blocs and even the average voter.” Outside pressure is nothing new to senior executives; no business operates in a vacuum, and it should be responsive to the needs of its stakeholders. At the same time, when what’s good for business is bad for the community, or what’s good for the community is bad for business, the executives must make the tough calls.

Courage is the ability to remain resolute in the face of crisis, show bravery and persevere in adversity. Doing so with grace under pressure is the mark of leadership, an example that encourages others to follow.

Adapted from Forbes.com 5/14/2021

Aim Low and Be Happier

Keep your expectations low.

That’s the “advice” a friend of mine and fellow golfer once received from a golf pro he had hired for lessons. That line has been the source of much teasing amongst us fellow golfers. “How cruel” and “How low,” we say as we laugh, knowing in our hearts that the advice applies to us hackers as much as it does to our friends.

On the surface, the comment is cutting. I mean, you pay for a guy to help you improve your game, and after watching you take a few swings, he insults you. Oooh, that hurts. Your pocketbook and your ego!

Viewed from a different perspective, the advice is precious. I recall reading that comedian Don Rickles, the king of insult comedy, learned to enjoy golf when he realized he was lousy at it and likely would always be lousy. And so, he began to enjoy the game for what it was. A game played with friends.

As a “high handicap golfer” (the correct term these days is “recreational golfer”), I take solace in Mr. Rickles. Whenever I struggle on the course, most of the time, I remind myself that golf is fun. It’s a game I do enjoy, despite my high scores. It is a game that keeps you humble. So whenever I hear the pros talk about being good one day and not the next, I shake my head. My golf prowess waxes and wanes from shot to shot.

Golf teaches humility. As my friend Stew says, “what the golf gods giveth, the golf gods taketh.” (Pretty sure that passage is in the King James Bible somewhere.) We usually invoke this “scripture” when one of us scores a double bogey after a previous birdie. Humility is essential to golf, and I dare say, life itself.

A more positive view

So, ‘keep your expectations low” is less a warning than a gift of enlightenment. When you keep your expectations low, you will be surprised at what you can accomplish. The sentiment is not about trying harder; it focuses on what you can do rather than what you cannot do.

This advice is not permission to slack off; instead, it’s a suggestion to throttle down your ambition. Ambition is necessary to achievement; without the will and the drive to succeed, you are adrift. Conversely, when personal industry is coupled with purpose, great things can occur.

Or not.

Relentless pursuit of what is not attainable is fruitless. Perfection in golf is impossible; only a relative handful, no more than a few hundred worldwide, have the opportunity to compete for serious money and recognition. The rest of us are pikers. That may doom us to obscurity golf-wise, but not in our own lives.

Being realistic about what you can is a demonstration of self-awareness. My colleague, Tasha Eurich, Ph.D. author of Insight, proves that self-awareness is often elusive in her research. Only a fraction of us—under 20%—are genuinely self-aware. So when we hear “keep your expectations low,” and accept it. We are acknowledging our limitations.

Live within your aims

Such a perception is no excuse for not pursuing our goals with full vigor and total commitment. Instead, it is merely an acknowledgment that we can only achieve so much, and we accept it. Acceptance, in psychological terms, is the first step toward realizing limitations. And in a world where we are bombarded by messages that urge us to aim high, higher and highest, this self-acknowledgment is a refreshing antidote.

So yes, keep your expectations low and your pursuit of satisfaction high.

First posted on Forbes.com 7/02/2021