How Do You Define Retirement?

If you are contemplating retirement, you should ask two legends of Hollywood how they manage it. And that’s what Steve Lopez did when he interviewed Norman Lear and Mel Brooks, both in their nineties. Lear, who recently turned 100, is still active and advised Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, to keep doing what he was doing because his work mattered. 

Mel Brooks said something similar, advising Steve to find ways to explore new ideas by working less in his regular job as a columnist. As Lopez told me in an interview, “Mel Brooks is the guy who became sort of my life coach because I followed his advice. What he said was, ‘Look, what I’m hearing you say is [that] you love what you do.You feel lucky to be able to go out into the world.’”

The interview recounted a new book, Independence Day: What I Learned about Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will. The lesson is preparation, not merely financially but mentally. Lopez advises folks, even Millennials, to think about how they want to spend the last quarter of their life. 

Planning ahead

Planning, according to Lopez, involves at least two concepts. First, find structure. If you suddenly find yourself not going to work, how will you spend your time? Lopez found many folks deepened their existing interests. For example, one woman who loved art became a museum docent. Others pursue their leisure activities more vigorously. “People who did things during their working life that they enjoyed found ways to continue that enjoyment with a deeper commitment that they found very fulfilling,” says Lopez.

Second, deal with ambiguity. The certainty of occupation is gone, and so there is a void you need to feel. Lopez says, “You embrace ambiguity in, in retirement, because it’s never gonna be exactly clear what you need to do next.” And in retirement, just as in life, you will have surprises, you will have disappointments, you will have a loss, and you will have days when you’ve got a big smile on your face.” So be prepared for the unexpected; it might be something challenging, such as a health crisis, or something rewarding, like the birth of a new grandchild, meeting a new group of people, or even the opportunity to work again.

Spousal connection is critical. People who have lived together but worked apart are now in the same house at the same time. The pandemic gave many a glimpse of the future, including Steve and his wife, Alison Shore, a writer herself. He credits her with the best line in his book, “If [the pandemic] is a preview, I do not want to see the movie.” 

Ask yourself what matters.

Putting what Lopez has written in context with many folks in my age group, let me offer a few key questions to consider:

What gets you up in the morning? Yes, this question is often related to work activities, but it may be all the more important in retirement. You may need to reinvent your purpose. Find the passion you have for what is important to you. Family and friends, yes. But what about hobbies?

How will you adapt to new challenges? Health is not a given. How will you adjust to physical limitations?

How do you want to be remembered? There is still time to pursue something new and different. It could be employment, but for many, it somehow gives back somehow.

Lopez noted that what is important is finding out how you matter to others. Sometimes that sense of relevance can be as big as serving on board of a nonprofit or as simple as walking your dog who depends upon you. Meaning is how we define it. Big or small.

Not all retirements are joyful. Lopez relates the story of a man who retired very early, then, during a fiscal crisis, lost most of his savings and had to start applying for jobs in his sixties. Lopez caught up with him in his mid-seventies. He was working in a big box store near Disneyland, a happy place for many, but not for this fellow who was down on his luck at the end of his life.

Of course, many like Norman Lear and Mel Brooks mentioned above will always remain. Their work is their life; it is their source of joy. Lopez related the story of Father Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the world. Boyle and Lopez are about the same age, and when asked about retirement, Father Greg quipped that “Jesuit priests retire in the graveyard.” Working with disenfranchised young men and women gives Father Greg a connection to God and the community he seeks and needs. It’s not work; it is love in action.

Macron’s Moment of Grace

There was a moment in Emmanuel Macron’s recent state visit to the United States that went largely unnoticed.

The French President met five veterans of the Second World War who had served in France. Macron calledthem the “soldiers of freedom who left everything behind, risked everything, to liberate France and the world.”Then he greeted each veteran with a warm two-handed handshake and kiss on both cheeks. Macron also bestowed upon two of the veterans France’s highest form of recognition, the Legion of Honor.

Personal connection

It was a moment of warm connection, a sign of empathy from a national leader to men whose service enabled his fellow citizens to throw off the yoke of Nazi occupation. This moment produces the “catch in the throat, something in my eye” kind of reaction. We are moved by the sincerity of a leader who recognizes the bravery and service of others.

Such moments may not be so common on national news, but they occur daily in our world. They are moments of grace where pretense is gone, and there is genuine human connection. For example, one of the most inspirational leaders I have ever encountered, Skip LeFauve, the President of Saturn Company, a company started by General Motors to compete with Japanese automakers in terms of quality, efficiency, and service. 

I recall speaking to Saturn employees about LeFauve’s leadership after he was no longer in charge. To a person, they revered him. Why? Because when he met them, he listened, and in doing so, he made them feel as if they were the most important person in the world. Like Macron did with the American veterans.

Make the effort count

It is always challenging to be the top person in your shop. You are besieged with questions, queries, and demands. Everyone wants you, needs you, to make a decision about this program, this idea, and this suggestion. Now!

No need to get out your handkerchief. Senior executives ask for this responsibility. And they are paid handsomely. At the same time, they are human (mostly), and there is a tendency to move efficiently and quickly to get things done. Management, by definition, is about administration – making the system go. It is necessary, but it is not enough. We value the personal connection. 

Leadership, by contrast, is about aspiration – about dreaming of something better. And when the leader acknowledges the effort of others, they make it known that management without empathy may be efficient, but it is not practical. Recognizing others’ efforts transforms what they did into a contribution, one for the greater good of the whole.

That sentiment is good for the individual and the leader, but it is better for everyone in the long run. It makes recognition part of the culture, and people will do their best when they feel valued.

First posted on 12.06.2022

What the Civil Rights Movement Teaches Us about Strategy

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States focused on creating equality in justice, economics, and human rights for Blacks who had been denied such since 1619 when the first enslaved people were “imported” from West Africa.

The Movement, taking a cue from Gandhi’s lessons in gaining independence from Britain, was rooted in peaceful and nonviolent protest. But unfortunately, no matter how peaceful the demonstrations were, violence was inflicted in ways that injured, maimed and killed, but did not deter its leaders and its followers.

The secret ingredient

One reason was that the Movement was well-disciplined, trained, and organized. Much like a military would do. That is precisely the theme of Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954 to 1968. The lessons that author Tom Ricks, called the “dean of military correspondents” for his coverage of multiple wars, notably Iraq, draws are startling and as well as applicable to any organization facing overwhelming odds. In an interview, Ricks said, “People talk about passive resistance, which is totally the wrong term. The Civil Rights movement was built on confrontational nonviolence and aggressive, repetitive, sustained use of nonviolent pressure to bring about social change. In fact, I think probably the best model I know of how to change a society relatively quickly and nonviolently.”

Ricks argues that the Movement was strategic. It took the lessons of Gandhi’s Movement for Indian independence but focused on the justice of the cause. “What they really understood, what I think the fundamental sort of foundation for them was these strategic discussions they had, as Diane Nash, one of the key leaders put it, they said to themselves, ‘Who are we? Is the first question of strategy? Who are we, and what are we trying to do?’”

The Montgomery Bus Boycott from December 1955 to the following December was the first organized attempt at desegregation. But, as Rick notes, it was a cause rooted in the denial of patronage. Blacks would not ride on buses that treated them as second-class citizens. The response was organized resistance centered around Black churches. Nevertheless, the organizers knew their goal and mobilized to provide rides for bus patrons, and they did it for over a year.

Building momentum

The next major initiative occurred in 1960. Students in Nashville organized to integrate the lunch counters. The students trained like an army would. They conducted role-play sessions where they were spat upon and called nasty names. And it worked. The lunch counters were desegregated. 

A bold next step was the Freedom Rides. Black students, with White supporters, rode buses throughout the South. They were met with taunts, epithets, and violence in the form of beatings and even a bus burning. However, their training steeled the protestors, and there was no violent retaliation. 

The same occurred the following year in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. It was long, brutal, and violent, resulting in the deaths of civil rights organizers. Nevertheless, it opened the doors to Black voters, raising the registration rate to nearly 60%. 

One young man who benefitted directly was Bennie Thompson, a teenager that summer. As an adult, Thompson was elected mayor of Jackson and later to Congress. Today Thompson is chairman of the bipartisan House Committee investigating the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The Movement’s strategic brilliance was that it continually sought new opportunities to build upon itself. The most notorious civil rights confrontation occurred in Birmingham in 1963. After World War II, Atlanta and Birmingham were vying for notice as Southern cities of the future. But, as has been said, Atlanta got the airport, and Birmingham got Bull Connor, an unrepentant segregationist, Klan supporter, and virulent racist. When demonstrations began, Connor had his cops sic dogs on marchers and turn fire hoses on child marchers – all of which was filmed and made national television news. 

“Until that point, white America really saw the Civil Rights movement as a regional thing that they weren’t paying much attention to,” says Ricks. “With Birmingham, the Civil rights movement became something of national attention. It rose to number one for the first time in polls of what is the most crucial issue faced in the country.” That was only the beginning. Kennedy strongly supported behind Civil Rights initiative, and in August of 1963, there was the March on Washington. As Ricks notes, “And so this brilliant presentation at the end of that day by Martin Luther King, he says, ‘Okay, you’ve seen Bill Connor’s nightmare. Here’s my dream.'” 

Exacting a human cost

The Civil Rights Movement exacted a personal toll on its organizers. Some of its leaders suffered mental breakdowns, not unlike soldiers in combat. Ricks tells the story of a Hollywood producer who was following Martin Luther King and one day asked about the end of the story. King replies, “’I know how it ends. I get killed,” says Ricks. “King understood he had committed his life as many people had to this movement, and he was unlikely to survive it.” 

The Kennedy Administration warned Diane Nash that she might be killed. Nash calmly explained that, of course, she knew it. And it was why every volunteer on the Freedom Rides was asked to sign a will. Subsequently, many leaders, not unlike heavy combat veterans of World War II, did not live long lives, many dying in their fifties and sixties.

Measuring success

Despite the terrible toll, Ricks says, “The great victory of the Civil Rights movement made America a genuine democracy. For the first time until 1968, a big chunk of the American population was denied the basic right to vote. After that, black people began voting without suffering, losing their jobs, or being attacked. And a couple of years ago, for the first time, there was a proportionality, which just to say that the Black representation of the U.S. Congress roughly equaled the Black population of the country. [That is] A rough measure of progress.”

The Civil Rights Movement, as Ricks describes, was strategic, coordinated, organized, and brave. That is a lesson for any organization facing long odds. And reading Waging a Good War is a great way to learn from a movement that changed the world for the better. 

Note: The full interview I conducted with Tom Ricks on my LinkedIn Live show, “GRACE under pressure,” is available here.

First posted on 00.00.2022