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

How to Concede Gracefully

A concession speech is an act of leadership. It is an admission that you have not won and an acknowledgment of the electorate’s power. Giving a concession speech was a right of passage and presumed always to occur. Of late, however, political rancor has corrupted electoral comity, so not every losing candidate delivers one.

This year, however, the concession speech made a triumphant return. Here are some examples as collected by the Washington Post.

Tim Ryan, who lost his Senate race in Ohio

“I had the privilege to concede this race to J.D. Vance. Because the way this country operates is that you lose an election, you concede. You respect the will of the people. We can’t have a system where if you win, it’s a legitimate election, and if you lose, someone stole it. That is not how we can move forward in the United States. …

Vesli Vega, who lost her House race in Virginia

“We gave it our all but came up a little short last night. … I want to congratulate the Congresswoman on a hard-fought win.”

Mehmet Oz, who lost his Senate race in Pennsylvania

“This morning, I called John Fetterman and congratulated him. I wish him and his family all the best, both personally and as our next United States Senator. …

“We are facing big problems as a country, and we need everyone to put down their partisan swords and focus on getting the job done.”

Stacy Abrams, who lost her gubernatorial race in Georgia

“It is good to be here in this moment, surrounded by your love and support. And let me begin by offering congratulations to Gov. Brian Kemp. …

“And tonight we must be honest. Even though my fight, our fight, for the Governor’s Mansion may have come up short, I’m pretty tall. This is a moment where despite every obstacle, we are still standing strong and standing tall, and standing resolute, and standing in our values.”

A good speech

The best concession speeches do four things:

One, they admit defeat. Good concession speeches address the facts. The candidates make no excuses; they deal with the reality of the moment.

Two, they acknowledge the hard work of their supporters. The candidate is the face of the campaign, but campaigns are nothing without the hard work of the field staff, the women and men who put their lives on hold to support a candidate in whom they believe.

Three, they affirm the values of the campaign. Such speeches underscore the principles for which the candidate fought.

Four, they express unity that will transcend partisan politics. Good concessions acknowledge that cooperation is more important than partisanship. These days such comity is hard to find, but it does exist and should be expected of every candidate.

Leaders far from the political fray would do well to keep the idea of knowing when to cease an effort or even to walk away from a leadership role. Leaders demonstrate grace when they recognize reality, express support for staff, affirm their values, and wish organization well.

Revealing the true candidate

Chris Matthews, the former host of MSBNC’s Hardball and author of books on the Kennedys, used to say that it was in concession speeches that voters got an inside look at what a candidate was really thinking. Most memorable might have been Richard Nixon’s concession speech after losing the race for California governor to Pat Brown in 1962. This defeat, the second in a row after a loss in the 1960 presidential campaign, stung, and Nixon let it all hang out, saying to the media:

“I leave you gentlemen now, and you will write it. You will interpret. That’s your right. But as I leave you I want you to know—just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference, and it will be the one in which I have welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you. I have always respected you. I have sometimes disagreed with you. But unlike some people, I’ve never canceled a subscription to a paper, and also I never will.”

That, of course, proved not to be true. Six years later, Nixon was elected president and re-elected four years later. Concession speeches may reveal the inner thoughts of the candidate, but they do not close the door on the future.

First posted on 11.15.2022

Going Back to the Office? Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

As we head into Fall post-Labor Day, there is a rise in the number of stories about employees returning to the office, some full-time. As we migrate to more familiar work patterns, let’s not forget what we learned during the pandemic.

Bartleby, the workplace columnist for The Economist,  writes about the virtue of commuting, partly because it provides separation from home and work,which is hard to achieve if, as she writes, your office is your kitchen table. In addition, she likes the concept, as many do, of using the commute a means of planning your day.

So what can you do plan your day, whether you work in an office or from a non-office location?

Get Your Day Organized

Shorten your hours. Planning your day means being mindful of your schedule. “It’s time for us all to take back control and take a step back from the back-to-back meeting culture we’ve created,” says Morag Barrett, CEO of SkyTeam and co-author of You, Me, We: Why We All Need a Friend at Work (and How to Show Up as One). “Set your calendar link to schedule the start time at five past the hour and finish at ten minutes to the hour,” she says. “That way we all have a few minutes to transition between calls.”

Expect to be interrupted. Know what you are doing, and do it as best you can—working off-site presents fewer interruptions unless you work in a coffee shop or poolside. Still, interruptions will occur. Knowing they will happen will enable you to adjust accordingly without being overly frustrated by them.

Interrupt your day. Morag Barrett developed a habit during isolation of taking a walk around her neighborhood. It was not a formal exercise, more a mental break. Today she continues the concept by “blocking a lunchtime break where I make it a point to leave my desk and don’t sit and work.” 

Exercise your mind. Read, reflect, recharge. Donald Altman, a psychotherapist, lecturer, and prolific author on mindfulness, advises taking regular pauses during the day. A pause can be as involved as walking outside or as simple as taking a moment to look out the window. Stand up when you can. Keep the blood flowing.

Exercise your body. Make time to exercise when you can. Do it regularly. During my career, I have begun my workday with an exercise regimen. It creates separation for me from home to work. You can also fit in exercise with walk-and-talk phone calls, something Morag also advises.

Keep your mind tuned

Keeping fresh is essential for any employee. Work can be drudgery at times. The challenge is to keep your mind fresh so you can accomplish the little things to tackle the big projects. 

Here’s a musical analogy. Musicians practice scales daily to keep their fingers and sense harmony in tune. Practicing scales – at least for this amateur pianist – is not joyful, but I do it so I keep my fingers flexible and my musical mind nimble. Doing so allows me to sight read more effectively and play familiar pieces more adeptly.

“Getting ready to leave for work in the morning involves an element of planning—sometimes even anticipation,” writes Bartleby. “Stepping out of your home, and your comfort zone, you feel more alive by default.” Good advice, and one you can practice – withbreaks, exercise, and reflect — even if you are working from your kitchen table.

First posted on 9.7.2022

How to Be the One Everyone Wants to Work With

You will be lucky to work with her. She is a gem.

You will love his work. He’s a total professional.

You can trust her. She’s the very best.

These are the types of off-hand comments we hear about colleagues or friends. These informal endorsements are worth their weight in platinum. These statements affirm the value of an individual and position them as resources you can trust.

We all want people to say such things about us. So how do we do it?

Do the work. Perform the task you are asked. On-time and within budget. Listen well. Be responsive to change and flexible in your work attitude. That is, flex to the organization’s needs as long as it meets your capacity to do the work well. 

Do more than the work. Go above and beyond what is required. Look at the job as a springboard to innovate, creating additional value.

Affirm your value. This statement might strike one as odd. It is not bragging per se, but it is letting others know what you have done and why. It is also your opportunity to include others. Mention what they have accomplished and pointed out the value of what they have done. We call this being a team player.

Three factors to build trust

All of these come down to three factors I have written about: competence, credibility, and confidence. Competence means you can do the job. Credibility means others believe you can do the job. And confidence implies others have faith in you to do a good job.

What all of these add up to is trust. It is the bedrock of any relationship, personal or professional. Stephen M. R. Covey writes in his book, The Speed of Trust, “There are no moral shortcuts in the game of business—or life. There are three kinds of people: the unsuccessful, the temporarily successful, and those who become and remain successful. The difference is character.” 

The root of character is trust. As Covey writes, “Trust is equal parts character and competence… You can look at any leadership failure, and it’s always a failure of one or the other.” 

Sense of belonging

Working with others is essential to any endeavor, and people feel something powerful: a sense of belonging when there is trust. The bedrock of belonging is the feeling of psychological safety, knowing that you can contribute not merely by going along to get along but by adding to the whole, even when it means going against the tide. Innovation thrives from such dissonance. However, dissonance can only be productive when it is regarded as a contribution, not a threat. When people feel safe to voice alternative ideas, they think they belong. 

People will want to work with you when you are perceived as competent, credible, and confident. And along the way, they will even say good things about you.

First posted on 00.00.22

Finding Your Own Tune

A senior HR director, now retired, once told me that if there were one proven business model, everyone would use it. If so, there would likely be little need for strategy consultants because companies would be able to implement the same model. Unfortunately, upon reflection, we can say that state-controlled economies have one model, and as a result, most, if not all, fail.

There are also work style models, that is, how we do our work and approach it. For example, recently, I found a novel model borrowed from a book written for guitarists by Don Brown, a consultant author and guitarist. The book is titled, Travels with Uwe. The title refers to Uwe Kruger, a German-born, Swiss-raised immigrant to the U.S. now based in North Carolina who performs widely with brother Jens and teaches prolifically. Brown himself is a student.

After spending his first session with Uwe, Brown told me in an email interview, “I was so transformed in so many ways I’d never expected that I just wanted to get the word out. I went for a musical experience; I left transformed in music and life!” The following model is a result of Brown’s “awakening.”

Play – finding joy in the music you produce;

Practice – sharpening your skills so you can bring out the best of your talents;

Create – Learn to experiment, innovate to develop your content and style; and

Perform – get on stage and show us what you can do.

Lessons for non-musicians

The application to work off-stage and away from a guitar or musical instrument is solid. “Even non-musicians attending the Academies over the years experienced the same transformations as their musician partners and left with the same burning desire to better seize their day. Every day.”

Let me explain how it applies to managing teams.

Play at work. A manager wants his team engaged, and they do it by creating conditions for them to succeed, chiefly by providing resources, training, and support. This approach enables the team to “play together” in harmony.

Practice together. Work is work. Application of skill to task requires training and practice.

Create your style. Each of us is different. A savvy manager understands the talents and skills of those on his team. It is up to the manager to enable the employee to do the work in ways that facilitate how well they add to the task and contribute to the mission.

Performance is production. Output is product or service delivered. It is essential to do it on time, within budget, and in ways that delight the customer.

Building confidence

Teams that perform build upon the skills of one another. They learn to coordinate resources and collaborate to create better results. The net outcome is the team builds confidence.

Or ask Uwe Kruger would say, “To perform, you have to have a certain confidence, and you have to gain that confidence in front of an audience… every time.” Sounds like good advice for any manager, any leader, anywhere. And Don Brown adds, “A path to being happy ‘now’ is through the power of music in life.”

First posted on 10.05.2022

David Gergen: Heart for Leadership

There is a story that David Gergen tells in his newest book, Hearts Touched by Fire, about having to let people go. Now that layoffs are occurring, it is an apt story for today. Mort Zuckerman had bought U.S. News and World Report and installed Gergen as editor in chief. Zuckerman wanted to clean house, and he instructed Gergen to begin the layoffs. It was not a job Gergen relished or rushed into. 

Gergen got to know the reporters first; then, he had his conversation with those about to be let go. “I am afraid we have to end our relationship, but we also need to protect your reputation. It will not be helpful to you in finding a new job if word gets out that you were fired. So here’s what I propose: We keep this secret between the two of us. You spend the next ninety days quietly looking for another job. When you find one, we will announce that you have decided to accept a new post at a different publication, and we will have a big, festive going-away party.” 

Gergen notes that nearly everyone found a new job and left with pride intact. It was a win for the publication, which today remains profitable, and for the individuals. Gergen, as a leader, exemplified the title of his book, a heart touched with fire.

A familiar to presidents

My favorite anecdote about David Gergen comes from one of his old bosses, Ronald Reagan. On a return trip to Washington, Reagan said his plane swooped over the monuments and famous sites, and there in the White House, he could see one of those monuments—David Gergen, still working in the White House. 

Gergen, as is well-known, worked for three additional presidents, Nixon, Ford, and Clinton. In short, Gergen has been a close observer of presidential power, a topic of his first book, Eyewitness to PowerHearts Touched by Fire casts a broader lens on leadership. It can be read by those just cutting their leadership chops, those in leadership positions now, or even those like me who have made the topic our chosen field of exploration. 

There is an instructive story about how James Baker, an outsider, became the Reagan’s chief of staff and eventually the first among equals along with longtime Reagan associates Michael Deaver and Ed Meese. Baker was known as “the velvet hammer” because he maintained organizational discipline by gaining Reagan’s trust, “consolidating power,” and building a strong team that could execute. Baker was a master at leading up, around and with others.

Gergen, a former communications director, journalist and commentator, has an easy way of telling stories. Each of his points is accented with personal observations or as likely by women and men whose examples of leadership are worthy of exploration. Familiar names include Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Katharine Graham and Greta Thunberg. In addition, there are cautionary tales of leaders who overstepped boundaries, including Richard Nixon and Raj Gupta of McKinsey.

Teachable moments

What enhances this book is Gergen’s work as a professor at the Harvard School of Public Policy, a role he has fulfilled for more than two decades. There are sections on personal development, peer-to-peer leadership, leading up, and what it takes to lead in times of crisis. Gergen has a knack for imparting what people need to know about leadership in ways that make the lessons accessible and actionable. Gergen cites the works of leadership theorists Jim Collins and Warren Bennis, framing their research alongside readings from historians such as Doris Kearns Godwin and David McCullough as examples of what those who study leadership can teach us.

Reading Hearts Touched by Fire is an exercise in what it takes to lead in challenging times and a thoughtful look at how leaders accomplish their goals by bringing people together for a common cause. The book’s prologue concludes with a quote from Martin Luther King. “Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve.” King adds, “You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Indeed the best leaders serve because they are focused on service to others and a cause greater than themselves.

First posted on 00.00.2022

Singing the Truth

Emily Falvey with the author

Songwriters are storytellers. And behind every song, there is a story. Often a very good one.

Kent Blazy, Pat Alger and Emily Falvey demonstrated that fact during a performance at Belmont University’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Their stories behind the songs were a mixture of romance, comedy, laughs and tears. Just like the songs themselves. 

Two songwriters, Kent Blazy and Pat Alger are Nashville legends, having written seven and nine No. 1 hits, respectively. Both are in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Emily Falvey is only 26 but already has a publishing contract and has had more than a few hits.

The old saying — “three chords and the truth” — gets to the heart of what country music represents – the longing, the caring, the soul of what it means to be alive. But, the musicianship of these three goes well beyond three chords with their beautiful melodies and rich harmonies. Their lyrics resonate with honesty. At times funny, other times wistful, their music reveals what it means to be human.

Facilitating connection

Music enables us to connect with our memories and others in a way that words alone cannot. The lyric – which often tells a story, be it country, rock, show, or opera – outlines the narrative. The music carries inspiration. Together melody and lyric awaken us to thoughts and emotions that might lie buried within us or, in many cases, not yet discovered.

Stories awaken the spirit within us. Just as songwriters do, leaders who share their stories with others demonstrate a sense of vulnerability. Knowing what a leader has experienced – both good and not-so-good – makes them more understandable as people. And when times are confusing and present challenges where there are few clear answers, those stories — just like songs — can keep us centered.

Singing the truth

It is a leader’s job to sense what people are feeling. When they are up, focus on reinforcing their joy. When they are down, provide them with a path forward. Music gives us hope, which coincidently is also a leader’s duty. Address the truth always as a means of illuminating the way ahead, no matter difficult.

We need to hear the truth and feel it in our souls. Kent Blazy, Pat Alger and Emily Falvey reinforced that concept with songs reminding us to laugh, love, and remember. Their songs reflect the human condition, and we are better for such great reminders.

Louie Anderson: Laughing in the Face of Pain

“I love to do standup comedy still. It still makes me really happy… I’ve worked so many hours to make sure that when you’re there, you are not burdened with this performance. You are hopefully forgetting every bit of your troubles. That’s my goal every night. Hopefully, at some point in my act, you have forgotten whatever trouble you had when you came in.”

That one statement, taken from an interview Louie Anderson did with Terry Gross in a 2016 episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, tells you all you want to know about what it takes to make people laugh.

One, you hone your craft. Two, you polish your act to make it seem natural and “unburdened.” And three, you make the audience feel special. All these things Anderson, who died recently at age 68, mastered.

One of eleven children, Anderson’s family was poor, and his father was an alcoholic. Louie suffered from obesity and depression. These conditions did not overwhelm him; he used them as material. As a performer, Louie saw himself as one who could alleviate it, if only for the audience’s time in the theater. 

Life as a comedy

As child number ten, Louie formed a close bond with his mother. So close that when Louie played the role of the mother to Chip (played by Zack Galifianakis) in the television series, Baskets, elements of his real-life mother seeped into the character.

As Anderson told Terry Gross, he would tell jokes, chiefly about his family as well as himself.

At Thanksgiving, my mom always makes too much food, especially one item, like 700 or 800 pounds of sweet potatoes. She’s got to push it during the meal. ‘Did you get some sweet potatoes? There’s sweet potatoes. They’re hot. There’s more in the oven, some more in the garage. The rest are at the Johnson’s.’” 

“My mom was a garage sale person, save money [to] save money. She’d get in that garage sale and point stuff out to you. ‘There’s a good fork for a nickel. Yeah, that’s beautiful. It’s a little high. If it were three cents, I’d snap it up.’”

“My mom ate every piece of butter in the Midwest, she lived till she was 90. And my dad, he smoked, he drank – we finally just had to kill him.” [“My dad quit drinking when he was 69,” Louie told Terry Gross, “and here was my mom’s response. She turned to me, and she said, ‘I told you he’d quit drinking.’”]

“My first words were ‘Seconds, please.’ Most kids in kindergarten napped on a little rug. I had a braided 9 x 12.”

“I’m a 7 o’clock act. My people want to go to a show, a dinner, and then go home and go to bed.” 

Keeping it real

Lessons managers can learn from Anderson is the commitment to work, continuous improvement over time, and a willingness to connect with others.

For all his stardom, Louie never lost the sense of himself. After his first appearance on the Tonight Show in 1983, he received a warm response from Johnny Carson, then the biggest arbiter of standup talent. Louie was on cloud nine, or as he says, “heaven.” 

The Comedy Cellar in Los Angeles held an after-glow party for Louie. “And a guy comes up to me and goes, are you, Louie Anderson? And I go, I am. And I put my hand out to meet him. And he goes, I don’t want to meet you. Could you move your car?”

First posted on 2.00.2022