Discussing Social Issues as a Follower of Christ

conflict-in-recruitment"So you strain the Scriptures and mislead your reader."  The frustration and antagonism in the writer's voice was palpable. He wanted me to unequivocally condemn another writer for his view. I wanted the respondents to engage each other in honest communication about their biases, commitments, and background reasoning to their social commitments. I failed to draw anyone into that kind of discussion. Some were encouraged, some were enraged, some were disappointed, and some were ruthless in their proclamation of what I should have said.
The conflict among my group of friends rapidly jumped from disagreement to an ugly display of religious proclamation, fixed attitudes, hardened identities and closed hearts.
I generated an argument between people who found it easier to throw ideological stones from the safety of a fenced off belief system than engage a dialogue with real people.
One observer shared his candid observation of the discussion with me off-line. He said, "I also observe that the tone and content of some people's words are not one of work or inner turmoil, but rather of hatred and of aggression. I believe the absence of passion in the moderator [myself] of a discussion can be a critical tool in advancing the discourse. However, the absence of passion (or decisive marginalization) in the face of persistent, willful, hateful rhetoric is, in my view, corrosive to the soul; yours, and the other participants in the discussion."
I couldn't disagree with that assessment. Where did I drop the ball? More importantly, am I clear about my own convictions and statement of logical starting points? In this blog, I outline ways to manage conflict with comments about how well I did or didn't deal with the conflict I generated and make my own assumptions clear for those who wish to engage me in the future.
First, how is conflict approached?  Mark Gerzon identified three common responses to conflict: demagoguery, management, and mediation with the later being the most effective.
The demagogue addresses conflict through fear, threats, and intimidation turns opponents into scapegoats. The demagogue dehumanizes others and resorts to violence to dominate and destroy the other. I had one especially insistent demogogue in the argument. I felt like turning into a demagogue myself in the face of mounting stress. However, throwing back the same kind of rant I was being served would not do a thing.
The manager faces conflict on the basis of an exclusive or limited definition of "us". He/she defines purpose in terms of the self-interest of his or her group and cannot or will not deal with issues, decisions, or conflicts that cross boundaries. Managers are very effective in directing and controlling resources and the activities of other people for the benefit of a particular group. Gerzon points out that this approach is limited.
I recognized a wide variety of people who served as the audience to the argument. I knew that every intransigent statement, every belief hurled in anger, every example offered as a proof text would only exacerbate the argument. I attempted to pull back the participants - to get them to listen to each other. They were not ready and I failed to provide them a bridge to get there.  Each wanted me to side with them or absolutely disagree with them. I failed to state my starting point clearly and as a result, I failed to bring the appropriate people together.
In contrast, Gerzon states that the mediator approaches conflict by striving to act on behalf of the whole (cf. John 3:16 as a definition of the church's scope of concern).  Mediators have the capacity to discover the whole and to act in the best interest of the whole. Mediators work on the collaborative principle which Gerzon defines as:
 
If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with reliable information, they will create authentic vision and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization or community.
The mediator thinks systemically and is committed to ongoing learning.  The mediator builds trust by building bridges across dividing lines and seeks innovation and opportunity in order to transform conflict. I wanted to go here, I did not arrive.
In hindsight, I failed in the ability to ask questions that unlock essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform conflict so that it becomes an opportunity. I failed to communicate that the point of inquiry is not the loss of conviction or strong beliefs but the realization that one's views are discovered and renewed through inquiry. Mediators of conflict naturally want to learn more; "What else can I learn about this situation?" "Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?" "Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?" "Should I consult with others before I intervene?"The rule of thumb in facing any conflict is: inquiry must precede any form of advocacy.
My other conclusion is that social media used as a discussion point requires a highly structured set of rules for engaging a discussion that participants must agree to before entering and that must be enforced aggressively to create an environment where listening to clarify positions is the goal. Clear convictions can be communicated without expressing hatred. But when participants are dehumanized and made into moral positions only, it's easier to just shoot at them.
Will I engage another such discussion again on social media?  Yes. Why? It allows an audience who deeply wrestles with difficult questions to work through their thinking by listening to others.  I will encourage concise statements of conviction, and then encourage inquiry to dissenting views. To what end? Understanding and respect. Can my goal be achieved with every person? Here I have to agree with Machiavelli, no. Why? Because there are evil people whose only goal is the destruction of others. Additionally, there fundamentalist individuals who disallow any dissenting opinion from their own.
Religious convictions require another a short discussion about why the founding fathers of the United States wanted to limit the establishment of religion by the state? They saw in their own history the evil unleashed when political power is mixed with religious absolutism. My friends who want to legislate their Christian beliefs to the exclusion of other systems in civil society would only succeed in reducing civil society to the tyranny of their enforced moral codes. History consistently demonstrates the failure of this. Instead, civil society acknowledges the diversity of core moral conviction and allows for its influence in a discussion involving every participant. Hence it is, in my view, equally dangerous to prohibit the discussion of religion or religious convictions.
The American experiment used the foundation of compromise to create a form of government that allows for religious freedom and offers representation to a diverse populace.  I prefer this form of government over others I have seen even with its flaws and limitations. Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as "the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both" from compromise as "the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to minimize the contrast of their convictions to a perceived norm or power." As a result, fundamentalists consistently press for an oligarchy composed of religiously acceptable candidates who state religiously acceptable convictions.  The hypocrisy and tyranny of such a system are constantly illustrated in the despotism that always results.
Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as "the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both" from compromise as "the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to blend into the perceived norm or power."
Second, in light of what others in the argument describe as my own fuzzy commitment, I thought it a good exercise to state my own commitments as clearly as possible. I am one who follows Jesus the Christ. I have an unapologetic and inquisitive faith that informs the assumptions I begin with when it comes to moral and social issues. But, I am not fundamentalist in my perspectives. By fundamentalist I mean a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam. I hold to the centrality of the Christian Scriptures and recognize that given their diverse literary forms (i.e., poetry, prose, law/statutory, prophetic, historical narrative, parable, and proverbial/wisdom) that a "literal" interpretation does a disservice to a proper interpretation of the text.
In full disclosure, I also understand Jesus made an exclusive claim when he said, "I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:9-11)  Does this reduce me to a mindless automaton closed to learning and assuming full and complete knowledge of all that is spiritual?  No, it makes me a disciple i.e., literally one who is learning. And as one who is learning, I recognize that I live in a diverse and pluralistic society from whom I can also learn.  Has faith answered every question? No, it answered the main question e.g., about purpose and meaning and it opens new questions that I still ponder.
So, I reject fundamentalism as inherently flawed both historically and reasonably. I see a different model in the Bible particularly evident in the growth of the first-century church from a sect of Judaism to a multi-cultural entity. The rapid expansion of the church in the first century moved the faith community of the church from the comfort of a modified theocracy (often more an oligarchy of socially or religiously powerful and corrupt leaders) experienced in the history of Israel to existence as a unique community and social force in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world. Paul, the apostle most influential in teaching the fledgling church to live in a pluralistic world wrote this advice,
"Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, 'You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law." (Romans 13:7-10)
So, if you hang out with me I will demonstrate this commitment to loving my neighbor. I also demonstrate a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. I am open talking about my relationship with Jesus Christ in a way that is neither in-the-face of my neighbor nor hidden from my neighbor. I understand that in loving my neighbor I fulfill the law and in fact, make its provisions clear as well as the promise inherent in the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus Christ. I practice listening skills and invite those with whom I strongly disagreed to talk while I listen. We engage a discussion rather than a diatribe.
Are you looking for a way to love your neighbor? Do you want to be heard about your faith? Start by listening especially in a day when religiously induced hatred and hostility is passed off as indicative of Christianity. Listening skills may be tested by conducting a simple exercise.  Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen - take the following steps.
  • Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
  • Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
  • Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone, and intention.
  • Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don't answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
  • Be patient. It's not easy for people to talk about important things.
  • Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand.  It's OK sometimes to ask, "How are you doing with all this?"
  • Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience.  Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
  • Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
  • Be kind. Listen with the heart as well as with the mind.
After doing this notice what difference this makes in you feel about your relationship with the other person.  Pay attention to how your act of listening often (though not always and rarely immediately) opens others' hearts and mind to ask about your faith. The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before.  One conversation does not have to resolve all issues, however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences.  Listening is a good step in demonstrating the love God has for the world about you.
Want to know more about faith in Jesus Christ? Contact me directly. My contact information is listed on the "About Me" tab of this blog.
Want to know more about conflict?  Read Mark Gerzon (2006).Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities.  Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. 273 pages.
Want to know more about where I attend church? See http://madeforfellowship.com/.

Friendships - Traveling through Past and Future

With the father of the bride.I recently traveled with Janice to the Great Pacific Northwest to attend the wedding of one of our friend's children. We have known Rick and Sue for years as co-laborers, friends, prayer partners, and fellow pilgrims in a strange land looking for a city whose builder and maker is God. It is interesting to me that seeing long time friends is like traveling back in time and into the future concurrently. We have so many reference points in our shared history we pick up conversations as though the gap of 5 to 10 to 20 years between each simply hasn't happened and yet...we traverse new ground each time we are together because our lives are not static but growing. We have new leadership experiences to share, new questions to explore, new victories to rejoice in and new grief to shoulder together. Life is not static and neither is our friendship.

An occasion like a wedding offers a myriad of opportunities to engage this simultaneous time travel of past and future. We saw friends and acquaintances we have not seen for years. We caught up, we shared perspectives on the past that illuminated the future and explained things we did not understand when we experienced them together. One encounter was particularly moving.

"Steve," I said to one friend who was so significant in my first pastorate, "we have missed you." Steve and I picked up conversations past and future.

"Ray," he inquired, "why didn't you return to visit?" His eyes were penetrating, looking for explanation, testing my response, and expressing pain.

"We were prohibited from returning to our first pastorate to visit by the pastor who took our place. We repeatedly asked for permission to visit and were repeatedly prohibited. It was his prerogative in the governance structure of the denomination."

Steve's eyes began to fill with tears, "I didn't know that," he said. "Dave was so insecure...." his voice trailed off and his hug said he had always wondered why we had just disappeared from the scene when our assignment wooed us out of the Northwest to Southern California.  I don't know why Steve thought we made our selves scarce, but in our conversation and in our shared bear hugs whatever questions and pain from the past melted into oblivion and our shared past shed light on a shared future. We talked about future opportunities and support of one another in networking and prayer.

What a joy to have friends across time. Some friends are constant companions in the journey, we connect every time we can, like Rick and Sue. We meet up in the UK, the Northwest, the Southwest, or any other place our paths cross. Other friends are like beacons along the path we see on occasion. Our contacts are episodic, spaced by time, but no less precious when the connection occurs. There is something encouraging about seeing each other like distance runners at a turn in the course we cheer each other on and take courage from the fact we are still in the race.

And of course, there are those acquaintances we saw who caused us great pain, friends who betrayed our friendship. What about these?  We had a couple of these encounters. Were they awkward?  No, surprisingly. They were filled with grace. Forgiveness has long ago released us from the want of revenge and the pain of betrayal. And they apparently also extended forgiveness and like us have grown and changed. The past and the future collided in these encounters with healing and an uncertain future. It is possible to be free of the pain of the past yet remain unreconciled - no longer enemies filled with suspicion but also no longer close. There is a grace in this as well, to embrace with a love that forgives and offers a future that if taken may result in a new friendship.

The longer I am around, the more intrigued I am by this time travel of past and future connection. Friends are a comfort, they are teachers, they are counselors, they are examples, and they are a reminder of what is most significant in life. Nurture your friendships they pull out your best, show you your worst, and offer you a path to a different future.

Restoring a Wounded or Broken Leader

broken-potA friend of mine recently wrote me to ask, "A local friend who is a professional consultant for non-profits and church ministry (organizational leadership) went through a divorce this past year (after 20 years of marriage and 5 kids). We meet together last week. I sought him out to for purely relational follow-up  - we had been out of touch for just short of 3 years. He took advantage of my invitation to share with me all that had transpired. In our discussion I asked if he had any sort of "restoration" or "rehabilitation" to leadership in place for himself. (As this may be important for future clients to know.) Nothing official as such. He has sought individual services and support, but nothing that is outside of his own initiative. Hence, he invited me to present a plan or concept  - to which he would be most grateful.   I thought I'd ask you if - you had any quick thoughts on this or reference points handy." I wrote him the following response.

Yes, I have personal thoughts on this however I don't have any resources for you. So, let me start with a definition and move on to come comments. Restore: renew, rebuild, or to bring back into existence. It is a process epitomized in Psalm 51: 10-15.
Typically the issue around Christian ministers is that some governing body has suspended their credential because of some mitigating circumstance or trauma to: (1) build the margins needed to work through the trauma; (2) work through the pain and the loss incurred to seek restoration of broken relationships if possible; (3) reaffirm the gifts and the calling of God for the sake of the one being restored (God's gifts and calling are without repentance however the one traumatized is often filled with self-deprecating grief and guilt); (4) represent the person to the body of Christ as one who has been made whole/healed and so is able to re-engage the demands of ministry with integrity and accountability.
In the case you outline the only thing missing is a governing body that would start the restoration. So, your friend is subject to the diverse opinion of his potential clients. These fall into three categories in my experience:
1.  Those who know him  and know of the way he has worked over the years to attempt restoration to no avail.  These watch at times with uncomfortable uncertainty about what to do while others make sure that he does not collapse from weariness, guilt, grief, or shame or any combination of these by checking in with him regularly.  A process of restoration is important for this group because they care about his well-being and such a process will reassure them.
2.  Those who don't know him and may treat him as though his trauma is contagious (it is actually a reminder that nothing in life is certain and that scares people). They may reject him or marginalize him by holding him at arm's length not really trusting the integrity of his character and spiritual health or because they simply are uncomfortable facing the messy, painful realities of following Christ in a broken world. A process of restoration is important for this group because they need to see that painful loss is not the end - they need the reassurance from others that your friend is a trustworthy man in whom they can be confident.
3. Those who don't know him but will gladly throw him under whatever self-righteous bus happens to pass by. I have never really understood the rationale of these except it seems to me that causing pain somehow momentarily eases their own pain or at least gives them someone else to focus on before the gravity of their own narcissism pulls them back into themselves. A process of restoration is important because it will combat the attempt to destroy your friends reputation and ministry that these people will attempt.
To enter a process of restoration (on the assumption that something has been lost and something has died) requires a group of leaders that your friend trusts and that others respect as leaders - people who can help him walk through any blind spots, or areas still immobilized by grief, or emotions that have yet to find good expression, or anger that still must be processed and expressed, or fears that try to limit his reach.  This group must have permission to probe and ask hard questions. They must name, with your friend, what the end of restoration looks like because they put their reputations on the line for your friend.  This is what the body of Christ looks like.
I urge you to put together such a proposal, ask your friend who he trusts, and then recruit these people to (1) hear his story completely; (2) define what restoration looks like for him; (3) walk out the process I just described; (4) affirm when the goals have been reached for both your friend and anyone else who asks; (5) so that his ministry in the body of Christ can be warmly received and released without fear of future failure stemming from some unresolved residual issue around the mitigating crisis.
That's all I've got, he is fortunate to have a friend like you who has raised the subject.

Chance Meetings, Learning, and Career Advancement

Professionals barI meandered down to the lounge of our hotel while I waited for Janice to come down for dinner. We were at the tail end of our anniversary celebration and were flying out the next day. The lounge is always a great place to meet traveling business people and this evening was no different.  As I entered a young man at the bar suggested several types of drinks I should try. We started talking.  Turns out he is a Vice President of Acquisitions on a five state tour finalizing deals he had put together. Assessing profitability, building company portfolios, and finalizing complex financial deals it is not my forte.  So, my curiosity was piqued. He gave me a rundown on what he and his team looked for in potential purchases. His background at Lehman brothers was the perfect foundation for his current role.

I asked him to what extent the corporate cultures of potential acquisitions played into his team's assessments of potential acquisitions. 

"We don't bother with that," he replied.  "It is strictly a numbers game. We look at profitability, structures, and what duplication we need to remove or what systems will strengthen ours and we absorb what we can and eliminate what we don't need."

His background in statistics and finance give him a specific lens from which to view business yet several of his comments indicated that he had a greater than average people-sense behind all the analysis.  I wanted to get at that.   "You obviously enjoy what you do.  What the four most important lessons you have learned in your career so far?" I asked.

"I have thought about that," he replied.  "They include: (1) patience - things don't always move as fast as I want and being more deliberate helps me read whether I am working with a group that is on the same page or divided in how they approach challenges and whether they are critical thinkers or 'yes-men;' (2) numbers - I do the analysis work. People tell good stories but I want the facts.  It is the facts that tell whether a company is profitable and sustainable; (3) research - when I speak I have all the data I need. I watch some guys simply throw stuff at the wall.  It may work temporarily but when the CEO comes back with questions it doesn't take long for bull*hit to unravel.  If I don't know the facts I will tell the CEO that I don't have the facts now but I will within the day; (4) competency - a person has to be able to do the work with excellence. 

I was impressed with the clarity and the speed with which he listed  these off - clearly he has been thinking about this. I still wanted to know more. "So what have you learned about people?" I asked.

Again he didn't even pause, "My career started as a cop. I worked in undercover narcotics and one thing was true about every person I arrested - they were great story tellers.  They could have made millions as authors of fiction. Most people tell great stories - I don't pay attention to the story, I look for the facts (the behaviors). It is just as true in business. That is why I am patient.  I hear the stories but I look for the track record.  This is why I will get to CEO role - I can separate the stories from the facts." He paused for a moment and continued, "I recognized early on that technology was changing the way we did everything. I asked for an assignment in our IT department then I learned everything I could about technology and systems. I completed a degree in statistics and finance and I leveraged these at Lehman Brothers. I understand how to package business and to create systems to maximize it."

I was enjoying the pace of the conversation, but I still saw that there was more to pull out of him - more about leadership. "You are clearly driven, so when you finally arrive at the top position how will you define success?" I asked.

He paused on this question.  "You are really perceptive," he said.  He thought for a moment.  Then he continued, "I will be different than the c-suite leaders I have seen so far.  In my view the three most important things a C-suite leader has to pay attention to are: (1) numbers - always know what makes the business successful; (2) technology - most leaders lose touch with technology and when they do in this day in age they loose touch with their business; (3) people - they are the ones who make success happen.  A leader can't ignore the people who make it happen. Too many C-suite leaders I have seen treat people as though they are mere automatons.  Without people things don't happen - a leader has to appreciate and recognize the efforts of those around them."

As he finished his thought his associate entered the bar. We made introductions and they congratulated me on our fortieth wedding anniversary and they left for dinner - I went to find Janice.

I did observe that his last statement gave him an "aha" moment and gave me the information I was looking for. His initial description of his work in acquisitions seemed devoid of the human side. This struck me as odd because his demeanor and the way he greeted me when I entered the lounge was much more engaging.  What I saw in his response was a growing integration between the demeanor he demonstrated and his approach to analysis.  His demeanor inferred an intuitive grasp on people dynamics. He elaborated on this a little more when he talked about patience. The more he moves his intuition toward an explicit understanding and integration the stronger the leader he will become.  In fact his aversion to the impersonal CEO model indicated that he had started down this very road.

So, what did I learn? I will spend more time in the numbers. I don't have a finance background but I have collected some business acumen along the way and I am committed to adding to it. I also learned that leaders who exercise awareness of their own emotion learn more about the people they manage. My friend at the bar inferred his own frustration at being depersonalized when he described the short-comings of the CEOs he has worked with. Because he is willing to learn from his experience by openly contemplating his own emotion and experience he has arrived at a clear differentiation between highly effective and moderately functional CEOs.

What have you learned along the way in your career?  Are you as articulate as this young man in outlining what you have learned?  This young man took our conversation as a learning time just as much as I did. He gained insight into himself by the questions I asked. My questions led him to consider his experience from new perspectives.  I noticed that he was ready to engage conversations as learning tools but he also was ready to engage the conversation as an interview. I have noticed over the years that true leaders have this dual approach to conversation. Because they are learning every conversation potentially expands their knowledge.  Because they are interviewing they find opportunities others never see.

How do you approach conversations with total strangers? The next time you meet a stranger - ask some key questions.  Pay attention to the insights you pick up along the way and watch for opportunities. Most of all, have some fun - we did.

Fresh Resolve - Nothing New in 2014

Ray and JaniceMy friends have asked what my New Year's resolutions are. Chuck caught me on one of my bad days at the end of December and received a terse email from me that simply said, "Ask me in a week or so." I don't know why the idea of making resolutions is so irksome this year.  Typically I enter the year with a plethora of goals and usually execute on all of them. I have goals this year as well but none of them are new.  It seems I set the bar pretty high last year and I am still working on last year's resolutions.

This doesn't mean I have not made progress but that I have not yet finished all I set out to do. So, perhaps my New Year's resolution is best stated as I intend to finish well in 2014. So what is still open from last year?

I determined to play more often. I work hard and have worked throughout my career with great focus and a ferocious desire to learn new things and to prove myself. I don't feel the need to prove myself any longer - the proof is in the results that travel along in my wake and it is these results that have taught me that often the most important things that happen, occur serendipitous to my drive. So, for me playing is leaning into that wondrous serendipity that pulls from a lifetime of insight, knowledge, and a growing presence with others.

I determined to write and publish a book on leadership.  The manuscript is complete. One proposal has already been rejected (a common experience I hear) and another is ready to go out. I have other books to write so I really want to get the first one complete out-of-the-way - editing and rewriting are not my favorite activities.

I committed myself to develop leaders as a vocation. So, Leadership Praxis is up and running and I am in the throes of building a client base. I love coaching leaders. I get a kick out of seeing performance improve. I enjoy working with teams to help them discover how to work with greater effect and fun.

With Janice my wife we decided to travel more (hence the picture on this post of Janice and I in Ferndale, California goofing off). Too many good friends entered their golden retirement years only to have their plans cut short by cancer, heart attacks and other tragedies. So, Janice and I decided (while we save for retirement) to travel now and enjoy one another while we are healthy.

Finally, I felt the need to immerse myself in the Christian Scriptures. I had fallen out of the habit of reading through the Bible every year and so I took it back up. My approach is simple.  I ask a question and then look for ways the Bible addresses it. This year the questions have to do with gender. In what way does the concept of imago Dei (the Image of God) express itself in male and female biology, perceptions, behaviors, and experience?

The sexual dimorphism (existing in two sexes - male and female) of humankind has always been intriguing to me. But the subject looms large in writing on leadership. Do men and women have biological limitations/strengths that either endorse or contradict their ability to lead?  Does brain structure determine gender behaviors and leadership potential? Is gender solely a social/cultural/theological construct? I will explore these questions in 2014.

So, I continue in the resolutions I made in 2013.  Oh wait, there is one thing I can think of that I resolve to do in 2014 that I have not done before.  I will go to a pizza parlor with some friends and convince them all that we need to dance to the music playing over the sound system while we wait for our pizza to arrive at the table so that we can laugh until it hurts - if you have ever seen me dance you know what will start the laughter.  If you get a call to go with me to pizza, be ready and bring your phone to video the event.

Here's to finishing well - let's go get some pizza!

A Global Conversation - is a two way conversation

Countries 2013 The visitors to my blog in the last year represent a variety of countries - which is as it should be in a conversation about leadership. The challenges of leadership are not limited to a single worldview or cultural setting. The perspectives on what it means to lead and how to work with people differ in nuance from culture to culture but the challenges are amazingly similar.

I appreciate the fact that this blog has a wide readership - readership encourages me to keep writing and thinking about leadership both from what I see in the practice of leading and what I learn from research.

If I were to change anything at all it would be to encourage readers to talk back more often.  I need your comments even when they may question or disagree with what I write. Help me sharpen my thinking about leadership with your own insights.

The best learning is always what is learned in the process of leading and in conversation with others who lead. Without feedback and comments I run the risk of simply being a noise and not a mentor. Thank you for reading and thank you for your comments. I am a student and that qualifies me to also be a teacher.

When Life Happens – It is Still Leadership Development: An Overview of Career Coaching/Mentoring Needs

hard questions 2Life Happens and Not Always with Kindness “I feel lost,” the words belied a crisis.  This is a guy who has charged through is career successfully running over barriers, obstacles and inherited mistakes with fun, gusto and obnoxious jubilation. He is contagious, obvious, loud and a lover of people.

“I don’t know where I am going, my life seems shrouded with a cloud” he continued.  His lament stems from a series of losses he has recently experienced. He is my age (we are approaching our 40th high school reunion). He owns a thriving business he intends to give his sons and has a clear succession plan.  The big loss that anchors his grief and redefinition of himself is a back injury that prohibits him from playing basketball and being as active as he has been. Activity has been central to his ability to stay emotionally centered and to work through stress.  He struggles with some of the decisions his children have made. He struggles with redefining his marriage through the emergence of empty nest. He is surprised that these things have affected him at all.

“Listen,” I responded after a moment of taking in the full weight of his situation, “this may not be of too much comfort but what you describe is a normal process in development for men and women our age.”

We sat in silence for a long moment after that.  Then he finally spoke, “Well Ray, it is comforting.”  The conversation meandered after that as we reflected on the reality of being baby boomers. Baby boomers now face the full brunt of life.  Suicide rates among boomers shot up between 1999 and 2010 with the highest increases among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 percent to 30 per 100,000.  The suicide rate among women in their early 60s rose by nearly 60 percent.[1]  Why?  Barry Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Pennsylvania makes this observation.

“There was an illusion of choice — where people thought they’d be able to re-create themselves again and again,” he said. “These people feel a greater sense of disappointment because their expectations of leading glorious lives didn’t come to fruition.”[2]

Like my friend many boomers face loss and face the prospect of finding a new sense of purpose or falling endlessly into despair.  This is an important leadership issue. The need for experienced leaders to mentor emerging generations is often touted. However, these experienced leaders often feel displaced and under used or under valued. I remember a leadership coach once reminded me to prepare for the fact that I would have to redefine myself six to eight times during my career because of the changing social demographic and rapid technological shift. I thought he had fallen prey to hyperbole when he said this in the mid 1980s.  Now I think he was being conservative.  The need to redefine myself arose not only because technology shifted but also because my expectations about what I would accomplish in life fell short. There are multiple forces at work that force a reassessment of self. Now more than ever leadership development needs an exercise of intimacy like that between my friend and I described above. What does this mean for organizations?

Is Your Organization a Safe Place?

Can an organization be a platform for healthy, deliberate and open development of people?  The question is not derived solely from my theology which presumes and expects an answer in the affirmative.  It derives from experience that often finds organizational leaders lacking attentiveness to personal development.  Keagan’s assessment and synthesis on meaning making and development in human experience captures how people experience organizations;

Some head and definers of organizations would probably agree that their institutions are not particularly well suited to the development of the capacity for genuine intimacy in adulthood.  I image they would also be relatively unperturbed in this self-assessment, feeling that the workplace is not intended to serve such a function.  Possibly they might even feel that intimacy flies in the very face of the smooth exercises of the organization…If the notion that most workplaces are not well suited to the development of genuine intimacy is unperturbing to those who shape them, perhaps the notion that the workplace works against a person’s growth in general might be more so.[3]

I posit that the development of genuine intimacy is the center of organizational interaction and is a prerequisite to manifest personal development of any type.  The absence of intimacy is often at the center of employee complaints and disengagement at every level of the organization.  By intimacy I mean a sense of sharing who I am with another without fear of loosing or devaluing a sense of self. I mean a mutually beneficial discovery of uniqueness and similarity, of shared existence and meaning. My conversations in coaching and research persistently orbit intimacy which has a sense of value, personal recognition and a clear contribution.  These concerns are not framed by people as a demand for organizational role. They are framed from the context of a desire for appreciation and interpersonal interaction that can help make sense out of a sometimes senseless world.

Because of my background in pastoral ministry I am often reminded that a congregation possesses a different kind of organizational charter and characteristic from a business.  I find this assertion is duplicitous and contradictory.  Organizations of any kind are people working and living together. While congregations do have a different organizational charter they do not differ at all from businesses in the fact they involve people.

The reality is that every organization lives in a polarity of being a structure and an organism.  This reality points to a need for rethinking development as a out working of intimacy even more than program or training. Think for a moment about your own professional development and I bet you will think of a mentor with whom you shared many intimate encounters – some uncomfortable as your self view or assumptions were pointedly challenged.  The point is that every organization needs to deliberately develop its sense of being an organism as well as being an organization if it is to consistently thrive. (See Table 1)

Table 1: A Polarity of Expectations for Organizational Interaction

Interaction as an Organism (the personal experience & expectation) Interaction as an Organization (the public entity & expectation)
Mutual Responsible
Spontaneous Structured
Respectful Efficient
Open Defined
Intimate Regulated, safe
Developmental Professional
Spiritual Reliable
Vibrant Disciplined
Forgiving Arbitrating
Loving Differentiating

The polarity of expectations outlined in Table 1 however are not mutually exclusive in themselves they are a complimentary set of characteristics that live symbiotically within a healthy or safe organizational system.  The two sets of characteristics in Table 1 must coexist in order to experience a healthy structure and consistent developmental outcomes.

So how does this impact the discussion leadership development or of helping boomers rethink their role? The way people work in their daily existence already bifurcate the personal and the public and continues exerting a perceptual influence into the experience of the organization as a tension between the spiritual and the practical or the personal and the public or the valuable and the measurable.  A person's public experience in the organization limits behavior deemed more appropriate to the private or the personal. As a result intimacy suffers atrophy in interpersonal interactions.

Further, if we view interaction with organizational life from a developmental perspective, then it may best be described as a consistent renegotiation of the public and private perceptions that roughly equate to the dynamic interaction and renegotiation that occurs in developing people between subject and object.  That is people grow through a continuously more complex understanding of themselves uniquely and their identity relative to their integration with or relationship to others.

This means that how an individual perceives the organization, specifically the relationship between the organization as organism and the organization as structure is a function of the process of their internal negotiation between self and others.  Individual perceptions of the value and meaning of organizational relationships evolve through various stages of understanding that essentially shift from vilifying the organization to reassert the self and then to a reintegration of the self as a member of the organization.

If stage development theories can applied to describe the relationship people have to organizations and how they perceive organizations then such theories may show (1) expected times of rejection or withdrawal from organizational life and (2) the point at which development has stalled and embedded itself in a view of organization and self that is no longer functional for the person.  If the latter is true then the tensions involved may explain the personal trauma and eventual social disengagement that results in isolation and disillusionment of they type described above among boomers like my friend.

Understanding Stage Development Helps Negotiate New Life Experience

Three different perspectives, each of which uses a form of stage development as either an overt explanation of human behavior and development or as an assumed model which influenced perspectives on leadership development within an organizational environment are helpful in thinking about establishing intimacy in organizations.

Erickson’s Psychosocial Development.  Making sense out of unexpected situations, the unknown in human experience, is part of what a stage development model attempts.  By looking at usual human development Erikson identified favorable and unfavorable outcomes to developmental challenges that show the relative success of an individual in adjusting to a new sense of self along the development continuum.  The unfavorable outcomes of Erikson’s Stage Theory of “Physchosocial Crises” illustrate the need for breaking down negative choices in favor of positive ones. [4]  Erikson views the life cycle of development, from cradle to grave, as passing through eight stages.  Each stage brings new social experiences and new crises -- which, if surmounted successfully, lead to constant growth and a steadily enriched personality.  The potential for an unfavorable outcome in any stage illustrates the impact and potential for the person to adopt mis-beliefs as true.  The use of Erikson’s model in the context of developing people in organizations recognizes that concepts defining intimacy, meaning and relevance are often rooted in personal and familial interactions. People interpose these interactions onto the organization and not the other way around.  People define respect, meaning, friendship etc., first by personal experience and not by theological or strategic reflection.  As a result personal reflection is strongly influenced by familial experience both past and present.

A leadership development perspective.  J. Robert Clinton’s work on leadership emergence attempted to offer a theological insight into how a Christian leader develops in light of God’s historical working.  By investigating the growth patterns evident in leaders Clinton posits a series of stages in spiritual development or maturity and identifies processes that show God’s formation activity in the life of the leader.[5]  While Clinton did not have Erikson in mind in the development of his model (he approached his work from a theological and not a psychological foundation) there are parallels in Clinton’s outcomes to the goals inherent in Erikson’s favorable outcomes.  The use of Clinton’s model seeks to define how God’s activity may interact to the familial and social influences an individual brings to organizational participation that at times produces dissonance to personal perspective.  However the dissonance that results from an engagement with God’s actual activity serves to further the individual’s growth as a person hence it may reflect social and workplace developmental dynamics.

A mentoring perspective.  Kathy Kram’s work on mentoring in the work place identifies developmental tasks associated with successive career stages.[6]   These are particularly helpful in identifying the workplace mentoring needed to ensure healthy development.  First, the workplace is the primary culture in which values and identity are often shaped.  Second, activities in social groups is a subset of workplace activity for the majority of people and either benefits or defeats developmental outcomes.  The average person approaches the organization from the context of their social grid learned not the values of the workplace perse.  By social grid I mean the meaning making and interpretive clues that cause help an individual define meaning, significance and relationship.  This heightens the need for rethinking the development of intimacy in organizations as a means of helping individuals engage their real selves in workplace relationships.

The following tables synthesize these three views and suggest directions organizations can take to make sure their talent develops without being derailed by what life throws at them.

Table 2: The Adolescent Engagement

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals as Defined by Clinton
Transition Years Surrender where the person or the would-be leader aspires to spend a lifetime that counts for God.
Adolescence
Identity versus confusion Seeing oneself as a unique and integrated person Confusion over who and what one really is Ministry perspective.Flexibility and openness to new ideas.Kindling a sense of destiny and identity that encapsulates a sense of personal value and missionBroadening through exposure to others.Owning and developing personal convictions from the Scriptures.

Guidance, decision-making and input are tested one against the other to find a balance.

Pre Career -- Wheeler Competence: In what ways can my life demonstrate a role competence?  Experimentation with social roles and interpersonal roles that provide foundational experience for defining the basis of personal competence.Identify: What abilities and strengths make me unique, give me a reason to contribute or to participate in groups actively?  What aspirations emerge from these early experiences?Commitment: How does involvement and commitment threaten my sense of identity or advance it?  What does it mean to be involved and committed?  How is involvement and commitment differentiated from enmeshment and being taken for granted or being taken advantage of i.e., a loss of personal value?Advancement: Can I advance?  Can I advance without compromising a sense of self and my important values?Relationships:  Can I establish relationships of reciprocity, respect and trust?

Family Role Definition: Who am I within a family unit?  Is familial identify and social identity mutually exclusive or complimentary?  What defines a satisfying personal life?  What kind of lifestyle do I want to establish?

Self/Family Conflict: Do I have an identity independent of family identity?

Table 3: Early Adulthood

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals as Defined by Clinton
Entering Adulthood Discovery that competence (ministry) flows from being and not doing.
Intimacy versus isolation Development of interdependent, accountable friendships that confirm a sense of personal purpose and meaning. Loss of personal confidence and tendency to insulate from meaningful personal friendships. Demonstrate the character of God.Understand the purposes of God.Experience the faithfulness of God.Know the power of God.See the sovereignty of God.

Form Christ-like character.

Early Career -- Kram Competence: Can I be effective in the managerial/professional role?  Can I be effective in the role of spouse and/or parent?Identify: Who am I as a manager/professional?  What are my skills and aspirations?Commitment: How involved and committed to the organization do I want to become?  Or do I want to seriously explore other options?Advancement: Do I want to advance?  Can I advance without compromising important values?Relationships:  How can I establish effective relationships with peers and supervisors?

Family Role Definition: How can I establish a satisfying personal life?  What kind of lifestyle do I want to establish?

Work/Family Conflict: How can I effectively manage work and family commitments?  How can I spend time with my family without jeopardizing my career advancement?

Table 4: Middle Age

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals as Defined by Clinton
Generativity versus self-absorption Concern for family and society in general Concern only for self -- one’s own well-being and prosperity Recognize that God’s guidance comes through establishing ministry priorities by discerning one’s gifts.A clear vision for the people of God.Clear reflection of the character of God.Maximization of the growth process and investment in the gifts and abilities of others.Consistent defeat of the strategies of the enemy.

Joy of relationship (with God and with others)

Middle Career -- Kram Competence: How do I compare with my peers, with my subordinates, and with my own standards and expectations?Identify: Who am I now that I am no longer a novice?  What does it mean to be a “senior” adult?Commitment:  Do I still want to invest as heavily in my career as I did in previous years?  What can I commit myself to if the goal of advancement no longer exists?Advancement:  Will I have the opportunity to advance?  How can I feel productive if I am going to advance further?Relationships: How can I work effectively with whom I am in direct competition?  How can I work effectively with subordinates who may surpass me?

Family Role Definition: What is my role in the family now that my children are grown?

Work/Family Conflict: How can I make up for the time away from my family when I was launching my career as a novice?

Table 5: Aging Years

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals as Defined by Clinton
Integrity versus despair A sense of integrity and fulfillment; willingness to face death Dissatisfaction with life; despair over the prospect of death Extended influence through reflection on life lessons, acquired skills, insights and relationships.
Late Career -- Kram Competence: Can I be effective in a more consultative and less central role, still having influence as the time to leave the organization gets closer?Identify: What will I leave behind of value that will symbolize my contributions during my career?  Who am I apart from a manager/professional and how will it feel to be without that role?Commitment:  What can I commit myself to outside of my career that will provide meaning and a sense of involvement?  How can I let go of my involvement in my work role after so many years?Advancement: Given that my next move is likely to be out of the organization, how do I feel about my final level of advancement?  Am I satisfied with what I have achieved?Relationships: How can I maintain positive relationships with my boss, peers and subordinates as I get ready to disengage from this setting?  Can I continue to mentor and sponsor as my career ends?  What will happen to significant work relationships when I leave?

Family Role Definition: What will my role in the family be when I am no longer involved in a career?  How will my significant relationships with spouse and/or children change?

Work/Family Conflict: Will family and leisure activities suffice, or will I want to begin a new career?

Conclusion - We Need Leaders Who Exercise Intimacy

Many of the organizations and congregations I work with have yet to accept the significance of building intimate relationships that also leverage what is known about human development. Congregations tend to reject these models as “secular” and unrelated to church growth.  Businesses tend to reject these models as a distraction from efficiency and profit generation.  However, it is time for leaders to reconsider such stands.  Building a safe environment in which intimacy contributes to development is not an option it is an imperative to organizational health, relevance and profit (growth).

Use the models above to help your leaders or team members or colleagues define their experience in the context of a developmental process. This recognition sets the stage for people to exercise the power of personal choice.  The fact is that whether one emerges from crisis healthy or as a victim is not dependent on the circumstance they face but the way they decide to respond to that circumstance. These models help show both the choices available and outcomes that are reasonable to expect.

So what about the friend I talked about above?  Like other leaders he is working through his experience in three different phases.

Retrospection. My friend started here. As we talked I asked questions that helped him define his pathos and the trigger event or crisis.  He had to honestly face his own bitterness and resentment and choose to believe something good might result if he looked and choose for forgive the people who contributed to his angst.  Theologically we talk about being broken i.e., recognizing that we do not exist independently but interdependently. In a theological sense it is this stage that help people find their need for God – which often rises out of the wreckage of their own self-absorption.

Future shift. As we moved together through his choice to see his situation from a new perspective (the developmental stages helped with this) and as he chose to forgive those who had hurt him along the way an internal shift from depression to hope emerged.  He saw a potential for something other than disaster and disappointment. He began making plans on how to exercise the future he now sees as possible. Theology describes this as hope. An encounter with the ability and presence of God offers a different view-point to life and a sense of meaning where meaning was lost.

Decision making.  Finally he decided to act on his new perspectives versus remaining a passive victim. He is not done processing his loss yet however, he is on the right track. We will probably traverse this ground a couple more times before the new course is set. Again theologically we call this repentance i.e., a change of course.

I am confident my friend will emerge from his Mid-life crisis with a renewed sense of purpose and a larger idea of what his contribution is in the lives of those around him. My confidence comes from my own experience wrestling with the same kinds of issues.  I have good friends with whom I can share my experience in intimate detail. Further, I have begun to reassess how I relate to others at the various places I work – I am committed to building intimate relationships (read honest, vulnerable, loving and safe) in every environment.  I see the profoundly positive impact this commitment has on others across every generation and on me. How about you?  Will you lead your organization to be a safe place?


[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert Kegan. The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Harvard: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 248.

[4] Jerome Kagan and Ernest Havemann, ed.s.  Psychology: An Introduction 4th ed.  (San Diego: Harcout Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980), 505.

[5] Clinton, J. Robert.  The Making of a Leader.  Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988.

[6] Kram, Kathy E.  Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. New York: University Press of America, 1988.

Coaching - A Craze or a Value Add?

What is Coaching?  

DSC01787A friend of mine just endured an awful hour of interaction with a coach.  The coach apparently listened for a moment and proceeded to offer a solution to my friend's situation. Have you every noticed that when people give advice (1) it is rarely listened to and (2) it almost always fails.  My friend's coach must be new or worse, someone untrained in coaching and unemployed who decided to surf the trend and hang out a shingle as a coach.  

There are some great coaches out there, my friend did not find one of them.  What is coaching?  Coaching is an intentional and facilitated conversation. It encourages rigor in the way leaders organize thinking, envisioning, planning and expectations. Coaching challenges the limits of competence and learning horizons. 

Good coaches know how to pull out the best from their clients.  Good coaches know how to get their clients to see their situation from another perspective so that they have "aha" moments that generate new approaches.

Understanding coaching is often understanding how it is different from other business or professional interactions.  For example: coaching is not therapy i.e., healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an person or in relationships. Coaching is not training which relies on a linear learning path that coincides with established curriculum. Coaching is not mentoring which typically relies on the wisdom and guidance of expert experience. Coaching is not consulting - a consultant diagnoses problems and prescribes and, sometimes, carry out solutions.

Why Do Leaders Look for Coaching?

Leaders sometimes need to energize confidence. Coaching helps a person concentrate on what's truly important in their business, their relationships and/or their life. Coaching asks the kinds of questions that help define core values and work from them with integrity. Because coaching helps a person interrogate their reality and many see that coaching reduces the chances of  making damaging blunders.

Leaders in new situations or change situations often need to empower relationships to succeed. One result of spending time with a coach is that people learn to engage new listening and communication skills that enhance confidence in and consideration of your relationships and build co-operation with the competencies, skills and insights of others on their team.

Leaders sometimes need to simply check in and reassess accomplishment. Coaching helps clarify, prioritize and manage immediately the most pressing issues.  The questions asked by a coach expose a person's best thinking thereby unleashing creativity and reducing the number of issues subconsciously vying for their attention – less time taken for anxiety means more energy every day.

Why does Coaching Work?

Coaching works because it meets you in the here and now, it enters your situation with insight and consideration. It's collaboration between you, your knowledge, your experience and your coach. Coaching accelerates the process of definition and clarifies what steps will take you to your goal. Coaching is work.

The coaching process often helps people name their own self-imposed obstacles to success. Internal obstacles to leadership action are often more daunting than the external ones. What keeps a person from meeting their goals?  Managing the risk of pain or failure in past experiences often results in risk avoidance that limits possibilities. Coaching helps a person define themselves by their dreams for the future and not their past. Coaching helps people embrace weaknesses as learning points.

Coaching creates a safe and supportive environment to expose hindrances to growth and development. A safe environment provides the impetus needed to push beyond self-doubt and grow and make concrete progress toward that to which  a person aspires.

How Do I Find a Good Coach?

Who do you know that uses a coach? Have you asked for referrals? How have you searched for a coach? What kind of coach do you think would help you? What are their personality traits? What would led you to respect a coach? What would led you to loose respect? Have you spent 15  to 30 minutes talking with a potential coach about what you hope to accomplish?  How did you leave that conversation? Did you wonder how the potential coach got you to think more deeply about your question?  Did you realize something you had not seen or admitted before? May I suggest that if you leave the conversation with advice...that you keep looking?  Of course you may get lucky and happened on an expert who just dropped the key insight you needed for your operation.

What kinds of experiences have you had with coaching?  I am interested in hearing from you so leave a reply.  Thank you.

Thank you for serving

iStock_000009064865MediumWe were entertaining one of our new employees from our Tennessee factory and to give him a true Southern California experience we took him to In-N-Out.  I paid for the order and turned to see a  man in a classic 1960s green fatigue coat with the unmistakable yellow service ribbon with three stripes.  He looked worn almost haunted. "Are you a Vietnam vet?" I asked.

"I am" he answered with a look that wondered where I was going with the inquiry.  The mix of pride and suspicion with which he answered the question struck me. But then, I grew up during that war.  I had friends in that war that I sat with upon their return and heard about their struggles, the same mix of pride and suspicion.  I know these two emotions aren't just rooted in the political chaos that surrounded the Vietnam war, but in the very nature of war and combat itself. I saw combat change friends.

"Thank you, for your service," I said holding his gaze.

Suspicion seemed to melt into gratitude - almost relief. There was no commentary on what I think about war and its morality.  There was no judgment about his role.  There was my simple recognition that while I have no real idea of what any veteran has endured in combat (the draft ended right after I registered). I do have an appreciation for any man or woman who will stand in the gap to defend the defenseless and insist upon justice.  There is a place to debate the morality of war - it is not in the face of those who have endured its worse.

"You are welcome," he said as he sat a little straighter.

To all veterans I say, thank you, for your service. Thank you, for standing up for the ideals of liberty, justice for all and the idea that all men (and women) are created equal. Thank you, for enduring the wounds both physical and emotional.  Thank you, for serving with discipline in the midst of unbridled cruelty. Thank you, for delivering and protecting the country that has provided me with the opportunities I enjoy - opportunities your service encourages me to use to serve others as you have done so courageously.

A Vacation Reflection - be the Leader You Always Wanted to Follow

Being Real Requires Vulnerability and Commitment Conversation 2“Look there’s another one…” Janice indicated the presence of another older man accompanied by younger woman just entering the restaurant.  They did not seem to be a father/daughter on an outing. It did not seem to be a business meeting. It looked like a date and an awkward one at that. There was no clear familial connection although one of the couples may have been father/daughter still struggling through the tensions inherent in learning how to relate as adults.

Perhaps it was the place of our vacation (on the beach in Southern California) or simply a heightened awareness of couples mismatched in age resulting from our earlier conversation. Perhaps our perspective was biased. We had been talking about the struggles yet another friend traversed whose marriage and family slowly and painfully fell apart in the latter years of mid-life during at the onset of empty nest. The couples we watched in the restaurant that day did not show the body language of intimacy.

These couples acted disconnected.[1]  They did not look delightfully or longingly into each other’s eyes.  They seemed tolerantly aware of each other and not comfortable with each other. Their behavior stood in contrast to comfort that comes to close friends who have been shaped and formed by different perspectives, animated disagreements and the work of understanding that is at home with one another’s silence.   There was no hostility per se, just a lack of presence. We wondered what they were looking for in each other. Was it security? Vibrancy? Sex? Companionship? Prestige?

Janice and I married for 38 years and married younger than we recommend to others have traversed the sometimes shaky and often intense (read emotionally fraught) transitions common to life.  We routinely experience both sides of change. On the one hand we face change as people finding our way to defining who we are and want to be. On the other hand we face change as a couple facing the redefinition of our relationship again and again to keep it vibrant and relevant to our changing perspectives, needs, wants and goals in life. We have learned something about life in the combination our own experience and the twenty-five years we spent in pastoral ministry.  The deeply personal insight into the consequences of life choices made by the people who volunteered their stories and worked through their choices with us as confidants in a quest to make sense of life’s realities are permanently seared into our life compass.

“I am ticked when I see some of these couples,” Janice related.

“Why?” I asked.

“Look at how much pain that young woman is enduring – and for what?” The young woman did not offer a command performance in her pedestal high heel shoes as she literally grimaced across the restaurant and jeans that seemed more tattooed to her body than pulled over her skin.

“Are they making the kind of commitment it takes to develop a close friendship or are they simply in the pursuit of convenience?  And if it is convenience, what does it end in? Where will either of them be in 20 years?” Janice looked back at me with that deeply penetrating look I have learned is the request for vulnerability.

“Perhaps they are searching for something more than acquisition, conquest, power, or pleasure.” I responded. Searching and unable to find…few things are more frustrating.  It doesn't take a psychologist, theologian or sociologist to see meeting the quest for intimacy with the pursuit of pleasure or conquest pushes people toward cynicism and hurt.  Perhaps the couples we saw where trying to find friendships.

The most difficult choice I make in life is to be vulnerable. I often don't want to be vulnerable.  I want to be powerful and independent.  The problem is that when I fail to exercise vulnerability I achieve deep loneliness. I think of specific transition points in our relationship together when I have been honest about my frustrations, desires, fears, doubts with Janice about our relationship.  There have been times for both of us that someone else acted more interested, more compassionate, more understanding more available emotionally or physically than we have been to each other.  Those conversations were both excruciating and healing.

We left the restaurant and walked through the village on the beach.  I reflected on our lunch time conversation. The point is not that we are still married. Marriage in itself is no particular achievement at least not given some of the couples I have met who stay married and miserable for failure to do the work involved taking any other action. The point is that anything worth pursuing in the next year requires the same two actions that has brought us to this point in our relationship and joy together i.e., commitment and vulnerability.

In 2013 exercise maturity as a person and vulnerability in relationship. Will you remain differentiated (be a unique individual) and stay in relationships?[2] This is the nature of the commitment.  It is a commitment that:

  • Exercises a capacity to take responsibility for one’s own emotional well-being.
  • Promotes healthy differentiation in others and throughout the system in which one lives and works.
  • Recognizes the folly of relational sabotage being a differentiated person triggers from the least differentiated members of a group.
  • Knows that those with whom one is most closely related cannot rise above the maturity level you demonstrate regardless of your skills or knowledge base.
  • Remains aware that people cannot hear you unless they are moving toward you which means that as long as you are pursuing or rescuing them your message will never catch up.

As Janice and I reflect on our careers, our hopes for 2013 and our sense of purpose as servant leaders in our fields we know that as friends in marriage and as professionals related to teams our success continues to be dependent upon the exercise of commitment and vulnerability that takes specific actions.

  • We exercise the capacity to go it alone – there are times that we see things that others don’t yet see, but they are worth pursuing.  This is as true in the potential of our marriage as it is in the business endeavors we lead.  Going it alone is not the destruction of our intimacy it is sometimes the price of intimacy while we hope the other also makes that same commitment and we converge on a new path together.
  • We exercise the ability to recognize and extricate ourselves from emotional binds.  We are not always in sync with each other’s emotions.  Sometimes those around us are not in sync with their own emotions. The ability to extricate ourselves from the emotional binds we sometimes lay out for one another is critical to maintaining a healthy interaction.
  • We avoid the folly of trying to will each other or others to change.  We cannot, by force of will, shape each other to be anyone different.  There is a shaping that occurs as we pursue life together, but this shaping requires vulnerability and willingness to see from another perspective other than our own.
  • We exercise the modifying potential of a non-anxious presence.  Fortunately we rarely panic at the same time.  There are scary things in life.  We find that the voice that attempts to shame us into non-action still rears its belittling head.  It is then we help each other by providing a non-anxious presence for one another instead of a continuous escalation of anxiety and anger.
  • We understand the ratifying power of endurance in crisis.  We are present for each other.  We endure each other’s worse behavior (that is different from being victimized by it – neither of us will be victims of the other). We endure through crisis with those we work with as well.
  • We remind ourselves of the factors that cause each of us stress and coach one another away from the brink of anxious despair.
  • We exercise the self-regulation necessary for dealing with reactive sabotage. The fact is that the least emotionally mature around us do not want to accept responsibility for their emotional well-being or their job performance. Someone will always attempt to undermine our success and our achievement.  This is part of the reason we work to define success as grounded in who we are not just what we do.

So who do you want to be in 2013?  The fact of the matter is that you will succeed in your goals and hopes and dreams only to the degree you succeed in being yourself in commitment and vulnerability.


[1] Admittedly this may be little more than a biased observation – we did not conduct good social research to come to this conclusion there were no interviews or focus groups, no regressive analysis of common themes.

[2] Edwin Friedman Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing [Kindle Version downloaded from Amazon.com], 2007), 3912 of 5400.