I had goals for the beginning of the term for The Servant Leadership School of Greensboro. Two weeks before classes began, I was a bit frantic about the high enrollment expectations I had set up, then I stopped and asked myself what was really at stake.
I found my level of frustration was not really commensurate with the problem—as we already had enough people in each class. I noticed how I was talking to myself and realized I was trying to appease some unrealistic standard I drive myself crazy with. I was once again striving for some kind of ideal that is not reachable most of the time, and of course, this results in stress.
Notice how our unattainable standards begin and end in the way we talk to ourselves. Have you judged yourself in the last three hours—comparing yourself to some high standard?
Sometimes the most important hairpin turn we take is in our thinking!
We had an emergency meeting because nonprofits were not signing up for a conference on how nonprofits and universities can collaborate. There is an unfortunate divide between the university and nonprofits—another “us versus them.”
The nonprofits think that academics have their head in the clouds and the academics wonder why nonprofits are not using best practices based on solid research. These two attitudes do not allow for true engagement with one another. So in our emergency meeting, we used our imaginations and kept asking questions: What would meet the needs of both? How might we structure a conference that allows for space to really dialogue and develop more trust for one another? How might we encourage positive conversation rather than the cynical dead-end sighing?
We talked honestly and we kept using the positive intelligence available to us. We refused to cave in to “this is just the way it is with these two sectors” (“same old, same old”) and we came up with several ideas that we will try out. We left the room excited about some new possibilities.
When we start to notice an “us versus them” mentality in the room, or in our own heads, we have the choice to move in another direction The question then becomes: “what might we do together that meets and respects both parties needs?”
A person close to me is interviewing for jobs. After we talked about what they might ask on the interview I told her that in servant leadership we talk about how important our worldviews are in times like these. If our world view is that “the universe is friendly” then we can relax into knowing that if this works out then “good” and if it does not work out then “good” as well. The Quakers call this “door closing” and “door opening” and trust either way. Under it all is the sense that we are held by the presence of love—no matter what happens. This is the hairpin turn way—moving, with intention, toward that which is meaningful in our lives, and having faith that all will be well.
Knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no” is one of the most important practices in our lives. We need to say “no” to that which is life-draining and say “yes” to that which is life-giving. Often this discernment is tricky.
I have been Chair of a committee for the past two years. While this role uses my talents and serves the community, I need to step away to provide another person with this opportunity. They will gain, and I will as well. This “no” makes room for another “yes.”
When we say “yes” or “no” to daily requests (“Will you get the paper?”) or to assignments (“Will you join our board?”) or to relationships (“Will you join me for lunch?”) we express ourselves to the world. We need to pause and reflect on the request and ask: “Does this new opportunity allow me to use my natural talents? Will I be expressing my deepest values through this action? Is this the season of my life when this makes the most sense to me?”
Saying “yes” and saying “no” with intention and grace creates space for the hairpin turns we seek in our lives.
I was enthusiastically telling someone about an event that several of us are planning for the weekend. It involves a performance, a panel discussion, a reception with local food and wine and some background music. Everyone has put a lot of energy into this event. After my description and invitation for her to come her response was: “It is supposed to snow this Saturday.” I mumbled: “Oh, I had not heard.” We parted and I started to think of what I would do to cancel—the possibilities soared through my brain. My enthusiasm for the event turned to worry with those seven words. As I walked toward my office I decided to pretend she had offered another seven-word response like: “Wow! That sounds like a great event!”
Sometimes, in our attempt to be helpful, we make dire predictions. Naturally, as the recipient, we can ignore, take heed or pretend. Perhaps we can pause before we communicate a warning and consider the helpfulness of the words.
At a meeting today, a minister said he was taking three days of Sabbath this week “to prepare for the busy season ahead.” It reminded me of that juxtaposed phrase: “don’t just do something, stand there!”
What if we considered not doing something an essential act of preparation for the activities of this holiday season?
I read in the book Unplug the Christmas Machine that the number one thing that children really want for Christmas is a relaxed and loving time with family. What better way to prepare for that kind of time together than to take some Sabbath time and reflect on scaling down the activities to have more time and peace of mind to really enjoy each other?
Between our kitchen and dining room, we have a door that makes a funny noise and slowly opens and then stays open. When we have our hands full, we can back up into the door and it swings open with ease…no pushing or struggling required.
Our group is trying to make decisions about a new year of working with the children at Partnership Village. We ask: “Does this seem like a door opening easily or does it seem like we are pushing and pounding on a closed door?” We trust the goodness of the universe to swing open opportunities that seem easy and graceful. We walk through and smile.
A young man called with an idea about his company providing nutritious snacks…relatively effortless. But then, we tried to get the families and children to tend a vegetable garden…considerably coercive. We were pushing on a locked door.
How do we trust and step through the easy doors, and then accept and move away from the locked or stuck doors? How do we live lives of effortless grace? How do we lean into the goodness swinging open all around us?
I read the evaluations after the last class of the term with curiosity as I had changed some of the content and practices from the last time I taught the class. Several of the evaluations affirmed the changes and a few were ambivalent. Out of thirty feedbacks, one comment seemed odd. “Superficial” is all it said. I am not sure how to hold that comment. While clearly a minority opinion, that one word bothered me. How might that feedback “be of service” to the next iteration of this class? What does that mean for my teaching? My ego wanted to brood, my mind wanted clarity and my heart yearned for connection. Even in the context of all the other feedback, I take this one word as a lesson in humility. I trust I have explored the possible meanings, and now I let go. It’s another mystery to respect, and another opportunity to surrender.
We recently watched a documentary on the celebrated Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackelton and his astounding leadership when his crew encountered an extreme crisis in their 1914 quest to reach the South Pole. Even though his ship the Endurance was locked in ice, sub-zero temperatures and total darkness for many months, Shackleton always embodied a calm confidence in the face of horrendous challenges. The dire circumstances on the outside did not change his sense of ease and clarity about what to do next. His continuous alert presence communicated confidence. He never collapsed into hopelessness. He stayed present. He made life-saving decisions and exuded a grounded assurance to his crew that all would be well. Ultimately, they all returned safely to England.
When mistakes happen or when life throws us challenges, do we get knocked off center? How do we remain at ease, confident and alert? Do we embody confidence that “all will be well” or “all is going to hell”? Bringing graceful strength into the moment “no matter what is happening” on the outside defines us as leaders. ..and this is an “inside” job.
On a break during a workshop I was conducting on servant leadership, a man came up to me and explained that his company had mandated a national policy of collaboration among the distributors. He complained bitterly that “it was not working” and that most of the distributors were furious and resisting this new plan. He said: “This sounds like a fine idea on some levels but actually “doing it” is another matter. Plus we were never asked our opinion on this at all.” I recognized the mantra “sounds like a good idea BUT is it practical?” There are so many dilemmas here but mandating cooperation never works. When the initiative starts with coercion, resistance results. Because collaboration about the collaboration was not part of the plan, fury and discontent erupted. Naturally. Collaboration begins with participation and presence to the vital question at hand. Asking the distributors to formulate what they thought was the most important question would have been a collective beginning point. Listening and encouraging participation of all voices would have moved the distributors and the national office toward creative solutions. Now the national office is spending time, energy and resources cajoling the distributors to do that which many do not want to do. Some will come around, but with vestiges of resentment for not being involved early in the process. When will we all learn that leadership at work and life at home and in our communities begins with asking vital questions and then listening? This is the way of the hairpin turn.