Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Life: Poetry in Motion

I stopped by a local coffee shop recently to take a short break from the work I was doing for a client.  As I sat in the coffee shop amongst the hum of energy from its patrons, a thought came to mind and I put on my oldest son's IPOD so that I wasn't aware of the conversations and sounds around me.

Prior to doing this, I was aware of the different types of conversations as I had overheard snatches of them before putting on my earphones.

Having isolated myself from my environment, I sat and observed what was going on around me.

As I did so, I became aware of and immersed in the tapestry around me, the poetry in motion that we call life, the beauty and orchestration that we often mistakenly view as chaos or random events.

By stripping out awareness of the dialog and focusing on hand gestures, laughter, frowns, smiles and other body language, I felt like I was witnessing an infinite number of plays being written at once - and what an outstanding collection it was.

Comedies, tragedies, romances and stories of overcoming challenge.  New lives beginning and long life stories being passed on.  Some business 101 classes were sprinkled in there.  At some tables, volumes of information were being shared in silence.   Hope and despair, anger and laughter - they all danced around and touched down in different interactions.

Meanwhile outside, people were going through the drive-thru, creating their own stories which were a mystery to this observer on the inside of the coffee shop.

Their story was influenced by the person at the drive-thru window, who had been influenced by the stories within the coffee shop.

What a complex play was being written, a play we are not aware of unless we slow down and observe its creation.

To expand on the experiment, I altered the music I was listening to.  When I was listening to soft music, I became more aware of the gentle side of the interactions.

If I put on fast paced or loud music, I became more aware of heightened emotions and a sense of urgency or need for speed.

It's an interesting experiment that I highly recommend.  Plant yourself where you can observe but suspend your ability to hear what is being said.  Having done that, allow your other senses to insert yourself into the world around you.

As I noted what was going on around me, it reminded me of the phenomenal potential we have - the power to create, to share, to debate, to discuss, to disagree, to despise and to love - the potential to decide between a life of despair and a life of fulfillment.

What we have been blessed with in the way of gifts and potential is something that we may not be as grateful for as we could be.

Some of us may not be aware of the gifts we have.

Perhaps some of us don't believe that we are gifted at all.

The truth is that each of us possesses a fascinating, unique, powerful collection of gifts.  How we choose to weave these gifts into the fabric of our life determines the legacy that we leave to others, the notion of "what will I be remembered for when I am gone".

Each of us brings this distinct collection to bear and plays a leading role in the story of our life and the lives of others.  At other times, we are a supporting actor or a bit player in someone else's play.  All roles are important!

Many of us are waiting for the perfect moment to bring these wonderful gifts to bear.  Many people are waiting for a means of optimizing their gift potential, to bring the "biggest bang" to the table.

While waiting for the perfect moment, many people are denying themselves the sense of pleasure and fulfillment of making a difference now (even if smaller than they prefer).  Some people, while waiting for the perfect moment, will wait until their end of days has come.  In either case, to wait is to deny others of the opportunity to witness your gifts and to be impacted by them.

In the meantime, there are many people waiting for you.  They want to share with you, to have an opportunity to collaborate with  you, to learn from you, to make a difference in the lives of others and to help bring greater awareness of life purpose - yours, theirs and the lives of others.

I ask everyone I meet one simple question which I will ask of you today:

If I had unlimited time, energy and money, living in a world of no constraints, worries or fears, what would I be doing right now?

Don't answer it flippantly.  Think about it.  Observe the world around you and let that question percolate your mind, spirit and soul. 

Some of you are living your purpose.  For those who are not, allow an answer to come to the fore as you think through this question.

Once an answer floats to the surface, ask yourself - "who can help me incubate this and make it a reality?". 

If something seizes your heart, embrace it as the purpose for which you are created and for which you have spent a lifetime developing gifts for.

Having done so, turn the page of life and begin writing the next act in the play that is your life.

Complete your story of inspiration, of overcoming challenge, of sharing, of giving unselfishly, of inspiring, of learning, of motivating and of loving.

The play has been incredible so far but you will discover it has no end.  To those whom you leave a legacy to, they will open up the script and continue the story when you have moved on to what follows our life on earth.

I can hardly wait to see what the next act brings in your life.

The curtain is rising ...... and I hear applause as you step out onto the stage of life.

In service and servanthood.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Hidden Shame

This week, someone in our immediate family decided that the pain of living was far greater than their ability to cope with that pain.  Having come to that conclusion they attempted to take their life and fortunately for them, they failed.  The long term physical and mental impact of their attempt is still being evaluated by professionals.

How does one react to such an event?  Some people feel sadness on behalf of the person who felt no way out other than the final act.  Some experience anger that the victim would leave loved ones behind without answers to their questions.  Others feel pain from the hole in their heart that would have been created had they been successful.  Some people actually feel relief, knowing that their loved one is free from the demons that dogged them.

I learned something else from people who reached out to me in support - that this is a lot more common than I was aware of and at the same time, seems to carry a lot more shame than I thought would have been normal or acceptable.

Shame?  Why is this?

My friend A. shared her story of loss that occurred only a few years ago when she was an associate of mine.  I never knew the struggle she was experiencing at the time as she became buried in a mix of pain, hurt, shame and guilt and the classic question of "why"?

Another friend of mine, D., shared her loss as well, having occurred less than a year ago.  As she explained to me yesterday - "you end up being overwhelmed with so many different and powerful emotions.  The senselessness of the act…the finality….the pain…..the anger….the guilt ….  it goes on and on".

Both A. and D. have been so blessedly helpful to me, helping me to understand the lead up to and the aftermath of such an event.  I am grateful to both of them for the powerful sharing of their thoughts, prayers and love, having experienced it first hand.

It got me to thinking this morning about how many people out there are struggling to see light where all they can see is darkness.  In an earlier blog, I shared the story of saving someone from suicide a few years ago.

Suicide outnumbers homicide deaths 2 to 1 in the US.  It is ranked as the 11th top killer in the US, ahead of liver disease and Parkinson's.  We have a sense of urgency around avoiding a violent crime or helping cure disease while this affliction continues to grow, especially in these times of uncertainty.  When someone dies of liver disease, we are comfortable admitting the cause.  When a loved one dies from suicide, we tell others it was a sudden death or a death after a brief illness.  We are ashamed to admit it was a suicide and I think this shame prevents it from becoming part of a dialog necessary to understand and help prevent it and to offer love and support for those who are struggling with it.

Someone dies from suicide somewhere in the world every 39 seconds.  Every year, there are 1 million successful suicides globally but there are a staggering 10-20 million attempts according to the World Health Organization.

Men are more successful in attempts than women but women attempt it more often. Men are more "successful" as they tend to use more catastrophic means with greater chance of finality.  Males face an additional stigma of allegedly "not being able to be depressed", "not being allowed to cry" and the rest of that silliness that causes them to be trapped within their own mind when they struggle.

With statistics like this, it suggests that we need to be very cognizant of the number of people around us who may not see the same opportunities for unlimited potential that we see.  Perhaps they do not see the opportunity for companionship and love that we experience.  Maybe their internal demons are screaming so loudly that they can't find any other way out.  Some people don't want to be a burden or don't want to admit that there is something beyond their ability to control that has seized their mind.

Whatever the challenge is, greater awareness is needed to help people who are wrestling with this. 

We all know people who for any number of reasons, are struggling to see light when all they can see is darkness.

Perhaps that person is you.  I know of at least one regular reader of my blog that is struggling with this.  You are loved.

Whatever the situation, let's make sure we pay attention to the needs of those around us, friend, family or stranger.  If we see an opportunity to share love, then by all means, share it unconditionally and help them find help (or don't be afraid to ask for help).  Don't worry about the potential embarrassment of their reaction .  The upside to reaching out to someone in love is far more important.

Yours in service and servanthood.


Friday, January 23, 2009

The Weakest Link

I was in an international airport a couple of days ago when I noticed that air crews at this airport do not have to undergo the same scrutiny of security that most of us do (perhaps this is common - I don't know).  It caused me to think of the billions of dollars we spend on airline security every year while in actuality,  our security comes down to how honest and stable a few air crews are (by far the minority of people in the sky at any given moment) and the people who screen us.

While we are fortunate that by far the majority of the fine folks that work for airlines and airport security are good, stable, honest people, it demonstrates how the strongest of systems still depends on the strength of the weakest link.  Before one says "but things never happen with air crews", think of the few but high profile cases where air crews broke down, including an incident a year or so ago when an Air Canada copilot needed to be physically restrained by crew and passengers on an overseas flight because of some mental duress experienced during the flight or the depressed Egypt Air relief pilot who took his aircraft and all of its passengers out of the sky off the eastern seaboard of the US back in the 90's.  Canadians also remember when baggage handlers in Toronto placed bombs on Air India flights.  The weakest link.

The US Airways plane that made a miraculous landing in the Hudson River a little while ago with no lives lost crashed because both engines ingested birds on takeoff.  A multi-ton, multimillion dollar aircraft brought down by a couple of birds.  The weakest link.

These thoughts then got my brain to thinking about the weakest link in a number of things in society.

John Thain, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch who was credited with keeping Merrill together long enough to be acquired by Bank of America resigned in disgrace today.  It was discovered that his lavish lifestyle, including a $1.2 million dollar office renovation, took place as his company suffered an organization-sinking loss and many employees and ordinary citizens lost everything they have.  A great, storied organization lost to the weakest link - poor leadership in Thain and those who came before him.

The weakest link in anything is something that seems to be a taboo subject or something buried under the notion of "what are the odds of that REALLY happening".

It reminds me of a former insurance client of mine who once owned the largest reinsurance market in the world.  Reinsurance is the business of covering the risk of other insurance carriers.  At one point, by way of reinsurance, this company insured most of Florida and Hawaii.  The regulators thought "This is a safe business - what is the probability that two places so far apart could be hit at the same time in a catastrophic way".  The weakest link here?  The belief that statistically improbable things don't need to be worried about so a risk mitigation plan is not necessary.  In the early 90's, Hurricane Andrew wiped out a good bit of southern Florida, Hawaii was hammered by a number of storms and the statistically improbable event occurred, putting this once revered insurance company out of business.

Want another example along these lines?  Think about Wall Street in the last 6 months.  Many people on the inside knew what the weakest link was (and still is).

Just as frayed tires on a brand new Volvo reduce the safety potential of one of the safest cars in the world to almost nothing and a fur hat, fur gloves and fur coat combined with 5-inch spiked heels offer little protection from injury in the winter, we must be aware of the weakest link in everything we do and be cognizant of its impact.

Think about the potential weakest link in a number of areas, including but not limited to:

  1. Personal relationships
  2. Business partnerships
  3. Personal safety
  4. Socioeconomic concerns
  5. Personal financial management
  6. Leadership
  7. Government accountability
  8. Humanitarian causes
  9. Business success (or even survival)

Let's not get paranoid about seeking the weakest link in everything or dedicate all of our time to correcting them, for if we do we will either go crazy or make the weakest link stronger while other things begin to fail from lack of attention.

However, let's be more cognizant of the impact of the weakest link such that if it should break, we have a strategy for the consequences.  Knowledge of probability and impact, strong strategic and tactical planning and passion for execution  allows us to be smarter and stronger for ourselves, our families, our relationships, the organizations we work for and with, our governments and our future.

Let's be aware of the bread recipe rule - that the same tools, bakers, ingredients and recipe ALWAYS produce the same bread.  If we address the weakest link, let's make sure that we are not baking another loaf that looks exactly the same as the old one.

That way, we don't need to hear someone pronounce later "well we knew that risk existed but we never thought ......".

We also can't point the finger and say "S/he told me that I didn't need to worry".

Let's take more responsibility in understanding the weakest links around us so that if something unfortunate manifests, we've done what we can to mitigate the risk and impact.

When that happens, no one can turn to you and say "YOU are the weakest link ".

Each of us is aware of the weakest links around us.  Do we want to take some ownership and responsibility in addressing them or do we prefer to hope nothing happens but play the victim card if and when it does.

Maybe we should make 2009 the Year of Personal Responsibility and Accountability.

What do you think?

In service and servanthood.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Everyone is talking - is anyone listening?

Or better yet, is anyone taking real action?

I have just received an invite from an associate who asked me to join him in a particular online social network.  While he is a good friend, I turned him down.

I denied his request for the simple reason that this is the 15th or 20th business network that he has become a member of and which he has asked me to join.

One of the social networks was particularly humorous, suggesting that membership was extremely exclusive.  I found the claim to be interesting, until I turned down invitations from approximately 1,000 people over a two week period from the same exclusive network.  Exclusive indeed!

Online social networks can be incredibly empowering when used appropriately.  However, when one becomes the member of so many social groups that they spend more time maintaining memberships in them (or joining new ones) instead of contributing to their network, harvesting results from the network or living a productive life that makes a difference, then something dysfunctional is in progress.  Many partners of such people have become "social network widows", as their significant other spends more time joining the latest social network or inviting everyone they know to the latest network rather than spending time working towards their purpose and passion with the people who really matter.

I overheard with amusement and sadness recently as two people compared notes on which social networks each belonged to and why the other person simply had to join networks "x, y and z".  As they each suggested the reasons for being part of these networks (friendship, romance, learning, etc), it became clear that maintaining the networks had become so complex that they were not obtaining and value from nor contributing any value to the networks that they belonged to.  The number of networks and the number of connections within the network had become more important than the reason you network in the first place - for collaboration through knowledge and contact sharing.

Occasionally, you see contests where people are striving to get "x" thousand new contacts the fastest.  Once they have reached the number, the network offers little of substance, outside of an ego boost.

Today we can even get software to help us manage all of our social networks.  It reminds me of the experts who come in and optimize your closet space, to help you find better ways to organize your "stuff".  Maybe instead of finding ways to store more stuff, we just need less of it in our lives in the first place.

I think the same thing applies to a number of conversations around leadership that I have listened to lately.

Some have conjectured lately that the reason so many challenges have arisen in our world (whether ecological, social, economic, governmental, etc) is that our leadership inventory is not as strong as it used to be.

People are also talking about the need to get back to classic values - a sense of purpose, vision, trust, respect and collaboration.

I believe that our leadership inventory is as strong as ever and that the "classic" leadership values are as prolific as ever, but we are spending too much time talking about them and for a variety of reasons, we are not taking action.

If you follow groups like Twitter, there is a lot of chatter about leadership principles.  If you are a member of LinkedIn, there are an incredible number of leadership experts.  Surely with 30 million (the number of LinkedIn members) leadership experts sharing their knowledge, the problems of the world must be practically solved by now.  :-)

Conversation around leadership is excellent and necessary.  However, when the conversation becomes a circular, never-ending conversation where the knowledge of 10,20,50,100 or more years ago keeps being released by the "experts" as the "be-all, end-all secret just discovered", one has to wonder if the greatest challenge in leadership is not a lack of leaders and the knowledge of how to lead but just a lack of execution.

So while there is an incredible amount of wonderful dialog taking place about leadership principle, skills, knowledge, etc., I think we need stop hoping things get better by merely talking about it and instead, let's focus on achieving results through action.

Even if the action produces a less than desirable result, it will at least teach you something you need do address differently the next time.

True leadership is difficult.  It takes courage, perseverance, purpose, mission and a willingness to sometimes swim against the tide of commonly accepted thought.  Leadership also requires humility, diplomacy (most times), dictatorial decision making (sometimes) and a knowledge of knowing when to lead and when to relinquish command to a more enabled individual.

However, when the true leaders don't stand up and the void is filled with the leader-wannabes who fill the gap with self-proclaimed "secrets to leadership", we can get overwhelmed with too much informational noise.  Such noise causes us to forget that while knowledge is important, at some point, we have to say "I know enough to at least get started" and take our first tentative steps towards our purpose, vision, mission and goals.  This applies to us personally as well as professionally.

We are all leaders with different levels of capability and leadership maturity.  Many of us would be surprised to realize that we have a lot more knowledge about being leaders than we give ourselves credit for.

Let's apply that knowledge in our environment, whether it be the workplace, the home, the community or the planet and start making a difference. 

If you think you need more leadership knowledge, you will discover you learn a lot more through application and collaboration than you do from just studying the experts.

What will separate people and organizations who are successful in our interesting times will be those who embrace proper leadership values, collaborate with others who are similar and take action. 

Are you ready to be successful (however you measure success)?  Do you have a passion for manifesting your purpose?  Do you have the drive to push forward and the humility to know when to relinquish control?

Do want to accomplish something so badly, you will do whatever it takes to get it done?

Excellent - then please stand up and start executing.  The world is eagerly awaiting "your arrival".

In service and servanthood.