A Failure of Nerve

7 12 2015

A Failure of NerveThe book you see above this post is simply the best book on leadership that I have ever read.  Ever.

I read a lot.  A great deal of what I read devolves in some way upon leadership–autobiography, biography, leadership as art and craft, critical leadership arenas, failures of leadership and so forth.  This is a rich field as there are so many great authors and leaders.  The usual suspects: Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Douglas MacArthur, John Maxwell, Seth Godin, Warren Bennis and political leaders ad infinitum.  I’m sure you could assemble your own list of leaders and leadership mavens and their writings.  (Matter of fact, please load up the combox with your suggestions!)

Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and therapist who did most of his work in and around Washington, D.C. up until his death in 1996.  The strength of his work (his entire corpus comprises five volumes, two of which were published posthumously) is that leadership is ultimately a function of the leader himself/herself (hereafter his/him for the sake of brevity).

A Failure of Leadership gets at the essence of good leadership.  The focus of this book is on a leader’s self-leadership, rather than leadership techniques, punch lists, alliterations and the like.   The leader sets the tone in any environment by 1) maintaining a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious and emotional people, whether family, congregation, business or government and 2) practicing his own inner leadership as a self-differentiated individual; that is, one who is clear about his goals, vision, purpose and values and is able to hold to them in a steady way, especially when times are tumultuous and the tendency to herd rears its head and threatens to pull him into its toxic vortex.  The self-differentiated leader is moved by reason–namely, his goals and values–rather than emotional current.

There is so much more to this book in general and Friedman’s work in particular that we will explore in future writings.  Topics such as orienting towards adventure rather than safety, focusing on personal responsibility and challenge and not simply “feeling another’s pain” (empathy).  Fodder for later posts.

Buy this book.  He wrote it during the Bush (41) and Clinton years–years in which he described our country and culture as anxious and stuck.  One can only imagine his response to our own times with the challenges of the post 9/11 world and ubiquitous social media which, at best, is a mixed blessing.

Stick around.  There’s more!

Further reading:

Friedman’s Fables

Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue

The Myth of the Shiksa and Other Essays

What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writings and Diaries
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Giving People A Superior Experience

8 07 2014

3 day Uyuni trip San Pedro to Uyuni, salt flat photos locosA few years ago, I read something from renowned editer and author Sol Stein in his excellent book, Stein On Writing. He wrote that the correct intention for a writer was “to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life.” I was really struck by that because, like many others who write and enjoy it, I do so “because I have something to say” or “need to get something off my chest” or “have a passion for this or that.” Stein’s point is that the focus of our writing is to enhance the life of the reader, give him or her something better than the predictable, workaday experience they currently enjoy or endure. It’s not about me.

I had to ask myself, “How do people experience my place in their lives?” Being honest I had to admit that at times my involvement in the lives of the people I live and work with have energized them. And at other times—being brutally honest—I’ve drained them. Usually the drain part comes when it’s all about me. And the energizing quality comes when I forget me and seek to “provide (name) with an experience that is superior to the experience (name) encounters in everyday life.”

Be honest. How do people experience you?

The world was changed and moved in a seismic way by the work and thinking of the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers. When Steve passed away, I happened to be reading Leander Kahney’s excellent book Inside Steve’s Brain. The one thing that emerged very quickly from my reading was that the experience of the user was one of the absolute core values of Steve Jobs and Apple. Still is. Millions of dollars and countless thousands of work hours were and are spent to provide Apple customers with a superior experience in their interaction with modern technology. Jobs examined every aspect of the experience of an Apple customer and, with his outstanding team, honed it endlessly to ensure that the complex was simplified and that the experience of the buyer—even down to the opening and assembly of a new computer—was superior to anything else out there. Jobs’ solution to the problem of pirating of music (through illegal downloading) was to provide such a superior experience for one visiting the iTunes Store, that one would be willing to pay for the tunes and files they wanted, rather than pirate them. A superior experience as a curative for a moral and economic problem. Brilliant.

Challenge for the day: Ask yourself how people experience your presence in daily life. Be honest and willing to make adjustments, shifts in thinking, learn new stuff, whatever. You may be surprised how people jump out of the woodwork when they see how their lives are enhanced just by being with you—a superior experience.

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Steve Jobs on Aesthetics

16 10 2013

Steve Jobs on Aesthetics

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” (Steve Jobs)

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Sanity. Ah, the Joys!

1 09 2013

Sanity EinsteinAlbert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Well.

The year is two-thirds over.  Autumn starts in three weeks.  Many of us laid out goals at the top of this year.  How are you doing in the attainment of yours?

One of the most important things one can do is take an honest inventory of one’s life and determine what works and what doesn’t.  What sorts of things are you doing, what kind of company are you keeping, what kinds of attitudes do you wear like clothes that may be bringing you closer to your goals in life?  Or are steering you farther away from hitting your potential as a human being, created in God’s image with a purpose?

Doing this takes courage because it usually means making adjustments, sometimes radical changes to keep the ship from the shoals.

It’s quite easy to let habit turn into routine.  Fair enough.  But often, routine can create a rut or even lead us into the ditch.  We get so accustomed to the bland, gray sameness of each day.  Our lives mirror the storyline of the motion picture Groundhog Day.  It is like a broken record and we are as stuck as the stylus.  Our potentials and abilities largely stymied.

Time for a change.  Change of job.  Change of location.  Change of peer groups.  Anything to break out of the black hole of stagnation.  It will take an effort to overcome the seductive and paralyzing narcotic of your comfort zone and its inertia.

Here are some tough and practical questions you must wrestle with if you desire sanity and growth:

  • With whom do you spend your discretionary time?  Companions can either make or mar a life.  We cannot stress strongly enough the importance of choosing friends carefully.  The best friends you have are those who have the effect of bringing you to a higher level by their presence.  Cultivate these.  And you must limit your involvements with pessimists, dream-killers and critics.  Their influence is hurting you.  It just is.
  • Are you using your gifts and abilities to their full potential?  This may be the time for a career change.  Some of us are bound by the “golden handcuffs” of a large salary and benefits package.  You really need to ask yourself if the pay and benefits outweigh that uneasy sense of not doing what you are best prepared to do.  Is earning a lot of money worth the feeling that you may be falling short of your ultimate design and purpose?  Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, when courting PepsiCo chairman John Sculley in 1983 asked the famous question “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want to change the world?”
  • Are you a lifelong learner?  My wife gave me a Kindle Fire® reader a few Christmases ago.  Along with a sizeable library that I recently downsized, I am using it to my advantage in this important area.  There are so many free books out there!  Are you seeking to learn something new every single day, to advance and to grow?  Or will you settle for mediocrity, falling short of the great call upon your life.

Here’s to growth, to change, to doing things differently going forward.  To sanity.  Ah, the joys!

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Stallion, Don’t Allow Yourself To Be Neutered.

8 08 2013

stallion-or-geldingDo you know what gelding is?  It is a stallion that has been neutered.  Stones removed.  Castrated.  Those who raise horses geld stallions for lots of reasons.  One of them is to make the horse more sedate.  Well-behaved.  Easier to manage.

There is one considerable drawback.  Geldings cannot stud.  They are sterile.  Unable to reproduce.  But they’re nicer, I suppose.

In his book The Journey of Desire, John Eldredge recounts an unsuccessful counseling experience he had with a guy named Gary.  Gary was nice.  Well-behaved.  Easy to manage.  His wife was worried because he had no passion for anything.  He was a “nice Christian boy.”  Did all the right things.  But not out of any deep sense of conviction.

A gelding.

Sterile.

Eldredge was unable to help a man who’d lost all drive for anything in life.  A good deal of this hemorrhage of basic testosterone was no doubt rooted in a distorted idea of what the ideal Christian male is.  “Gentle Jesus–meek and mild.”  You get the picture.  Not the type of person who drives thieves from the sanctuary with a whip and uses strong, impolite language with religious bullies.

Passivity, especially in males, is the bane of our age.  It sours marriages.  It produces mediocre job performance.  Is often sedentary and unambitious.  It leaves those who count on us without a leader.

Geldings don’t change the world.  Sorry, but it’s true.

When I read about heroes in history, I find they were possessed with passion for whatever their mission was in life.  Teddy Roosevelt.  King David.  Richard Branson.  Judas Maccabeus.  Steve Jobs.  And Jesus Christ.  True, they made mistakes (Jesus excepted).  And when they screwed up, it was a disaster.  But when they triumphed, it made history.

Your wife wants you to be passionate.  So do your kids.  Your friends and colleagues too.

In fact, the whole world wants it.

This is your time to be all there.  Find something—anything—worth doing and do it with all your might.

Suggestions:

  • Get out of your chair at night and get moving.  Exercise, do extra work, take on a new project demanding effort and adrenaline.  You don’t want to end up like so many poor souls whom you see at the discount stores, grossly overweight, listless and unhappy.  Too many cheap carbs and time in front of a television or computer screen.  It doesn’t have to be you.
  • Start a blog.  I did.  This one is sticking and having the net effect of making me get off my duff and practice what I preach to my readers.
  • Repeat after me: “I matter.  I can do this.  I am not a nobody.  And the world is counting on me being fully there in whatever I am doing.”  Again, if it isn’t worth doing with all your might, it probably isn’t worth doing.  You be the judge.

You’re called to be a stallion.  Don’t sell yourself short.  Go and produce life!

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Wonder

17 07 2013

WonderA few years back, my wife and I attended a party for some friends who were about to move 1300 miles away.

I had a nice talk with a friend I’d not seen in a while about our children.  One of his sons, fifteen at the time of our exchange, is a budding writer.  He wrote his first book when he was twelve, two hundred pages worth.  At twelve.  His father beamed with pride and wonder at the level of imagination and creativity his child poured into his writing—the worlds that emerged from his unencumbered thinking and exploration of ideas and marvelous possibilities.

I told him that he and his wife obviously did something right simply by allowing the imagination of his child to flourish and express itself.

What a gift…..

I am intrigued and fascinated by the title of a book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked For Wonder (see above).  Not money.  Not intelligence.  Or fame.  Or any of a thousand pursuits we’re told will give us a happy life.  But wonder.

Are you able, like Einstein, da Vinci, Steve Jobs or any one of thousands of children you’ve seen, to let your imagination run free?  To think outside the rigid boundaries of what is acceptable or standard and find creative and beautiful realities, solutions and contributions to your world?

Ask for wonder…and watch what happens.

And Billy…keep writing!

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When Less Is More

16 07 2013

less-is-more-pic

One of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read is Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney.  In this book, the author unpacks some of the keys to the design and marketing philosophy of Steve Jobs and Apple.  Some of the chapter titles are provocative (Focus: How Saying “No” Saved Apple; Elitism: Hire Only A Players, Fire the Bozos).

Jobs was leery of trying to do too many things with Apple.  In fact, when he took over Apple again in 1997 after a twelve year absence, he slashed and mothballed a lot of projects in the works.  Apple was in deep trouble financially.  He made the decision to focus on a few key products and make them superior to anything in the market.

“Feature creep” is the IT design practice of creating all sorts of bells and whistles for any new piece of technology, thus increasing the product’s versatility and, therefore, sales.

Steve Jobs had no patience for feature creep.

This impatience was an outgrowth of his Zen minimalism which, in design terms, meant making technology as simple and user-friendly as possible.  So he and his colleagues worked painstakingly to do a few signature Apple devices extremely well.  As Jobs’ famous mantra says, “Focus means saying no.”

Two summers ago, Apple passed Exxon Mobil as the most profitable corporation—at the time—in our country.  Jobs really knew what he was doing.

As a musician, it’s taken me quite a few years to learn that less is more.  The spaces between the notes I play are as important, sometimes more, as the notes themselves.  Or, as Dan Fogelberg said as a young studio musician, “I learned that it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play.”

What have you been given?  What do you do well?  What can you pare down or eliminate to simplify and focus, bringing your contributions to a higher level of excellence?

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