Sunday, November 24, 2013

Leaders Come in all Shapes and Forms

That's me in the center (uh, no...)
What kind of a leader are you? The prototype is dominant, forceful and unwavering. In recent years, I’ve learned there are other, less obvious types that are just as legitimate.
They can be laid back, open-minded and introverted. They also can be reluctant leaders, like I used to be until I figured out it was okay to be me. That is to say, I can be the type of person I am, personality- and temperament-wise and still be an effective leader.
There was a time when I shrank from the notion that I was a leader. This, despite holding what most would define as leadership roles. Since early in adulthood I’ve managed people, delivered speeches, sat on conference panels, advised and counseled folks of all kinds. Heck, I’ve even held the sports leadership role of point guard on the basketball floor and led my team to victory. Twice. Yet in every case back then, one thing remained in the back of my mind: I’m not really a leader – at least in the way I grew up learning what a leader was and how they acted.
Captain Kirk: Prototypical leader (during '60s TV)
Why the denial? Simple. I wasn’t like Marshal Dillon, Captain Kirk, Mannix or any of the other fictional heroes from yesteryear TV whom I admired growing up. They were rugged, uncompromising, no nonsense and always seemed to make the right decisions. Me? Well I was just me.
I also wasn’t like Patton, Powell, Schwarzkopf or other Generals who stood with confidence and held fast and firm with unwavering courage under fire. Nor was I like the always in charge Coach Jerry Saffell or steadfast Principal Louis Martin, two role models I watched and admired each and every day in high school. Add to that list Sylvia Rhone, Cathy Hughes and Ruth A. Robinson, entertainment industry trailblazers who pioneered their roles with grit, savvy, and an unwavering will. They set the standard for leadership, in my opinion.
When asked, some folks might insist they are not leaders since they don’t run organizations, command armies or otherwise manage people. Others, like I used to do, point to their personality and way of being as reasons for not considering themselves true leaders. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Their roles, resolve, actions and success demonstrate to the world exactly what they deny in themselves.
Sylvia Rhone: pioneering leader in male-dominated field
Quite often, evidence of their leadership stares them in the face. Sometimes the proof runs in the background, ever present yet invisible when you think of leadership in only one dimension.
Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, you’re most probably a leader of some sort. Got kids? Then you’re a leader. Teaching new hires how to run the fries station or buff the hallways? Leader. Parent, yes; trainer, yes. Leader, also yes. Sometimes it takes a while to face facts.
Leadership isn’t always about telling others what to do.  A ‘boss’ is only one form of leadership. And you don’t have to be galloping on a horse, sword in hand, to be one. That’s the mental trap I was in most of my professional career. I felt like a fake since my style didn’t include four stars and a booming voice. I’ve come to understand there’s something to be said for ‘quiet strength.’ It works for me.
Most critical form of leadership
Any who doubt their ability to lead need only reflect on a time when the team is adrift. Recall how you stood alone, taken the heat or done the work, and the group has rallied to achieve its goal. Whether you get the credit or not, that’s leadership.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Be Aware of Unintended Consequences to Your Actions

Life comes at you fast
Ever been going through life, just chugging along, when something ‘bigger’ than you imposed itself on you in a major way? It happened to me recently while driving home from an out of town meeting. The weather was clear, the road was good and there wasn’t much traffic. It had been a comfortable ride. That changed in a hurry.
Cruise-control was on and I was in the fast lane obeying the speed limit. Ahead of me was an 18-wheeler. He must’ve been hauling a heavy load because he was motoring along uphill in the slow lane and I was closing the distance between us pretty quick. Now, I consider myself America’s best driver this side of NASCAR. At least that’s what I like to believe. Others will have their own opinions but the point is I feel confident and able on the road.
Even still, when the trucker unexpectedly steered his rig into my lane just as I was passing, it gave me a start. I hit the brake and veered sharply. Fortunately my vehicle held the road. Now I’ve had closer brushes with destiny but that was of little comfort in that moment. I was angry and annoyed the trucker hadn’t bothered to signal, so my initial thought was some kind of payback. That lasted a fraction of a second though as I regained my composure. Contributing to my aborted thoughts of getting even was the fact that the truck could have weighed as much as 80,000 pounds. Forty tons versus a ton-and-a-half? No contest. Funny how a reality check can get a person’s mind right in a hurry.
It can be hard being the little guy
Anyway, after rinsing the last of the four-letter words from my mouth with Powerade I thought about what just happened and why. Turns out the trucker executed his sudden maneuver because another car (blocked from my view) was merging on the freeway in a way that didn’t give him time to slow down; his only choice was to change lanes in a hurry. Had we actually collided I would have been what the military calls collateral damage – an unintended victim of larger circumstances.
As I continued home, what had just happened reminded me of how powerful institutions often pick off the little guy without being aware it’s happening. Or it acts without fully appreciating the gravity of its actions as it relates to others. Ever squash an ant while walking? Most of us aren’t even aware when it happens. Well you can be sure the ant is aware, and painfully so. It’s the same with people.
A corporate manufacturer introduces a new technology that unexpectedly eliminates jobs. A city updates building codes that require apartment owners to invest tens of thousands in renovations. When they raise rent, people just hanging on financially start missing payments and can end up being evicted. The transportation authority changes a transit route that forces parents and their toddlers to walk half-a-mile farther to catch the bus.
Planners, designers, leaders: look before you leap
Similar dynamics occur when it comes to groups of people with power or who are in the majority. For example, a group of able-bodied architects design a public building without taking into account persons with disabilities. Or a nonprofit opens a day camp targeting lower income youth, yet few participate because tony board members failed to consider the lack of public transportation to the remote facility.
Not looking before leaping can be costly in some cases. In others, it might be affect someone’s livelihood, no matter their competence or ability. Decision- and policymakers would do well to check their mirrors before making turns in their work or business, even in the most urgent of circumstances.

Monday, November 11, 2013

No Joke: Don’t Let Preference Become Prejudice

It's only funny if everyone can laugh

                Why do so many people like to make fun of someone, based on a stereotype? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has observed that when people don’t understand something, the first response is often to ridicule it.
               It’s especially troubling when an entire group of people become victims. No one is exempt; even the rich and famous get both barrels. But things can get serious real fast when stereotyping takes aim on historically marginalized groups. Native Americans, for instance. Folks who are disabled are another favorite target. Those with low or no income also come to mind.
               Recently, I witnessed a particularly disturbing TV commercial. The ad was promoting a leading satellite TV service that used a poor fictional family (presumably from the Appalachian Mountains region) as the punch line. Punching bag was more like it. Their home was filthy and in disrepair. The family had grimy faces, bore horrific dental work and wore clothing that was soiled and tattered. It was ghastly, not funny.
There's a difference between fun and humiliation
               What’s worse is that stereotypes like this are regularly portrayed on TV, in movies and other media to tens of millions. They get reinforced at home, then in school, at work, you name it. The result? This typecasting stains the fabric our collective consciousness. So much so that it influences the way we think about people on levels we’re not even aware. Scientific studies on unconscious or implicit bias confirm this.
               Everyone has bias. Each of us believes some ideas and ways of being are better than others. Some call it preference. A more destructive form is called prejudice, which can result in treating some people unfairly: consciously or unconsciously.
               These forces repeatedly play out in media, isolated personal experiences and hearing (and re-telling) seemingly harmless jokes. Bundled together, messages become so interwoven in our lives that we no longer may be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.
               Some folks might remember the hit TV comedy “The Beverly Hillbillies.” That 1960s sitcom and 1993 movie depicted the Clampett family living in the backwoods who unwittingly struck oil, became millionaires and moved to Beverly Hills, California. I’m embarrassed to say it was one of my favorite TV shows. Back then it seemed so innocent and harmless. The program depicted the Clampetts as kind, honest and generous. It also portrayed them as uneducated, socially unsophisticated and na├»ve.
               Who hasn’t snickered at the typical media portrayal of ‘hillbillies’? I’ll wager most folks who come from those places don’t. It’s easy to laugh at those stereotypes, but it’s dehumanizing. Damage is being done in ways we often don’t realize. That’s because when we see and meet these people in real life, we bring with us our biases.
Respectable depiction?
               Stereotypes are hurtful because they form a pattern of oversimplified beliefs about a group of people. That belief can become fixed in our minds. As a result, if a person holds some kind of power – say a judge, boss or employment officer, fairness can go out the window. Most times, unintentionally. Together these powerful forces conspire to create systematic barriers to access to essential needs, such as fair housing, equitable education and adequate healthcare.
               The rich and famous, as a group, suffer relatively little from being stereotyped; they have power and influence. The same cannot be said regarding less fortunate groups. For them, to be stereotyped is oppressive.
               So the next time you hear a joke about a group of people, stop and think: how is what I’m listening to affecting the way I think about and act toward them? Does it move me closer to or further aware from true understanding?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Wish Death Would Take a Holiday

Gloria, Mildred, Bob, Nona, Leon, Floyd, Leroy, Tony, Grover, Brandon, Alvin, two Donnas. There are others...
Life is precious.
It’s hard to think about, let alone write. But everyone gets their turn at this, I reckon – experiencing a flurry of deaths like I have over the last 12 months or so. Relatives; close friends of relatives; relatives of close friends. So many have passed. It’s a painful blur.
               I'm weary. For me there have been too many deaths in too short a period. So many back to back funerals, and it has resulted in an overload of grief. Too many times I’ve been recently made to experience the final chapter of someone important to me. Or important to someone who is important to me. My heartache is as much for the living as it is for the dead.
Tree of life.
               I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are plenty of others experiencing their own suffering associated with death. And I’ll wager many of those passings hold far deeper impact than what I’m going through right now. I’ve seen their faces.
               Oh, in my mind I know death is a natural consequence of life, and that sooner or later it will claim us all, blah, blah... That’s of little comfort right now. Dying. I have no fear of it for myself (at least in this moment). Instead, I have significant concerns about those around me as it relates to their own passing. These misgivings have to do with my own selfish way of thinking. When friends and family are no longer around, I lose pleasure of spending time with them. No more laughing, crying, joking, fighting, struggling, achieving – in other words, sharing life and ‘simply’ being. I’m all about relationships.
               Like most folks, I hold a belief system that helps me think of the afterlife in positive ways. Admittedly, it's difficult to keep that in mind though, especially when I prefer to keep those special someone’s with me in the here and now.
Highway to heaven.
               Still, I find solace in the fact that by attending funerals I bear witness to expressions of love that are largely absent in people during their daily lives. So in some ways these ceremonies, though difficult, are comforting. That’s because of the closeness I experience with people, some of whom I rarely get to see yet are ultimately important to me. To join them in this physical way, combined with a mental and spiritual connection associated with the passing of someone dear, feels rare.
               Ultimately, I believe death balances life. When losing loved ones, I look to nature as a place for understanding of life. What it teaches me is there is a sequence to how we exist, or rather come to exist and then no longer exist in this world. Many refer to it as the cycle of life, and I guess that description is good enough for me.
Thank God for new beginnings.
               What can sometimes be hard to accept is that there are going to be some periods when I witness more than my share of deaths. At the same time, there will be times when there will be long gaps when it may not personally touch my friends and relatives at all.
              There’s another, brighter side and in this moment I’m not referring to ‘the other side.’ Instead I’m speaking of the here and now. I've got to remember the goodbyes I’ve been issuing this year are being balanced with new arrivals; the start of other relationships. Newborns as well as new or renewed acquaintances. The key is to be open to the possibilities.
               A familiar bible passage offers me comfort: To everything there is a season.