Category Archives: creativity

Giving Back to Come Back Again and Again

When researching Thriving Through Tough Times, I learned that to fully recover from difficult circumstances we are counseled to give. Giving creates meaning out of rough situations, moves us out of ourselves and generally makes us feel better. Andy Mackie’s example as you’ll watch below, adds a whole new level of promise to the “give back to come back” maxim.

After nine heart operations and drugs that sickened him, Mackie decided to use the money he had been spending on prescriptions to buy harmonicas for school age children. With little time to live, according to the physicians, Mackie wanted to finish well by doing what he loved. But, Mackie didn’t finish his time on earth as quickly as predicted, and month after month he bought more harmonicas and taught kids how to play. Eleven years and some 16000 harmonicas later, Andy Mackie left behind a strong musical and ethical legacy when he passed away at 73.

I hope you enjoy this video.

The Opposite of Beauty is Indifference

As a continuing theme of this blog, I want to share the work of two artists who bring both beauty from and insight about our oceans’ treasures. Richard and Judy Lang have collected plastic debris since 1999 from 1000 yards of Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore and create museum-worthy art.

In one year they easily gather 4000 pounds of plastic. Meanwhile, as Judith says, “We are not cleaning the beach, we are curating the beach,” as they select only plastic in the colors and shapes for which they are searching. What could be a depressing or overwhelming issue to face, the Langs appear to address it with interest and careful observation.  “The opposite of beauty is really not ugliness,” says Richard, “The opposite of beauty is indifference. We are trying not to be indifferent about this and about the world.”

Please enjoy another example of artists as leaders:

You gotta be flexible

My mother-in-law Jinny Combs taught me many things.

As one of my most formative bosses, I probably model my leadership style off of hers more than I recognize. I know that I rely on two pieces of constant Jinny advice, “Look for people with good attitudes, you can teach them everything else,” and “You gotta be flexible!”

After running a guest ranch in southwestern Montana for fifty years, Jinny could have easily written a long book on leadership, but instead she penned three cookbooks and a collection of funny stories about life at the Diamond J.

Jinny taught that you could use writing to foster flexibility. When we would lose a pet or a person, my mother-in-law would write a poem. Sometimes a haiku composed at 4 am fit the bill and in other cases, a prose poem was right. Really anytime life surprised her, Jinny took pen to paper and reframed the situation into one that had value and, most often, a whole lot of humor.

These poems were never just for her. Once the story was captured in verse, it was typed, copied and sent out to a large distribution list of friends and family.  An envelope with Jinny’s distinctive writing was a harbinger of news that although it may contains some sadness would always have us giggling.

Each piece would also end with an “ole!” Since my in laws spent their winters in Mexico that felt fitting, but this now feels like a constant call to get back on your feet and cheer that you are still here. Jinny was never one for focusing on loss or grieving, at least around us. There were guests to meet in the summer, or to correspond with off season, and more fun to be found.

Jinny read whatever I wrote loyally, including this blog. The videos were her favorite and, before she got sick last spring, they always engendered calls and emails.  It should be no surprise to me that I have been putting off composing a post after losing her last August.  I would like to chalk it up to too much work, but if I am honest, I have been avoiding the pain of writing without her reading.

But, you gotta be flexible — is not following our mentors’ advice is one of the ways that we can honor them? Jinny often said that her mother-in-law created the most brilliant sunsets. Following her tradition, maybe it’s time to believe that Jinny is out there watching in the vast worldwide web. She’s sending along her favorite emails full of animal photos and waiting for me to get back on my feet. And so, I send this far and wide, just as she would have, and end this post with a rousing, but I must admit teary “OLE!”

Are You Willing to Be Seen?

At the end of each semester I accept invitations to visit student clubs and selected writing classes to share about our leadership offerings at MSU. During my leadership course pitch I like to ask, “What do you think of when I say someone is a leader?” Responses usually include, “She’s confident,” “a great public speaker,” or “charismatic.” As I have written earlier, I like to add that I think a leader is anyone who wants to help. In my view, if we care about the world, we’ve all got a position in the leadership game.

Lately, I realized I have yet to hear students throw out that a leader is willing to be seen. It seems that a willingness to show up as “the decider” when times get tough, or to be marketed as a company asset should be added to my leadership traits list.

For some, being seen may be why leadership appears fun. At the helm of a new idea or initiative we get to be its poster child. “Isn’t she brave and wonderful?” can be a seductive phrase. Others admire us and acknowledge our gifts. However, this can be a dangerous pursuit if we are in the leadership position only for the praise it might engender.

A couple of years ago, I was able to speak personally with Jane Goodall who models for me a solid willingness to be seen for the greater good. We had about twenty minutes before she needed to stand up (she actually chose to stand on a chair so all could see her!) and speak to a gathered crowd of about 100 on a local eco-preserve.  As we chatted about her Bozeman visit and the beautiful view from the home in which we stood, Jane remarked how delightful it is that when she appears at events animals are at their best and the weather is wonderful. She went on to tell me a story about giving a short sermon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on the annual “Blessing of the Animals” Sunday. She recounted how the church was filled with dogs, cats, birds and other pets that initially were “talking,” as pets like to do. When she got up to speak, the animals all shut up and remained quiet throughout her speech.  I had heard a similar story from someone who had traveled with Jane to Baja California years before to watch whales. In that case, a huge school of dolphins suddenly appeared and surrounded Jane’s boat for a prolonged visit.

Jane’s ability to captivate animals was not only a neat fun fact, but I was also struck that it was Jane who telling me the story. She seemed completely comfortable and seemed to convey that the “I” that she was speaking of was part of something bigger, doing what “it” was supposed to be doing.  There was no ego engagement and she seemed as fascinated as I was by this capacity.

Leadership entails a willingness to play the role for all its worth. Be it a team captain or spokeswoman for those living beings who can’t speak Human. Jane seem to have a healthy detachment from the “I” that is me, but somehow not.

For my part, I find that I am most willing to be seen when I am called to support greater compassion and others fulfilling their potential. If I am engaging in what feels like my work, I am more interested and able to stand in that tricky limelight.

Before I was to teach my first graduate level course on resolving conflict close to a decade ago, I went to a wise long-time teacher for advice. I shared my nervousness and fears and she simply asked if I knew what I was teaching to be true. I said I did and she responded, “trust in the material and you’ll do fine.”   This advice continues to serve me well.