Category Archives: Leadership Development

Encoding a Better Future

The Early DaysI began my  career as a software programmer at IBM. With a mathematics degree and just enough computer science classes from University of Wisconsin, I was chosen to write support tools for a new Federal Aviation Administration computer system. Thirty years ago, we coded in Ada on a main frame computer and would have to wait so long for a program to compile that I knit sweaters while I waited.

I continued in this world for the next 12 years, soon moving into program management (I am way  too extroverted to be a coder) and supported the release of healthcare software, including one of the first Hospital Electronic Medical Records programs.

Today, meanwhile, I have been considering how our belief systems affect our perception of reality. I witness students whose personal stories determine their success or self sabotage. I ache for young people who believe that they don’t deserve happiness or kindness. I see others, in contrast, who are wired for success. I will not be the first to call our stories “software of the mind,”  but am struck how our internal beliefs take in the data around us and spit back whatever results we seem programmed to expect.

As a program manager and as a coder, I lived in constant fear of severity 1 errors. When you release software for testing or to the public, when a program breaks, the error is given a severity level of 4, 3, 2 or 1. A severity level 4 (“sev 4”) error is a cosmetic fix that is rarely  resolved or maybe you would work on it during  the days when only you  had to work since we were a newbie you had long used up your vacation. Sev 3’s were more important, but didn’t affect overall operations and Sev 2’s had a work around, but were serious enough that you’d need to work a night or weekend to resolve. Sev 1’s took down the system and you weren’t going anywhere until they were fixed, especially if the software was out in the field.

I have applying this same error designation to my internal software and conflicts that affect my system. My brain seems to perceive most challenges as Sev 3 or  4 errors and if I have time to reflect on a lazy day, I might refine my belief systems a bit to incorporate.

Really surprising news I seem to log as Sev 2 errors and respond by heading to a journal, a wise friend or counselor to suss where I now stand.  I have had some Sev 1’s in my own mental software where life shocks have stopped me in my tracks and notice that I use those moments mark the end of an old identity and emergence of a new me.

Some times we as the coders would negotiate severity levels with clients when they identified an error. What seemed cosmetic to us would be considered critical to them. Playing with this analogy, I wonder when and why we incorrectly log the error severity levels within our mind software? Angeles Arrien would caution to pay attention when we might normalize the abnormal or abnormalize the normal. When do I engage in denial or overdramatize? Looking through a conflict resolution lens, where am I missing discord and not appropriately engaging in the change process? Or, where am I getting stuck in a victim stance or overwhelm needlessly?

I return to the Art of War for guidance here. When discord occurs, we are counseled to step onto the battlefield like a Sage Commander and survey where we stand. Objectively assess, who are my opponents? What resources do I have at my disposal? What does this battlefield look like and what might I be missing?  What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Returning to the software analogy, how can I be a sage customer service representative who listens carefully to a problem as it is described and be willing to return to my belief system coding team and calmly explain where we might need to do some updating?

May you find each problem that arises as an opportunity to create the best darn mind software available. You’ve got a large market waiting; we could use your help in processing the data we receive daily from these polemic times.

What do you pray for?

For the past few  weeks I have been walking the Camino de Santiago. This ancient pilgrimage route runs the width of northern Spain taking you to the Galician cathedralimage where St. James’ bones are reportedly entombed.  Walking the whole  500 miles in one fail swoop has been on my bucket list after walking it in halves three previous times.

Lighting candles for others, and your journey, in the myriad of churches along the route is a common ritual. I have been holding a set of loved ones in my thoughts along this path and lighting candles for them has made sense. I appreciate that a friend recently sent me  an article on the value of prayer for secular and religious people alike, and of just holding gratitude for those around us in this manner. One of my mentors, Angeles Arrien, asked that we honor her after her death  by lighting a candle each month for a year on the 24th, the day she passed, and send along a prayer. I will complete that tradition tomorrow.

But, what do you pray for?

There are prescribed prayers in all the spiritual traditions, but what am I to wish for when praying for another? Walking hundreds of miles, you have time to think and this has been a point of deep consideration. I found I initially want to pray for health for those who are sick, that friendships are mended where suffering exists there, or that someone will get a good job. These wishes fall apart quickly when I think about how I am playing god as I start to guess how another’s life should turn out next. I am the conflict lady who likes to remind, at least herself, that we need discord to grow. Often my initial prayers were selfish requests to keep those I love with me in a way that makes me comfortable.  My  candle prayers, with hours to consider them, have needed to get away  from specific solutions into the essence of what I want to send out to another.

Drawing from the Taoist and Buddhist play books, I found that what feels responsible is to wish for another’s well being. What form that will take is not my call. I started to modify a  Buddhist metta prayer that goes, “May you be filled with loving kindness, may you be well, may you be peaceful and at ease, may you be happy.”  Praying for well being, may not mean someone is cured of an illness necessarily, or a friendship is rekindled, since well being may come through these  challenges. Sending thoughts of well being to someone who is no longer in physical form seems to fit better too.

What does this have to do with leadership and playing life well, which is blog’s theme?  I can easily get focused on form when coaching or teaching another. It is a constant temptation to hope for what others should learn or how they should behave.   Not only  arrogant, I close down possibility when I get into specific solutions. Yet, if I am holding a more detached  yet engaged wish for their true well being, I am much better at my job.  This begs the question, how might we live our work as an effective prayer?

A Call to Presence

My winter held a unique tour of the spiritual traditions. I attended a neuroscience workshop at the Upaya Zen Center before working with Presbyterian ministers/trainers, then on to a workshop on indigenous wisdom with Patrick O’Neill. Last, as you read earlier, I supported a conference of primarily Muslim participants in Morocco. That’s my version of wonderful season!

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This special tour deepened my understanding of cross-tradition beliefs. I began February sitting in meditation twice a day, which included hearing the following advice sung each evening, “Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Let us awaken, awaken take heed. Do not squander your life.”

The minister trainers all engaged in communal prayer multiple times a day ending in a short, but profound service. Indigenous practices include the use of morning prayers and drumming, and of course, every day in the Arab world was framed with 5 calls to prayer over loud speakers beginning before sunrise to sunset. Study the world’s religions and you must study ritual.

Rituals very practically call us to stop a busy mind and be in the moment. Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien described this cross-cultural goal as “Show up, choose to be present.” We don’t want to squander our lives and ritual is our crutch to make this a habit. Whether it is breath, a service or bowing with our head to the ground, the religious traditions figured out that a daily requirement of committed ritual can help us get back to the here and now.

When we understand how precious each moment is, we can treat each breath, each moment, as a newborn baby.
Michelle McDonald

I had a long layover in Minneapolis as I returned from Morocco, which gave me 5 hours reconnecting to my childhood haunts. A ritual walk around the lake near my growing up house with a friend of 39 years called me to show up where I now stood and notice from where I had come. Some rituals may be prescribed by our cultural traditions, but we can develop others to support our wellbeing.   For some it might be saying “I love you” while looking in the eyes of a child or spouse every night before sleeping. For others it might be appreciating the sunrise and sunset each day. IMG_3513

What might bring you back to the present? Where might you commit to making a simple ritual your daily centering habit? Life is short, let’s play this well.

 

Awash, a wash, in love

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Head, shoulders, knees and toes

I recently supported a conference in Morocco for Middle Eastern and North African university students. They were reconvening to commemorate a shared 6-week summer experience in the US where 120 young university leaders participate in an intensive leadership and civic engagement program in host universities across the US.

After the conference closed, my son Cameron and I went to Fez to visit a past State Department teacher fellow who had spent two months with us at Montana State University. We toured the city and its environs with our friend and accompanied him to teach an evening English class to 11 middle schoolers. They were learning body parts and health issues, so we brought in the old camp song, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes.” Since there was an odd number in class that night, I became the partner of a bright 11-year-old girl we’ll call Zalfa.

Zalfa seemed to be in those magic moments of girlhood where confidence and self-awareness have not been yet touched by the claws of adolescence. The movie “I am Eleven” captures this oasis well. Ramrod straight and self-assured in her responses, Zalfa volunteered to speak in front of the class with an impeccable braid pointing down her back. According to our teacher friend, she is called “the genius” at her regular day school. She instantly captivated me.

Listening to her presentation, I recognized that I would probably never see Zalfa again. Her possible paths ran as scenarios within me — would she live out her life in Fez, eventually wear a veil, travel abroad, follow that intelligence to its peaks, or would she be required to marry young? It became clear that I had just this class to support and encourage her potential. I couldn’t protect her, nor shouldn’t, from the challenges that just the next decade would yield.

MI had the same experience with the university students in Rabat earlier in the week. After working with the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) for seven years now, I have learned to accept that I will see from only a few after our intense weeks together at Montana State. In Rabat, I watched the MEPI young leaders enthusiastically present follow on projects. Some students I knew and others I just met. Yet, with all, I realized I probably wouldn’t know “the rest of the story.” This loss tugs at my heart where these students have a way of sneaking in.

We only have the present; that’s not new news, but I like to ignore that. Hanging out in Morocco, the Islamic Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi’s words kept sneaking into my consciousness. “And watch two men washing clothes. One makes dry clothes wet. The other makes wet clothes dry. They seem to be thwarting each other, but their work is a perfect harmony.” Traveling on bus and train we passed women cleaning rugs and clothing in streams and buckets. No home is complete without a clothesline of drying outfits. Pass a mosque and see men washing prior to prayer. Washing is a constant theme. One guide we met in Chefchaouen added this Koranic verse, “Cleanliness it’s from faith,” النظافة من الايمان

So many of the women I met were also awash in kissing and saying “thank you” and “Allah is great.” As Cameron and I were served wonderful meals by the mothers of those we visited, multiple kisses and shukrans (“thank you so much”) and hamdullahs (“praise be to God”) punctuated their every interaction. Again Rumi sneaks in, “Water, stories, the body, all the things we do, are mediums that hide and show what’s hidden. Study them and enjoy this being washed with a secret we sometimes know, and then not.”

Those I admire in their elder years seem to wash every situation with love. It’s not what they do, but who they are. They seem to hold a constant awareness that we only get this moment with each other and that they may not see you again. They remind me of this secret that I sometimes know, like with young Zalfa, and wonderful MEPI students, and then not. May you each wash with love and be washed and find that perfect harmony each day.

 

 

Show up

I am not the first, nor will be the last, to write about the recent passing of Angeles Arrien. Angeles was an internationally renown and beloved teacher/ cultural anthropoAngeles Arrienlogist whose work has been a foundation of my own. She left us suddenly and unexpectedly on April 24th with her pearls of wisdom arising as answers as we each wrestle with her passing.

Angeles’ core philosophy included four life practices that are found throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, called The Four Fold Way. They are: 1) Show up, choose to be present 2)Pay attention to what has heart and meaning, 3)Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome and 4)Tell the truth without blame or judgment.
When tough times come, it is all too easy to want to run away. Grief physically hurts. It pulls stomachs into knots and bends us to its will as we weep with happy memories appearing unbidden, torturing us with the knowledge that they will never be again.  You think you are safe and then turn a corner or wake up from a dream and Mr. Grief belts you again. A week after Angeles’ passing, our beloved dog Kiki also left us very suddenly, so we had some pretty visceral grief practice these past two weeks.

Where to begin to create greater ease? I keep hearing, “Show up, choose to be present.”  Show up for the loss, for the pain, for the tears and the disappointment. Pay attention to the intensity of the grief and feel the jagged edges within when it feels impossible.  When I was researching Worst Enemy, Best Teacher  I was struck by how the world’s warriors traditions all include practice in enduring pain. They counsel fasting, sparring, and endurance activities that push the initiate to find strength through intense discomfort. When you land on the battlefield of loss, it all makes sense. Showing up is the only way to get through. The 12th century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi, once prescribed that the cure for the pain is in the pain. 

Arrien also connected showing up to the cross-cultural archetype of the warrior through her research.   Running away, although it is alluring for a moment, creates a dragon that chases until we are willing like a knight of the Round Table, to turn around and confront. Whenever we are in a leadership role, it demands that we show up for the tough times. When profits disappear, projects are cancelled, or key employees are lost, the warrior work begins.

Also, when there is ease and comfort, we need to show up and pay attention to the gifts and strengths of those around us.  Show up and recognize the impermanence of it all and give thanks. It will be no surprise that Angeles was an expert in the practice of gratitude and wrote her final book, Living in Gratitude on this subject.

Angeles mentored a huge gaggle of us, and from them, I am also gathering jewels.  Cheryl Esposito, Leading Conversations, brought back the memory that when Angeles would be driving home a critical teaching and we would find ourselves much too serious, she would begin to say, “Kisses, kisses” and blow them out to the audience. Today, we are all blowing kisses right back.  Thank you Angeles.