Category Archives: Leadership Development

You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you. Sarah Ban Breathnach

When I was given the opportunity to provide a Tedx talk in 2012, I wanted to tell the world everything I knew about transforming conflict. There was this technique, and that one, and, oh my, I must tell you about elemental conflict styles! It didn’t take long to realize that with less than a quarter of an hour, I could only share one skill. If these were my lifetime 13 minutes of fame, what did I need to tell the world?

It was quickly clear what I needed to share — I had to discuss gratitude. Simply put, when conflict, or really anything, comes…be grateful.

Watching the included video, you’ll realize that gratitude is a prescribed behavior by both the spiritual traditions and by brain science, but why do I return to it today? Not only we just celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States, but also a recent conversation with a favorite client that reminded me how leadership demands not only us providing consistent gratitude, but teaching its importance.

Entitlement is not a favored attribute within our culture, nor in many of the cultures with whom I get to work. Yet, it seems to be a learned behavior. Be it through upbringing, cultural context, or as a survival skill that got us to demand basic rights, we all have a bit of entitlement within us, and that’s all right in my book. We need to self advocate at times. There are moments when I need to demand what is mine, especially when it comes to basic human rights.

On the other hand, too much entitlement doesn’t serve anyone involved. It sends us into an attitude of scarcity and criticism. We can miss the hidden opportunities in what we didn’t choose. Also, those who are being generous on our behalf miss our acknowledgment, and may wonder why this generosity is deserved.

If I didn’t learn the power and importance of gratitude as a young person, I may need your mentoring as one who understands its value. You may mentor by modeling sincere gratitude and acknowledgment. It may be adding appreciation to your organization’s code of conduct. Working on US State Department programs where we are asking community volunteers to host international visitors, our team has begun sharing the importance of gratitude in US culture during each program orientation. Gratitude has thus become a core leadership skill I now teach after I learned that not everyone was parented as I was to give thanks for every ride I was given home whether it was another mother or my own.

Appreciating a Peruvian patron saint

Extending gratitude to a Peruvian patron saint

How can you impart the power of gratitude to those around you? Not everyone in my experience has learned of its strength. How lucky we are to have you not only to be thankful, but also to remind us how it can support us as an employee, employer, family member or friend.

 

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.

Cues and clues

In February I spent a wonderful week in Istanbul, courtesy of the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative. I attended a reunion with 120 bright, burgeoning student leaders from throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, 19 of whom had also spent 5 weeks with us at Montana State University the summer before.

Blue Mosque of IstanbulMy colleague Janelle and I traveled 20 some hours to the city center to begin our Turkey visit. Bleary but excited, we started in a tiny boutique hotel near the famous Blue Mosque so we could walk to it and some of the surrounding cultural wonders of the world. This also assured that we would hear a call to prayer five times a day as we visited the sites, including at sunrise. Listening to this Islamic ritual is a fun feature of old town Istanbul.

I was putting clothes away in the hotel room as I heard the “call” as the sun set. I learned that on a minaret 50 feet from my window there was a speaker that blasted the call loud, loud, loud and clear. Instead being filled with gratitude I was in Istanbul, I went to panic. You know when you are so exhausted that you’d consider giving a tooth to get some sleep? Well, all I could think of was, “This is going to happen again at 5:50 am and I still needed to eat dinner and I won’t go to bed until 9 or 10 and then I am going to get jarred awake at 5 and then I won’t go back to sleep and then I will spend my first full day crying and OMG that bed in my room looks so inviting”…and, and, and…you know the drill.

The view out the hotel window

The view out the hotel window

The sun rose the next morning with that dreaded call. I came to realize though that the chant actually ricochets around the city. Callers could be heard in the distance and our loudspeaker singing friend very periodically would then seem to reply. I did grab enough shut eye to survive and what started out as a source of anxiety, became a favorite component of my time in the city.

We get busy. We get distracted and miss important aspects of a problem or of our lives.  Cues are useful tools to help us be present and available as leaders, friends and family members. The calls to prayer are reminders to stop, pay attention and give thanks.

We can use all sorts of cues to remind us to show up in our own lives, and for those around us. A wise Buddhist friend has a chiming clock at home that no longer keeps time. Without warning, at 3:06 or 12:49 for example, it will mark time with one to twelve bongs. She loves this clock because it is her ingrained cue to stop whatever she is doing, breathe and assure that she is in the present moment. This once perplexing event has become a welcome practice when I visit.

When conflict strikes, I notice there are words or actions that cue me to recenter. Hearing “you are wrong,” after years of mediating calls me to breathe deeply and go into my conflict readiness stance. I have conditioned myself to ask, “Tell me more…” and I get very aware of my surroundings. The cue that there is conflict gets me very interested in looking for the clues for its source.

What cues can you use each day to bring you back to the present? Is it your watch beeping each hour? Or can you create a persistent cue, like another asking, “How are you?” to bring you back home?

Who are you?

Last week Lillian Brummet for interviewed me for her Conscious Discussions radio show.  The topic of our conversation was Overcoming Conflict and Challenges, and I thus got the opportunity to talk about all my books including Thriving Through Tough Times: Eight Cross-Cultural Strategies to Navigate Life’s Ordeals.

Lillian was a knowledgeable interviewer and has a trick of calling for more authenticity from her guests; she began with a seemingly simple question, “Deidre, who are you?”

Paraphrasing Lillian, she asked, “When you meet the eyes of that lady in the mirror – who is “Deidre” really? Share information about who you are as a person – outside of what you do or the job or the training you have …”

Hungry birdChallenging questions send my brain searching for analogies. With this query I landed on one found in the Hindu Upanishads. Each person can be compared to two golden birds sitting on a single branch. One bird eats the fruits from the tree or engages in life. The other, what some would call the Self, just watches.

So who is Deidre? Which bird?

I could tell Lillian pretty easily about the hungry bird and shared some of “my” preferences, personality quirks and passions. The hungry bird gets bouncy around new ideas, loves to ski, speak Spanish and backpack and also has a habit of saying “yes” a bit too often.

But what of the other bird?  I was flummoxed on how to introduce her. I can forget the watching bird exists, but she is as critical as the Deidre that shows up in the world.

From a leadership perspective, our watching birds provide us the wider view.  They are the ones who notice that “we” are angry, depressed, or making a mistake. Leadership guru Ronald Heifetz describes the watching birds as the critical ability to get on the balcony and observe while our hungry birds are dancing around the floor.

Spiritual traditions have long advised that we connect often to our watching birds. Both the ancient traditions and modern leadership theory suggest that we should cultivate this relationship daily. If we can stop to clear away thoughts and just watch quietly, we can foster a better understanding of this witness self.  I don’t think I can explain who she is; sorry Lillian! However, sitting quietly reminds me to listen to my watching bird’s observations and strengthens my ability to step back from stressful situations, notice what is occurring and pause before I respond.

And, so I pose to you Lillian’s simple question, “Who are you?”

Remembering our Roots

A mere thirty years ago, I spent a semester at El Tecnológico de Monterrey as an exchange student. I lived in the dorm with a wonderful roommate from Chihuahua, watched telenovelas (Mexican soap operas) and even was a college athlete. “El Tec” was probably one of the few locations in North America where the coach wouldn’t double over in giggles while clocking my splits. They needed another female willing to run the 3K event back then so I fit the bill!

El Tecnológico en Torreón

This past weekend, I reran this memory lane while getting to teach dialogue to Tec students in the town of Torreón during their annual leadership conference. I was transported back as I overheard students talking of movies and majors and hearing cheers as students represented proudly their respective states. I basked in typically fabulous Mexican hospitality and was young again.

But all was not the same. My husband will not be pleased to know that as I jogged around campus for old times sake while black-clad police men with machine guns watched me and fellow runners from a nearby hospital rooftop. We learned that a gang-related altercation had criminals in recovering in that building and a dozen police, some in face masks, were stationed there on high alert. And Monterrey of the state Nuevo Leon, a once sleepy town where I safely ran in its surrounding hills with my fellow track mates, is now nicknamed “Monterror de Nuevo Miedo (Fear).”

While waiting for buses loaded with 130+ students in the vineyard-rich town of Parras, I stared out a car window at a lush grove surrounded by a concrete wall. Suddenly a single thirty-foot tall tree you see on the corner in the photo below began to quickly shake making the leaves blur. Is there a wind storm? No, it was completely calm and just one tree moved. Earthquake? That didn’t make sense, and I felt that disorienting feeling that came on most clearly when I watched the smoke coming out of the World Trade Tower after the first plane had entered. I couldn’t find a contextual framework. “Can not process…can not process,” my brain stuttered watching that tree.

Trees in Parras

A fellow passenger came to my aid – “That’s a nut tree. To harvest nuts, they have attached a band around the tree’s base, attach a motor that shakes the fruit free.”

The tree incident became a metaphor through the weekend. As we dialogued informally and with the students in groups, we all seemed to be wrestling with how the country could have been shaken so quickly and thoroughly. I heard stories of friends who now dive under tables in restaurants when hearing loud noises. 19 and 20 year olds lamented how children now can’t play outside as they had. This is not the Mexico of my young adulthood, or even the one I last visited five years ago.

Like my fellow car mate who gave me a nut harvest tutorial, leaders often appear to reorient us. They can provide a great service as they provide a greater context. However, these are vulnerable times when we are hungry for answers and thus willing to abdicate personal agency – e.g. post WWI Germany and Hitler’s success.

The leadership’s responsibility is at its heaviest when called to reorient others, whatever the circumstances. We must consider in these circumstances, how can I be careful with my communications when in care of another’s reality? Are the statistics I am using are truly facts? Is my answer empowering or enslaving another?

Dialogue in action

At the end of the conference, we listened to a well-known Mexican political analyst Dr. Denise Dresser. I hear “call to action” speeches often as a professor and consultant, and hers was one of the best I have witnessed.

As she “called things by their true names,” she described a country controlled by monopolies and oligopolies. She provided data on the lack of consumer choice in basic areas of phone, energy, food and media. The facts were bleak and at times overwhelming.

After her compelling painting of Mexico’s present, Dr. Dresser had a choice. Once described, Dresser had the opportunity to call forth more fear and hopelessness and for us to follow her advice. But instead, she took a positive assets-based approach and used three leadership techniques. (You can read an article similar to the given presentation here)

1) Share what is workingDresser reminded her audience of the enduring Mexican culture is with a litany of its unique gifts. This is a country of riches that are not just found in natural resources. She had me at “los libros de Elena Poniatowska” and “mangos con chile,” and, teary with nostalgia by “visiting any town’s central plaza on a Sunday afternoon.” Mexico snuggled into a corner of my heart when I was a teenager and has never left.

2) Articulate an empowering vision – In a call to action, Dresser developed a future of possibility. She spoke of Mexico containing options for both a consumer and the voter. Dresser then shared how the government is paid for by the people and each can call for transparency and accountability.

3) Believe in the Whole — When asked why she didn’t run for office, Dr. Dresser, who preferred to be called Denise, responded she wanted to stand at the side of the people. She didn’t want to leave that position, and encouraged us to look for creative solutions to resolve these issues. She believes in the whole. The organizers of the Tec leadership conference mirrored this belief as they trained the students in dialogue. They then encouraged the  participants to create circles of interested students across the country to consider deeply the tough issues confronting not only Mexico but also the world.

I left Mexico heartened by those I met and the dialogue I witnessed. These are tough times, but after meeting the students and staff, these are also outstanding individuals empowered to look for solutions. It was a call for me to keep asking: How are my words stopping fear’s motor and reminding others of their healthy roots? How can I keep aligning with the best and the greater whole to bring innovative solutions into form? And to keep cheering…Go Tec!