Fall term has begun at Montana State University and I am once again teaching two sections of a leadership course I was lucky enough to design. So, Mondays and Wednesdays 30 students and I explore what is leadership and why it matters.
Since I designed the course, the overarching definition for a leader comes from one of my favorite quotes by Meg Wheatley — “A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time.”
So in my class, if you care, you are a leader. This broad definition keeps all of us on the hook to learn leadership skills over the semester. The students are then accountable to apply the techniques through service learning. I’m also constantly reminded that because I want to help the students, I am leading until December 15th when the semester closes out.
I also like this big definition since it keeps me on the look out for what I like to call, “every day leaders.” These aren’t folks who are holding formal management roles, but ones who are simply trying to help. Today, I’d want to pass along two such leaders that inspired me over the past week.
First, check out this story by Joyce Hackett from Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project website (click on the link). Here the small act of observation combined with storytelling could profoundly change lives. The just act of reading this essay touched mine. I’d call Joyce’s courage to act and honesty admirable leadership skills.
And second, I have to pass along how Amy Pankratz of Souix Falls, South Dakota impacts lives around the country while serving as a stay-at-home mother of three. This too is leadership in the highest degree. Notice how she:
inspires imagination and creativity
elegantly reframes a situation
Is this not what we are calling for from our board rooms and corner offices?
I know of no other manner of dealing with great tasks than as play; this…is an essential pre-requisite. — Friedrich Nietzsche
On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial stock index was the lowest in fifteen years. The banking industry continues to falter and AIG needs another $30 billion. Dare I mention that a US-backed war continues six years and counting in Iraq? Well, you gotta laugh.
No, really, you have to laugh.From the practices of Zen Buddhism, Hopi and Zuni ritual clowning, and on to the modern philosophical writings, around the world we are taught to regard laughter and comedy as critical disciplines. When the going gets tough, find a way to crack yourself up.
In the American Southwest, the clown historically played a pivotal role in addressing tragedy. At Pueblo funerals, scantily dressed clowns in rags from the Kachina Zuni tradition would pretend to seduce the widow, make fun of the corpse and to copulate with one another with constructed and exaggerated genitalia.This practice disgusted early anthropologists, yet when interviewed, Zuni clowns explained the highly structured and sacred nature of their work.By bringing farce to such seriousness, they restored balance and health to their community.Through their antics, life is merged with death, the mundane with the sacred and levity with misery. The clowns held what appeared to be irreconcilable opposites and in the chaos they created, they awarded the group deeper order and peace. As Kierkegaard once said, “It is certainly unjust to the comical to regard it as the enemy of the religious.”
We need to laugh, especially when we are miserable. Laughter allows us to see our situation with greater objectivity. It cracks open fixed beliefs as comedy is based on displaying the ludicrous in what we might believe to be beyond reproach. Example, yesterday David Letterman’s Top Ten Things Overhead in New York During Today’s Snowstorm included, “#4, Al Gore can suck it!” and “”#2 No, officer, I offered her $50 to blow on my hands.” If we laugh, we must then confront the inner conflict of also regarding global warming or prostitution as deathly serious topics. By allowing ourselves to see the humor, we have to detach a bit and notice where we may be too fixated in our beliefs. Silliness breeds flexibility and creativity.
Zen Buddhists believe that enlightenment is accompanied with laughter Conrad Hyers explains in The Laughing Buddha: Zen and the Comic Spirit. Their koans, or paradoxical statements, like “hold tightly with an open hand,” are meant to frustrate, confuse, to get us to back up. I’m suspicious that the whacky phrases given to initiates to meditate upon might all be jokes in disguise. Take this koan from the 12th century Zen koan Book of Equaminity,
Venerable Gon’yo asked Joshu, “How is it when a person does not have a single thing?”
Joshu said, “Throw it away.”
Gon’yo said, “I say I don’t have a single thing. What could I ever throw away?”
Joshu said, “If so, carry it around with you.”
Feels like there’s a punch line in here somewhere…
I had to research ritual clowning before my husband’s daily routine got any respect. As an estate planning and business lawyer, my spouse spends his day talking about death and taxes. Yet, somehow he is a really happy, and funny, guy. As one friend shared, “Only your husband could get me laughing about dying and picking guardians for our kids.” I think I’m figuring out one of his secrets of sanity. Each morning from my bed, I hear coffee maker gurgles and giggles in the kitchen as Bruce eats breakfast while reviewing the previous late night TV monologues from his laptop. He suggests the New York Times website, http://laughlines.blogs.nytimes.com if you are interested. I find something innately right about this treasure trove living on the same website that covers the news that’s been making us cry this week.
Another morning humor ritual is emigrating from India. I have included a short video clip below on Dr. Madan Kataria who in the past ten years has formed over 3000 laughter clubs across his country. Kataria and his fellow members practice “laughter yoga” each day to improve their health and well-being.
So, we’ve got to laugh. I leave you with a favorite mental image from a wise and funny friend David who was a clown in the Ringling Brothers circus to pay his way through college. After emergency open-heart surgery in his early forties, he found himself too quickly pulled out of bed to walk the halls by a bossy nurse. Chest aching, shaky and miserable, I will paraphrase how he explained his predicament, “There I was, exposing my backside in a flimsy hospital gown, pushing an IV stand and looking like hell. Fancy education and consulting practice were distant memories as I felt and probably looked like a 90 year old instead of 42. Life sucked at that moment. Yet, to get myself down that hall I began to hum the theme song to Bonanza, you know the one where they come riding into town…really, what else could I do?”
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. — Shunryu Suzuki
By nature, I am happiest when I am running, hiking or dancing around my kitchen. My children were dragged onto trails and ski hills from a very early age, I must admit, not so much so they would learn, but so I could get back to what I dearly missed. I’m also in love with learning and then sharing what I have picked up along the way. And I adore my family and friends and my favorite cup of tea and the quiet around our house and…there’s a lot to which I am very attached.
Threaten the above list and I get jumpy. Really threaten to remove my favorites, and I find myself in thrown into tough times. At the most dramatic level of loss, “If I don’t have what I love, what makes life worth living?” can become a scary question looming within us.
From a brain perspective, our limbic system, located in the center of our heads, controls our attachments. As authors Lewis, Amini and Lannon describe in A General Theory of Love, when we bond with someone or something, the limbic system emits a pleasing blend of chemicals. We like those chemicals and want to keep them coming. Think of the Labrador retriever outside the grocery store howling for her milk-buying human. If she could translate her brain signals into English, she might be heard to say “I miss my oxytocin, give me baaaaaack my oxytocin!
I like oxytocin, which courses through my cerebral region when I hug my children or cuddle up next to my husband. As I have also admitted above, I’m also a big fan of the endorphins that I emit when exercising.The more I learn more about my brain, I must make peace with what might appear as a fairly healthy lifestyle, is actually another “better living through chemicals” advertisement.
So, when I asked my aunt-in-law, who at 81 remains vibrant and fully engaged in life how she does it, her answer resonated deeply. Seven years ago she lost her husband. At an early age her father and mother passed away. Her brother died of a heart attack in his early forties and there have been other major disappointments along her path. Yet, I can talk with her about anything. She travels all over the world and is always up for a wild new experience. Despite all the loss, she also really, really loves me.
Her answer to my question was simple. “I don’t know really why I am in such good shape,” she told me, “but I have noticed that I have had to learn to love in different ways.”
In these words, I first find the cross-cultural tenet of approaching every situation with an open attitude. The martial artists name meeting every challenge with an “I don’t know” as shoshin or fostering a Beginner’s Mind. Around the world it is posited that only in not knowing can we ever learn.
I was reminded of this snippet of wisdom as I taught the “Thriving Through Tough Times” course in January. One of the grandmothers clearly emitted my aunt’s joy-filled demeanor and was deeply admired professionally and personally by her long-term friends in the group. As we talked about surviving tough times, her friends urged her, “Tell Deidre The One Assumption,” “Yes, tell her, tell her.” She smiled and threw up her hands with a bit of a giggle and responded, “OK, the one assumption I always try to make is…that I don’t know anything.” As I made her acquaintance over the weekend, it was clear that she knew a whole lot more than I did, and in that lay the poetry.
My aunt in her response didn’t tell me not to love. She wasn’t saying to love less so it would hurt less when inevitable change occurs. Her subtle advice urged me to continue to love deeply, let those feelings and chemicals flow, but also to keep learning how to adjust to change. Keep learning how to love to dance, even if you find yourself with one leg, as Reynaldo Ojeda models in the attached video clip.
Find different ways to adore your loved ones even after they have departed your home or left this earth. Keep practicing new forms of love as those that we love change form. I think that is one of the lessons, but I shouldn’t really “know” now, should I?
Become a student of change. It is the only thing that will remain constant. –Anthony J. D’Angelo
Eighteen women gathered last weekend for a“Thriving through Tough Times” workshop I offered in Bozeman. Not the lightest topic, yet one that elicited lots of shared laughter from the group. Ranging in age from twenty-nine to timeless grandmas, everyone had valuable advice to contribute. When we spoke about first finding ourselves in difficult circumstances, one of group elders wryly added, “When times get tough I tell myself, ‘Things might get better (long pause)…or they might not.’”
The grounded optimism of these words summed up a workshop theme. Many of these women had overcome some very tough times. They explained how they had gathered fantastic opportunity and learning from their experiences, modeling how life can indeed improve through adversity. Yet they were realistic, when you lose a child, or your best friend at midlife, things might not get better.
The journey through personal challenges in the Buddhist tradition is sometimes referred to as a “little death.” Our current job/marriage/situation ends or “dies”, we enter into a dark time of transition, and if things get better…or not, a new career/relationship/life emerges. These little deaths are seen as valuable practice to prepare us for the big one at our physical end.
Around the world, we are counseled to be calm and focused on the path ahead whether meeting a little or big ending. Many cultures strive for a “good death,” or one that is conscious and peaceful, since they believe this will supports us getting to the best next destination possible.
Repeating phrases like Theresa of Avila’s, “All is well and all will be will,” is very common global technique to foster a good death and rebirth. We might chant prayers over and over to comfort the dying, reminding them of the life yet to come. For example, in the Catholic tradition, the prayer “Hail Mary…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” is repeated, while Hindus sing devotional prayers and chant Vedic mantras throughout the process.
When we face little deaths, repeating favorite sayings can both calm and ready us for the adventure ahead. Another workshop participant offered her father’s favorite motto, “Everything happens for a reason.” Explaining how these words provide her solace and courage she said,“By repeating this phrase I accept my circumstances and I figure I better start looking for that reason.”
Mantras are like a verbal opening bow to the opponent, “Tough Times.”When this adversary appears I like to say,
“Good teacher” – Borrowing the martial arts belief that our opponents are our best instructors. This reminds me that I can learn something and become wiser (a big personal selling point!).
“Opportunity, lots of opportunity” – That’s my version of “Things might get better…”
“I get to be here” – Recalling that this might be my only opportunity — in this body anyway — to have this experience.
In the above phrases, notice I invoke attitudes of learning, hope and gratitude. Interestingly, all three of these responses are processed in our neo-cortex or the two hemispheres residing on the top of our heads. This is the portion of our brains best equipped for complex problem solving. When the neo-cortex is engaged we have access to our creativity and can consider future implications of our actions.We play best when this brain region is in charge. I am thus suspicious that the most effective mantras engage this highest cerebral region.
So, what might be your calming phrases or sayings?
In January and February I will be providing two public workshops entitled “Thriving Through Tough Times” in Bozeman, Montana. During these fun (I hope!) and highly interactive workshops we will explore how to welcome life’s ups and downs. Together we will uncover our default styles under stress, learn cross-cultural techniques to stay centered and practice how to play well in our personal and professional lives regardless of what comes our way!
Pilot Workshop — January 23 from 7 to 9pm and January 24 from 9:30 am to 4 pm at Pilgrim Congregational Church on South 3rd Ave. Cost — $20 to cover lunch, refreshments and a donation to Pilgrim. Please contact Mary Wagner at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 406.587.3690. Limit 24 participants.
On February 28th from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm this workshop will be provided as a fundraiser for Girls for a Change — a teen girls empowerment program. In conjunction with the GFAC conference, “Thriving Through Tough Times” will be offered to adult participants at Montana State University. All attendees will receive copies of Deidre’s books, The Way of Conflict and Worst Enemy, Best Teacher and lunch. Cost: $150.00. Please contact Deborah Neuman, email@example.com, 406-587-3840 to register. Limit 30.