Tag Archives: teaching

Why Our Stories Matter

IMG_5348Matthew Fox, in his autobiography, Confessions: the making of a post-denominational priest, included this quote by Ellie Wiesel, “Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story.” I thank the heavens that Matt took this piece of advice to heart.

Matt and his stories have been instrumental in my professional and personal development over the past twenty years. If the Universe offer us clues where to find needed treasure, it has been far from subtle in urging me to pay attention to this brave and extremely brilliant being. I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin (Matt’s childhood home), was born on December 15th (the day he was famously silenced for a year by Opus Dei), and, although I went to Catholic high school, I was baptized Episcopalian (Matt’s past and current religious affiliation). The clues continue, and I am glad for the consistent nudging!

I want to recommend Matt’s story held in Confessions as we navigate how to fight for what is compassionate and right in these difficult times. Three key approaches in Matt’s life sing truth with me. First, I love his wicked sense of humor! He teaches me how to detach through not taking ourselves or greater tragedies too seriously. Detachment is a core cross-cultural skill for living well. Angeles Arrien described detachment as “caring deeply from an objective place.” Matt cares deeply and has suffered great loss, as you will read in his autobiography. When I first met him in 1998 it was clear how much he loved his Dominican brothers and was adjusting to being recently defrocked for his progressive views on the environment and feminism. The sense of loss was evident, and Matt had me hooked when he said something to the effect, “Five hundred years ago when you were branded as a heretic you were burned at the stake, now,” he added, “your books just sell better.” In his first speech after the year of silence, Matt began, “As I was saying fourteen months ago.… when I was so rudely interrupted …” Humor creates the space we need to survive and to be brave. As Mahatma Gandhi shared in his autobiography, “ If I had no sense of humor, I should long ago have committed suicide.”

Second, I wish to follow Matt’s constant search for wisdom through communing with saints past and present. He reached out to Thomas Merton in his early spiritual formation, searched out the best ritualists across the spiritual traditions including Malidoma Somé and Starhawk, and sought guidance from Fr. Bede Griffiths, Buck Ghosthorse, Joanna Macy, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalom and MC Richards. This is a purposeful list I add here if you wish to learn more about environmental or justice-based activism. His work is based in the writings of Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas to name just a few. Matt is a seeker of the larger whole. How can we all keep asking for more knowledge, ferreting out the greater truth and learning from the wise ones?

Last, I admire Matthew Fox’s courage to be a prophet. He has been willing over the past fifty years to speak truth to power structures that may not want to hear it. As you will read in Confessions, Matt seeks justice and equality for all and is willing to keep sharing this truth, regardless of the consequences. He tried compromise and working within the system as well and reminds me that this approach has its place, but truth is transcendent. We all deserve to be treated equally regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic class or ethic group. This truth cannot be watered down, or shouldn’t be ever hidden, and this often terrifies existing power structures. Matt is willing to stand up and in his standing, we are braver and know where to place our feet.

Thank you Matt for sharing your story and wisdom. Happy birthday and may all your days be blessed.

Awash, a wash, in love


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.



The power of passion

I have to share a recent Bozeman Chronicle article on the MSU leadership students with whom I have worked over the past semester.

11 students presented how they hope to make a difference in their homes and communities. And the audience was transfixed.


I posit it was because each student had found the magic balance of conveying both a plan and passion. They had done their research AND shared what makes them excited to get up in the morning. Again, it makes me a believer in the magic formula of leadership being equal parts head and heart. Draw me in with your enthusiasm, then keep me on your team with clear communication, mutual respect and scholarship.  These students reminded me why this is my new end-of-the-semester addiction!

I want to add a related example on the power of passion before closing. Here’s the introductory paragraph I sent the Chronicle detailing my impressions of the MSU Leadership Foundations program before this event:

“Our Leadership Foundations students inspire me to have sincere hope in the future. As the instructors, Dave Meldahl and I challenge these students at the beginning of the semester to consider how they want to help, which is our broadest definition of leadership. How they rise to our challenge! In the past year, I have watched our Leadership Fellows start a non-profit to help at risk kids, volunteer as our Montana Student Regent, take the helms of two fraternities and expand a school in Tanzania. During these presentations the students commit to action and I have been consistently impressed with how they are then following through. It is an honor to be part of the Leadership Fellows program and to support these students’ success.”

Now…check out which of my quotes was chosen for the article!

I wish you all a wonderful and heart-filled holiday season.

The Global Techno Beat

During July,  I happily worked with Mongolian and Bhutanese monks, Middle Eastern business leaders, North African and Middle Eastern university student leaders and last but absolutely not least, 5 Iraqi high school students along with American peers. It was an incredible treat as I could soak up one of Montana’s best months while continually enriched by extraordinary conversation.

As foreign visitors visited Bozeman for leadership, civic engagement and conflict resolution training, I asked many of the participants some of my favorite closing questions before sending them on their way:

  • What have you learned here?
  • What are your next steps?
  • What have you appreciated during your time as a group?

Not easy questions for participants who have been drinking from a fire hose of lectures, field trips and project development skills for 8 to 10 hours a day.  For example, the Tributary Fund’s Mongolian and Bhutanese delegation not only attended multiple leadership and environmental courses in Bozeman, but also traveled south to the Teton Science School in Jackson, WY and then to northern Montana to the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee, over less than two weeks. It can be a challenge to integrate so much data in such a short period, especially through the filter of your second or third language.

Mongolian Delegation at the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee

After an intense month with all these visitors, I got a taste of my own medicine. Last Tuesday, I posed these queries to 17 extraordinary university student leaders from the State Department Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. A bright young woman from Bahrain gently responded, “May we also ask, what you have learned from us?”

Running from meeting to workshop all month, I hadn’t been able to think about much other than lesson plans, preparing and did we have any milk left in the fridge!  I could suddenly relate to the blank stares I had received from some after hearing my closing queries. Hmmm, great question, what had I learned?

My favorite teachers remind that after major experiences, we are best served by giving ourselves time to integrate our experience. Systems theorists stress the importance of iterative learning – gathering new information, testing it out and then reflecting on what we have learned. Angeles Arrien posits that the seminal Taoist text on managing change, The Tao Te Ching, teaches that we must continually

  1. Gather information (seek/be dynamic), then
  2. Open ourselves to the results (be receptive) and last
  3. Integrate the results of the first two actions.

So, lots of new information came in this month.  I have tried to be open to receiving. Now, what needs to be better integrated?  With some initial thought, four themes are emerging to be considered from this summer’s work:

  1. Technology’s role in leadership
  2. How to balance connection and action
  3. How it is a rarely “an American issue” or “a Middle Eastern situation,” but that it’s usually  “a human being problem,” and
  4. The absolute impossibility of truly knowing another in the global age

Today I’ll tackle technology…

For a bit of background, I began my career at IBM as a programmer. In 1985, many on our team coded only in machine language (that’s ugly stuff).  I would knit waiting for my programs to compile and my compatriots at IBM and I were some of the first to have email in the country which IBM called VNET.  By 1989, I was the project manager for one of the first electronic medical record systems in the country. We used optical disks the size of large dinner platters, $3,000 scanners heavy as boat anchors and computers that required cooled raised floor rooms to house them – all with less capability that you now have with a decent flash drive, a $200 home scanner and a steady PC server.

In those days, computer technology appeared in our everyday lives through clunky PCs and printers that we would use to write letters and attempt to budget the family finances and do our taxes. Working with computers daily at IBM had me swimming in very different waters than my friends and siblings.  This is not striking or very interesting until I contrast this with Asian students with whom I have worked over the past year who literally risk their lives daily to post their names and photos on Facebook. Where technology used to be nerdy, it’s now deemed a critical necessity.

The next generation, whether you come from a rural region of our south east, the Middle East, Latin America or a monastery in Bhutan wield external drives, digital cameras and cloud computing like our foreparents managed hammers and shears to complete their respective tasks.  Those I see in the classroom are usually armed better I to cross the digital landscape.

I witnessed students dialogue for hours on how to introduce those in their group of Kurdish descent (“should we call them Iraqis, Kurdish or from Kurdistan?”) all the while deftly creating a PowerPoint presentation. While grappling with big issues, I notice that there is no discussion on how they might want to add a short video or animate a slide.  On that they have equal awareness and agreement.

Computers can become more important than sustenance. Visitors with whom we work will forego meals and any entertainment to funnel their per diem money to a laptop fund. Host families and the program assistants consistently make midnight runs to Walmart during the last days of a participant’s visit so he or she can buy electronic equipment. It is not only cheaper here than around the globe, that I am told again and again, but also buying a computer for some is one of their top trip desires.

Through their yearnings and savvy, the students consistently demonstrate that computer and digital skills are key for our next generation of leaders…and, probably for all of us currently working to effectively implement change. This is not new news, but after this month of visitors, I realize I need to consider information systems technology as a critical leadership competency.

Last night in Washington, DC, I attended a final celebration dinner to send off our bright MEPI students after 5 action-packed weeks. Each of the 5 MEPI student groups from around the country were asked to create a 5 minute video or presentation on their time in the US. Our students selected a graphic design student, from Kuwait and a marketing major who also holds a corporate job in Lebanon to lead the charge. Knowing what was possible, most of the students provided photos and ideas and our two video leaders worked through 2 or 3 nights to create this final program deliverable.  It was stellar and included cartoon renderings of each student created by their team graphic artist, meaningful music and a carefully selected (and refined, refined, refined) photomontage to portray their unique Montana highlights.  I was impressed.

Although their video was truly unique, the Montana MEPI students’ professionalism and quality level wasn’t. The friendly competition included tough opponents! For example, when I was a bit awestruck by very polished video with fades, a story line and slow motion created at the University of Delaware. At the table, our students whispered, “It’s not a surprise, one of their students is a film student and works on action movies.”

Gone are the days when leading a project could be done without electronic savvy.  To sell your idea, to portray that your team was the best, or to present anything well, today you are going to want a plug, or perhaps a solar panel, attached.

Harnessing new technology, whatever the form, has always boosted leadership power. The train and then effective use of the car “drove” the results of political races when they were introduced. We can use the additional power for a variety of ends. And so,  if I arm you with a set of powerful tools, be it today computer expertise or how to turn conflict into opportunity, for what will you use them?

I’m a bit fixated on the above question when I am training young leaders. I was reminded again why it feels alright to keep pushing for clear and hopefully positive intentions while I passed through the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) . I stopped in front of a full-wall placard entitled, “Technology and Race,” The exhibit explained that by 1938, Hitler’s team had effectively employed the newest data gathering and storage technology available to create a country-wide national registry of Jews during that year’s census. By the following year, systematic killing began.

Then, down the hall, I strolled through the new USHMM Take Action interactive exhibit where you can access their website and track progress on ending genocide in Darfur, support relief and awareness efforts and create a pledge to make the world a better place. Knowledge is power. For good or ill, you must decide.

It gives me hope that every one of our Montana State University MEPI students chose to use their last Saturday afternoon in the US to thoughtfully tour the USHMM exhibits as well.  Each made a conscious choice; Best Buy, Target and more work on the QuickTime video needed to wait until another day.

Defining Leadership

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. — John Quincy Adams

I have been spending four days a week talking about leadership with university students since January. This converts to much considering what it means to lead and how to do it well. Over the past couple of weeks, the students and I have been exploring in depth the traits of leaders we admire.  Yet, completing that exercise left us all feeling like being an “outstanding leader” was well beyond our personal grasp!

Our class results contend that we like to admire our leaders. We want them to be strong, courageous, emotionally intelligent, organized and adaptable. We desire their passions to inspire us into action. We hope that they will motivate us to be our best. They should speak and write well. Yet, upon self-reflection every one of us had noticed that we don’t always measure up to our imposed standards.

My students remind me that this “name your favorite leader traits” game can discourage them from showing up as leaders. How can they consider themselves viable when they are sometimes weak, terrified, coarse, disorganized and fixed in their positions? “If I can’t make the grade, why play and fail,” some of them asked.

Meanwhile, I believe that they are all leaders and they all need to plunge into the work of facilitating change. I keep reminding them of my favorite definition of leadership from Margaret Wheatley, “A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time.” Since each student wants to be of assistance on their campus and in the community, they are leaders, like it or not.

To address the super hero leadership requirements we defined and being human, the students and I have been appreciating Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership. Bill has a marvelous way of acknowledging that we each bring different approaches, strengths and weaknesses to this job of “helping at this time.” He invites to show up, regardless of where we begin AND to try to rise to our best. Bill explains, “After years of studying leaders and their traits, I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity. It’s being yourself; being the person you were created to be…Authentic leaders are dedicated to developing themselves because they know that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of personal growth.”

Using a personal example, I know that the best instructors are ones that have healthy detachment from their students’ performance. To effectively lead a classroom it helps to:

  • Teach at your best,
  • Encourage your students’ best, and
  • Not get thrown off if others don’t rise to your encouragement.

However, this week I wanted to verbally slap the student who, yet again, had not read the assignment and was nodding off in class; not very leader-like or lady-like behavior. I didn’t yell (thankfully), but I was mad that I took way too personally that student’s lack of preparation and focus.

Bill George’s words remind me that not only my wish to remain centered, but also my clear frustration, is authentically me. Acknowledging that I was not feeling very Gandhi-ish, is both kind to myself and it calls me directly to keep trying to practice healthy detachment and creative instruction.

Basically, as my son Cody likes to say, “It’s all good.” I believe it’s good that we set high standards. It’s good that I sometimes get thrown off, so that I can recognize what my standards are and how I get tripped up. Also, it’s good that even though I am far from perfect, I am still trying to help at this time. I don’t know if I’ll ever find appropriate detachment anywhere in my life, but it’s good, according to George and to most spiritual traditions, that I’m just willing to try.

This week as you lead in any way, pay attention. What traits would you like to display and which ones are you using? Instead of backing off from leadership or beating up on yourself because you missing the bulls eye you’ve created, allow where you are and what you care about to guide you. I personally appreciate your “help at this time” and that we all keep practicing!

Here’s a fun leadership video following the theme of today’s post by Derek Sivers that I thought you might enjoy as you consider helping.