This interview, focused on entrepreneurialism, was conducted by Stephanie Chandler, author and CEO of Business Info Guide, where it was originally published. I share it here to give Call to Contemplation readers some additional background on my perspective, and also as an entrée to the ongoing dialog about new lines being drawn in the business space. Or should [...]
This is Part I in a series on my experiences in South Africa. I left for South Africa just three weeks ago, flying from Denver to Frankfurt to Cape Town for a three-week stay. The trip was the zenith of a ten-month journey into the subject of leadership, which I started as part of a sabbatical. [...]
One of my clients recently made a quantum leap in her thinking in under an hour. It was stunning. That got me to thinking about what she did that enabled her to move so fast. You see, it had little to do with the issue (the content) she was dealing with, and everything to do with the way she went about addressing it [...]
Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with people whose organizations are going through a not uncommon, but often painful and sometimes even terminal, phenomenon: questioning their relevance, their place in the world. Even as I type those words they feel heavy. There is weight to the idea that a thing, once useful and full of life [...]
How often do we reflect on memory? Surely, we think about it when it fails us. We may damn it when we lose our keys or forget someone’s name, or dread it in the case of Alzheimer’s, robbing mind of memory as bleach leaches color from cloth. We may also think about memory when our memories disagree with each [...]
A while back I wrote on sabbatical: the ancient notion that everything needs rest as a part of life. I likened the concept to something as basic as breath – the in and out of life. In for reflection, rest and renewal; out for application, experience, and exploration – and then back in again. This is the cycle of life boiled down to its most essential.
And yet, when we start thinking about the world in its greater complexity, this essential idea seems to get lost. We somehow forget that everything we do is in essence a practice of what we understand. And that we can do more and do better and bigger, if we will take the time to expand our thinking as a result of it. If we will see and live our lives as if they were our own divine curriculum.
Great things come from great understanding, from integrating our thinking and our being. And with each expansion of ourselves inside comes greater ability outside. In fact, the world awaits – sometimes even impatiently – for our expanding consciousness so we can contribute more to it.
But ironically, there is no skipping over. We cannot simply attempt to do more without also growing up inside. If our doing outpaces our being, the result is somehow not as good. Our service or leadership or even kindness come across as smaller than we’d hoped – more about us and less about the gift we were trying to give.
So, the anatomy of the thing is using what one does and what happens out there as the fodder, the curriculum for expanding in here. For growing one’s consciousness and understanding and being. Then, uncannily, the very situations we longed for – positions, contacts, opportunities – come to us because we are now ready to use them. We have built up our capability such that it is honed for bigger, more complex arenas than before, with greater outcomes the natural result.
And still, we must remember that even this new opportunity to give and serve and contribute - as much as the world calls for it and benefits from it - is also ultimately for our own learning. So going back in to reflect, to assess, to learn is key to continuing to grow in this life. This may look like humility to others – and it is, but in the intrinsic sense of the word. The practice of using our lives as our learning grounds us, connects us to ourselves and what we are on earth (hummus) for.
Each of us has this ability, this assignment, and the great destiny for doing good that comes from expanding oneself inside. In fact, this is what it means to be human.
You do get to choose just how fully you will experience your humanness this life – how much you will learn and how fast from the life that is unfolding before you. You get to pick both the pace and the amount you will learn. But make no mistake, we are all here learning to be human, even if in our infinitely varied ways.
The world wants nothing less than our fully human selves, but will take whatever you are willing to give. This is not about a capacity for charity; it is absolutely about what you are willing to learn. How facile you are with the IN and OUT of your life.
Thanks to artist Danae Stratou for such a stunningly perfect image for this post: Desert Breath. Check out her website by clicking the image above.
“It’s challenging when leadership can’t even agree.” - Anonymous University Chancellor
Gaining leadership alignment in these times of rapid change and social rearrangement is so fundamental to institutional success that without it, it’s only a matter of time before institutional relevance is in the balance. And forget about institutional greatness.
To achieve something big – to solve a complex problem, or reach new levels of accomplishment, or exponentially broaden impact, or develop a game-changing innovation – requires a level of focus and clarity of Olympic proportions. Essential to this is alignment.
Alignment among individual leaders first, and then down through the organization and out into the community, whether local, national or global. This alignment is not about getting everyone to think the same, but rather to develop a view that encompasses myriad individual perspectives from which a grander vision is possible.
Without leadership alignment, organizations (and countries) are left to govern themselves from the bottom up, instead of enjoying the freedom of governing within a shared visionary framework. Without leadership alignment, communities are left to formulate their own (mis)understanding of the institution, if they bother thinking of it at all. Without leadership alignment, the leaders themselves are impeded in moving forward, fall short of achieving what is desired, and experience a diminished role of service.
The way in to leadership alignment – whether the team is reaching for a new business model, increased capacity, or innovative solutions to long-endured problems – is the leadership conversation. This is a simple idea: how people talk about their institution, their issues, and their world is the genesis of the results they achieve.
Even the greatest leadership teams get into troughs of habit in their conversations, in the way they frame issues and describe their worlds. And worse are the isolated silos of thinking and vernacular that foster so many illusory conflicts. Add to this the growing number, complexity and scope of issues facing leadership today – in our organizations, our communities and on our planet – coupled with the pace of change, and leadership is surely tested to deliver on its primary purpose: articulating a compelling vision.
For leadership to create and hold such a vision, here is what’s required:
A shared understanding of the world
A common language with which to discuss it
A broad view of what is possible
These are not insignificant goals; they are the foundation for brilliance.
And the only way to achieve these goals is through conversation. Not the quick and dirty repartee of the break room or text, not the functional email delivering edict or information, not certainly the soundbite or check list. The real kind. The kind of conversation that takes time, that wrestles with assumed meaning, surfaces unspoken values, considers new perspectives, that seeks more to learn than to persuade.
The kind of conversation that, when all is said and done, opens minds and creates accord.
When was the last time you treated yourself to a conversation such as this?
I was culling through some old papers the other day when my eye caught my father’s familiar handwriting.
He passed away one morning nine years ago after playing a double-header softball game at the age of 72 – we found him lying peacefully in a field with a bag of stray balls by his side.
He meant the world to me, and I took coming across his words as his way of speaking to me. I pulled the paper close to see what he had to say and this line jumped out:
How you practice is how you will play.
These words struck me as just exactly right.
Although his scribbles were notes for coaching the team of players he managed in the Boulder seniors league, they spoke volumes to me as a general principle of life. A consultant I worked with a while back said the same thing to me this way “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
This got me thinking again how important every single act is in the life consciously lived. By that I mean simply the kind of life led for purpose rather than out of routine. What you could call a leader’s life.
It’s a high bar to set for oneself: to consider each act, no matter how small, how private, as a practice for how one lives, for how one’s life is measured, for its testament when all is said and done. This is how the scriptures say we’ll be judged, no doubt to help us be better people.
Taken too literally, this idea can drive you mad. Perhaps even stop you dead in your tracks.
But used as an ideal, as something to aspire to, something to remember as a kind of meditation, these words feel ultimately useful to me. They are simple. They are memorable. They are eminently measurable.
There’s a moment when the helicopter is finally free of the ground and the used air from hovering, when the rotor takes in its first fresh air, like the first breath after a deep-sea dive, that the ability to lift really kicks in – it’s called Effective Translational Lift.
I experienced Effective Translational Lift (ETL) on a first-time helicopter ride a few weeks ago and it started me pondering the brilliance of its analogy to something often considered elusive.
I’m referring to those moments in life when it’s as if we, like the helicopter, suddenly move high enough and fast enough to finally escape the used air of our old thinking – and in those moments, the rotor of our mind takes in completely fresh thought – pure, newborn idea – causing a swift surge upward. We’re instantly catapulted to a whole new thought plain, with a much-expanded view. Effective Translational Lift. Exactly.
This human version of ETL creates that feeling of aliveness, tingling through every cell, firing along the pathways of our nervous system, that makes life worth living. ETL is what spawns great invention, is the midwife of creation, and is what’s meant by illumination, revelation, and epiphany. These words have a sacred intonation, but are not specifically religious. They are perhaps the religious experience, which is to say, the moments in which perfect and higher order clarity emerges inside us – as if out of thin air.
You know what I mean. The moments when suddenly we see differently, as if a veil has been lifted, and bigger, as the lens that’s zoomed out. And it is quiet. The mind goes blank – is blown, as we say – even if only for seconds. Like the helicopter’s upward surge, the mind too takes its quantum leap – as if stepping deftly over some number of rationales that otherwise would’ve taken years to unravel.
The pilot told me he never tires of witnessing his passengers’ experience of ETL. I know just how he feels. In my work with individuals or teams, I watch for their ETL moment, for it is the precursor of a new clarity for action. It may prompt something as small as an individual’s change of career or as complex as how to reinvent an organization of thousands. The clarity may come in a brief conversation or may take months, depending on the magnitude of the transformation – or, to use our ETL analogy, how large and loaded our helicopter is.
But unlike the pilot, I never know exactly when the human ETL moment will come. Human moments of sudden transcendent clarity aren’t certain or predictable. Unlike the helicopter’s ETL, ours isn’t a function of physics. It’s squarely in the realm of metaphysics, and yet, no less real. That’s its magic. And my alchemical creativity comes in playing with the exact combination of words, pictures, feelings, energetic shifts, confronting, cheering, explaining, and using the basics of time, sleep and contemplation to bring it about.
Perhaps because of this metaphysical quality, we often cast such moments as inexplicable, non-repeatable, and perhaps even illusory. Sometimes, I hear people wistfully describe one of these moments from their distant past, as though it’s the rarest and most precious of gems. And it is precious.
But what if these moments didn’t need to be so rare? What if there is a way to cultivate them in our lives – what would that mean? Faster learning? Vastly increased clarity? A greatly expanded presence of being? And with that, what more could we bring into this world?
What I’ve found in my work – both with myself and with others – is that, although human ETL isn’t predictable or definite, it is not only attainable, but repeatedly so. The price for it is a willingness to notice that in some way we are stuck. Hovering close to the ground, as if tethered to the tarmac. And a willingness to consider what stale, used-up thinking is running the rotor of our minds, holding us back from what we most desire.
You don’t have to know what to do. Really. What you have to do is be willing to look – to sign up and step into the helicopter. The pilot handles the flight plan, pre-flight checklists, and communication with the tower; you need only buckle yourself in and ready for the ride. Perhaps what makes ETL so rare is how difficult it is for many of us to do just this.
But for those who do, the reward is majestic. ETL kicks in and you’re soaring at new euphoric heights that were impossible moments before. Like the helicopter, on that cool autumn day, shimmering in morning light as it sped down the runway and in an instant, lifted skyward in a stunning ascent.
The idea of term limits for executive staff leaders in nonprofit organizations came up in a LinkedIn group last week. It’s a provocative concept, one that incited a range of comments and got me to thinking.
Although this article focuses on nonprofit organizations, its points are germane to both for profit businesses and government as well.
For the most part, nonprofits take for granted that board governance should specify term limits for its member and officers. It’s a good thing, too. There’s more than ample evidence that organizations without term limits eventually experience problems: stagnating board involvement, decreasing vitality and innovation, and, in some cases, a leadership stranglehold by a few individuals.
But should terms apply to executive staff positions as well? LinkedIn members viewed the idea with skepticism, even considered it radical and, for some, threatening. And I can understand why. One person explained that in smaller communities where the pool of qualified candidates is limited, it would be onerous and even risky to the nonprofit’s health and stability to institute staff terms. Another suggested that he saw no reason for terms if the executive was still performing well. And someone said it was out of the question in an economic slump like the one we’re in.
As I considered the proposition, I realized that the idea of a leadership staff life cycle occurs organically in all organizations. In other words, all nonprofits at some point outgrow their leadership staff and need to address this eventuality. Some address it more directly and strategically, others – tragically – only when the situation has become dire.
The organizations that are attune to the signs of staff leadership “terms” expiring, consider and plan for leadership succession as part of their strategic planning and executive leadership evaluation processes. Those organizations that are not explicitly attune, will instead be confronted with the symptoms of leadership that is “beyond its expiration date,” such as declining mission relevance, morale issues, financial problems, etc. The more aware organizations are that all things have a life cycle – boards, staff, the nonprofit organization as a whole – the better they can prepare for change.
For example, the most challenging leadership transition in any organization is from the founder to the organization’s first executive leader after the founder (or the similar situation of an executive director who has been with an organization for decades). The transition from the founder comes for all organizations, and yet, too often, is left unspoken until things turn for the worse. This is because many organizations are unable or unwilling to overcome the emotionality surrounding the transition, not to mention the founders themselves. And yet, this transition is a critical one for boards and executive staff to foresee and prepare for well in advance, to ensure the stability and longevity of the organization into the future. Not doing this may be a way to avoid ruffled feelings, but it puts the organization at risk, which should be an unacceptable trade.
So, while I find the concept of leadership staff terms useful, I think it may be too prescriptive a solution given the huge range of circumstances in nonprofit organizations. One organization’s appropriate executive leadership tenure will be another’s stagnating yoke and yet another’s “blink and you missed it” time period. For example, a mature and stable organization will have different needs from its executive than a start-up, so an arbitrary number of years for leadership terms, while easy, doesn’t make good sense. The bellwether for when leadership should turn over has everything to do with what the nonprofit currently requires.
Instead of prescriptive term limits for executives, I endorse that nonprofit organizations build into their planning and evaluation processes explicit conversations about this issue and develop policy and plans to guide a consistent leadership succession process. And such processes should apply to all major executive staff, from executive director to development director, administrators, CFOs and program directors. Evaluation processes for these positions should be developed with criteria defined to drive optimal performance by the nonprofit – this too will change over time and so must the evaluation process and criteria for each executive position.
And to circumvent much of the high emotion that can surround the topic of leadership succession, bring all executive staff aboard with full awareness of the nonprofit’s values, plans and process in this area so that individuals understand that it isn’t personal to them, but rather, simply the way the nonprofit does business.
The biggest problem in the area of leadership succession is that too many nonprofits just plain get comfortable when things are working well - the “don’t rock the boat” mentality kicks in – and they forget that at some point things will change. Perhaps setting term limits would help make sure this doesn’t happen. But even better is remembering that the only constant is change and being prepared for those predictable changes should be the nonprofit’s standard procedure. The need for executive staff turnover is one such predictable change. Not only does it make sense to plan for this to foster innovation and organizational relevance, it is one of the smartest ways to avoid crisis, highly emotional, or at worst, litigious situations.
What does your company do?
RRC is a management consulting firm specializing in leadership development and organizational transformation. We use clients’ current projects as the applied learning environment to develop their leadership mastery and achieve superior results. Client achievements range from buildings built, watersheds cleared, and balance sheets balanced, to forests renewed, homeless sheltered, performances sold out, refugees protected…and so much more.
Was there a specific turning point when you realized your business was moving to the next level?
Over 20 years, my business has up-leveled several times. The cycle of my firm’s growth and expansion parallel my own readiness to stretch, and each cycle has been prompted by a desire to broaden the reach and application of my expertise.
For example, I first started RRC as an outgrowth of my executive leadership roles in nonprofit organizations. At that time, I realized I was a change agent and that striking out on my own would enable me to apply my skills to a wider range of situations. Then, after nearly 10 years consulting with hundreds of nonprofits, I felt ready to apply my capabilities to a broader arena – RRC immediately started getting clients in the public sector and began our focus on multi-stakeholder collaborations and executive leadership development there. Now, 10 years later, we are moving into the international arena. So, our growth is a consequence of my evolution, in tandem with the opportunities of our changing environment.
What processes or procedures have you implemented that have helped grow your company?
There have been two very significant processes that have supported RRC’s growth – one more obvious and one perhaps less.
First, we strive to systematize everything we do – my team’s vernacular includes “maintenance” versus “development” efforts. Whatever is maintenance, we codify as standard process (SOP) in our team handbook and in RRC’s policy/procedures manual. This serves as our foundation. Then when we move into development – e.g., creating our social media strategy, we are much more attentive to exploring and validating what works and what doesn’t before we identify SOP. We do a lot of innovation and creating at RRC, so this clarity helps everyone know what mode we’re in!
The second, perhaps less obvious process is the use of collaboration tools. We teach collaboration to our clients, so we must excel at it ourselves. We have worked with most of the basic tools out there (Central Desktop, SharePoint) and continually push the boundaries of how we use them, both internally and with our clients.
What is most rewarding about running your business?
Bar none, it is experiencing people achieve much more than they ever imagined possible. To see someone – whether a client executive, a client group member, or an RRC team member – realize their heart’s desire is inspiring and energizing for me. I never tire of it.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
My challenges generally fall into one category: dealing with my limitations. These may result from different causes: what I don’t know or am blind to, what I am afraid of, what I don’t think is possible. But ultimately, each are addressed the same way – by examining my thinking and making shifts. Over the years I have made it my practice to use RRC as my own learning environment. This mindset enables me to overcome any challenge since all challenges are simply my current curriculum for growth.
If you were starting over today, what would you do differently?
I would network more. Before the terms existed, I was a “solopreneur” and a social entrepreneur. A common trait of both is the “go it alone” mentality. I started RRC after just six years in the work world, which was possible because of that mentality. But what I didn’t know then was how much more was possible and faster by connecting with others with whom I share values and vision. Since I have opened to this, my business and my own growth have expanded exponentially.
What advice do you have for other business owners?
Document your business strategy and processes early. One of the defining characteristics of entrepreneurs is our unique ability in some area or other. Too often we take this ability for granted – since it’s easy for us, we assume it isn’t worth much. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The entrepreneur’s unique ability is the source of everything in their business. Documenting it means you can more easily replicate it, teach it and productize it. This can seem like tedious work, but the payoff is enormous.
Please list any favorite books, tools or resources (software, website, etc.) you would recommend for others:
Warren Bennis’ books on leadership.
James Gleick’s The Information – essential reading for understanding the role of technology and information today and its fascinating evolution.
Twitter: following broadly and using theme lists and Paperli.com enables me to tap into the global consciousness in a flash.
For my blogs, WordPress has been a terrific tool – both versions (.org and .com)
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about you?
I am a sports movie junkie. The irony is I don’t follow any professional sports, but a good sports movie (has there been a bad one?) enthralls me. The reason is simple: even though sports movies are formulaic, the formula of teams triumphing over adversity is what I live for. My favorites are Remember the Titans, Mystery Alaska, and now Moneyball.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Entrepreneurial businesses are the way business is moving, so many more people of all ages, situations, and with every possible idea are getting into them. This is tremendously exciting for a variety of reasons: greater opportunity for personal satisfaction and purpose; further democratization of the economy; increased possibility for collaborations, partnership and joint ventures; and more flexible business models that are resilient to change – to name a few. I would encourage anyone with a passion to explore the entrepreneurial business model – but don’t think you have to go it alone or start from scratch. There are tremendous resources out there (the Business Info Guide being a terrific example), as well as myriad mastermind, networking and mentoring groups. This is a truly exciting time for small business entrepreneurship!
Something mundane happened last week. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it held remnants of the sublime.
I’d stopped by Costco to buy a bouquet. My colleague had just returned from vacation, it’s spring, and I felt like having a bit of it in the office to celebrate. Running late, I almost didn’t take the time. But in the end, decided it was worth the extra 30 minutes.
Back at the office, I unwrapped the flowers from their swaddling clothes of tissue and cellophane, my colleague looking over my shoulder. What I found was not what I expected. The flowers, looking so pretty from the top of the tightly wrapped bouquet, were browning terribly around the edges! They looked at least 10 days old. I was crushed.
“They’re okay,” my colleague said resignedly. That did it. I headed straight to my office and picked up the phone.
As the phone rang, I realized it was more than the disappointment of purposefully taking time out of a busy day to get flowers only to find them half dead. The previous three times I’d purchased flowers at Costco – roses, to be exact – they’d drooped after a day or two and never opened. The closed buds tinged brown ended up in the trash. I could see them lying there. The wilted spring bouquet was the last straw.
On the line, a young woman’s voice answered; I briefly told her what happened. She gasped an empathetic “oh no,” then told me she’d transfer me to someone who could help. Another young woman’s voice greeted me; I told my story again. She too was sorry, and said of course I could return them. That’s when I explained the real issue of consternation.
I’d already made time to stop at Costco and didn’t have any more to spare. I didn’t want to drive back, with the flowers or not, and wait in the refund line – no matter how friendly or quick. The woman then asked “What would you like?” I considered. Actually, I knew exactly what.
“Ideally,” said I, “I’d like someone from Costco to drive here and bring me a new, fresh bouquet. Now, I know that’s probably impossible, so second best would be a refund over the phone so I don’t have to come down there, remember to bring my receipt, stand in line and all that.” She was doubtful about the phone refund. After some discussion, she suggested that I speak with the manager and see what he would do. “Perfect,” I said.
In a moment, I was explaining for a third time, this time to a young man. He too immediately aligned with me, and we had a similar conversation to the one I’d just had. And then he asked the question again: “What would you like?”"
Emboldened by the time before, I told him my ideal scenario – fresh flowers delivered to my office, as well as the backup option of a phone refund. I also repeated what I didn’t want and why. His reply surprised me.
“Actually, it’d be easier for me to bring you new flowers…” - he was thinking out loud - “…and I’d like to get out of the warehouse for a bit. Where’s your office?” I told him and he became more sure – “yes, we could do that. Now, what flowers did you get?”
My colleague, who’d been listening to this exchange from her office next door, was stunned. Within an hour she and I both had pretty bunches of fresh tulips on our desks, which we selected from the box of bouquets brought for us to choose from.
This was an extremely happy ending. And needless to say, my faith in Costco has been fully restored – even moved up a notch.
But the experience goes beyond our mere happy ending. There are some useful lessons mixed in among those posies…lessons about customer service, but also about life.
On the “Offender’s” Side:
1: Align with the offended. Really. Listen to their complaint. Don’t take it personally. No matter what. Then genuinely empathize with their experience.
This is one of the hardest things to do – especially the more the offended is blaming you. But really, the offended’s issue is theirs – it’s been brought to you to help remedy it. Moving away from the offense to how to solve it is done quicker if the offended feels empathy.
Each of the three Costco reps totally agreed with me that wilted flowers were a nonstarter, which meant I didn’t need to convince them of my position but rather could start solving it.
2: Offer some solutions. If they don’t work, ask the magic question: “What would you like?”
The power of this question surprised me. I felt it operate inside me like a magic potion. Think about it – when someone asks you this question, really asks, can you resist? As my mind played out exactly what I wanted, in full living color, I felt my energy shift. Tightness melted into ease, breath dropped from chest to belly, all as I imagined fresh flowers being delivered to my office.
Next time someone is upset, try asking and watch what happens.
3: See if you can do what’s being asked. Get creative. If you really can’t, offer up something good or better from what you’re able to do. And if that’s a non-starter, offer to move it up the chain.
Again, all this must be genuine for it to be meaningful – and people can tell the difference.
On the “Offended’s” Side:
1: Don’t “settle” or “make do.” If something needs to be rectified, clearly state the issue. Keep emotion out of it, as much as possible, but be direct.
This too can be challenging – especially if you’ve stored up previous grievances, like I had with the roses. But keep in mind that offense is rarely intentional. So, the more dispassionately the offense can be described, the easier it is to begin doing something about it. (If you’re just in need of a good rant rather than a solution, call a friend or your mother.)
2: LISTEN for the reaction. And not just to the words, but to the intent. Check your gut: does it feel genuine? If yes, proceed to 3. If not, ask to be transferred UP.
3: Offer options for how the “offender” can remedy the situation, being sure to give a range, including your IDEAL solution. Also, be clear about what will NOT be acceptable. If asked the magic question (“What would you like?”), go for the gusto and consider yourself blessed. But if you don’t get asked, you can simply ask it of yourself!
So, go ahead, in an area that has long bugged, frustrated or annoyed you, ask it: What would you like?
After three weeks in South Africa, the last of which I’d spent on safari near Kruger National Park, I flew to Johannesburg where I had a layover of a few hours before my flight back to the states. I’d scheduled to meet a friend at an airport café.
Even after just a week, the re-entry into teeming, jostling, noisy humanity was overwhelming. So I scouted a table in an empty area opposite the cafe, where I could easily spot my friend’s arrival and also regain my equilibrium. As I took my seat, I saw a phalanx of people passing by on what I realized was a main artery of the airport.
Just come from long, quiet days in a game drive truck, the silent observer in me was still in service. So my instinctive choice of a seat next to a large white column that offered some cover made sense, allowing me to gaze at the crowd without being noticed.
Such variety marched before me – people in ones and twos, in groups dressed in matching uniforms (airport personnel and sport teams) and even costumes. People with dark skin and braided hair, people with lined faces, people with fair skin and hats. And the sounds – people laughing and shouting in Zulu and English and Afrikaans as they flung by, others with eyes darting about mumbling in Japanese or Italian, and some shuffled mutely as though lost.
It looked like the world parading by, the world of humans, that is. And I pondered the difference between this observation and that from the game drive truck. I noticed that in looking at my own species, I easily picked out unique individuals, as compared to when I looked upon a herd of zebras or elephants, who more or less looked the same. Watching a herd of elephants, or even following a lone leopard through the bush, I was really only aware of the species in general. And for the most part, each species hung out with its own.
One notable exception was the vervet monkeys and the impala, which we came across in a sunny meadow one afternoon. It struck me then that this was one of the few times I’d seen two separate species markedly together. The ranger explained that they join for protection – the monkeys have the advantage of tree-climbing heights to watch for predators, whereas the impala have incredible ears to listen for them. This kind of cooperation was remarkable because it’s rare.
Back at the airport, I realized I could see in two ways – the usual way of seeing people one by one, noticing the color of hair, of shirt, of shoe, but also the safari way, seeing all as one swarming herd of a single species. And in this view, the idea of ubuntu came to me.
We’d discussed ubuntu in the leadership seminar I took during my first week in South Africa. Our conversation was based on Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s essay on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where he explains the concept. After apartheid, South Africans had to decide how to deal with its aftermath – what legal process would be used to reach justice? Consideration of the options (criminal courts like those at Nuremberg or general amnesty) resulted in a third, now renowned, choice of the TRC – the process by which the accused could admit their crimes to the victims and be forgiven. According to Tutu, the choice to forgive rather than to punish was not only a necessary one for a country in dire need to unite itself, but also a culturally aligned one – aligned with the idea of ubuntu.
As Tutu explains it, “ubuntu speaks of the very essence of being human….It is to say, ‘my humanity is caught up, inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” Rather than Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” ubuntu implies “I am because you are.” This interconnectedness is at the root of humanity, and South Africa’s ability to come together even under the most heinous conditions Tutu attributes to the worldview of ubuntu.
As I sat watching so many humans gliding by, reminding me that globalization is no longer a theory but a living reality, I thought how terribly important it is now for us to engage the view of ubuntu. It may seem like an ideal or somehow impossibly selfless,
but then I recalled something else Tutu said: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic; it is the best form of self-interest.” And I saw the monkeys and the impala sitting side-by-side under soft afternoon light.
This piece is the last in a series on South Africa written for and published on www.Africa.com. This series explored leadership themes from her range of experiences on the South Africa trip. Reynolds will be starting a new series called Leadership Conversations, coming soon here and on Africa.com.
Thanks to Geof Stone, University of Chicago law professor, for pointing out an unintentional omission in my post last week on sarcasm and the Supreme Court: examples of the Court’s sarcasm. I realized that this trend is so glaring in my mind, I assumed it was in others’. Oops. So, here’s my amendment with cites and explanation.
As an enthusiastic listener to NPR’s legal correspondent Nina Totenberg, who brings the Supreme Court to life by reading excerpts from oral arguments, I’ve noticed an increased use of sarcastic tones by Totenberg when quoting some of the Justices. It isn’t Ms. Totenberg’s sarcasm. It’s theirs. And that’s what prompted me to write Supreme Court: No Place for Sarcasm.
And then on This American Life in a piece called Take the Money and Run for Office, Senator John McCain also mentioned sarcasm on the Court as he described his experience listening to oral arguments in the Citizens United case:
First, I was outraged…the questions that were asked, the naiveté of the questions that were asked, the arrogance of the questions was just stunning, particularly Scalia, with his sarcasm.
And then McCain imitated Justice Scalia’s sarcastic attitude. You can listen to it here.
As it turns out, I’m not the first to discuss the use of sarcasm on the Court or to question its appropriateness there. Erwin Chemerensky, Dean of the University of California Irvine Law School, wrote a thorough review of Scalia’s penchant for sarcasm back in 2000, making the case as it concerned law students and attorneys:
Justice Scalia’s opinions are distinctive because of his frequent sarcasm and pointed attacks on his colleagues. No doubt, this makes his opinions among the most interesting to read and teach….But I am greatly distressed by the message that his sarcasm and his attacks on other justices transmit to law students and to attorneys about how it is appropriate to speak and talk to one another in judicial settings.
But the story that provoked me to write my blog post was Totenberg’s March 20th report on the Court’s hearing of two cases about life without parole sentences for minors. Here is some of the exchange, according to Totenberg:
Justice Antonin Scalia noted that 39 states have laws that make life without parole the punishment for murder, even for juveniles. He asked whether he should “just consult my own preference” instead of “what seems to be a consensus of the American people?”
[Attorney] Stevenson contended that in fact, most states have not agreed to subject 14-year-olds to life without parole. Only 18 states have actually imposed the penalty on those 14 and younger. Moreover, he said, state legislatures pass laws that allow juveniles to be tried as adults and then the juveniles are automatically subject to the same penalty as adults — in these cases, mandatory term of life without parole for murder.
Justice Samuel Alito questioned Stevenson’s statement that state legislatures did not know what they were doing.
“If you think these legislators don’t understand what their laws provide, why don’t you contact them?” he asked sarcastically. (My emphasis.)
The final straw for me here was Justice Alito’s snarky remark. It’s one thing for a single petulant personality to bring his invective to the Court (just like some bratty nephew at the holidays, we all somehow put up with Justice Scalia), but it’s quite another to think this is becoming acceptable practice across the board.
The Supreme Court, as I said, depends on its credibility for its authority. Justice Breyer (in a talk he gave at the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, which I wrote about here) reminded us that the authority of the Supreme Court took some 100 years or more to establish in this country. And although by this point it is indeed well-established, it’s not an impossibility for that position to be challenged in the future – especially if the Court continues to make extreme decisions such as Bush v. Gore and to undermine both its credibility and its position of power with behavior that is so clearly beneath it.
There’s been a lot of talk about the recent Supreme Court case on the Affordable Care Act, and good thing, too. The Court seems to be on an unhappy trajectory of proactive decisions that upend long-standing legal precedent or chart entirely new territory under the guise of judicial restraint. It’s a puzzling sleight of hand, which we have to thank for Bush v. Gore, Citizen’s United, Wal-Mart v. Dukes, and others.
But there’s another trend that concerns me – the broader one of the Court’s diminishing credibility.
As this country’s supreme arbiter of what’s legal or not, the Court represents the gold standard on decision-making. It is, interestingly, the closest thing we have to a monarchy: life appointment to sit in final judgment over the most complex and challenging legal issues of our time. But, unlike a sovereign, the Court is comprised of
nine of these would-be monarchs, who collectively share the mantle “Supreme.”
It’s an interesting set-up.
Interesting in particular to me since I’m in the business of collective leadership and decision-making. I support clients of all kinds to develop governance, process, and behavior by which they’re able to achieve big things together. The courtroom has long been, for me, a model for the importance of process, as well as a source of fascination for its rhetoric and code of ethics. Ever since I first sat in on a trial as a teenager (my mother was a juror and brought me along to learn about our justice system), I’ve been addicted to courtrooms.
Not only, then, is the Supreme Court our highest example of shared decision-making, it’s also the courtroom of all courtrooms. For this reason, I follow with great interest the Court’s proceedings and decisions. But for a while now, my intense interest has been tainted by something alarming. In case after case, sarcasm seems to be an increasingly prevalent actor*. And that’s the problem. The Supreme Court is just no place for sarcasm.
I’m adamant on this and here’s why.
First, as the final decision-maker of our nation’s most challenging legal issues, the Supreme Court is, by definition, a serious institution. By the time a case arrives there,
it’s been through years (sometimes decades) of trials, expense and extreme
hardship for the parties involved. A case before the Supreme Court has earned –
as have its parties, attorneys, and the American public at large, since we foot the bill – the right to an audience before the Justices. This audience has, in fact, been granted by the Justices themselves in agreeing to hear it. The Court’s business then is serious business, the most serious, deserving of a level of sincerity and gravity possibly without parallel in this country. Sarcasm, used to mock and ridicule, to convey scorn or insult, is a clear nonstarter in such an environment.
Second, the charge of the Court is to seek understanding of issues so complex that many courts and judges have been tested in their review. If such understanding and decision-making were easily come by, the Supreme Court wouldn’t be needed. Therefore, again, I see no place for sarcasm, which takes as its premise that the person wielding it is of superior intellect to those to whom the remarks are delivered.
The Justices have been given (and we hope have earned), a life appointment on the bench. Nine justices together have the awesome authority (and responsibility) to finally decide these cases. Therefore, no one Justice can presume him/herself above anyone else, and in fact, should endeavor, we would hope, to listen to the many learned colleagues on the bench (not to mention in the role of advocate), with the intent of arriving at a right and just decision. I see no utility in smugness or sarcasm with such a sacred trust shared among such esteemed peers.
Finally, sarcasm is defined as an attack – a cruel and malicious one with a single intent: to harm another. Not only is this type of behavior inimical to truth-seeking and the serious business of reaching shared understanding of deeply complex issues, it’s also dishonorable. It is especially so in a Supreme Court Justice.
The reason is simple: due to long-established rules of procedure, the individuals to whom the sarcasm is directed - generally, the attorneys arguing the case – are constrained from responding in kind. It is the very position of Supreme Court Justice, referred to, as if to remind us, as “Your Honor,” that should preclude attack, (including the verbal flaying of sarcasm) – for who with honor attacks someone who is both at your mercy and without the means of retaliation? We usually refer to such people as tyrants.
Sarcasm on the Court, although it may seem to liven up the complicated and at times ponderous discussion, undermines the very role the Court exists to serve. We need to believe in the superior experience, capability, wisdom, and dare I say it, restraint (personal, if not judicial) of the Court to fulfill its role of deciding the nation’s most serious legal issues on our behalf. We depend on this belief because without it we teeter on the perilous edge of anarchy. But if the Court persists in demeaning itself to the level of Judge Judy for the sake of popularity, entertainment value, or worse, to feed the egos of a few Justices, it will lose the credibility on which it and we depend.
I have written before of my concerns about the Court’s diminishing credibility at the hand of its too-often politicized decisions (those signaled by the 5-4 split). But perhaps graver still and certainly more insidious than the issues represented by these cases is the idea that the Court is becoming nothing more than a platform for a few bullies. If this is acceptable behavior on the Court, what separates it from the commons? What indeed.
Remember what happens when people lose confidence in their monarch? Heads roll. Let us all be warned.
*For examples, please click here.