We contain multitudes

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

This is absolutely not a political post, but it was inspired by some recent discussion around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high school she attended, and what that says (or doesn’t) about her “true” roots. In a nutshell, she was being criticized for not really being “from the Bronx” because she went to a fancy high school in Westchester. This got me thinking about the complexity of people, my own complex narrative, and how the complexity of one’s personal narrative is something to be celebrated and explored, not explained away.

Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854
Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854

My own story is complex. In some ways, the version of me you might know if you don’t know me well personally — me as “tech person” in various incarnations — started when I got to the Bay Area in 1998 at age 26. When I landed there back then, I didn’t really know anyone there. I didn’t have family money or family connections. I arrived in California hopeful and excited but nearly flat broke, with quite a bit of debt from “chasing my dreams” (an expensive and debt-ridden proposition if you weren’t born into money). California was to become a turning point in my life in a lot of ways and my time there laid the groundwork for so much to come.  The people I met back then received me as I was at that moment — professionally accomplished for a 26-year-old and coming there for a cool job — but inside, I was a wide-eyed kid from North Carolina who never imagined he would visit California, much less live there. My time in California was a rebirth of sorts for me where I started to really build the life I always wanted. But the North Carolina kid remains to this day and shapes my world view considerably.

Much later, I learned via someone close to me in my time in the Bay Area that there was a perception that I was born into wealth! After all, I graduated from Duke, I studied Shakespeare, I had worked in senior positions at CNN, I was joining the company in a VP-level position. (And my name was Chad, a name that has since been become a meme identified with nothing good!) At a glance, I sounded like a well-heeled Southerner with life-long training for the big time. But that wasn’t really me.

This perception of growing up with wealth and privilege really surprised me because it was so different from how the person who told me about it eventually saw me as we got to know each other and it was also very different from how I saw myself given my lived experience. My family was never poor, but we certainly were not rich. My parents moved out of a mobile home park and into a house just before I was born. My mom named me Chad after Chad Everett, her favorite actor who played Dr. Joe Gannon on her favorite TV show, Medical Center. It was a big deal in my extended family to move from a trailer into a house like that. When I hear George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s song “Two Story House,” I still connect with that feeling expressed in the song in a visceral way many years after I got the two-story house myself:

We always wanted a big two story house
Back when we lived in that little two room shack
We wanted fame and fortune and we’d live life the way the rich folks do
We knew somehow we’d make it, together me and you

My maternal grandfather was an illiterate farmer and as a 5-year-old just learning to read in kindergarten, I was tasked with reading him his birthday cards because he couldn’t read them himself. I’ve done my share of manual labor in life and to this day love the feeling of doing hard physical labor and getting work done. I grew up Southern Baptist and the Bible and church hymns are burned into my psyche. My family was touched by extreme mental illness throughout my childhood and that created all kinds of intense and devastating disruptions in our lives.

It’s possible to be a person with all of these experiences at the same time. You can be a kid barely removed from a trailer park with an illiterate grandfather and disruptive mental illness in your family and go to Duke and study Shakespeare and build a successful career and eventually go to New York City and take a company public as a CEO. I actually think we would be better served if we had more people in leadership positions in public and private life who have known what it’s like to be broke, to see the tragedy of a grandfather reaching the end of his life not knowing how to read, to win admission to a fancy school and feel like you shouldn’t be there at first but then dig deep and carve out your place there and in the world beyond. Any leader of any organization of sufficient size will employ and work with a diverse group of people and having a diverse set of experiences can only help build empathy.

In my personal life, I get invited to fancy dinners and such. Sometimes when introducing themselves, people lay out their professional accomplishments and I find myself wanting to know the real person, not the LinkedIn profile. I’m wondering: what were your struggles? What were your parents like? When did you feel uncertain and how did you overcome it? How did you get here? I realize that no one is obligated to share those things with me and I never press. But some of my best conversations at those kinds of events have come when I’ve let my guard down and told the person beside me a little about my real not-LinkedIn-profile self. Quite often, that person opens up in some way.  We laugh about the first time we went to a dinner like this and had to figure out how the place settings worked, or about how we felt when we interviewed for our first big job in a strange city. Or the person beside me might have grown up wealthy but suffered difficult challenges in life that wealth can’t address and overcame them (note that the ultimate message of George and Tammy’s “Two Story House” is that wealth and sadness can go hand-in-hand). Some of these conversations have become the basis for deep loving friendships that I treasure.

Maybe if we all gave each other the space to be complex people — not reduced to public perception, our professional bios, our LinkedIn profiles, others’ narratives of who we are — we might understand each other better and give ourselves the room to be messy but wondrous human beings. As Whitman wrote:

I am large, I contain multitudes.

We all contain multitudes. Or as George and Tammy sang together on “Two Story House”:

I’ve got my story [Tammy]
and I’ve got mine, too [George]

And so do you. We should all tell them proudly and in their full complexity.

 

Going old school: how I replaced Facebook with email

In November 2017, I deactivated my account on Facebook. I didn’t leave Facebook for moral reasons back then but more because it was starting to feel like a waste of time and valuable brain cycles that I wanted to focus elsewhere. (I realize some people can’t leave Facebook completely for work or other personal reasons.) There were aspects of Facebook that I thought I would miss — the relative ease of use, keeping up with what is going on in lots of people’s lives, etc — so I decided to work out a new way of communicating that was completely Facebook-free after using Facebook heavily for many years. I haven’t missed it at all. This post is about what I did and what I learned.

My history with Facebook and why I left

I had been on Facebook for a very long time (11 years) and had accumulated hundreds of “friends” on the platform. In the early days, it was fun and I enjoyed keeping up with people. But I kept noticing a great paradox in my life: I felt like I didn’t have enough time for the people I cared about (including myself) yet I found myself scrolling through Facebook for hours each week peering into the lives of hundreds of people, some of whom I honestly didn’t know very well and never knew very well. My brain got unwittingly wrapped up in their dramas, their political arguments, their triumphs and tragedies. I saw children fighting with their parents in the comments, political battles, people working out places to meet up — activities usually reserved for the private sphere. When I really thought about it, observing all of this seemed like a really odd way to spend significant time and energy. There are many people out there who I like and would love to get to know better but it doesn’t mean I have to keep up with all of them at that level of granularity.

The Facebook “privacy” model is also maddening and can be surprisingly dehumanizing. I remember once commenting on an old high school friend’s post to gently point out a factual error on a topic of which I had first-hand knowledge (note to self: never worth it on social media) and got attacked by someone I didn’t know for being a “fancy New York CEO.” I had developed a thick skin at that point (um, from being a CEO) so that specific incident didn’t bother me so much — but I it reinforced something I had been thinking: “This environment is incredibly WEIRD. It’s supposed to be about human connection yet so much of what occurs is dehumanizing. Why do we do this to ourselves? This whole thing is very unhealthy.” So I decided to step away. (I stayed on Twitter because I find it fun, I learn a lot from smart people, following doesn’t have to be reciprocal, and there is zero pretense of intimacy, but that’s another story.)

Keeping up with close friends and family post-Facebook: a simple email list

People in my life didn’t have much to say about me leaving Facebook but I did get a few
plaintive emails. How will we keep up with you? How will we see photos of your child? The implication was that without Facebook, all would be lost and we would lose contact forever. I’m exaggerating a little but I was legitimately surprised at the sense of finality that some people seemed to feel, as if there would be no other possibilities for us to connect to each other once I left. email_shiny_iconSure, Facebook might be the most convenient way to connect but I never thought of convenience as the hallmark of good relationships. That said, there were people I did want to stay in touch with so I came up with a plan: start a very small mailing list via Mailchimp’s Forever Free plan to stay in touch with very close friends and my family.  I’ve sent three emails this year and it’s been a great overall experience. Here’s what I learned:

Lesson 1: Quite a few of the people who mattered most to me were not on Facebook.

My mailing list had to start somewhere. To assemble it, I looked at three things: 1) my list of Facebook friends, 2) my personal address book, and 3) the past couple of years people I emailed (by looking at my Sent folder). I have been obsessive about keeping contact info over the past 20+ years so my address book has about 3000 entries in it. As I looked at all of these sources, I ran across names of people who I had had meaningful relationships at some point in my life but had never been on Facebook. One example was one of my aunts who is in her 80s who lives in Durham, NC who would bring me homemade sausage biscuits at my dorm when I went to Duke (as a native Southerner, there is literally nothing more comforting than biscuits from a family member). Using Facebook had given me a false sense that “everyone is there” but she wasn’t. I didn’t realize until I asked around in the family that she had an iPad and was a regular email user. There were more like her than I thought. Some of the entries I had in my address book were outdated but I emailed some of those people with the address I had and heard back nearly every time. I had to track down a couple of people through mutual friends. All of this took more time than clicking “yes” on a friend request on Facebook but the effort was its own reward as it led me to very deliberately reconnect with people along the way. Put simply, using Facebook skews your contact towards other people who use Facebook and that can leave a lot of people you really care about out of your life.

Lesson 2: Email is more intimate and leads to better conversations.

On Facebook, I think most people realize that their posts can be seen by many people so a lot of thought goes into what they post. We’ve gotten so used to it that it seems unremarkable but there’s definitely a performative aspect when you are constantly communicating in front of all of your friends at the same time (seriously, isn’t this a weird way to communicate when you think about it?) Also, you never really know who is going to read what you write given the wacky permissions on Facebook (see my “fancy New York CEO” anecdote above). There is very little performative aspect to writing an email to a known list of people since you’re not (consciously or subconsciously) fishing for “likes” or other comments.  My email list is broadcast-only but any replies go directly to me. The replies I get are much more personal and informal than what I used to see on Facebook. There are no unwanted ads shoving themselves into the conversation. It’s more like old-school letter-writing: intimate, no outside observers, letting your guard down. I don’t sit there and think about what other people might think about what I’m writing — just the person who emailed me. To me, this is closer to what true friendship is like.

Lesson 3: You control the narrative completely in email which provides a much better opportunity for story-telling.

Social media platforms have algorithms that control what you see and the order in which you see it. As I put my emails together, I didn’t realize just how much control I had given up on Facebook until I experienced the absolute control of a personal email. Facebook pushes the cognitive overhead of piecing together the specifics of your friends’ lives by parsing a constant stream of posts, news, and ads. There is no beginning, middle, and end with Facebook. If as Shakespeare wrote all the world’s a stage and we are the players in the story, Facebook is a play where the actors are constantly interrupted by the blare of news headlines or the urgency of advertising messages. Every word and pixel in the content of my email is controlled by me (with the minor exception of a few items in the Mailchimp footer, but no big deal). No ads, no news headlines. It’s hard to read things out of context because the email itself is the context.

Lesson 4: With email, I’m completely free to switch platforms and have lots of choices

Mailchimp is a great platform and a company I trust but if something changed, it would be very little hassle to migrate my list to another platform and company. Email has been around a long time and exporting and importing a list are very easy. I never need to export the content I put into the system because it’s in my email inbox.

Lesson 5: Occasionally, I didn’t know what people were talking about in social situations

I’m occasionally in group conversations at parties and gatherings where people are talking knowingly about some experience most people in the group saw on Facebook already. I can usually figure things out by listening or asking questions. It’s also more fun not to know sometimes so you can, you know, talk about it in person like people used to do.

Lesson 6: It’s somewhat complicated to do it this way, but ultimately worth it

The overall setup and technical aspects are definitely more involved. I don’t assume that anyone wants email from me so I initially sent out an email to people with a link inviting them to the list. Following that link led to a double opt-in process that was difficult for some less tech-savvy people so I had to do some tech support along the way. (Some people either didn’t get the invite email or didn’t want to get my emails, and that’s cool, too!) I’m very comfortable with tech issues but I hadn’t done a lot of hands-on email work in a long time so I had to learn how to use the various features of Mailchimp, which is “easy” but still work. I had to have some sort of design and that required some work, but Mailchimp has reasonable templates you can use to start (besides, great design isn’t that important in this context). Writing the emails takes a lot of work in an absolute sense but pales in comparison to the time I was wasting on Facebook. I’m not subject to aggressive “growth hacking” from Mailchimp to send out my email and I completely forget about it for months at a time (as opposed to Facebook, which was always trying to burrow into my lizard brain to try to make me think about it).

It may not be for everyone but I’m really happy with this new setup. If you have any questions about it, feel free to ask in this thread on Twitter and I’ll do my best to answer.

 

 

The air we breathe

I’ve been in the Bay Area since Monday. I had some work-related obligations but I had planned this trip to do what I loved most from my time I lived here: go mountain biking. It’s been over ten years since I had done this beautiful trail up in the East Bay hills. I had planned this trip so I would have significant breaks for that very purpose and I fell asleep in Brooklyn for a few nights before my trip thinking of the impossible juxtapositions on that trail — the entire bay spread before you to your left, cows grazing to your right, the Golden Gate bridge looking like an eternal occupant of the space even though you know it was created by people not that long ago in a relative sense.

But I haven’t been out on the trails. Instead, I’ve been been loading an ever-worsening air quality map and staying indoors. maskFor the first day or two, I didn’t worry too much about breathing the air. I wasn’t in one of the “sensitive groups” that were advised against breathing it. But as the air quality worsened, I started dragging. Headache, dry mouth, voice growing raspy. I got my hands on an N95 mask and it has become my steady companion. It is an anxiety-ridden companionship. I’ve gone from my usual this-too-shall-pass optimism to an unsteady when-will-we-be-able-to-breathe-like-we-used-to worry.

I’ve been staying in the Berkeley flatlands and the beautiful Berkeley hills that I used to wake up to in the distance every morning in the ten years I lived here have been ghosts on this trip. Every single morning for ten years and I still haven’t seen them once in five days. After a few days, I started to ask myself, “will I see them again?” Writing this now makes it sound more dramatic than maybe it should if you’re not here but there is something distinctly unsettling about not being able to see something you love because it is obscured by noxious smoke that is making it difficult for people around you to breathe, the most basic activity of living. The smoke represents the aftermath of an even greater set of tragedies that are even harder to comprehend. And the smoke keeps coming because the fires keep burning.

I remember the first time I came to the Bay Area and the first thing I noticed was that the light looked different. Everything was brighter and cleaner and the fog came in every night like a cosmic broom to sweep out the day. This is something that the great San-Francisco-born photographer Ansel Adams recognized, too.  I read that Ansel Adams’ earliest memories were of watching the smoke of the fires in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake at age 4. An aftershock threw him into a garden wall and he broke his nose. It was never set correctly and his nose remained crooked his whole life. From the destruction of the fire that formed his earliest memories and the very earth he stood on turning on him and smashing his face, Adams spent his life capturing the beauty of the landscapes around him and we were all lifted up by his work. Maybe there’s some larger lesson to be learned from that, but for now, I’m just waiting to see those Berkeley hills again.

California

Seal_of_CaliforniaI lived in Berkeley, California from 1998-2008 and the state made an indelible impression on me that leaves me feeling deeply connected. The many tragedies out there this week have had me thinking about how much California means to me and how much I’m hoping for the best for everyone out there on the west coast.

The people, the landscape, and the culture of California changed me in ways that are hard to articulate. On a fundamental level, living in California transformed me into a person who thought bigger, dreamed bigger, loved bigger. California opened me up in a million different ways and I will always love it deeply for that. It feels like a home to me, one of the handful of places where I feel in sync with life in a deeply fundamental way.

The landscape there is nearly beyond description. It is absolutely awe-inspiring and I never got used to it. I read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when it came out just after I moved to California and it captured my excitement better than I ever could:

We run back across the highway, back into the red Civic and keep driving. Past the surfers, through the eucalyptus forest before Half Moon Bay, birds swooping up and over then back, circling around us—they too, for us!—then the cliffs before Seaside—then flat for a little while, then a few more bends and can you see this motherfucking sky? I mean, have you fucking been to California?

Oh, yes, I have fucking been to California. And it really is grand. A glorious mess in so many ways — just like some of the people I love most — but just stupendous. I’ll leave it to other people to lay out their critiques but I’m thinking of California with love and the feeling of wonder that never waned, wishing the best for everyone out there during a difficult time. I love you, California.

p.s. couldn’t resist including another passage from Eggers’ book, describing the magic of many places I know and love from my time in Berkeley:

To our right is the Pacific, and because we are hundreds of feet above the ocean, often with nothing in the way of a guardrail between us and it, there is sky not only above us but below us, too. Toph does not like the cliff, is not looking down, but we are driving in the sky, with clouds whipping over the road, the sun flickering through, the sky and ocean below. Only up here does the earth look round, only up here does the horizon dip at its ends, only up here can you see the bend of the planet at the edges of your peripheries. Only here are you almost sure that you are careening on top of a big shiny globe, blurrily spinning—you are never aware of these things in Chicago, it being so flat, so straight—and and and we have been chosen, you see, chosen, and have been given this, it being owed to us, earned by us, all of this—the sky is blue for us, the sun makes passing cars twinkle like toys for us, the ocean undulates and churns for us, murmurs and coos to us. We are owed, see, this is ours, see. We are in California, living in Berkeley, and the sky out here is bigger than anything we’ve ever seen—it goes on forever, is visible from every other hilltop—hilltops!—every turn on the roads of Berkeley, of San Francisco— We have a house, a sublet for the summer, that overlooks the world, up in the Berkeley hills; it’s owned by people, Scandinavians, Beth says, who must have some money, because it’s all the way up there, and it’s all windows and light and decks, and up there we see everything, Oakland to the left, El Cerrito and Richmond to the right, Marin forward, over the Bay, Berkeley below, all red rooftops and trees of cauliflower and columbine, shaped like rockets and explosions, all those people below us, with humbler views; we see the Bay Bridge, clunkety, the Richmond Bridge, straight, low, the Golden Gate, red toothpicks and string, the blue between, the blue above, the gleaming white Land of the Lost/Superman’s North Pole Getaway magic crystals that are San Francisco . . . and at night the whole fucking area is a thousand airstrips, Alcatraz blinking, the flood of halogen down the Bay Bridge, oozing to and fro, a string of Christmas lights being pulled slowly, steadily, and of course the blimps—so many blimps this summer—and stars, not too many visible, with the cities and all, but still some, a hundred maybe, enough, how many do you need, after all? From our windows, from our deck it’s a lobotomizing view, which negates the need for movement or thought—it is all there, it can all be kept track of without a turn of the head. The mornings are filmstrip white and we eat breakfast on the deck, and later we eat lunch there, we eat dinner there, we read there, play cards, always with the whole thing, the postcard tableau, just there, all those little people, too much view to seem real, but then again, then again, nothing really is all that real anymore, we must remember, of course, of course. (Or is it just the opposite? Is everything more real? Aha.) Behind our house, not too far, is Tilden Park, an endless expanse of lakes and trees and hills, mohair hills touched by patches of shrubs—as in, mohair hill, mohair hill, mohair hill, then an armpit of dark green, then the mohair hills that go on and on, like sleeping lions, as far as— Especially when you’re on your bike, starting from Inspiration Point (No. Yes.), pedaling into the wind on your way in and with the wind on the way back, the hills going on until Richmond, miles away, where the factories and power plants and big tanks full of deadly or life-giving things are, and the bike path goes the whole way there, all the while with the Bay visible in the distance to the left, the hills on and on to the right, until Mount Diablo, the biggest of all of them, king of the mohair hills, twenty miles east, northeast, whatever. The paths are paralleled with and perpendiculared by wood and wire fences that hold cows, and sometimes sheep, and all this is minutes away, all there, from our house, our house behind which there’s even a hiking trail that reaches, just about reaches, the huge rock, Grotto Rock, that juts out twenty feet beyond our back deck, and on some days, when Toph and I are eating our breakfast out on the porch, with the sun crazy and happy for us, smiling and teary-eyed with pride, there will suddenly appear hikers, male and female, always coupled, in their khaki shorts and brown shoes and hats on backward, who will step up from below the rock, and then be atop it, and then be there, holding their backpack straps with their thumbs, at eye level with us, as we eat our breakfast on our redwood deck, twenty feet away. “Hello!” we say, Toph and I, with compact waves. “Hello,” they say, surprised to see us there, eating our breakfast, at eye level. It is nice, this moment. Then it’s awkward, because they are at the the top, the end, of their hike, and want only to sit down for a while and admire the view, but can’t help be conscious of these two people, impossibly handsome people, Toph and I, who are sitting not twenty feet behind them, eating Apple Jacks from the box.

 

Seven surprises for new CEOs

Being CEO is different than any other executive position. I’ve lived it myself.  I also work with many CEO clients in my coaching practice who are adjusting to the role and are surprised by some of the dynamics around it.

I’ve found that when I share a particular HBR piece from 2004 with them and they read it, those CEOs I work with often breathe a sigh of relief as they recognize they are having an entirely normal experience in the new role. The piece is “Seven surprises for new CEOs” and this is the intro paragraph:

Bearing full responsibility for a company’s success or failure, but being unable to control most of what will determine it. Having more authority than anyone else in the organization, but being unable to wield it without unhappy consequences. Sound like a tough job? It is—ask a CEO. Surprised by the description? So are CEOs who are new to the role. Just when an executive feels he has reached the pinnacle of his career, capturing the coveted goal for which he has so long been striving, he begins to realize that the CEO’s job is different and more complicated than he imagined. [yes, the authors need to work on their gender language. -CD]

The seven surprises are:

  1. You Can’t Run the Company
  2. Giving Orders Is Very Costly
  3. It Is Hard to Know What Is Really Going On
  4. You Are Always Sending a Message
  5. You Are Not the Boss
  6. Pleasing Shareholders Is Not the Goal
  7. You Are Still Only Human

That’s the core list of seven but the explanations of each are worth reading. Be sure to check it out if you’re a new CEO or if you work with one and want to understand him/her better.

Nonviolent communication and the concept of “denial of responsibility”

nvc_book

One of the most important books ever written is Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reportedly gave the book to his team and made them read it when he took over as CEO in 2014 — an admirable leadership move and a serious statement on the kind of culture he wanted to enforce at Microsoft. I’m certain that the concept of nonviolent communication (often referred to as NVC) has contributed to their incredible success since then. I saw a great example of nonviolent CEO communication today and wanted to call it out — but first a little background.

One category of violent communication (“violent communication” being defined as “communication that blocks compassion”) is “denial of responsibility.”  It’s described this way in the book:

Another kind of life-alienating communication is denial of responsibility. Communication is life-alienating when it clouds our awareness that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. The use of the common expression have to, as in “There are some things you have to do, whether you like it or not,” illustrates how personal responsibility for our actions can be obscured in speech. The phrase makes one feel, as in “You make me feel guilty,” is another example of how language facilitates denial of personal responsibility for our own feelings and thoughts.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which documents the war crimes trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt quotes Eichmann saying that he and his fellow officers had their own name for the responsibility-denying language they used. They called it Amtssprache, loosely translated into English as “office talk” or “bureaucratese.” For example, if asked why they took a certain action, the response would be, “I had to.” If asked why they “had to,” the answer would be, “Superiors’ orders.” “Company policy.” “It was the law.”  We deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to factors outside ourselves:

* Vague, impersonal forces—“I cleaned my room because I had to.”

* Our condition, diagnosis, or personal or psychological history—“I drink because I am an alcoholic.

* The actions of others—“I hit my child because he ran into the street.

* The dictates of authority—“I lied to the client because the boss told me to.

* Group pressure—“I started smoking because all my friends did.

* Institutional policies, rules, and regulations—“I have to suspend you for this infraction because it’s the school policy.

* Gender roles, social roles, or age roles—”I hate going to work, but I do it because I am a husband and a father.

* Uncontrollable impulses—“I was overcome by my urge to eat the candy bar.

We have all seen this type of communication. We are so used to these kinds of “denial of responsibility” statements from our leaders that we no longer see them as the violent language that they are. This type of language is rife in our culture and I’m unfortunately sure that I’ve used it myself. But I think positive examples are worth calling out, and Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson’s tweet today and the post it links to fits the bill:

Twilio is a publicly-traded company so Jeff has substantial responsibilities as a CEO. It is not an easy job (take it from me). But Jeff is also an actual person (and from spending some time with Jeff and following his career, I put him squarely in the “good person” category). It would be really easy for Jeff to say that he doesn’t comment on politics because he’s the CEO of a public company — and many do. He could say he’s not sure of the political views of his shareholders so he will remain silent out of deference to them. He could say he won’t speak out unless he has a “business case” for speaking out (and this Wall St. Journal columnists argues just that: “You’re a CEO: Stop Talking Like a Political Activist.“) These all follow the pattern of “denial of responsibility” described by Rosenberg. In doing all of those things, Jeff would be denying his responsibility as a person and a citizen.

But Jeff didn’t follow the “denial of responsibility” pattern and I applaud him for speaking his mind clearly and directly. I think Jeff’s post is a great example of nonviolent communication in action by actively avoiding the “denial of responsibility” traps that are really easy for CEOs to fall into, especially public company ones:

  • Vague, impersonal forces—“the markets might react poorly.”
  • The dictates of authority—“My shareholders wouldn’t like it.
  • Institutional policies, rules, and regulations—“I can’t say anything because public company CEOs don’t talk about politics without a business case
  • Gender roles, social roles, or age roles (I’m defining “CEO as a ‘social role’ here)—”I wish I could say something, but I’m a public company CEO.

Thanks for your leadership, Jeff, and for stepping out into the truth. We can all learn from your example.

Solitude and leadership

lincoln

Lincoln alone, writing the Emancipation Proclamation (source)

One of my favorite talks is “Solitude and Leadership” by William Deresiewicz in a lecture that was delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009. It’s about the critical and often overlooked link between solitude and leadership. We tend to think of leaders when they are “in the arena” or practicing “management by walking around” but not as much about the necessity for leaders to spend time sitting alone, thinking and reflecting.

The transcript of the talk is worth reading in its entirety but I pulled a few quotes below to give you a flavor:

My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.

Leadership is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.

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We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

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Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

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You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

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it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

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Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

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I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

Again, here’s the link to the full speech.