Hyperlocal living and doing the HeyBK podcast

For six years, I ran Etsy, a global company that did business in nearly every country in the world. I spent a lot of times on planes, meeting with people in countries all over the world, and doing calls in all time zones at all times of the day. This sounds glamorous to some people but focusing on a global business that needed constant attention meant that I didn’t connect with folks in my immediate neighborhood as much as I would have liked. I was always on the way to somewhere else.

Since then, I’ve been happily spending most of my time within a small chunk of Brooklyn. Everything is there: home, the two non-profits where I serve on the board (St. Ann’s Warehouse and Jalopy), a little office space I rent to do work related to my coaching business and the class I’ve been teaching at Cornell Tech, and the music shop where both my son and I take piano lessons.

It’s in that hyperlocal spirit of living that I did the HeyBK podcast with my friend Ofer Cohen. I talk a little bit about my background, building Etsy, what makes NYC tech special, and finding real community in Brooklyn. Check out the episode here.

(The episode just before mine was with my friend Susan Feldman, the amazing Artistic Director at St. Ann’s Warehouse for nearly 40 years and one of the people I admire most in Brooklyn! Check that out, too.)

Tennessee Williams’ profound meditation on “success”

On November 30, 1947 playwright Tennessee Williams published an essay in the NY Times called “On A Streetcar Named Success” (available in full on Scribd or in the NYT archives for subscribers). Three years earlier, he had achieved great fame for his play The Glass Menagerie and when the essay was published he was four days away from the New York opening of A Streetcar Named Desire. In the essay, he reflects on the fleeting satisfactions of wealth, fame, and “success” and what it really means to be a human being. I think he nails it absolutely perfectly and this essay has become one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. This is an excerpt (but please do read the whole thing):  

It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial. The right condition for him is that in which his work is not only convenient but unavoidable.

This is an over-simplification. One does not escape that easily from the seductions of an effete way of life. You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will now continue my life as it was before this thing. Success happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to — why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.

You know, then, that the public Somebody you are when you “have a name” is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own volition — and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!

It is never altogether too late, unless you embrace the Bitch Goddess, as William James called her, with both arms and find in her smothering caresses exactly what the homesick little boy in you always wanted, absolute protection and utter effortlessness. Security is a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that’s what you are or were intended to be. Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about — What good is it? Perhaps to get an honest answer you will have to give him a shot of truth-serum but the word he will finally groan is unprintable in genteel publications.

Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive — that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims. William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life — live!” That time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

 

 

 

Was LBJ a racist?

I recently bought tickets to see Robert Caro as part of BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series in Brooklyn (if you live in Brooklyn or are visiting, it’s an awesome series). In one of those “what five living people would you have to dinner?” exercises, Caro would be on my list. His bios of Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and LBJ (The Years of Lyndon Johnson – four volumes with a final volume on the way) are absolutely incredible and worth the years it might take you to read them. I’ve read both and they are on my all-time top 10 list. Read them if you can.IMG_1790

In the Q&A section of his talk, I asked Caro a question about LBJ’s “true” self as it relates to his
views on race since he may know more about LBJ than any person alive. You can get some sense of it by reading the books but to be able to ask Caro directly was an incredible honor (and an even greater honor to have him sign my copy of The Power Broker and thank me for the question!) He gave such a rich answer that I’m posting it here with no commentary, only a few hyperlinks.

——

Me: Lyndon Johnson was a complex man. On the one hand, some would call him a racist, yet no President had more of an impact on civil rights and voting rights. I’m curious, how do you think about that juxtaposition?

Robert Caro: What you said is one of the most interesting things. For the first 20 years he was in Congress and the Senate, he was 100 percent against civil rights. He voted against every single civil rights bill, even against bills that would have made lynching a crime. He voted against everything.

It wasn’t just his votes. He was a Southern strategist. He was actually the protégé of the Senator Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia, who was the leader of the Southern bloc for 20 years. It was Russell who raised him to power in the Senate. Because Russell believed — Lyndon Johnson made him believe — that he, Lyndon Johnson, hated black people as much as Richard Russell did. It’s then, he said, “This is the same man,” who in 1957 passes the first Civil Rights Act.

Well, the Southerners are still such in power in Congress. Then when he becomes president there for Kennedy’s assassination, there’s this wonderful scene. He has to make a speech to Congress three days after the assassination to a joint session of Congress. He comes down, and he’s still not in the Oval Office of the White House. He’s living in his home in Spring Valley in Washington. His speechwriters — four speechwriters — are downstairs writing his speech. Around midnight, Lyndon Johnson comes down in his bathrobe. and he says, “How are you doing?” They said, “The only thing we’re agreeing on is you must make a priority of civil rights. Try not to mention civil rights, because if you do that, the Southerners are going to do the same thing to you that they did to Kennedy.” “They’re going to stop everything if you try to pass civil rights.” They said, “It’s a noble cause, but it’s a lost cause. Don’t bring it up.” Johnson says, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for, then?” [I wrote about this on my blog a while back]

In his speech, he says, “The first priority is to pass John Kennedy’s civil rights bill.” [YouTube video – see segment starting at 15:20] To watch him do that, as I said before, I’m not sure we would have it today if he hadn’t been the president then. You say, “Did this man really believe this, or was it politically just expedient?” The reason I feel like no — that he always believed it — is when he was in college, he was very poor. Including his sophomore and junior years, he had to drop out of college and teach elementary school for a year to get enough money to go on. He teaches in this largely Mexican town near the border called Cotulla in Texas. The kids are, after listening and reading the oral histories more than the time he grew up — there are not too many alive. After reading what these children had said later, I wrote, “No teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared.”

I feel Lyndon Johnson always wanted to do this. He was writing this great speech, which we all know, the “we shall overcome” speech [YouTube video]. It’s not “them” who must overcome, it’s “we” who must overcome prejudice, and “we” shall overcome. That’s the speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who I asked something like, “How do you know he meant it?” Goodwin said that he wasn’t sure that Johnson did, until Johnson called him and said, “You know, I told you about teaching those kids in Cotulla.” He said, “Well, I’ll tell you something. I swore to myself then that if I ever got power to help them, I would help them. Now, I have the power, and I mean to use it.” I feel like Lyndon Johnson intended to do this all his life when he got power.

Can charisma be learned? (Yes.)

One of the recent lectures I put together for the BigCo Studio class at Cornell Tech was about pitching an idea and winning support for it inside the specific context of big companies. Anyone who wants to see Airbnb’s original pitch deck can find it easily on the Internet but the heroics of Sally — the Director of Division X inside of Acme Corporation — pitching and winning organizational support for a new initiative are lost to the annals of that company’s water-cooler history, never to be heard from outside the walls of the BigCo. In our class, we are trying to surface what we’ve learned about success in BigCos since those BigCo experiences are not shared in the same way as the legends of the startup world.

One of the hardest parts about teaching if you’ve been doing the actual work for a while is clearly articulating concepts and approaches that may have become intuitive for you from experience but are entirely new to those whom you are teaching. In this spirit, one of my early drafts of my lecture about pitching an idea and winning support for it had a slide with this simple phrase: Being charming helps. I believe this to be true but I was having a hard time articulating it in an actionable way, which is the essence of teaching. Without being actionable, that phrase is just a useless aphorism. I didn’t want to take it out, though, since I think it’s so important. This quandary forced me to think harder and dig deeper on the topic: can you learn to be charming? I found some research in an HBR piece, “Learning Charisma.”

In this piece, the authors identify a dozen “CLTs” (charismatic leadership tactics), nine of which are verbal and three of which are non-verbal. The verbal CLTs are:  1) metaphors, similes, and analogies, 2) stories and anecdotes, 3) contrasts, 4) rhetorical questions, 5) 3-part lists, 6) expressions of moral conviction, 7) reflections of the group’s sentiments, 8) setting of high goals, and 9) conveying confidence that high goals can be achieved. The  non-verbal ones are 1) animated voice, 2) facial expressions, and 3) gestures. You should read the article to see more context on the list.

What does using these CLTs do? In short, their research shows that training people to be charismatic via use of them delivers results. Here’s the data:

  • When a group of midlevel European executives doubled their use of CLTs in presentations, observers’ numerical ratings of their competence as leaders jump by about 60% on average.
  • About 65% of people who have been trained in the CLTs receive above-average ratings as leaders, in contrast with only 35% of those who have not been trained

This was a little surprising to me and I’ll admit that I had a visceral negative reaction to the list as I thought about leaders being trained to do things like display “expressions of moral conviction.” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the list is pretty useful and rings true. The researchers don’t say that one should be delivering fake “expressions of moral conviction.” Viewed in a positive light, the list of CLTs is simply a structured way to encourage leaders to connect with and articulate their true sense of purpose, tell stories that people can understand, relate to how people are feeling, articulate high goals, and inspire teams to meet those goals.

So, if you thought charisma couldn’t be taught (as I did), think again. Sometimes when you have the opportunity to teach, you end up learning something yourself.


p.s. John Kotter at HBS has done a lot of interesting work on gaining buy-in for ideas inside BigCos, so I talked a lot about his work in my lecture, including his awesome book Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down which he talks about in this interview. Key quote:

Whether it’s a little deal with half a dozen players or a big decision at a company with hundreds or thousands of people, you’re in the murky land of human nature and group dynamics. And look at the curriculum in business schools — compare the amount of time that’s spent coming up with the idea that solves the problem with the amount of time spent thinking about how we can take this idea and communicate it, get enough people to understand it, support it, and then go on and make it happen. . . I think the ratio in most MBA programs is easily 80/20.

He’s right based on my experience inside companies. Our class is multidisciplinary and includes MBAs. In my lecture, I followed Kotter’s lead and flipped the ratio to 80/20 in favor of talking about human nature and human dynamics. Kotter’s book includes a list of four specific strategies people use to shoot ideas down in complex organizations along with twenty-four specific and commonly-used questions / comments / arguments used in those situations. It’s an excellent list and worthy of carrying on a laminated card in one’s wallet or purse. Two examples from the twenty-four are “Tried that before — didn’t work” and “You have a chicken and egg problem” but my absolute favorite (and one I’ve heard many times) is “What about THIS?” — “THIS” being a worrisome thing that the proposers know nothing about and the attackers keep secret until just the right moment].”

 

The magic of the personal check-in: red, yellow, green

Many years ago, my coach Jerry Colonna from Reboot taught me the idea of a “red / yellow / green” check-in. In a nutshell, it’s a practice where meeting participants kick off a meeting and talk about how they are feeling coming into the meeting: happy, angry, frustrated, tired. . . . any answer is fine. “Red” means you are having trouble focusing,traffic-light-157459_640 you’re extremely distracted, and/or you’re feeling distressed. “Green” means you are feeling good, focused, relaxed, and ready for any discussion. “Yellow” is somewhere in between. Bart Lorang (founder/CEO of FullContact) wrote a great post about the use of personal check-ins in his company, which he also learned from Reboot: “Red, Yellow, Green: Bringing Personal Check-Ins to the Office.”

I’ll admit up front that when I first was introduced to this many years ago, my first thought was, “this is business, why are we doing this? but I’m game to try anything. Since then, I’ve seen it work with my own eyes and became a passionate believer in the practice (on the rare occasion when it didn’t seem to work, it was usually because one or more participants weren’t willing to be truly vulnerable — success in this practice does require expressing how you feel authentically!)

Proof that it works

Much later, I learned that there are quantitative proof points that the “red/yellow/green” practice delivers real business results. See this excerpt from a Harvard Business Review piece, “How One Hospital Improved Patient Safety in 10 Minutes a Day“:

Most modern health care improvements seem to involve expensive technology and an uncomfortable amount of change management. But clinical and nonclinical staff at the Rotterdam Eye Hospital have improved patient care and raised staff morale at a very modest cost: 10 minutes a day and a special deck of cards.

Members of the hospital’s design thinking team were inspired by something they saw when they boarded a KLM Airline flight: During a pre-flight huddle of the cabin crew, team members introduced each other and then asked each other two questions on flight safety.

When they got back to Rotterdam Eye Hospital, the managers asked themselves why couldn’t they add a similar feature to their own “team-start” huddles?

. . .

Here’s how it works:

At the start of every shift, the team members get together for a brief “team-start.” Each team member rates his or her own mood as green (I’m good), orange (I’m okay but I have a few things I’m concerned about) or red (I’m under stress). The rest of the team doesn’t need to know that you’re under stress because you’re having a dispute with your landlord or you are worried about your ill toddler. How you feel, however, is important because it affects how you should be treated.

. . .

. . . the hospital’s performance on its patient-safety audits has risen, and caregiver job satisfaction has improved substantially, moving from 8.0 to 9.2 on a 10-point scale after staff began playing the game. The nursing home and rehabilitation center reported similar results.

The staffers have observed a variety of other gains as well. For instance, the game has encouraged team members to get to know each other better, and patients are reassured when team members are familiar with each other.

Psychological safety

Still thinking this is weird or that expressing one’s “feelings” doesn’t belong in the results-oriented business world? That it’s all about being tough and hiding one’s emotions? Be sure to read Charles Duhigg’s excellent piece in the NYT Magazine: “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” Put simply, Google — a data-driven company if there ever was one — did a huge study of what makes teams successful and this was the core conclusion: “Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”

What is “psychological safety”? It’s “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” (from a 1999 paper by Amy Edmondson at Cornell)

The reason that the red/yellow/green exercise is so powerful is that it can quickly create a space of “psychological safety” that helps teams do better work. It’s also quick and simple. You don’t need to hire expensive consultants or take personality tests or get a special certification. In my coaching practice, I’ve had a couple of initially skeptical CEO clients try it and the reports back have been glowing. As Bart notes in his post: “it’s not intended to be a big group therapy session. It’s intended to be a tool for us to use to note how we’re doing, understand the root cause, put that aside, and get to work!”

Yes, expressing how you’re feeling in your team meeting actually has the effect of helping you more quickly get down to business. If you’re serious about building a great team at any level, I highly recommend the practice.

(Note: I am “green” at the moment because I enjoyed writing this post. -CD)

p.s. It’s good for one’s personal life, too. Ever had a family situation where someone said, “I wonder what’s up with [mom/dad/brother/sister]?” Imagine how things would be if that person you’re wondering about said up front how they were feeling and why so you didn’t have to speculate?

What I’ve learned studying Dr. King

Last year, I wrote a post about how Dr. King’s dream has become more meaningful to me as my wife and I raise a family with a son of Korean descent. My first awareness of Dr. King was as a child of eleven years old growing up in North Carolina hearing my relatives talk about the fight in the Congress for the King holiday that we are observing today. The talk was often ugly and largely came from the Republican Senator from my home state of North Carolina, Jesse Helms. This story from the Washington Post in October of 1983 sets the scene pretty well. Apart from some uglier comments, Helms said, “[King’s] very name itself remains a source of tension, a deeply troubling symbol of divided society.” A leader clearly and powerfully calling out racism being labeled as divisive sounds familiar — but I’m not here to write about that. Instead, I wanted to write about what I’ve learned since way back then.

I’ve been studying Dr. King and his work on a deeper level over the past
several years. I am by no means an “expert” on his life and work, only an eager student.  I found so much more as I’ve studied beyond the Dr. King of that soaring “I have a mlkdream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Dr. King was a radical. King did do and say things that attacked the political, economic, and social order of the time. He was a man of dazzling intellect, an inspirational storyteller, a soaring orator, and a political pragmatist. I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned along with a few readings I don’t see quoted often (or only quoted superficially) to hopefully inspire others to learn more about Dr. King on this special holiday. This summer, I traced some of King’s footsteps in Memphis and it profoundly and movingly affected my understanding of the man and his true underlying mission.

1968: The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and “dangerous unselfishness”

The Dr. King celebrated today is often the Dr. King of the March on Washington in 1963 lincolnmemorialwhere he gave his “I have a dream speech.” And it absolutely should be celebrated. This past November, I visited the Lincoln Memorial and I took a few moments to stand with my son there on the sacred ground where Dr. King delivered the speech. I looked out over the Mall with my arm around my son and tried to explain through tears what Dr. King had said that day and how the pursuit of that dream had made our family possible. In that moment, I felt Dr. King’s soaring spirit and felt a sense of loss but also deep gratitude for Dr. King’s words that day.

Like all of us, Dr. King changed with time. I wanted to know more about how Dr. King’s thinking evolved over the rest of his life. This past summer, I visited Memphis to re-trace Dr. King’s footsteps there in his final days. First, it’s important to note why King was in Memphis in 1968. He made multiple visits to support the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and during those visits he often preached at the Mason Temple, where he delivered his extraordinary “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the last night of his life. In various difficult times in my life, I found myself listening to or reading this speech. This is a speech that I can’t even begin to excerpt, as every word of it is powerful (I beg you to read it and listen to it) — but the call to help each other in this passage always makes me pause:

Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

Dangerous unselfishness. This phrase has such incredible power. Dr. King was himself practicing “dangerous unselfishness” in the very act of giving this amazing speech as I learned later in the story behind the mountaintop speech. A bone-tired, sick, and feverish Dr. King had asked his friend Ralph Abernathy to take his place. As the crowds gathered, Abernathy called Dr. King to tell him that the crowd was desperate to see him so King gathered what little remaining strength he had and made his way to the Mason Temple. He spoke for about 45 minutes. He gave direction, he inspired, he prophesied his own death, and comforted his followers that he had seen the Promised Land and they would get there with him or without him. It’s a stunning speech and words fail when trying to describe the power of it knowing what happened the next day. When the speech was over, he stumbled back into his seat, absolutely exhausted. If you read the speech or listen to the audio, it’s hard to imagine that Dr. King is so fatigued in that moment. But this is what leaders do and I’m profoundly moved by Dr. King’s display of power and strength in that moment, the last time we were all able to hear his voice.

I wanted to see where Dr. King gave that speech with my own eyes and that journey turned into a profound experience in a way that I didn’t expect. I punched the address for the Mason Temple into my phone and drove over with my family. I thought about getting to my destination but not what I masontemplewould see on the journey. On the short drive from downtown Memphis to the Mason Temple, I saw intense poverty all around. I learned later that by some measures, present-day Memphis is the poorest metro area in the country, with a child poverty rate of 44.7%. Dr. King was focusing increasingly on the Poor People’s Campaign in his later days and my drive to the Mason Temple unexpectedly brought the urgency of that work into sharp relief. I have paid more attention to this section of his mountaintop speech ever since:

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

The dream of Dr. King has not yet been realized in 2018 and the work continues in the modern-day Poor People’s Campaign led by Rev. William Barber from my home state of North Carolina. The work isn’t over.

As I looked around me on that drive that day, I thought of Dr. King’s decision after finishing his studies in Boston when he decided that he needed to go back South and his wife and partner in the movement Coretta later recalled him saying (as noted in this excellent Harvard Business School case study), “I am going back South. I am going to live in the South because this is where I’m needed.” I thought of Dr. King in April 1968, a moment where he was focusing his energy on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. He was going where he was needed again.

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Dr. King’s final book is urgently entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  The book is profound on a number of levels and my print copy is packed with underlines and notes in the margin (high-level summary). The incisive commentary on the role of white liberals in the larger movement is something that I’m still thinking about (see pages 93-107). An over-arching message in the book is the common cause of all people. The “we” in the title is not just all Americans but everyone around the world. In the foreword, his widow Coretta Scott King writes just weeks after his assassination:

In this work Martin Luther King Jr. stresses the common cause of all the disinherited, white and black, laying the basis for the contemporary struggles now unfolding around economic issues. He spoke out sharply for all the poor in all their hues, for he knew if color made them different, misery and oppression made them the same.

This is reflected in Dr. King’s words in the book: “There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro. Their need for a war on poverty is no less desperate than the Negro’s.” (page 53 and a deeper discussion starting on page 170 in which “guaranteed income” is discussed as a remedy)

The first chapter of the book opens with the scene around the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Later in the book (page 87), Dr. King notes: “Their is a tragic gulf between civil rights laws passed and civil rights laws implemented.” In this first chapter, Dr. King lays out the landscape that remained one year after the bill was signed — one that sounds disturbingly contemporary:

A year later, the white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue in California, Maryland, and elsewhere. In several Southern states men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or only narrowly missed election, their magic achieved with a “witches” brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths, and whole lies. (page 2)

This is voice of the “radical” Dr. King that I use in the most positive sense, the man that Jesse Helms spoke of who hasn’t really gotten what he wants and isn’t willing to go quietly. Dr. King is urgent and unsparing in the rest of the book, with one example being his strong critique of the laggard North (King was living and working in Chicago until he left to start writing the book):

The civil rights revolution appeared to drain energy from the North, energy that flowed South to transform life there while stagnation blanketed Northern Negro communities.

This was a decade of role reversal. The North, heretofore vital, languished, while the traditionally passive South burst with dynamic vigor. The North at best stood still as the South caught up. (pages 19-20)

At the time, Dr. King was also facing opposition among allies who wanted to take a more violent approach to change. He discusses the Black Power movement at length and defends the critique of his non-violent philosophy in very clear, pragmatic, and urgent terms:

Anyone leading a violent rebellion must be willing to make an honest assessment regarding the possible casualties to a minority population confronting a well-armed, wealthy majority with a fanatical right wing that would delight in exterminating thousands of black men, women, and children.

How I’m remembering Dr. King today

When I think of Dr. King today on this special holiday, I’m not thinking about the man who stood at the Lincoln Memorial that day in 1963 but the man who went to the Mason Temple the night of April 3, 1968. I’m thinking of the weary leader who had just finished a book packed with urgent messages, fought tough battles in Chicago, was seeing splintering in his own movement, and had come to Memphis to stand with poor sanitation workers, workers who held signs that simply asserted their humanity: “I AM A MAN.” I think of the tired Dr. King making his way from the Lorraine Motel out to the Mason Temple after he got the call from Ralph Abernathy, looking out the car window and seeing again the urgency of the poverty along the route to a place where he had spoken many times, building his resolve and summoning the strength to take the podium that night. I think of the Dr. King who had spoken out against the Vietnam War and paid the price with both his allies and his enemies.  I think of him barely able to stand upright from his weariness, getting the call that the people wanted to see him, and raising his weary body off the bed to make that last incredible speech at the Mason Temple. I think of how he consistently modeled leadership and went where he was needed.

“A tough mind and a tender heart” / Power and love

Dr. King’s power as a leader came in part from the successful integration of seeming opposites and he stated better than anyone how these opposing forces not only co-exist but are necessary. In 1959, he gave a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” It’s my favorite sermon of his and worth reading in its entirety but the opening is a good start:

A French philosopher said, “No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.”  The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites.   Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites.  The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic.  The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant.  Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble.  But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.  The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two.

Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites.  He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the recalcitrance of political officials and the intransigence of the protectors of the old order.  He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism.  So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the mist of wolves.”  And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects.  We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

King lived in this world of “antitheses strongly marked.” In Where Do We Go From Here?, he writes:

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense, power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, the philosopher of “will to power,” to reject the Christian concept of love. It was the same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy fo the “will to power” in the name of the Christian idea of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting against everything that stands against love. (pages 37-38)

These are principles to live by: tough mind/tender heart. Power/love. To me, this is what humane leadership is all about and we can all learn from Dr. King’s powerful witness to these concepts.

Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel

The day after we drove to the Mason Temple, I went to the National Civil Rights Museum at the site of the Lorraine Motel. I can’t begin to describe how profound the museum is, but I’ll say for now that it should be considered a mandatory visit for every American. I am still following up on what I learned there and it will take years if not decades. Going in, if you’ve read or heard anything about the museum, you know that the final exhibit is a view into Dr. King’s hotel room, Room 306, which has been preserved as it was on that fateful day when he stepped out out on the balcony and lost his life. But it’s still startling when you come to that place. What struck me looking into this now-sacred space was the ordinary-ness of Dr. King. The room was incredibly modest. A simple bed. A newspaper. The effects of a man with few worldly possessions. A man who was deeply tired but committed to going where he was needed. All of my prior conceptions of Dr. King disappeared in that moment and as I looked into the place where he took some of his final breaths, I wept for the man we lost.

Today, I will try to remember and honor the fullness of Dr. King, the dream that is still not realized, and the ongoing lessons of studying and learning from his work. The piercing question he asked in the title of his book — where do we go from here: chaos or community? — is still one we need to answer today.

Readings

Other quotes from Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:

  • When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. (page 183)
  • There is the convenient temptation to attribute the current turmoil and bitterness throughout the world to the presence of a Communist conspiracy to undermine Europe and America but the potential explosiveness of our world situation is much more attributable to disillusionment with the promises of Christianity and technology! (page 185)
  • We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “person”-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy. (page 196-197)

 

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.