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On Finding my Moving Center Today

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I love to travel.  For most of my career going to work has meant getting on a plane and flying somewhere to engage with clients. I have landed among other places in Shanghai, Warsaw, Johannesburg,  Bangalore, Lima, Bangkok, and cities all across the U.S.  I am extraordinarily grateful for the vistas and venues I have been able to explore.  Now that I am confined to home with Covid-19 quarantine for the indefinite future, I am prompted to examine as never before how much being in motion – going somewhere, doing something – has defined my sense of self. 

Today I pause to find my moving center without going anywhere. Sometimes it takes me hours, even days, to modify my agenda(s), release my compulsions, quiet all the chatter and distractions in my head, and trust that the moment is more than sufficient to sustain and enliven me. Even then I realize there is still much in motion within me and around me. I discover it is a very elusive task to find and know my center, the essence of me, apart from the current environ in which I may be situated, for better or worse.

The current global pandemic environment threatens our quest for stability, predictability, and certainty as never before in my lifetime. External sources of assurance are not stable  —  whether enduring employment, financial liquidity, fully-stocked shelves, or merely a place to convene with others.  The task of being with ourselves, calming ourselves, knowing ourselves is stripped of our usual props and platforms.  With more angst than usual, we look for a place to land in the midst of unanticipated turbulence.

The sage advice and wisdom of many whom I have trusted over the years is to find and build on something solid as a rock, something that would secure me regardless of external circumstances. But what if my security lies not on a rock but rather in a river? What if I choose river rather than rock? In the span of my lifetime I have experienced myself as a man with many selves, a sense of identity that sometimes confounds me but nevertheless defines me. A continual process of exploring, owning, engaging these different aspects of myself assures me that I am for real, I am alive.   I might well describe this as my “moving center” – the essence of who I am without fixing myself to one inviolate anchor or rock. It’s a paradox. 

Much as a gyroscope functions in perpetual motion, most balanced while spinning, I know myself most assuredly when I am in some sort of “flow state” – a veritable stream of moving parts and pieces, all of which comprise who I am.  Claiming that fluidity, knowing that I am always in process, brings me alive, regardless of the external world that I find myself in.  Though global pandemic pervades and economic collapse threatens, I am for these moments thankfully grounded in a place that is uniquely mine. It changes, it evolves, it spins and turns – and I am in that movement most fully myself.  And most alive! The journey inward to embrace a dynamic stability within is the most daring and arduous adventure of all.

Leading with the Artist in Me: 3 Outcomes

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“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…”  

Mary Oliver, the poet

Some months ago I was challenged by a trusted friend to lead more with the artist in me.  I wasn’t even sure there was an artist in me,  though I believe I do have some artistic sensibilities.  In any case, I am choosing to lead more with that intention – to discover and honor the artist in me these days.  I am already aware of three specific outcomes as a result:

1. Less concern about performance and more attentive to expression

I have a strong feeling function (Myers-Briggs).  Nevertheless, I am perplexed by how much I can over-think the world as it presents itself to me.  I fail to step into action as much as I would like.  Expressing myself with more heart and choosing to think less about what is happening is one consequence of leading more with the artist in me.  In particular, I am trying to calculate less how I am performing and wanting to explore in action new ways of being myself.

2.  Don’t necessarily need to scale

My work with social entrepreneurs and innovative leaders immersed in design thinking reinforces the belief that one’s “project,” whatever it may be, should be capable of expansion and growth.  Bigger is better!  The world certainly needs visionary change agents that can transform an entire enterprise or maybe even a whole continent.  But as John Seely Brown astutely notes: “Artists are not included in our debate on how to build the economy for the future.”  I am more at peace with myself these days as professional whose contribution may be less about replication and more about insight.

3. See the world differently

The artist sees the world with more color and texture, different nuance and variation, greater depth and broader perspective. In the spirit of Mary Oliver’s poetic wisdom, I am frequently more animated and enlivened by what I encounter these days, whether close to home as part of my routine or in distant venues as I travel.  I encounter myself in unexpected and sometimes unfamiliar ways.  I realize, upon reflection, I am simply getting closer to parts of myself I have ignored or denied for too long.  New energy results.

I am learning not to be so self-conscious.

Leading with the Artist

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“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…”
-Mary Oliver, the poet

Some months ago I was challenged by a trusted friend to lead more with the artist in me. I wasn’t even sure there was an artist in me, though I believe I have some artistic sensibilities. In any case, I chose to try leading more with that intention – to discover and honor the artist in me. I am already aware of three specific outcomes:

  1. Less concern about performance and more attentive to expression
    I have a strong feeling function (Myers-Briggs). Still, I am perplexed by how much I can over-think how I want to show up in the world. Consequently, I fail to step into action as much as I would like. Expressing myself with more heart and choosing to think less about what is happening is one consequence of leading more with the artist in me. I am calculating less how I am performing and choosing to explore in action new ways of being myself.
  2. Don’t necessarily need to scale
    My work with social entrepreneurs and innovative leaders immersed in design thinking reinforces the belief that one’s “project” should always be capable of expansion and growth. Bigger is better! The world certainly needs visionary change agents who can transform an entire enterprise or maybe even a whole continent. But as John Seely Brown astutely contests: “Artists are not included in our debate on how to build the economy for the future.” I am more at peace with myself these days as a professional whose contribution may be less about replication and more about insight.
  3. See the world differently
    The artist sees the world with more color and texture, different nuances and variations, greater depth and broader perspective. In the spirit of Mary Oliver’s poetic wisdom, I am frequently more animated and enlivened by what I encounter these days, whether close to home as part of my routine or distant venues as I travel. My blind spots are less prevalent perhaps.   My vision is changing. New energy results.

I am learning not to be so self-conscious.

Are We Becoming Commodities?

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Do you know your Klout score? Do you care?

Klout measures the extent of influence and power one has in today’s networked world. “Discover and be recognized for how you influence the world,” is their web-site’s tag-line. Some months ago a respected professional colleague offered to help me increase my Klout score. His well-meaning attention aggravated me, though I could not fully explain why. I was tempted to sign onto the Klout site and begin tracking how much clout I have in the world of social networking. But I demurred.

About the same time I had the privilege to hear Carlo Strenger give a keynote address at an American Psychological Association Conference . Strenger, a psychologist, philosopher, psychoanalyst, and author, referenced extensively his book entitled,“The Fear of Insignificance”. I subsequently read the book over the summer. And I re-read it, marking it profusely with underlining and notes to myself. It is the most important book I have read in the last five years (or longer). Here’s why: Strenger astutely addresses the “commoditization of human beings” in today’s signed on, logged in, tagged, “liked,” rated and ranked, virtual marketplace.

One definition of “commodity,” according to Webster, is “a massed produced un-specialized product.” Strenger argues that in an era of mass globalization we are victims of two primary models of success – “celebrity – a quantification of how well you are known – and financial success.” He invites individuals to a more reflective, integral expression of self which may not be a function of mass-appeal or social ranking at all.

“How did we succumb to the belief that the person with the most hits is the most valuable?”

“The infotainment system has made us forget that the true drama of human life is the process through which we become individuals with character, voice, and a worldview. The point is to live lives that are our own creation rather than adapting to the demands of the world marketplace,” to quote Strenger. How did we succumb to the belief that the person with the most “hits” is the most valuable anyway?

Toward the end of my last posting on this blog six months ago, I commented: “As I write, I am becoming more familiar with myself and the power at play in my life, past and present.” I continue to write but with greater awareness, including the power of attraction and distraction of the internet (all the more prevalent in my life since my recent acquisition of an iPad).

In the past six months I have become more aware that:(1) I know and express myself more fully and completely when not worrying about how I will “tweet” a link; (2) I listen to myself more effectively – mind and body, heart and soul – when not distracted by SEO (search-engine-optimization) considerations; (3) I like to be “liked” but that very phenomenon limits my speaking the truth as I discover it and come to know it.

Whatever clout I have it is because I have found ways to be myself in a world which endlessly conspires to help us be “successful.”

Don’t let desire for approval compromise being true to yourself!

21st Century Leadership

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What does it take to be a leader in the 21st Century?

I recently spoke to a group of HS students at a Student Leadership Conference convened by the Dalton School in Upper Manhattan.   This was the question on the table.  Here is my response: It will take something different, something more, than what got us here.

Beyond the unusual itemization of what it takes to be a leader (vision, communication skills, managing change, etc.), three specific competencies will differentiate tomorrow’s leaders:

  1. Embody Integrity: In the past having integrity largely meant being decisive and firm in one’s beliefs.  But the global community which students of leadership today must embrace is full of diverse perspectives and abundant contradictions. There are no simple solutions to creating stability in the Middle East or solving “climate change,” for example.    Aspiring leaders must have the capacity to hold extreme differences without jumping to quick answers or easy solutions. While decisiveness is sometimes essential for a leader, embracing ambiguity and the ability to re-frame and re-visit complex dilemmas is equally as important. To embody integrity, tomorrow’s leaders must have new visions of completeness and wholeness on a global scale.
  2. Manage Uncertainty: The paceof change in today’s world continues to accelerate exponentially. Moore’s Law applies to more than computer chips. The ability to plan for the future must be juxtaposed with the agility to deal with the unexpected. This is something more and something different than what has typically been referred to as “managing change.” Leaders are too easily tempted to assure some stable outcome, a defined end-state.  In the 21st century, a readiness to admit that you don’t necessarily know whatthe future holds or what the specific outcome will be, paradoxically, encourages trust and generates loyalty.
  3. Invest in Social Capital: Knowing the difference between Connections and Relationships is essential for the 21st Century Leader.  Vast and expanding social networks have long since replaced the limited rolodex and business card collections of the last century.  Most Connections are largely transactional; but Relationships require mutual commitment, trust, and shared values. In a world of 500 million friends, tomorrow’s leaders must be capable of standing close with those whom they aspire to lead, knowing that their influence can be transmitted instantly to thousands but that sustainable leadership requires trustworthy Relationships.

Steve Boehlke - At the Dalton SchoolEmbody a sense of integrity that embraces new expressions of “wholeness”. Manage uncertainty which is something more and different than believing there is a defined end-point. Invest in social capital, affirming the value of vital relationships in the midst of burgeoning connections. Aspiring young leaders will be better equipped for the 21st century by learning these leadership competencies.

Leadership and the Necessity of Empty Spaces

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Empty space is essential to the structure of the Universe.
And to the practice of leadership.
Here’s why…

According to a recent article in the NY Times, an experiment spanning half a century and more than $750 million verifies that “empty space in the vicinity of the Earth is turning.” This landmark project known as Gravity Probe B substantiates Einstein’s theory of gravity and general relativity, as reported by the Stanford University team leading it.

Even the smallest piece of solid matter is comprised of vast distances between the atoms compared to their size. However we may perceive it, the structure of our world includes enormous quantities of empty space. I don’t pretend to understand it all; I assume a posture of amazement and wonder.

Empty space is not only an element of our physical world. It transcends the physical into the realm of time and human experience. We fill our calendars with meetings. We fill our lives with activity. We fill our organizations with productivity. Generally speaking we strive to fill up time and space in our lives. We say our lives are “full”. What place, if any, is there for emptiness?

Whether it’s turning, spinning, disappearing, or just plain hanging there, the space in our lives seems to be more and more elusive. Or discomforting, when we stumble upon it. Many of us live with a fear of emptiness. As soon as we feel it, we fill it.

But “space” holds everything together, according to physicists. Leaders need to open up space not just fill it up. It can be as simple as calling a “time-out” in the middle of an intense, jam-packed, meeting agenda. Or exercising leadership by stepping outside and walking around the building once, as one client reported doing, before making a difficult and controversial decision.

Empty space is essential to the creative process and the very vitality of life itself. We too are part of the Universe.

More to come…

The Necessity of Empty Spaces

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Just a few weeks ago as the New Year was upon me, I found myself rummaging through piles, boxes, folders, and computer files, wanting to pause long enough to review some of the rapidly accumulating evidence of past work.

I came across my “facilitator’s guide” for an event I designed and led for business leaders in the Mojave Desert some 15 years ago . We called it “The Necessity of Empty Spaces”. For three days we intentionally used the desert environment to escape from the demands of the workplace just to think, reflect, yes, even meditate. Among other tools, we used the Disciplined Inquiry™ methodology (which I still use with clients today) to work a real business dilemma.

Many creative and talented people today seemingly have no “pause button” which they can hit to escape the relentless demands of doing more with less. It is taking an enormous toll in the workplace as managers attempt to achieve greater and greater efficiencies.

Pacing productivity does not mean simply seeking ways to go further faster. It is essential that we recognize the value, indeed the necessity, of stopping from time to time, of finding and claiming some “space”. When is the last time you were caught in the act of thinking on the job? What is required for you to claim that kind of space for yourself?

The Chief Strategy Officer of a Fortune 50 company, one of my current clients, as part of a recent conversation on this very subject, directed my attention to a speech on Solitude and Leadership that was delivered to the plebe class at West Point last year. I encourage you to find a few moments to read it and then take a walk. Define some space that is intentionally empty. See what happens!

Burgeoning Connections Produce Relational Commodities

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I’ve been perpetually on the move the last six weeks, travelling widely. Was interviewed by a Croatian TV station after speaking at a leadership conference in Zagreb, supported faculty and taught at the African Leadership Academy in Joburg once again, facilitated a 2.5 day offsite for Merck’s Strategy Office in NJ, met with the VP of RD for Heinz Europe in Amsterdam, spoke yesterday on “Managing Connections to Optimize Innovation” at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs sponsored by the A-L Technical Academy – all exciting and worthwhile!

I have made up-dates in Linkedin, posted comments on Facebook, and even launched some “tweets” into cyberspace. Many engaging conversations and new connections along the way. But, I have not been writing substantially as was my intention, including entries on this blog. What I notice is that yesterday it took only two comments from trusted individuals with whom I have a relationship to draw my attention to both my desire and need to write. They did not scold, chastise, or do anything to “guilt” me. They simply drew me back to my Self.

At Bell Labs I spoke about how connections are fundamentally transactional. When I need a piece of information, a skill, or some advice, I know where to go and how to access it readily. There is an exchange that requires little or no commitment, other than perhaps implied or explicit compensation for value received. A relationship, on the other hand, requires shared values, a measure of mutual commitment, and underlying trust.

Reuters News reported last week on how the business use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media is exploding. “Just last month… an Internet monitoring firm reported that visits to Twitter, the fourth most popular social networking site, increased by 1,170% in September compared to the year-earlier period. “ This “explosion” is re-aligning our attention, producing relational commodities but not relationships.

I want to be “connected”, most of all to myself! Thanks to Barb and Gordon, each of whom, in their own way, reminded me of that yesterday!

Innovators Break Rules

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Last week I was with an R&D; group who were lamenting the lack of entrepreneurial spirit in their ranks. This week I am at the African Leadership Academy with students from across the Continent discussing entrepreneurship and the hero’s journey. One student cited the text: “Successful entrepreneurs make bold leaps that break contact with the familiar and leave behind a clutter of obsolete products and processes.” (“The Entrepreneur as Hero”, Candace Allen). She continued by describing her uncle who broke family and tribal norms when he went to China for an engineering education. I am inspired by the readiness of these students to make such bold leaps as they shared who their heroes are.

In today’s corporate environment heroes are more difficult to identify. Why? Failure to break the rules? This is a difficult but essential inquiry as we try to sort out the “rule-breakers” who have violated our trust and squandered millions of dollars from those who are innovators, if not heroes. Daniel Vasella, CEO of Novartis, commented recently (McKinsey Quarterly Conversations with Global Leaders) that he doubts that “tons of new controls will improve the situation. …Innovation is always, ‘How do I circumvent certain rules to make more and better returns?’ “ He comments further on the “trust gap” that must be closed and the integrity that is required to do things differently.

Leaders deviate from the norms. They go where no one has gone before. Innovators do break rules. But they must do so with integrity in an environment where the vision of what could be and the shared values are more powerful than the instinct to comply with rules and processes. Perhaps the lack of entrepreneurial spirit correlates directly with the lack of understanding of the hero’s journey inside the corporate world. The students here in Joburg certainly have prompted me to be thinking about it more this week!

The Randomness of Insight

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The creative process is not linear. Nor is the way I think always linear. Sometimes the randomness of what catches my attention actually gives way to new insight, IF I don’t work it too hard! Yet I often paralyze myself with an injunction that I must write tight, logical, sequences of thought or nothing at all.

The following are some thoughts and phrases that landed on me from speakers at TED Global2009 in Oxford which continue to lobby for more attention from me.

“Your train of thought is sacred.”

“How do you observe something you can’t see?”

“democratization of intimacy”

“Nothing is built on stone; everything is built on sand. But we must build as if on stone.”

“Train your heart to see what the world has given you.”

“We are the first society to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves.”

“Obsessions make my life worse and my work better.”

“Make sure our ideas of success are our own.”

Context is everything.”

Sometimes allowing for some randomness in our work is the most important thing we can do.