Facing Racism: It Starts With Personal Accountability

I was lamenting with a colleague about how we all have areas in our lives and our leadership that drive other people crazy, cause damage to the world around us, and hurt the people we care about. And we are blind to them. That’s why we call them blind spots in our leadership development program. So much of what we bring to the world causes harm and requires intentional work to improve our leadership, and yet has become so habitual that we aren’t even aware of it. It all seems fine to us, but we are blind to how destructive it can be.

So it would appear that perhaps the eruption of anger toward inequality and discrimination in our society is a reckoning of our own blind spots around the issue of racism. Professional athletes this week have reminded us all that there is something more important at work here than winning games, making money, and the achievement of goals.

It seems to be human nature to avoid problems and dodge the truth. After all, who wants to look at the financial ledger of our businesses or our lives? It’s easier to procrastinate a visit to the doctor than face lab work results. It’s easier to avoid facing the difficulties in a marriage than confront what’s really going on. Who wants to admit they have an addiction and actually do something about it?

It’s easy to criticize leaders in an organization for not facing reality or confronting brutal facts and acting on the implications. But how many of us do this in our own lives? And it’s easy to judge the racism we see around us, but what about the unacknowledged prejudice within us?

I recently spoke to a high-ranking public service leader who publicly made a statement that there was systemic racism in the culture that she led, and she was taking action to rectify it. She opened herself to much criticism from her employees, but her courage to face reality demonstrated the strength of her character. It also deepened her credibility and the respect of her best employees.

We all have our prejudices. Only when we own up to them and face this reality will we begin to heal the world – and heal our lives. Helping people see their blind spots is a large part of the work we do in our retreats and online programs for developing authentic leaders (see www.davidirvine.com).

There are specific actions you can take to change the world by facing some of your own racism blind spots. Let’s do our part to heal the world by taking personal accountability:

  • Speak to someone you know well who is different from you – in gender, race, ethnic background, or sexual orientation – and ask if they have experienced you being prejudiced, disrespectful, judgmental, or insensitive – and how. Say thank you and listen carefully to what they have to say. Be sincerely open to learn from them.
  • If the level of honesty about these questions may be in doubt, invite the people you work with to provide the answers to these questions anonymously.
  • If they honestly don’t perceive you as prejudiced, then still take time to listen to what they have to say. If something in you gets triggered, resist the human tendency to get defensive and instead use the trigger to open a new door to learn something. It’s important to begin the dialogue.
  • Treat all diversity as an opportunity to learn and face the truth. It’s a life-long endeavor, and one worth pursuing – for the sake of a good life and for the sake of the survival of our species.

RESPONDING TO OUR TIMES: Lessons From Nelson Mandela

For many years the life and leadership of Nelson Mandela has inspired and guided my work. Mandela had many teachers in his life, but the greatest of them all was prison. In the words of his biographer, Richard Stengel, “Prison taught him self-control, discipline, and focus, and it taught him how to be a full human being – the things he considered essential to leadership.” In other words, it was the solitude, degradation, devastation and inhumanity of that time in confinement that made him who he became. It was his journey away from the world that allowed him to lead in the world. Prison was, what we describe in our work as his journey to the “Other Everest,” a voyage that took him inward and downward toward the hardest realities of his life.
His years at Robben Island can be instructive for us through this pandemic. Here are three of the lessons:
1.     Let life mature you, not embitter you. When asked how prison changed him, Mandala said, “I came out mature.” He explained that maturity didn’t mean that the sensitive, emotional young man went away. Maturity didn’t mean that he was no longer stung or hurt or angry, but he learned to control what he described as his more “youthful impulses.”
Maturity, in Mandela’s world, was the courage to work through the bitterness and anger from the solitude, disgrace, and inhumanity of being unjustly imprisoned for twenty-seven years, and come out the other side with honest forgiveness. Maturity is about choosing personal responsibility instead of blame, transforming entitlement into ownership, contempt into civility, and self-interest into service. As my mother would say, maturity is the ability to do a job whether or not you are supervised, finish a job once you start it, carry money without spending it, and being able to bear an injustice without wanting to get even. With maturity comes courage, which is not, in the words of Mandela, an absence of fear, but rather the willingness to act in the face of it. It’s also about poise under pressure. Maturity doesn’t come with age. It comes with the acceptance of responsibility.
2.     See the good in others. Some call it a blind spot, others naîveté, but Mandela saw almost everyone as virtuous until proven otherwise. According to Richard Stengel, he started with the assumption you were dealing with people in good faith. Just as pretending to be brave can lead to acts of real bravery, Mandela believed that just seeing the good in other people improved the chances that they would reveal their better selves.
It’s an extraordinary quality of a person to be ill-treated for most of their life and still see the good in others. In fact, “he almost never had a bad word to say about anyone. He would not even say a disapproving word about the man who tried to have him hanged.” It wasn’t, it turned out, that he didn’t see the dark side of evil people, but that he was unwilling to see only that. He chose to look past the negative aspects of a person and see their strengths. Apparently, he did this for two reasons: because he instinctively saw the good in people and because he intellectually believed that seeing the good in others might actually make them better. “If you expect more of people, whether they are coworkers or family members, they often contribute more. Or at least feel guilty if they don’t.”
This belief was at the heart of Mandela’s approach to life. He believed that cruel and evil men were better men than their behaviour, and that their motives were not as cruel as their actions. In his biography, Mandela wrote, “No one is born prejudiced or racist. No man is evil at heart. Evil is something instilled in or taught to men by circumstances, their environment, or their upbringing.”
3.     Have a core principle. Nelson Mandela was a man of principle, and that true north principle gave him stability, clarity, and focus amid the turmoil and abuse of his circumstances. It inspired him to keep going in the midst of utter darkness around him. The principle that formed the framework for his actions and leadership was: Equal rights for all, regardless of race, class, or gender.
While on Robben Island, Mandala read the books about iconic leaders. He studied the habits of the great souls. He reflected on key moral virtues. By being principle-centered, he, over the years, transmuted hostility into opportunity, bitterness into forgiveness, and created a vision for social change. Mandela believed a transformational leader does not talk about polls or votes or tactics or popularity. A transformational leader talks about principles and ideals.
What principles do you stand for? What ideals guide and inspire your life and your leadership? If we don’t stand for something, we won’t have anything to stand on.
Today, amid this pandemic, we face our own Robben Island, an opportunity for our own “Other Everest” journey. Collectively, we are facing an opportunity to make us either bitter or better. Our decisions and actions will determine whether we use our pain, fear, grief, outrage and inconveniences to move toward accountable, caring, authentic citizens. Today, nothing is more important than strengthening our character and developing our maturity by taking responsibility for our lives, seeing the good in others, and clarifying our principles that serve the greater good.
EXCITING NEWS!
I am in the process of forming a business partnership with Ally Stone, who has assisted with the Banff Authentic Leadership retreats the past two years. We are building an online leadership development firm with an expanded team offering a variety of products and services, including coaching, an online leadership masterclass, live retreats (once it is safe to do so), customized live-streaming presentations, workshops, and leadership consulting.
Our in-person workshops will resume just as soon as we can ensure they can be done safely. In the meantime, the entire four-day Authentic Leadership retreat will be available on-line in the fall.
Ally and I are presenting a debut live-stream session on September 17, 2020. This is an opportunity to meet Ally and witness the incredible synergy we create together as a team. This is a complimentary event to thank you for being a part of my community. Be sure to watch for your invite. You do not want to miss out on this opportunity (RSVP will be required to attend). Together Ally and I bring a new level of awareness, understanding and commitment to what the Authentic Journey looks like in this ever-changing world.

WHAT DO THE HOLIDAYS MEAN TO YOU? Five Ways to Stay Authentic During This Busy Season

Last Friday — Black Friday — I delivered the closing address at a conference in the Fantasyland Hotel in Edmonton, then walked through the attached West Edmonton Mall to the food court for lunch.
I was shocked by what I saw: deal-hungry consumers jammed this huge shopping center wall to wall.
I couldn’t help but contrast the frenetic shoppers with the committed group of family and community support services leaders I had just presented to. I realized the mall was too crowded and crazy to enjoy lunch. I ended up, instead, in a quiet restaurant away from the mall with space and peace to reflect on my experience at the conference.
In the quiet I thought about the leaders in my presentation. They exemplified what I would call authentic leadership: men and women who are committed to substance over superficial, character over charisma, and service over self-interest, people whose inner compass guides their daily actions and who inspire trust and confidence by being honest and real. Being with them was such a contrast from my Black Friday experience, a sales bonanza that now marks the start of the holiday season.
My musings led me to reflect on the holidays, a time of demands, expectations, and obligations. But authenticity — the commitment to be piloted by an internal guide rather than solely by the expectations of others — asks us to stop and reflect on the question, “What does this holiday mean to you?”
In response, here’s my list. As you read it, think about what’s on your own list.
1. Renewal. In the dark of winter, the holiday lights are a wonderful reminder to stop and let them brighten us, both literally and emotionally. Even a small moment of noticing can be renewing and sustaining. This is a time of year to s-l-o-w down and find restoration where you can. It’s a time for revitalization, not depletion. What nourishes you? What gives you energy? What replenishes you?
2. Presence. A friend winters in Mexico. I spoke with her shortly after she arrived. “Mexico is so beautiful!” she exclaimed. I wondered if it was Mexico that was beautiful or if she was just noticing the beauty. When my wife, Val, was unpacking Christmas ornaments this week and hanging up her beautiful collection of bells, I stopped for a few moments to be present to the beauty of her joy, which in turn brought joy to me. Life is only lived now. What makes a task valuable and life meaningful is the quality of the attention we give to whatever we are doing in the present moment. Allow this time of year to remind you of that. While presents are appreciated, the best gift we can give is our presence in this moment.
3. Connection. Who do you want to spend time with? Who enriches your life? I plan to share this holiday season with Val, my daughters, my grandchildren, and very close friends. Connection is ultimately about love, and expressing and experiencing love. By being present in the moment, you can feel the love within yourself and those around you. Love is a state of being. You can never lose it, and it cannot leave you. When you share this connection with those you truly care about, you are nourished and fulfilled.
4. Reflection. One of the keys to making the most of your life is developing the ability to reflect. Go back over your day, your week, your month, and your year. Look back through your calendar. Whom did you see? What did they say? What happened? How did you feel? Reflect on your experiences, your choices in the past year. What were your successes and failures? What is there to celebrate? What did you learn? How will you apply those lessons? What are your intentions for the coming year?
5. Service. You will never experience joy if you are perpetually waiting until everything is okay with you, or the rest of the world, to feel thankful. You must catch joy as it presents itself, even in the midst of sorrow or suffering. In the craziness of life, gratitude inspires meaning and joy. The best measure of a person’s character is their capacity for feeling and expressing gratitude. And service awakens us to appreciation. Wherever you go, and whomever you meet, bring them a gift. The gift may be a compliment, a flower, or a prayer. Reach out to someone less fortunate than you. Pay it forward. Service is vital to a life well-lived.

I hope my list has inspired you to articulate what you truly value, and that you will live this season in close alignment with those values, rather than being driven by the tyranny of obligations. Happy holidays.

RECONNECTING IN A DISTRACTED WORLD

“The key to living well in a high tech world is to spend much less time using technology.” 
Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism 
Christopher Robin is a delightful 2018 Marc Forster film, starring Ewan McGregor. The story follows an adult Christopher Robin who had, years earlier, left behind his childhood friends in the Hundred Acre Wood, and with them, his imagination and source of inspiration. Lost in the demands of his work, Christopher finds himself disconnected from his family and from what matters most in his life. Strained and alone, he finds himself strangely reunited with his old stuffed bear friend, Winnie-the-Pooh, who innocently reawakens his imagination, sense of wonder, and playfulness. It turns out that going back to the Hundred Acre Wood wasn’t just good for his soul and his loved ones as they reconnected with the new found essence of their father and husband. Reconnecting with his authentic self allowed him to bring his vast untapped creative forces to his work that eventually provided a great service to his company and the world. His companions from the Hundred Acre Wood opened the door to his destiny.
I identify with this story. Like Christopher Robin, I have had my own periods of growing apart from the life I’m meant to live. I know well what it’s like to drift from my sources of inspiration, lost in the demands of others. At such times I wrestle with self-doubt and denial of my capacity to make a real difference in the world, settling for what others expect from me rather than staying connected to a deeper, more sustaining voice from within.
Years ago, I came across a quote that has been a source of inspiration for me over the years. It’s from Demian, by Herman Hesse, and reads, “each man had only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself… His task was to discover his own destiny  – not an arbitrary one – and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one’s own inwardness.” 
For those committed to living a life of “genuine vocation”, I offer five strategies.
  1. Give yourself permission. A participant from my upcoming “Other Everest” retreat wrote to me about why he decided to sign up. “I’m at a time and space in my life,” he said, “where I want to do an ‘authentic’ dive into who I am, what makes me tick, and how am I adding value to the world. It’s time for me to begin my transformational journey.”
  2. Rethink social media. I see more and more people becoming progressively distracted and exhausted by our attachment to the world of social media. I’m also finding increasingly validated research that is substantiating the neurological, psychological, and societal impact of social media as an addictive activity. While there is no doubt it holds some entertainment value, some convenience as a source of communicating information, and some increased market exposure value, I’m no longer so convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs. I am currently wrestling with this matter, questioning the use of social media in my work and my life, and considering quitting it all together.
  3. Resist Compliance. Carl Jung said that disobedience is the first step toward consciousness. We are not here to fear or please those in authority and should realize that there is meaning and value in our acts of disobedience – not disobedience for its own sake, but as a fuller expression of our own unique humanity and purpose in the service of the greater good. The fact that we are resisting conformity may be a sign that we have begun to live our own lives. It’s about giving yourself permission to choose adventure over safety.
  4. S-l-o-w d-o-w-n and pause. Choosing a deeper, more substantive side of ourselves over superficiality requires giving ourselves time and space to think independently and to value the inward journey. Learning to be comfortable with the pause and the silence opens the door to authentic change. It’s an old and ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we’ve lost our way. On a regular basis I find it vital to stop and ask myself questions like: “What nourishes me?” “What fulfills me?” “Whose voices am I paying attention to?”
  5. Stay connected to what’s real. The challenge of authenticity is to sustain our humanity when everything around us is being automated. Authenticity values direct experience over electronic or virtual experience. It means staying connected to the natural world, to human beings, to the entire spectrum that life has to offer. While institutions are built for consistency, efficiency and certainty, authenticity relies on variability, vulnerability, and surprise. Focus on the things that really matter, including spending more undivided time without distractions and with friends and family, enjoying the good things in life.
What are your practices for staying close to your own “Hundred Acre Wood?” How do you ensure that you maintain contact with an inner guiding compass and create enough stillness and playfulness in your life that you can hear the voice of authenticity?

HOLIDAY GREETINGS: LESSONS LEARNED FROM OUR CANINE FRIENDS

Having completed another “Other Everest” retreat for developing authentic leadership capacity last week, I have been relishing the experience. The group consisted of a remarkable collection of leaders from a variety of walks of life, committed to making a difference by being more authentic.
A central theme of the time we had together was slowing down and being present to what life presents. So, when my daughter shared a story that speaks well to what we learned last week in Banff, I thought it would be appropriate to share it in the spirit of caring and the upcoming holiday season.
The blog comes from VetWest Animal Clinics in Australia.
Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.
I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.
As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.
The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker’s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.
The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that dogs’ lives are shorter than human lives. Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, “I know why.”
Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation. It has changed the way I try to live.
He said, ‘People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life – like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?” The six-year-old continued, “Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay for as long as we do.”
Live simply.
Love generously.
Care deeply.
Speak kindly.
Whether or not you are drawn to dogs, here are some lessons we can learn from these canine critters:
* When your loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
* Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride.
* Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
* Take naps.
* Stretch before rising.
* Run, romp, and play daily.
* Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
* Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
* On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass.
* On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.
* When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
* Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
* Be faithful.
* Never pretend to be something you’re not.
* If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
* When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.
That’s the secret of a good life that we can learn from a good dog.
Have a well-deserved restful and peaceful holiday season everyone.

THE YEAR AHEAD: Lessons From Selma the Sheep

At the end of each year I reflect on my progress and blessings from the previous year and clarify some of my intentions for the coming twelve months. In the midst of this musing I like to read the children’s book Selma, by Jutta Bauer. Selma is a humble little book about a humble little sheep that poses a big question, “What is happiness?”
Selma is a sheep who is happy when she eats a little grass, plays with her children, exercises, chats with a friend, and falls fast asleep. When asked what she would do if she had more time or money, Selma replies simply that she would do exactly the same thing: eat a little grass, play with her children, exercise, chat with a friend, and fall fast asleep.
As I look to the year ahead, three lessons from Selma come to mind.
#1. Bring an attitude of gratitude into each and every day. Selma is a great book with a beautifully delivered reminder that happiness comes from appreciating what you have. A consumer culture is very good at making us want more and more, implying that more is always better. Until we know deeply within ourselves what enoughactually feels like, we will continue to be seduced by the pursuit of more. When I emerge from the holiday season after spending time with people who matter most in my life, catching up on some good reading and simply being, I have a deep appreciation for these everyday blessings and I feel a profound sense of gratitude.
#2. Define success on your own terms. Selma is not admonishing us to sit around and do nothing. A ship is safe in the harbor, the saying goes, but that is not what ships are for. It’s important to spend time in personal reflection,  away from the voices of the world to discover your sense of purpose. Dream big. And then get to work to become the kind of person it takes to get there. A fulfilled life is not void of focus and disciplined effort, but Selma teaches us not to allow the world or the opinions of others define our success. Success must come from within. Happiness does not come from “getting” or “having;” it comes from self-respect earned through contribution, service, and dedicated labor devoted to a cause. Stephen Covey wrote, “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you at your funeral, you will find your definition of success.”
#3. Live each day fully. Remember that life is lived not yesterday or tomorrow but today. In Salutation To The Dawn, The Sanskrit writer, Kālidāsa, reminds us that a life well lived is a life lived fully in the coming twenty-four hours.
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth;
The glory of action;
The splendor of achievement;
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday
a dream of happiness,
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Live well, therefore, each day.
In this coming year may we discover within ourselves what matters most. And may we have the courage to live in alignment with our heart’s desire.