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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.

CREATING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE WORKPLACES – It Will Depend on All of Us

There are people in our world who do not feel safe because of the color of their skin. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their gender. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation. This has to stop. It’s time to decide, once and for all, that inequality and this kind of fear are unacceptable.
Living without fear begins with the way we raise and educate our children, relate to each other in our communities, and approach each other in our workplaces. Why not start with the realization that there are people in our society who do not even feel safe coming to work. They don’t feel safe to speak honestly, to offer ideas, or to be themselves. They fear that sharing concerns and mistakes will mean embarrassment or retribution; that if they are honest, they will be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They fear asking questions when they are unsure of something. They sit on their hands, stay within the lines, underperform and become dissatisfied. When people are afraid, they stay dangerously silent, they disengage, they lie, and they leave if they can. Or worst of all, they quit and stay.
Far too many managers – both knowingly and unknowingly – still believe that fear is what motivates. Too many managers are unaware of how unacknowledged stress and anxiety breeds fear around them. Brain science has amply demonstrated that fear inhibits learning, productivity, engagement, innovation, and fulfillment.
As we emerge and re-engage from this pandemic, the need for people to feel safe as they face uncertainty and anxiety is more important than ever. And a great opportunity lies in front us to reset the compass and create fearless organizations and lives. Let’s decide to change the world by creating safe, authentic places for people to live and work. Here are seven strategies:
1. Take 100% accountability. The issue of fear will never recede in our world until it recedes within ourselves. Taking accountability means committing to examine the level of fear that we knowingly, or unknowingly, create around us. Changing the world starts with looking in the mirror. Taking accountability also means being willing to understand how our past impacts our perception of our current reality. Due to our reaction to past trauma, abuse, and shame, many people do not feel safe living in their own body, tainting every relationship in their life, particularly those in authority. Before blaming your boss for disrespecting you and not creating a safe workplace, understand how your past impacts the lens with which you view the world. Changing the world means taking accountability for facing, healing, and coming to peace with our past. While organizations are accountable for co-creating a safe environment with their employees, security must come from within each one of us individually.
2. Take care of yourself. Given the enormous level uncertainty in the world right now, resist the natural human tendency to “push through,” and instead, slow down and define what truly matters to you. Use this time to create a safe place within. Creating a safe space around you starts with feeling safe with who you are. Self-care isn’t always comfortable or easy. Self-care means respecting yourself enough to know what you need and creating disciplined routines that ensure those needs get met. Make sure you get support for yourself so you can create safety and support those around you. We ultimately treat others the way we treat ourselves.
3. Bring a servant mindset and a generous spirit to your work. According to Lance Secretan, “leadership is a serving relationship that helps people grow and makes the world a better place.” It starts with being a “we” person rather than a “me” person. It’s about supporting people to get the work done rather than controlling and manipulating; and helping them be the best they can be in the process. Leadership is ultimately about caring, because leadership involves caring for people, not manipulating them. If you don’t genuinely value everyone’s unique contribution, creating a psychologically safe organization will remain elusive and superficial.
4. Be human. At this stage of the pandemic, people are experiencing a variety of emotions. They are nervous and anxious, fatigued from fear and uncertain about the future. There’s grieving, ambiguous loss, resentment, and a mixture of caution and optimism as we emerge into a new reality. There can be awkwardness with people you haven’t seen face-to-face for several months and uncertainty about new expectations and norms. Take time to listen, to be there for those you serve, and to look for opportunities to connect and have the conversations. Most of what you’ll hear you likely can’t fix. What people need to know is that you care enough to take the time. It’s a time to grant grace and exercise patience. It’s a time to practice being human.
5. Get rid of performance appraisals. Stop evaluating, grading, supervising, and treating people like children. Replace parental, disrespectful reviews with ongoing feedback, honest respectful conversations, shared ownership, two-way accountability, and mutual agreements that support both personal as well as organizational success. Be a partner with your staff, not a parent.
6. Be curious, humble, and vulnerable. Great leaders know they aren’t the smartest person in the room. They surround themselves with capable people and then take time to learn from them. They know that no one is better than anyone else. We all merely bring unique gifts to our lives and our work. Making it safe means being vulnerable and open to learn from everyone and asking for help when you need it. Being vulnerable means sharing what matters to you and listening to what matters to those around you.
7. Invite the bad news and say thank you. If you’re going to live or work together in the spirit of humanness, you are going to have to accept that there will be bad news. Great leaders don’t pretend that it isn’t there and cover up the facts. They embrace the negative and see it as a growth opportunity. Making it safe to bring the bad news isn’t about blame. It’s about ownership, personal responsibility, courage, and honesty. It takes a secure leader to be grateful that people trust you enough to bring you the hard stuff, and open enough to learn together how you’re going to work collaboratively to fix it.
In summary, creating a fearless, psychologically safe workplace does not happen by accident. Just because you see yourself as a good leader, doesn’t mean that people around you necessarily feel safe. You have to be intentional. A safe environment doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees and are polite to each other all the time. It’s about a genuine commitment to honesty and respect. It means having clearly defined expectations of each other, along with high standards and working in partnership to achieve those standards. It also means we accept that we are all human and that we are going to fall short at times and it’s okay to talk about it, learn from it, and recommit to a new course of action.
To create psychological safety, positional leaders need to make an explicit – formal and informal – space and time for open, ongoing, acceptable discussion of error, failure, and shortcomings. Conflict will inevitably arise, and we need a safe place to speak candidly about what’s bothering us, with each person taking responsibility to look at their contribution to the conflict. We need to be intentional about inviting participation and sincerely valuing every person’s input. We also need to be intentional about recognizing and expressing sincere appreciation. What we appreciate appreciates. And, perhaps above all, we need to grant grace that it takes time, patience, and persistence – let’s give the human spirit a chance.
For a more in-depth study of psychological safety in the workplace, I recommend Amy Edmondson’s book: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

DON’T WASTE THIS CRISIS Let’s Not Get Back to Normal

A crisis is really a terrible thing to waste.  – Paul Romer, Stanford economist

In college, while on the track team, I was inspired by the university’s volleyball coach. He had a mantra that guided all his practices. Every time the ball came on your side of the net he would say, “use it.”
“The ball is not your enemy,” he would continually remind his team. “Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. Use it as a way of developing your capacity.”
The ball of COVID-19 has been served to our side of the net and just as in volleyball where you have three touches before you return it, three leadership opportunities arise today. Our response to these opportunities enables us to develop new capacity so we won’t waste this time afforded to us.
1.    Community. Being thrown into chaos has elicited a response of community. We see this all over the planet as people open their hearts to each other in the midst of separateness. This is a time for leaders to build community by reaching out and connecting (even if it is virtual and imperfect). It is a tremendously important time to stay together while being apart. Forgiveness and patience are called for as we stumble forward through this uncertain and unfamiliar terrain. Many employees are juggling trying to homeschool their children while managing the demands of their work. We are dealing with economic uncertainty and layoffs. If there was ever a time for compassion and grace, it is now.
Don’t compromise accountability, but don’t push for productivity; it will emerge naturally from your best people. Extend trust. Most importantly, find any way you can to express appreciation. Of course, our health care professionals and grocery store clerks need our gratitude. But all those who are working tirelessly to provide essential services in the background – electricity, gas, water, and internet, waste removal, to name a few – also need our appreciation right now. Let’s be a little more kind to ourselves and everyone around us. Remember that just because we are expected to have social distance, doesn’t mean we have to be socially disconnected. It’s a time to deepen our community.
2.    Creativity. The second authentic response to crisis and accompanying chaos is creativity. While productivity will surely wain at this time, what is spreading as fast as the fear and the virus is human creativity. From John Krasinski’s Good News Stories to the myriad creative responses to isolation, to the writing of poetry and performance of music, celebrating and expressing the human experience helps keep us entertained and enlightened, and brings light into such potentially dark times.
In a recent coaching call, I was speaking with an owner of a feedlot who is in the middle of reforming her business model. Ordinarily she would be sitting with her team to get their input. And she can’t do it virtually. Only two of her entire team even have computers. So she gave each of them a piece of paper with an initial vision sketched out, along with a request to provide input. What she is getting back is remarkable creativity and innovation. Most importantly, the introverts on the team who ordinarily would be quiet in a group setting have risen to the occasion and are shining brightly for the first time.
In times of crisis, authentic leadership opportunities emerge. How can we help our teams and our families access their creative side amidst the challenge of uncertainty? It’s all there if we simply step aside and allow it to come forth.
3.    Contemplation. There is a third equally important response required in this time of chaos and uncertainty: contemplation. There is a huge difference between surviving this crisis and actually allowing it to change us. To change we must allow ourselves to really s-l-o-w d-o-w-n, get our bearings and allow ourselves to be fully impacted by what is happening.
We live in a time of profound disruption – when something is ending and dying and something else is wanting to be born. How we have been living and working has not been working. It is becoming evident that it is not sustainable. What is dying is a civilization built on a mind-set of excess, of bigger is better, of confusing standard of living with quality of life, and of organized irresponsibility.
What is being born is less clear. It is a future that requires us to connect with a deeper level of our humanity and discover who we really are and how we want to be as a society. We are already seeing changes emerge – both within ourselves and in the environment.
People in the northern Indian state of Punjab are reacting with awe at the sight of the Himalayan mountain range, which is now visible from more than 100 miles away due to the reduction in air pollution as a result of the Coronavirus lockdown. Indians in the city of Jalandhar haven’t seen the peaks of the Himalayas for decades.
There might be a few extra endangered sea turtles in the ocean thanks to the Coronavirus after lockdowns in Brazil left nearly 100 new hatchlings with a clear path across the beach and into the waves. Wildlife officials were the only humans on the beach in the town of Paulista last week when 97 endangered hawksbill sea turtles hatched in front of their eyes.
In Italy, the lockdown is giving the outdoors — which is typically flooded with tourists — a chance to recharge. In Venice, the city’s canals are clearer because there is less boat traffic, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom. And, with fewer water taxis and boats ferrying tourists and residents along the canals, the air has also become cleaner.
What are we allowing to see more clearly and cleanly in our own lives? All social change – from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. – began with a connection to a deeper essence of what our life and our work is about. Nelson Mandela’s capacity to influence came, in large part, from the contemplation amid years of being unjustly imprisoned and emerging with the power of forgiveness. Such movements share an understanding that creating sustained change in the world requires us to connect with an inner authentic self.
If we stop, reflect, and make room for contemplation in order to connect with a deeper side of our nature, the world will change. While it is important to connect with each other and connect with our creative side, it is also vitally important to connect with our inner, most authentic self, to reset the inner compass, and be guided by a life that may well have been buried in the busyness and tyranny of the urgent.
Like the ball that has come to our side of the net, this COVID crisis is not our enemy. Let’s use it. While distraction is, at times, part of the journey, let’s be careful not to distract ourselves to the point that we waste this huge opportunity before us. Authenticity asks us to embrace what is in front of us so it will change what lies ahead of us. This crisis truly is a terrible thing to waste.

Accountability, Ownership, and COVID-19

The focus of my life’s work and passion is authentic leadership. At the foundation of authenticity lies ownership and personal accountability. In part, this means the ability to distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t and putting energy into that which you can influence. I am aware that COVID-19 is causing concern and fear. I recently read that, despite all that is being done, 50,000 people still die on this continent every year from the flu. As much effort that is going on to try to contain this thing, let’s keep things in perspective. A trickle of fear in the brain can eventually turn into a trough that everything flows into.

The truth is that our health is constantly threatened by external toxins and “invaders” such as viruses and bacteria. We have little control over what is circulating in the air around us, but most of us have the ability to influence our immune system – how the body responds to these toxins.

Personal accountability means taking full responsibility for what we can control and letting go of what we can’t control. In the midst of all the unknowns in the current world narrative about this disease not enough emphasis is being placed on what we can control – our own response to the disease. Let’s not get so stressed about this that we create a self-fulfilling prophesy of a compromised immune system.

While much lies outside the sphere of influence in this impending endemic, here are three things we can all be accountable for:

1)    Get as much knowledge about what is happening as we can – from trusted sources.

2)    Learn as much about your immune system as you do about the disease. And put your energy into what you can impact – bolstering your well-being.

3)    Wash your hands.

Heroic Leadership: Lessons From The Golden Knights – By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.

Well, the professional hockey season is over and the Washington Capitals have the Stanley Cup. Congratulations to the team. But that is not the main story for many of the rest of us. Our story is composed of part magic, part luck, and what I like to call the “four qualities of heroic leadership.” Let me explain.

First, here are the “four qualities” – Compassion and Commitment, Competency and Courage. We see these four aspects of leadership in the Las Vegas Golden Knights Hockey Team.

Compassion and Commitment: I will let writer, Ben Shpigel, of the New York Times (May 22nd) start us off: “The Golden Knights play in front of fans who appreciate how quickly and deeply the team has taken to their adopted city after the tragedy of October 1st, 5 days before Vegas’s first game. The tragedy strengthened the Golden Knights bond with the fans, who found healing in hockey (emphasis mine), a respite from their grief.”

The number “58” was retired by the Knights organization at the beginning of the season in a tribute to the 58 who were murdered on October 1stat an outdoor concert in Las Vegas.

So intimate is the connection between the team and the people of the Vegas Valley, that at the end of the fifth and final game of the Stanley Cup, the fans gave the team a thundering ovation. Commentator Ed Graney, of the Las Vegas Review Journal (June 8), looking past the final game of the season for the Knights wrote: “The big picture will stand on its own, ingrained into the fabric of this city, a team and a town and the impenetrable bond it will forever share.”

Competency and Courage: Here is Ben Shpigel again, writing of this expansion team that wasn’t expected to win many games in its inaugural year much less reach the playoffs: “No matter how many goals they scored (or did not score) last season, no matter how many saves they made (or did not make), the Golden Knights gathered for training camp before the season as equals – traded and exposed, discarded by their old teams, exiled to an expansion franchise in the middle of the desert. Disrespected and discounted, the Golden Knights coalesced around that snub.” Even their coach, Gerard Gallant, suffered a setback in his career when he was fired by the Florida Panthers in the fall of 2016; he is now a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the Year.

Compassion and Commitment, clearly; Competency and Courage indeed. This merry band of “Golden Misfits,” as the players call themselves, set professional hockey “on its ear” this year and helped the Las Vegas community grow in appreciation of itself. The team and its fans can be justly proud of who they are and what they accomplished this year.

Max Oliva, a Jesuit priest, has been a friend and mentor of mine for more than twenty years. He lived and ministered in Las Vegas from 2011 to 2017. He now resides in Spokane, Washington. However, he still works in the Vegas Valley on a part-time basis and was in Las Vegas on the day of the October 1 shooting as well as for the final game of the Stanley Cup. His main ministry has been serving men and women in the corporate community on the topics of ethics and spirituality, first in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and then in Las Vegas. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and ethics. His web site is: www.ethicsinthemarketplace.com