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CARING LEADERSHIP – The Undervalued Virtue of Human Touch

“Whether at home, at work, or at play, the human heart seeks to be known, understood, and connected. If you do not connect, the ones you care about will find someone who will.”
Dr. Henry Cloud
In 1980, when I was in graduate school, I was inspired by a study from Ohio State University where researchers were studying heart disease in rabbits. Rabbits were fed diets extremely high in cholesterol and, to the scientists’ amazement, one group did not get high cholesterol levels despite being given the same diet. They found that the only difference between these rabbits and the ones who developed atherosclerosis was the technician feeding them. Instead of throwing feed at them, he took them out of their cages to pet them, cuddle them, and kiss them. He would sing and speak to them. The researchers discovered that this touching resulted in a change in the peptides and neuro-peptides and they would, in fact, shunt the cholesterol into a different metabolic pathway, so they did not get heart disease, even though they were consuming diets that were high in cholesterol.
Countless studies since then have shown that health is impacted by being close and connected with other people, a sense of belonging, and whether we can give and receive love, care, and support. Caring actions impact the lives of those around us. Authentic leadership requires an ability to communicate caring to others. I suggest the following ways to start:
1) Disconnect to connect. Put down your devices. Pay attention and take the time to listen to what matters to people. There has never been a generation so riveted with mental health challenges and so starved for nurturing relationships. Devices have become substitutes for the more constant real human contact that parents used to provide when they worked near home or on the farm. These electronic sources of entertainment are also used as replacements for the sense of community formerly provided by large extended families or the clan, tribe, or village.
2) Attune to the emotions of others. Attunement means being “in tune” with another’s emotional state. Attunement is the language of caring. The quality of a relationship is measured, in large part, by one’s ability to be present with each other in such a way that the other feels understood, valued, and accepted. Attuning to others can be as simple as acknowledging their frustrations, their fears, or their enjoyment. One of the ways that our ability to attune to others gets impaired is when we approach the interaction with a belief that we have to “fix” the emotions that arise. People primarily need to be listened to and acknowledged. There is a time for problem solving, but not when people are in an emotional state.
3) Stay in love. There lies within every person a place where, when connected to it, we feel deeply and intensely alive; a place that says, “This is the real me.” Staying in love means staying connected to that place, then bringing more of that passion to what we do. It means letting go of resentments, valuing life and surrounding yourself with life-giving people. Staying in love means focusing on what we have in common rather than what divides us; underscoring our shared humanity, that which unites us. Staying in love means staying in love with life, thus igniting the fire in others.
From my mother’s library I inherited The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm. The lessons in it are classic: Learning to love and express caring, like learning to be authentic, is not easy. It requires concentration, solitude, thought, knowledge of one’s self, listening, living in the present, and patience.
Above all, to lead is to make learning to care your supreme concern.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is for you to come alive.”
Howard Thurman

CONVERSATIONS WITH AUTHENTICITY – What Makes Ordinary leaders Extraordinary?

I have the great privilege to meet and learn from remarkable leaders and incredible human beings in the course of my work. It is one of the many advantages of doing what I do, and I learn some valuable lessons from everyone I encounter.
You may be aware of my Podcast project entitled “The Other Everest.” While much of social media focuses on stories of “famous” people, the intent of my Podcast series is to shine a light on the stories of “ordinary” leaders who are making an extraordinary difference in the world – people on the journey to what I call “The Other Everest.” Along with examining their own unique philosophy of leadership and what they do to create change, I have them share their story of how they became the kind of person that enables them to make such an impact. To listen to their stories, download the Podcasts at: https://davidirvine.podbean.com/
I have found that there are four qualities that run through the fabric of the lives of authentic leaders, exemplified in the podcasts:
1)    A Compelling Humility. All the leaders on these podcasts are surprised to be asked to record their story. Their ego doesn’t drive their work. Humility opens the door to curiosity and self-awareness. They influence others because they themselves are open to be influenced. True, authentic leaders aren’t attached to titles, degrees, or the size of their office. They are keen to learn about themselves, receive feedback, and grow. You get a sense of the person behind the role, and that imperfect – at times vulnerable – person is what comes through.
2)    Courage That Inspires. Authentic leaders aren’t just humble and modest. They are also immeasurably courageous. While courage can be expressed in many ways, one voiced it as the courage to “reach in” through the diminishments and the defeats, and find a way to turn encounters with illness, failure, bankruptcy, injury, abuse, death of a loved one, or any type of tragedy – and come out the other side with newfound awareness, strengths, and gifts. The inner journey forces us to meet our demons face-to-face, to travel long miles in the dark without seeing the light at the end. But these leaders have the courage to keep walking – in their own unique human way – until they eventually realize that the light at the end of the tunnel is actually coming from their own headlamp. Authentic leadership is fueled by a voyage that takes us inward and downward, toward the hardest realities of our lives. The best leadership comes from people who have penetrated their inner darkness, men and women who can lead the rest of us to a place of authenticity that is hidden from what the world sees, who have been there and know the way, and in so doing, know the why.
3)    A Vision of Caring. These authentic difference makers are “we” people not “me” people. They choose service over self-interest, committed to a sense of purpose beyond their immediate pleasure and gratification. They care about being successful, but they care even more about being devoted – to their calling and to bring value to those they serve. Each of these leaders care enough to take the time to listen to an inner calling, a vision that lifts them during the times of being “stuck” into an understanding that such periods are really fallow periods, a time to let the soil renew itself before it can grow a new crop.
4)    An Arousing Hope. In a world where violence, terrorism, and abuse can abound, authentic leaders inspire us with hope. But hope is not naive enthusiasm. The best portrait of hope I know of is painted by the former US president, Barack Obama:
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”
May we all be inspired by those around us who bring courage, caring, and hope through their leadership and lives. May we be inspired by the humble, authentic people in our lives who are making a difference – and let them know how valued their contribution is. And may we each know that we are those leaders.

THE MAGIC OF BOLDNESS

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” 
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In my travels the past few weeks, I have suffered many a delayed or cancelled flight and the stress and inconvenience that goes along with it. This is the time of year when my travel schedule is at a peak, when weather wreaks havoc on getting to my events, and when patience and trust must consciously dissolve frustration. A friend reminded me today that in the midst of delays to find the “gifts in the detours.”
In 1979, Marwa Atik’s grandfather made the decision to leave his home in Syria and start a new life in the United States. He settled in California and his wife and seven children were to follow on a future flight. Their American Airlines Flight #191 reservations included a stop in New York, followed by a connecting flight to Chicago before finally arriving at their final destination in California. After landing in New York, immigrants first had to apply for a green card before their next destination. Hala, a young thirteen-year-old and one of the seven children, had recently put on the hijab. When it came time for her photo, officials asked her to remove it, but she refused. Immigration officers persistently informed her that she would not be allowed to move to America or continue to their next flight until she took this photo. Hala was unfaltering and insisted on her right to wear the hijab.
By now, Hala’s mother became impatient. Having flown half-way across the globe and spending close to their life savings on these tickets, she did not want to miss the next flight to California. She pleaded with her daughter to comply with the officers, but Hala held fast. The officials brought in their superiors and insisted that if she did not remove her hijab for the photo she would not be allowed into the U.S. and her family would be sent back to Syria. After three brutal hours of interrogation with numerous officers, and with a young lady who refused to compromise, the officials finally relented and allowed her to keep her hijab on for the photo. However, by then it was too late. The family had missed their connecting flight. They ended up having to purchase new plane tickets and stay overnight in New York. Dismayed and furious, Hala’s mother lectured her young daughter into the evening and for the whole flight to California.
By the time they arrived in Los Angeles, Hala’s father greeted and embraced them all with tears. It was then that the family learned that the original flight they were supposed to be on had crashed, and all 271 on board perished.
Two years ago, I felt called to take the risk to offer in-depth public leadership development programs to deepen one’s authentic presence. While this act of “boldness” in no way compares to the courage of young Hala, it was my dream and took a great deal of my courage. After much trepidation, we have now successfully facilitated two retreats. I know this is what I am meant to be doing. It has become hugely fulfilling to me and I hope for the participants.
I want to let you know that we still have seats available for our next retreat at the Banff Center and I invite you to join us. You can find more information on my website: www.davidirvine.com
Also this week, in another small effort to be “bold,” I am officially launching my new podcast series: Conversations with Authentic Leaders. My purpose is to look at how authenticity fosters leadership. There are so many good leadership books out today on what good leaders do and how they behave. But leadership is too important to be reduced to techniques or titles. My questions and contribution have to do with how leaders “become.” Where does the capability to influence and impact others come from? How can one amplify their ability to influence others through a stronger authentic presence? What is their life story? What are their defining moments?
This podcast series consists of conversations with “ordinary” leaders who are making an extraordinary difference. Amazing people who are contributing through their authentic leadership presence. I am shining a light on their stories with the hope that we can all magnify our ability to lead by being more fully who we are. Leadership, after all, is about presence, not position.
What are you doing to realize the magic of boldness? How have you inspired others through your courage? What is your dream?

MASTERY AND THE POWER OF REFLECTION

“Don’t aim to become a person of success; rather, aim to be a person of value.”
-Albert Einstein
A key to living authentically is the capacity to reflect. Reflect means to go back over; to study again. Go back over your notes. Go back over your thoughts. Go back over your day, your week. I like to take time at the end of the year to reflect upon what’s important in my life, going back over the year to be sure that in my pursuit of a standard of living I don’t lose track of the standard of my life. January is a good time to reset the compass and clarify my intentions for the upcoming year.
Reflection turns experience into insight.
–  John Maxwell
I kicked off 2019 by attending a five-day workshop called Come Alive at The Haven Institute on Gabriola Island on Canada’s west coast. Facilitated by my good friend David Raithby and his colleague, Linda Nicholls, the experience was filled with tremendous insights, reminders, and discoveries that supported my own authentic journey. It reinforced my reflections and renewed my vision for my life and work.
One of the significant take-aways from the retreat was the understanding of the difference between achievement and mastery.From very early in life we experience them both and often confuse the two. While they appear to be similar, the motive and results of each are distinct. Achievement, as defined here, is the attainment of a goal based on external motivators, such as recognition, approval, money, appreciation, status, or the opinion that others have of us. We work hard in school to get good grades. We build a successful business for the profit and prominence it promises. We lose weight so we’ll look good for the reunion. In an achievement-oriented world, one’s value is measured by external results, such as income, appearance, fashion, numbers of likes on social media, and how we compare with others.
Mastery, on the other hand, is about internal motivation. We experience mastery when we take our first steps, learn to tie our shoelaces, or overcome a difficulty. With mastery we experience the reward of curiosity and discovery, wonder and fulfillment. With mastery, we feel deep satisfaction as our world expands and we uncover new capacities. Rather than being externally motivated, mastery is inspired by an inner yearning to realize our potential and express who we are meant to be. As parents and teachers, we cultivate mastery by providing a safe learning environment and encouraging support. Rather than focusing on praise, approval, and external rewards, mastery is developed by encouraging children to reflect on their own endeavors, experience their own sense of amazement, and affirm themselves based on their own internal measurement of self-expression and gratification.
Alongside the experiences of mastery, we all experience, to some degree, the pull of achievement and its rewards. While achievement is a worthy aim at particular points in our life, it potentially creates a dependence upon something outside of ourselves that can blind us to the sustaining fulfillment of mastery. This reliance on external validation as a motivator is expressed when students are driven by grades rather than the love of learning, businesses are motivated by making a buck rather than making a difference, and success is motivated by an unquenchable hunger for fame and fortune. When a person’s worth becomes dependent on societal validation, a cycle of self-criticism, burnout, anxiety, despair, and ultimate emptiness results.
Being all too familiar with the barrenness of achievement motivated by the drive for approval and status, I am now emerging into a stage of life where achievement is being replaced by mastery. It’s fulfilling, less stressful, and a whole lot more enjoyable when you build a business based on self-expression and contribution than one driven by notoriety, the praise of others, and success defined by the marketplace. If you consider what you want to be said of you at your funeral, you will find your own definition of a life well-lived and discover that the people you seek approval from won’t even be at your funeral!
Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle knew something about the difference between achievement and mastery when he distinguished between what he termed “external goods,” such as prosperity, property, power, personal advancement and reputation, and “inner goods,” or “goods of the soul,” including fortitude, temperance, justice, compassion, and wisdom. He taught that the good life is not one of consumption, but one of the flourishing of these virtues.
Five suggestions for bringing more mastery into your life and living authentically:
1. Create a regular habit to pause and take a deep breath. S-l-o-w d-o-w-n and make room to pay attention to the voice within. Connecting to your breath opens you to connect with the present moment. While goals are important, life is not lived in some distant future. Life is lived now. The present moment is where meaning lies.
2. Take an honest inventory of what drives the actions in your life.Ask yourself some tough questions: What motivates you? How dependent are you on the validation and approval of others to define you? Whose voices are driving your life? What matters to you: achievement or mastery? “external goods” or “internal goods?” Take time to notice the impact that your motives are having on the quality of your life, your relationships, your health, and your leadership.
3.Listen to your body. Your body knows. I came down with a cold after the holidays. I don’t like to take cold medicine. I like to hear the symptoms clearly and listen accordingly. Paradoxically, I think it’s healthy to get sick periodically as it helps reset your immune system and gets your attention if you listen to what it’s trying to tell you. Perhaps the same thing could be said for pain. I stayed home for a couple days, relaxed, and used the time for some reflection. It went quickly and informed me to let go of some expectations I had of myself that were externally driven and not aligned with my authentic self. If you don’t listen to a cold and take care of it, it will turn into bronchitis; if you don’t listen to bronchitis it will turn into pneumonia; if you don’t listen to pneumonia….
4.Clarify your intentions. You may find that nothing needs changing in your life except how you approach your life. There’s nothing inherently wrong, for example, with having a goal to build a financially successful company. But living authentically requires a careful examination of your intentions. If you are depending on the success of your business to give you your worth and your place in the world, you’ll likely find it will never be enough. If, however, you are building a business in order to express yourself, help others grow, and bring value to the world, the journey can be far more meaningful and fulfilling.
5. Take stock of your relationships. Reflect on the people that are in your life right now and where you might need support to live with greater mastery. If you want a fulfilling life, hang out with people who will inspire and support you to be who you are. Coaches and mentors can be helpful to guide you to your own truth and your voice. Mastery, like authenticity, is a lonely journey but it can’t be done alone.
I’d love to hear your experience, perspective, and reflections on the difference between achievement and mastery, and what these insights mean to you.

CHARACTER: The Undervalued Virtue of Human Goodness

 “Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that guides your way.”                                               – Heraclitus

My early years were filled with my father’s passion for sport and love for his sons. Dad was a nationally ranked gymnast, and when I was in elementary school, he would take me every Saturday morning to the old YMCA in our community. We would work, just him and me alone, on the parallel bars, tumbling mats, and climbing ropes. While he’s been gone now for more than thirty years, I can still close my eyes and feel the strength of his biceps and shoulders lifting me gently up on those bars. I can feel his thigh muscles as I would rest on them, learning to find a resemblance of balance on the mat. I can remember the enthusiasm and caring that lay below all of his dedicated actions. He wasn’t there because of his ego. He was there because of me and what he desired to instill in me.

When I was in high school, it was my father who inspired a dream within me to make the 1980 Canadian Olympic team as a track athlete. It was that dream that in turn inspired me to get up early to train and to take better care of my health. When I would lie in bed at 5:00 a.m. debating about whether to get up for my morning run, it was the power of that purpose that enabled me to get my feet on the floor and my rear end out the door in -25°F weather.  I can still hear my father tell me that, “The purpose of having a dream is not to achieve your dream. The purpose of having a dream is to inspire yourself to become the kind of person it takes to achieve your dream. Very few people make it to the Olympics, and even fewer stand on the podium, but anyone can become the kind of person it takes to get there.”

While I didn’t qualify for the Olympics, having the dream inspired me to live a healthier, more disciplined life. To this day, I have maintained many of those healthy habits ingrained in me over forty years ago. While my purpose has changed and broadened, the inspiration remains.

The seeds of character were planted early on in my life. At sixty, my father would walk around the house on his hands. But he didn’t lead with the strength of his shoulders. He led with the strength of his character. And he understood that character is developed by the daily discipline of duties done.

Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle distinguished between what he termed “external goods,” such as prosperity, property, power, personal advancement and reputation, and “inner goods,” or “goods of the soul,” including fortitude, temperance, justice, compassion, and wisdom. He taught that the good life is not one of consumption, but of the nourishing of these deeper, hidden virtues. Unshakeable character calls you to shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can give, to endeavor not for what you can have, but for who you can be.  If you want to attract others, you must be attractive.  A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.

It’s not the fierceness of the storm that determines whether we break, but rather the strength of the roots that lie below the surface. Character is the courage to meet the demands of reality. When your wealth is lost, something is lost; when your health is lost, a great deal is lost; when your character is lost, everything is lost.

Originally published in 1934, this poem, written by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr. was a favorite of my father’s and beautifully illustrates this virtue of character.

It’s called, “The Guy In The Glass.”

When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that guy has to say.

For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.

He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.

You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.

This past month I had the good fortune to speak to my daughter’s high school English class about authentic leadership and the strength of character. At the conclusion of my presentation I recited this poem and then I told these students that if it were my poem, I would have added one more verse:

When you don’t get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you dirt for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that guy has to say…

THE UNTAPPED POWER OF EMPOWERMENT

After a recent speaking engagement, I went back to my Best Western hotel room in St. Albert, Alberta. On the coffee table I found this note with a little gift bag containing a bottle of water and a candy bar.

Since receiving this inspiring little note of kindness, I have used it to illustrate leadership at its finest as it demonstrates that leadership has nothing to do with a title. Leadership instead, is about inspiring and influencing action from the people around you. It’s about PRESENCE, not position. After receiving this bit of acknowledgement, I’ve been intentional about keeping my hotel rooms cleaner. Not for the prize but for the pride.
While this is leadership about inspiration and influence, it’s also a story about empowerment. Someone empowered Jen and Grace to give this kind of recognition to a customer, and these two ladies also empowered themselves to step up to good leadership.
Empowerment is about removing barriers, creating space, and providing the support, encouragement, and tools for people to be the best version of themselves. But empowerment isn’t just about the manager letting go of some control. Empowerment, building a culture of trust, also requires the employee to choose service over self-interest. Believing that you can do just what you want and get all that you ask for is confusing empowerment with entitlement. Under the guise of empowerment, I’ve heard people ask for such things as freedom to come and go as they wish, increased salary, a risk-free environment, and no consequences for choices made.
Just because empowerment might mean working without being micro-managed, being trusted to make decisions, or having freedom to take some risks, empowerment doesn’t mean that you are going to get all you ask for, nor can you expect to be protected from being unhappy.
Empowerment is a partnership. It’s a relationship of trust. It’s a commitment to a dialogue with each party taking ownership. It’s not an act of concession. If a manager has the courage to hold an employee accountable for the agreements they made, don’t mistake this for  maltreatment.
Three simple ways to build an empowered relationship:
1)    Work with your employees within a solid accountability and delegation framework. Be sure there is clarity among all parties regarding expectations, parameters, agreements, needs for support, and consequences. Remember two things: Ambiguity breeds mediocrity and a request is not an agreement.
2)    Be intentional about building leadership capacity around you. As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” You give a person a fish when you delegate through giving commands without a why, a sense of purpose or understanding the work from a larger context. It’s like saying, “go do this, and when you’re done come back and I’ll give you something else to do.” Then you become a seagull manager, when you flap around and crap on people for not doing it “right.” Empowerment implies starting small and gradually building on larger and larger expectations as trust is built and capacity is acquired.
3)    Take ownership. High involvement and high collaboration are key to empowerment. Workers will simply perform best when they have influence over their workplace and act as owners. While empowerment does imply the willingness to trust and let go of some control, ownership on the part of the employee is also required to fully grasp the task they are empowered to do. Ownership is the willingness to choose 100% responsibility. Ownership is about deciding, once and for all, that all blame is a waste of time. Ownership is about ensuring results rather than merely putting in a “good effort.”
Empowerment isn’t a leadership fad or flavour of the month. Empowerment is an approach to life. As a shared responsibility, empowerment builds leaders, takes pressure off of managers, delivers results that matter, and helps shape organizations that are worthwhile places to work.
What are your experiences with empowerment? I’d love to hear from you.