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It’s all so much.

I don’t really know if the issues and injustices in the world today are really bigger than at other times, but it feels that way sometimes. Maybe its just the massive volume of incoming content and commentary bombarding us 24/7. Maybe its the ease with which we can be exposed to matters from every corner of the world. Whatever it is, it can be overwhelming.

Leaders are driven to respond. We want to do something. We want to make a difference.

The tendency to take action serves us well most of the time, but even the best of us don’t have the capacity to care and respond to every possible issue. At some point we run out of ability to do anything.

I feel like I’ve been there more this year than ever before.

In a conversation with a skilled spiritual director I described the feeling of helplessness I can experience when I can’t  handle the variety and weight of need I’m exposed to. With compassionate wisdom she encouraged me to sit with that sense of helplessness and see if there’s a lesson for me in it.

I think there is.

There are times when the only thing I can offer to a situation, or even to an individual, is my presence. I can’t change the difficult reality and I have nothing to say that could possibly be helpful. But I can offer myself.

Truth is, that seems insufficient and unsatisfying. I want to do something. I want to do more. I want to make it better. But when I can’t do that I can still be present, and in that helpless presence I can demonstrate support and empathy that somehow can be significant.

Years ago a friend introduced me to a song by the Holly Cole Trio called “Cry if you want to”. It’s a beautiful expression of the nonjudgmental kindness that may be the most and best I can offer when none of my preferred active responses can help.

I like being someone who tries to find active ways to get involved. I will probably always struggle with a desire to do something, even when I don’t know what to do. Even when there’s probably nothing I can do that will actually help.

I need to keep learning how to do things that will actually be beneficial in the realities of today’s complex problems. But I also need to learn the power and practice of helpless presence.
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Silos suck.

(Except for agricultural storage I guess.)

The strong tendency for departments, teams, or groups to be loyal to one another but competitive or critical of others in the same organization is common and damaging. We’ve all seen it. Most of us have been part of it. Sometimes we justify it.

Of course its a problem, but its also understandable. We spend most of our time working with our closest team and have more understanding with them than with everybody else. Being accountable to organizational goals over which we have less influence is harder than the ones we can work on directly day to day. 

As much as we know we need to share strongly in the broad goals of the organization its difficult to keep those targets in mind in the midst of daily demands.

Leaders I work with have found it helpful to think of this challenge as a matter of Sponges and Buckets.

Imagine a classic steel bucket with soapy water and several sponges inside. 

The bucket represents the organization. The sponges are the teams, departments, and groups (even individuals) that fill the organization. And the water is the mission and programming. Ultimately the water is what its all about and the bucket is the container we are using to accomplish it. Sponges are the functional pieces that get the work done.

We can take out any particular sponge out of the bucket to have a look at it, see what kind of shape its in, and consider how well it is performing relative to its role. A sponge that doesn’t work properly can fairly easily be adjusted, improved, or replaced. But eventually the sponge has to return to the bucket and the water moves between sponges fairly freely.

In healthy organizations the mission is understood to flow between departments as information, resources, and support is exchanged. That kind of flexibility and priority adaptation makes for a highly productive and engaged staff. We can evaluate teams, but the standard is how they contribute to the overall goals of the bucket, not how they’re doing on their own.

Keeping a “bucket mentality” where our shared objectives are the higher priority enables us to evaluate sponges with greater objectivity and make better leadership decisions. Of course its really the water that matters most.

Consider putting a bucket and sponge in your office as a reminder of where loyalty and priorities need to be.
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