Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Being" vs. "Doing" and the Emerging Economy

"We're human beings, not human 'doings.'"

I heard that quote the other day from a motivational speaker we brought in to address a large group of leaders during an off site retreat. It resonated with a perspective I have held for many years, probably since my seminary days, on how who we are must be valued above what we happen to do.

The message was particularly relevant because of the "doing" nature of the environment in which these particular leaders--and countless others you know--work each day. There seldom is a chance to pause for a minute and remember that the "doing" flows out of the "being," and not the other way around.

One interesting exercise is to intentionally overhear various snippets of conversations at work, at parties, while browsing retail outlets, while hanging out with neighbors, etc. Listen to the nature of the dialogue, and note how much of it is about people attempting to position things they do. Contrast it with how much energy is spent heartily discussing things that matter to them as people.

And then ask yourself, "Am I unwittingly defining myself about things I do or wish I could do (or even pretend to have done)?" The answer will reveal to you just how much you, as my seminary professor Dr. Robert Mulholland would say, have "put on the false self."

Our false selves are characterized by ambition to spin our image to the world and to ourselves along the axis of accomplishments that define us. Our true nature lies masked beyond this unnecessary facade, and is the part of us that responds to genuine love, music, great stories, nature and other wonderful dynamics that make life well worth this arduous journey of uncertainty.

The traditional economic mode in which we have long been immersed depends upon false self thinking, with product and services to offer that enhance our "doing" identity. Our challenge as we move toward authenticity is to shift into developing new economic frameworks that thrive off of human creativity and collaboration, rather than depending on how much more production we can squeeze out of an already-tired soul for yet another day.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Much of What We've Understood About Leadership Is Wrong

Peter Block, in his book Community, challenges the conventional understanding of leadership by emphasizing it as a capacity that can be learned by anyone. What keeps us stuck, Block asserts, is the lingering assumption that leadership must be clustered in the hands of a few and our prevalent behavior of "looking for" leaders beyond ourselves to figure things out and do something.

"If our traditional form of leadership has been studied for so long, written about with such admiration, defined by so many, worshipped by so few, and the cause of so much disappointment, maybe doing more of all that is not productive," Block writes. "The search for great leadership is a prime example of how often we take something that does not work and try harder at it."

I gulped a little when reading how Block describes the typical claims made during most leadership trainings (I facilitate leadership workshops as part of my professional role): Leaders are top and essential, role models who possess unique skills. The task of a leader is to define the destination and the blueprint for how to get there. The leader's work is to bring others on board, to "enroll, align, inspire." Leaders provide and define the oversight, measurement and training needed to reach said destination.

Such beliefs, Block continues, "elevate leaders as an elite group" and have the unintended consequences of creating isolation, entitlement and passivity in our communities.

The real task of a leader, Block puts forth, is to convene a context of engagement where citizens embrace accountability and commitment toward defining destinations and getting there themselves. In Block's way of thinking, then, leadership--the latent quality inherent in each of us that must be developed--is held to three key tasks:

1. Create a context that nurtures an alternative future, one based on gifts, generosity, accountability, and commitment

2. Initiate and convene conversations that shift people's experience, which occurs through the way people are brought together and the nature of the questions used to engage them

3. Listen and pay attention

As I continue to work my way through Community, Block's ideas certainly are transforming my approach to leadership development work; how I put them into action remains to unfold, as I first must make sense of it all so I can explain it to others.

And as I think about the more conventional foundations of leadership and reflect on its application in many spheres of western life, I find it hard not to agree that we must shift the paradigm in order to get different results. Few of us can admit that we are satisfied with how our long-held approach to consolidating leadership in the hands of a few has impacted politics; global relations; religious institutions; many arenas of business; poverty; crime; environmental stewardship; and education. We have long pointed our fingers at leaders who have let us down in each of these categories, but the larger truth is that we have let ourselves down by abdicating the leadership capacity that is rightfully and responsibly ours to develop.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Unexpected Sacred

Music is an end in and of itself. I have briefly considered this in other contexts, but this gentle truth brushed itself against my heart today while watching my daughter and others perform in a great Williamson County (TN) arts camp called “Kids on Stage.”

One of the classes offered during the camp was African drumming. As I relaxed in a chair within the spacious gymnasium at a public school, I became lost in the rhythm and cadence of the performers. Nothing else mattered for a few minutes; the musicianship had eclipsed everything else. I began to think of what a nice departure this was from my weekdays’ corporate grind, where all that matters is what can be measured and improved and distilled into profits and customer service ratings. The music simply was; it was non-evaluative nor quantitative, but simply a multi-faceted expression of human creativity and a celebration of togetherness.

This epiphany is particularly pronounced in non-vocal performances, such as the drumming I experienced today but notably in jazz and classical music as well (music typically free of the clichés coughed up by the pop culture). Beyond the basics of the price of a download, CD or concert ticket, it is hard to speak of music’s worth in business terms. Business is so much about developing goals, vision, strategies and tactics toward achieving particular economic ends. Music, and authentic arts in general, presents the opportunity to financially bless its most proficient practitioners but is more about becoming someone than producing something. To truly engage the wonder of the notes, instruments, melodies and the players is to change, to grow, to become the means and the end.

Too many of us spend each day toiling toward a measurable, pragmatic end. Music and other great expressions of human creativity allow meaning to become the goal. A meaningful sense of being leads to more creative fuel and focus, which offers the ironic by-product of making us more effective at our measurable, pragmatic work. Win-win.

But typically, we spend almost all of our emotional capital on attacking the pragmatic, and try to “catch up later” on what truly gives us an abiding sense of purpose and peace. It doesn’t usually work out. We’re too burned out to relax or pay attention to what our hearts are telling us when we encounter the unexpected sacred.

What to do, if this is your predicament? “De-tox” now from the prevalent mindset that defines you and everything you do in terms of supply-and-demand, and get away long enough to enact some new disciplines that will enforce healthier, daily habits. Practice spending time doing things and embracing relationships that truly are ends in and of themselves. Listen to the sound of the drumming, the rhythm of the jazz guitar, simply for what they are: something beautiful, archetypes of life’s prevailing beauty once hidden from you but now revealed.

Friday, June 19, 2009

President Obama, Please Read This Book

Peter Block's book Community (2008) focuses on shifting our "existing context of community from one of deficiencies, interests, and entitlement to one of possibility, generosity and gifts."

Essentially, Block encourages us to move from a focus on what is wrong toward what potential remains untapped, and from letting official leaders carry all the burden and blame to decentralizing power and spreading ownership out among the citizenry. He draws a distinction between two types of communities, the "stuck" community and the "restorative" community. The former is caught up in problems and finger-pointing and reactive over-reliance on formal leadership, and is more akin to the norms we see today. The latter, instead, revolves not around economic prosperity, political discourse or the capacity of leadership--but "citizens' willingness to own up to their contributions, to be humble, to choose accountability, and to have faith in their own capacity to make authentic promises to create the alternative future."

The question of "what we can create together," Block asserts, is found when possibility and accountability collide and intersect. "Possibility without accountability results in wishful thinking. Accountability without possibility creates despair…"

For Block, it all starts and ends with the type of conversations we are willing to have or not have. I think he's spot-on here. Take a look today at the nature of the dialogue happening at your work place, in your family, in your neighborhood, in your church or synagogue or some other non-profit with which you are involved. Is the dialogue constantly focused on what is wrong and who is to blame, or is it about possibilities to live into...and what gifts and strengths each of you involved can contribute right now?

I would love for President Obama to read Community. Obviously I have to idea whether he has or not. Block does not take any particular political stances in his writings or his talks, but certainly promotes the concept of citizens empowered to lead and determine the best courses of action rather than the bulk of our resources and decisiveness owned by governmental bureaucrats. Government is currently in "growth mode," and I am hopeful that more voices like Block's can be heard so we do not simply rely on entrenched, formal power that might choose the paths of least resistance by recycling old solutions for old problems.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I Tweet, Therefore I Am

I finally began using Twitter last night--I am at http://twitter.com/johnmdemarco. My approach to most social networks has been to observe from a distance, to determine viability and practicality. Specifically, I wasn't sure if I needed to do Twitter updates when I was already very active on Facebook. I also am one to instinctively be slow to jump onto trends, with a bit of skepticism towards anything that feels "too" popular. But,also being a natural networker and connector, I read and heard enough about this rapidly growing platform to finally decide that it would be swell to tweet. So here I am.

The tipping point occurred yesterday, when I came across this article about Iran trying to suppress the tweets. This spoke to me about Twitter's power and reach, and increased its appeal since persons fighting against oppression were actively relying on it. It was the same emotion I felt a couple of years ago when doing research on a story about cell phone marketing, learning of the impact of texting. Coincidentally, I joined a cell phone provider, T-Mobile USA, not long after writing that piece for Christian Retailing magazine.

The article on Iran led to links for other articles about how Twitter has and will shape business and the way we live in general. The big picture impact of any movement always intrigues me. This multi-part piece, of course, led to even more articles on various social networking applications, all of which sound cool but would necessitate quitting my job for me to fully utilize en masse.

I continue to be in awe at the speed of change and innovation. The challenge for me, and I think everyone else still in career mode, is continuing to recognize and to fine-tune my strengths and passions and figure out how to leverage such innovation with authentic purpose. I enjoy learning how I can help people and organizations from a coaching, writing and speaking standpoint, and Twitter certainly is one of many key platforms for opening up possibilities.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Blog Evolution

I have updated the descriptive header of this ongoing blog to better reflect my current perspectives on the purpose of my entries and the intended dialogue.

The title, "Toward Authenticity," remains the same, because the journey itself has not changed. I am committed to ongoing growth in self-awareness and utilization of my talents, to ensure that I remain discerning of any tendencies to "keep up with the Joneses" or make choices just because other people or conventions declare that I should. As I sojourn, my hope is to encourage others to gradually abandon their false selves and more fully unleash their authenticity.

Formally, I listed that this blog was an effort to integrate discussions of "spiritual formation, leadership and the arts." That was a worthy three-fold focus, I believe, and hopefully on occasion I have pulled off such a marriage.

However, as my thinking has evolved, I have come to understand that what especially compels me to write blogs is an awareness of how so many of life's moments are chock with coaching insights; open windows for being coached and coaching others. These insights, as I blogged about a few weeks ago, especially are found when seven key spheres of life are synthesized as intentionally as possible: Art, Learning, Recreation, Relationships, Service, Spirit and Work. "Spiritual formation, leadership and the arts" certainly compose a great percentage of these spheres, so I am expanding my writing focus here rather than simply changing it.

Recently I looked across my blog's two-and-a-half-year history and found that when I first began, entries were few and far between. Now, if I let a week go by between entries, I feel off-kilter. Blogging begets blogging, just as deep conversation unfolds even more layers of meaningful dialogue. Conversation itself becomes change.

And so I compose these blogs as a coach, writer and speaker who is enthralled with the power of words to equip, encourage, inform and motivate others. I have realized that my professional endeavors revolve around leveraging words to in some way coach others--to elicit new insights so they might change their thinking, and hence their behavior and hopefully their results toward whatever goals they have set. And through this forum, I hope others might more fully see how the seven spheres are pregnant with epiphanies, how life itself becomes one unfolding coaching session if we are paying attention.

Friday, June 12, 2009

We're All Entrepreneurs Now

The title of this blog was lodged in my mind before any particular content. It emerged from an impression more than any sort of journalistic research endeavor.

Perhaps it is the afterglow of an enjoyable Thursday night with a large Nashville-based group of executive and life coaches, a symphony of possibilities, creativity and genuine caring for others. Essentially, it was a house full of entrepreneurial spirit set free--partially by choice, partially by necessity.

As the economy takes an uncertain journey toward a different future, I believe that many industries, educational institutions and service arenas will not have sustainability when it comes to providing generous salaries or benefits. This is particularly relevant for educators, trainers, executive/life coaches, clergy, artists, etc.--those who do not necessarily generate revenue in as direct a manner as sales, but without whom society would be bereft, lacking depth and bored.

Where does that leave the vocational free spirit in a world still dominated by the economist-engineer motif, as Peter Block has described? Left to the freedom and joy of their own creativity, I believe, with a thrilling touch of risk thrown in for good measure.

The risk is to dare to follow your heart, leverage your true strengths and refuse to yield to the wasteland by playing it safe and conventional. The thrill unfolds in greater dimensions as the fruit of faith, perseverance and relationships grows ripe for harvest.

In the end, we're all entrepreneurs; business owners who may not have companies or balance sheets, but who represent a brand that can add value and enrich human endeavors. Most of us have not yet awoken the entrepreneur within, so dulled our senses have been by conventional thinking and infrastructures. But as those foundations continue to disintegrate, many will be forced to look more deeply at their strengths, their values and their desired lifestyles and do something that takes effort but reaps great rewards:


Across disciplines. Across cultures. Across social networks. Across socio-economic-religious boundaries. Across zero lot line fences.

The way of the future is banding together for common causes that serve vital human needs, expressed economically, spiritually, environmentally, politically, philanthropically, artistically. Entrepreneur by entrepreneur, we are creating a new, holistic economic and cultural landscape we cannot even define yet. The revolution is happening all around us, and it is fueled by the chosen or forced unleashing of our potential for genius.

We cannot pretend the insurgency has not already started. The first shots rang out a while ago. Welcome to the great adventure of crafting a more viable future, with very little defined as to how it might look. Everybody has a part to play, for in this emerging future no one truly is downsized, automated or sent offshore unless they stop believing in themselves and in the possibility of community.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Reflections on "Flow"

I have almost finished reading the impactful book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, first published in 1990 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (traditional spelling). This text has been on my "to read" list for several years, as many other great books--especially those referring to utilizing your strengths and volumes on positive psychology--keep referring to it. And it certainly has not disappointed.

The author's (don't expect me to keep typing out his name) contention is that ultimately each of us is seeking happiness, and that such happiness is not something that just haphazardly happens to us but is a condition that is cultivated through how we approach the contents of our consciousness (defined by the author as "intentionally ordered information," things we see, think, feel and desire in our subjective experience of reality). We experience "flow" in those moments when we lose track of time and taste a recipe of exhilaration, "a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like."

These moments are what the writer has in mind when he uses the phrase "optimal experience." Typically, they occur when a person's body or mind is "stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen." They are activities in which we dare to risk failure, in which we exert ourselves mentally or physically with an attitude of learning or growth.

People who can make these moments happen "enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way." The author continues, "The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the course of everyday life."

Throughout the book, the author points out the numerous activities that certainly do not stretch us to our limits and, because of their popularity within our western lifestyle, often leave us in a state of non-flow. Watching television night after night. Viewing our work as drudgery and simply muddling through it. Making little effort in our familial relationships. Excessive use of alcohol or use of recreational drugs to escape from the contents of consciousness rather than facing them and tackling life's core challenges. In general, resigning to Thoreau's notion that most are resigned to lives of "quiet desperation."

The book, then, examines the process of achieving happiness through control over one's inner life--and yes, for those of you wondering, it does touch upon the role of prayer and meditation. There are full chapters with rich examples of how to approach any job with a flow-creating mindset; how to make relationships with parents, spouses, children and friends more enjoyable; and how to respond to stress and enjoy life despite adversity. Especially sticky are the anecdotes of people with various disabilities who have achieved incredible things.

In essence, this text demolishes anyone's incentive, for whatever reason, to remain stuck in victim mode. Those determined to taste optimal experience will do so, amid whatever conditions. The reference to concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl (author of Man's Search for Meaning) helps to erase any lingering doubt toward such a premise.

As I have been reading, it has been natural to consider the types of activities during which I recognize that sense of flow, when I am "in the zone." Certainly this occurs when I am in the midst of writing something and the words just seem to pour out in the right order and with an impact that delights me. But there are many other types of occasions: deep and/or humorous conversations with good friends or family, causing me to lose track of time; the hours I have spent playing volleyball or throwing a Frisbee in various seasons of life; an endorphin-releasing workout; seeing a powerful film; hearing a great speaker or preacher; visiting a cool vacation destination for the first time; reading a book that really resonates with me; and having creative breakthroughs at work while preparing a talk or coaching a client. These indeed are moments of authentic happiness for me, when I lose myself in an activity and do feel like I am shaping my response to consciousness rather than simply reacting to external conditions or stimuli.

To anyone reading this: what are your moments of flow, when you lose track of time because you are so immersed in the complex pleasure of an activity? And how can you transform more of your everyday experiences or tasks into these "optimal" experiences?