Time to Exercise Our Leadership

I recently read an article in the New Yorker written by Joshua Rothman, a faculty member of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.* It first piqued my interest because it was about the leadership industry, of which I am a part. But Rothman’s ideas also gave me a new way to view our current presidential candidates.

Rothman opens with an investigation of what we call “great” leadership. Only when an individual is matched with an extreme crisis can a “great” leader emerge, he says. Without the crisis, the person would remain a run-of-the-mill authority figure. How would we remember Abraham Lincoln without his pairing with the Civil War? What would FDR have been without the Depression?

We long for great leaders, he continues, which feeds our longing for crisis, an addiction stoked by the twenty-four hour news stream. Donald Trump, whether intuitively or consciously, has tapped into this idea. He is creating a vision that our country is under siege: by ISIS, by home grown Muslim terrorists, by undocumented Mexicans. This makes him seem more consequential to many people. They are as hungry for crisis as they are for a potential “great” leader.

What is interesting to me is that Bernie Sanders is also creating a vision of our country under siege: by the financial industry, by moneyed interests, by established party politics. And his followers, as staunch and passionate as Trump’s, are fueled by the hope that he will be the new “great” leader. The causes of the crisis are different, but the hunger for someone to lead us out of danger is the same.

Rothman states that, fundamentally, leaders are storytellers. When they tell the stories we want to hear, we follow them. Both Trump and Sanders are appealing to disenfranchised citizens. Each group longs to hear someone explain why they are in debt, why they have a low income, why they cannot afford to get educated, why they can never get a piece of the American Dream. The view that fits with your sensibility of the world creates the difference. Rothman continues, “And because our desire for a coherent vision of the world is bottomless, our hunger for leadership is insatiable, too.”

In a traditional society, Rothman writes, the leader had to have a particular combination of traits. One had to be courageous, decisive, and have a big personality. You can see how Donald Trump appeals to the traditionalists: he looks like a chieftain with his wild hair, speaks like a mufti, with his outrageous statements, and has a young, beautiful, silent woman at his side.

The new view of leadership, though, is that it is not defined by a set of qualities, but created by a series of actions. It is not who you are, but what you do when faced with challenge. Rothman notes that the movie about Steve Jobs shows only the charismatic side of his leadership. What actually made Jobs a great leader, though, wasn’t his personality, but his capacity to successfully shepherd his teams through one creative process after another. What do we learn when we really investigate what Donald Trump’s actions have been? Sanders’? Hillary Clinton’s?

Rothman brings in research by Harvard Business School professor, Gautam Mukunda. Mukunda was interested in how organizations fill leadership positions. Some organizations, he found, use a filtering process: “In the military, for example, everyone who aspires to command must jump through the same set of hoops.” However, the U.S. Congress uses an unfiltered system: “You can vault in as a business person, or a veteran, or the scion of a political family.” Generals, he posited, would therefore have similar levels of competence, but members of Congress would have widely varying abilities.

Mukunda applied his theories to American Presidents.** First he looked at how “filtered” each one was, i.e. how many years of being groomed for the Presidency in various government positions. Then he looked at widely accepted rankings of Presidential performance. He found that heavily filtered Presidents clustered in the middle, while unfiltered ones landed either at the very top or the very bottom.

You can view the current candidates through this lens. Trump, of course, is the ultimate unfiltered candidate. He has no experience at all in political office. Sanders, despite sixteen years in Congress and ten in the Senate, is positioning himself as unfiltered. To his credit, he has been a gadfly on the body politic during all of those years.

Hillary Clinton is highly filtered. She has been groomed for this candidacy through twelve years as governor’s wife, eight years as First Lady, eight years in the Senate, four years as Secretary of State, and her trial run against President Obama. This clarifies to me the discomfort that many people have with her. If Mukunda’s data proves true, her potential presidency will be ranked in the middle. With our country doing all right, this might not be a bad thing.

But are times actually as bad as Trump or Sanders define them to be? If so, we need someone who has the capacity to lead us through the crises. Should we take a risk on an unfiltered candidate, who has a 50/50 chance of being a phenomenal president? Is the gamble worth it?

Rothman shares a quote from John Adams. The country won’t improve, Adams wrote, until the people begin to “consider themselves as the fountain of power. They must be taught to reverence themselves… it can be dangerous to decide that you need to be led.”

This is at the crux of our candidates’ competition. Trump commands his followers to do harm to others, and they do. Sanders asks his followers to think for themselves, and they agree. Hillary says that she’ll do what she believes is best for us. Which one will allow us to live up to Adams’ hope?

Or are we too late? Is our country too far along the path to the world illuminated in the Hunger Games: haves rule, have-nots starve, and crisis masquerading as entertainment takes our judgement and power away.

I hope not, but this election may the turning point.

*Rothman, Joshua. 2016. ”Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the Leadership Industry Rules.” The New Yorker (February 29): 64 – 69.

**Mukunda, Gautam, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter (Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

The Courage to Learn

I have been a visual artist for decades. My large acrylic paintings have been showing and selling. It was getting to a point, though, where making art was becoming a technical task rather than an exploratory pleasure. A class in oil painting popped up at the gallery. It was exactly what I was looking for: a new medium, a new style, a new way of seeing.

I had no expectations of success. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even know what kind of brushes to use or how to mix the paint. It was a thrill.

Right away, I got a few simple tips that were easy to apply. I learned about choosing brushes and how best to clean them. I started to draw more accurately. I experimented with lighting and “shadow mapping.” I tried mixing paint with different mediums. I made a few small paintings that weren’t terrible. They seemed like happy accidents.

After a month of class, I hit a wall. My paintings looked like blobs. I worked and re-worked an image that would have been easy to make using my old techniques. I tried another idea, but it was a disaster. It became painful to put color on my palette or brush to canvas.

I refurbished old brushes and straightened my studio. I re-surfaced the canvases I had ruined. I looked at art suppliers’ websites. I painted nothing. I thought about abandoning these new ways and going back to what I knew. I even thought about not painting at all any more.

When I arrived at the next class, I told my teacher how I was feeling: immobilized and afraid. She listened and then told a story of a group of artists who were sharing their creative experiences online. They came up with a questionnaire to gather data about what emotions were happening during the painting process.

They discovered that when how you paint and how you want to paint are at the same level, you are happy. But because you are always learning, your technique improves. Soon after your technique improves, your expectations of what you want to accomplish increase. You are unhappy because of the gap. You work again to improve your technique. Happiness for a moment, but your rising expectations create yet another gap. The pattern repeats. “It’s okay to be unhappy,” she finished. “It means that you are growing.”

“Of course,” I thought. I’m experiencing in real time a philosophy of learning that I have spoken about often in my own teaching.

The first phase of learning is blissful. Since you don’t even know that you don’t know what you don’t know, you can take pleasure in anything you do. This is the phase of unconscious incompetence. My first attempts are enjoyable and surprising. I put paint on the canvas and something that looks somewhat like a flower or vase or lemon emerges. Since I have no expectations, I feel like a success.

I learn a few things and move into the second phase: conscious incompetence. I put down a brushstroke that doesn’t work. I add more paint, and the colors turn to mud. I am acutely aware of how much I don’t know, because I have a glimmer of what is possible. This phase is agony.

The next is even more so. As I paint, I want to be free and direct and present in my brush strokes. Instead, my mind focuses on the skills I’m learning. My brushstrokes are too careful, the shadows too perfect. My painting looks academic, studied. This is the conscious competence phase of learning.

I flip back and forth between these two phases. When I think about how I’m painting, my spontaneity disappears. I slip back into old habits in order to feel more comfortable. But I don’t. At this precarious point, I need courage to stay in the discomfort of learning.

I want to move into the fourth phase: unconscious competence. This is another blissful state, where new habits are now ingrained. The mind isn’t worried about technique; the body is organically performing.

In certain areas of my oil painting study, I’ve achieved this. I can intuitively mix colors. I’m seeing value patterns. But the gulf is growing between my new skill level and my vision of what’s possible. I can let this gap debilitate me, or I can turn it into inspiration. I need courage to enter the cycle of learning again, knowing that each specific skill is going to pass through each phase.

If I know where I am in this process, I can identify my source of frustration. I can forgive myself for my anger and unhappiness and even for my desire to quit. As my new teacher puts it, “Painting is an exercise in being kind to yourself.” We could just as easily say, “Learning is an exercise in being kind to yourself.”

As I get on the balcony and watch myself learn about oil painting, I have a revelation about teaching. I have been talking about the phases of learning for years. I have been encouraging students to welcome their frustration as a part of moving forward. And now that I’m in the midst of it myself, I have even more empathy for anyone who is trying something new.

As educators, we must be kind to our students. We must treat learning as a fragile process fraught with despair. We must do everything we can to create an environment in which the courage to learn can flourish.

We must also keep learning. That is the only way we can truly understand the pathway to knowledge.

A Eulogy

I experienced a deep loss on December 9, 2015. Raymond Casanova Penfield, a lifelong friend, passed away on that day at the age of ninety-eight.

Ray was an extraordinary man. He and my dad became friends right after WWII. They were both marketing guys in Chicago. Ray was already married: he had asked Thelma to be his wife the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. He went back to Europe right after their wedding and ended up serving on the ground in Europe for five years, all the way through the Allied campaign in Italy.

They lived the high life in post-war Chicago: clubs and dinners and dancing. Ray and Thelma would double date with my dad and whomever he was going out with at the time. They were the first couple to meet my mom when she came into the picture.

When Ray and Thelma started a family, they moved to California to begin a new life. A few years later, my folks followed. (My sister and I were toddlers, about the same age as their two daughters.) Ray was just the kind of guy to invite us to live with them in Berkeley. The four of them and the four of us were inseparable. Afterwards, he offered us the use of their little rustic cabin in Tahoe for as long as we wanted.

Things didn’t work out for my dad in California, so we moved back to Chicago. But the friendship continued. Every summer, we would make the cross-country drive to San Francisco. Ray opened his home to us. I have a flood of memories of summer days with Ray taking time to take us everywhere and summer evenings filled wonderful dinners and loads of laughter.

I moved to the Bay Area to go to college. Ray was the one who had written me the reference that I’m sure caught the Stanford admissions’ eyes. Ray was the one to pick me up at the airport. Ray was the one who made sure their home was my home. And as my relationship with my dad became more and more strained, Ray was the one who listened. Ray was the one who held my hand. Ray was the rock for me.

When my mom died, there was no question that her service would be held in their home. (My parents had since retired to the Bay Area.) We all gathered in the living room and spoke of her and the intertwining of our lives.

Al and I became engaged, and I brought him to meet Ray and Thelma. The two of them opened their hearts to us. We watched how they were together. Ray was a great punster and loved to make Thelma laugh. They hugged each other and went out their way to be kind to each other. Neither of us had experienced this in our own families. We learned about how to love, how to be married. Ray again offered his home to us: we held our California wedding ceremony in the same living room.

We stayed with Ray for a while after Thelma passed away. We went through boxes full of his family photographs, the three of us sitting on the floor of his closet. He told us stories of his life. How he was a boy soprano in a cathedral choir in New York City. How he met Thelma. How he joined the Army. How he created a fake milk product called Klim, i.e. milk spelled backwards. How he was part of the early days of bringing BART to the Bay Area.

Ray had a piece of very good fortune when he was in his eighties. The inheritance that had been denied him for family reasons when he went off to war was finally released when his sister passed away. He now had the financial freedom to do what he had wanted to do since he was a child: sing.

He started taking piano lessons. He traveled to London to visit his daughter, a cabaret singer on the European club circuit. He wrote songs and performed them. He recorded and created a Facebook Page to post his videos. He lived with an infectious enthusiasm, still making puns, still generous, and filled with even more wisdom.

The last time Al and I had dinner with Ray, we told him how he and Thelma had changed our lives. He wouldn’t take any credit, saying that he, too, had made mistakes. On one of his very last days, though, he said that he had heard Thelma talking to him. She was telling him how happy she was that she would see him soon.

Who is your family? It may not be the people you are related to by blood. If you need to, you might find real parents when you when you look beyond your birth certificate. You might find other siblings all around you when your own have betrayed you. It may be someone who gives you a new way to see the world. It may be someone who loves you unconditionally, happy when you are happy, there for you when you are lost.

And you, too, can be family to those who don’t have they ones they should. Be kind, be generous. Open your home. Share your wisdom. Share your laughter. Show what it means to truly love.

Welcome Your Stress

As we enter the holidays, and the news about shootings, racism, terrorism, and the growing fascism of our extremist politicians increases, I cannot help but be affected by stress.  We have been taught to do anything we can to relieve stress, but even thinking positive thoughts and exercising a lot still can leave me with an uncomfortable level of anxiety.

There might be a different solution. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has turned the idea that stress is bad for us on its head.  In her new book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How To Get Good At It*, she proposes that the way to handle stress is to embrace it and use it, not deny it, avoid it, or try to make it go away.  Her inspirational and potentially life changing work opened my eyes to new ways of thinking, and new ideas for teaching, about stress.

For years, McGonigal had taught stress reduction courses in a traditional manner.  She based her work on the beliefs that stress is bad, it can ruin your health, and you must do everything that you can to eliminate it from your life. What she has discovered, though, is that stress can be extremely useful, both psychologically and physiologically, if we change our minds about it.**

McGonigal shows us something very simple: if you think that stress is harmful, it actually is. If you think that stress is useful, it is. For the brain chemistry nerds, here’s how: when we choose to see our stress as helpful, DHEA (which combats anxiety, depression and heart disease) increases, and cortisol (which affects immune system function) decreases. The reverse happens when we view stress as something to be avoided — cortisol increases and DHEA decreases.

We all have heard about fight or flight as the two responses to stress. McGonigal’s research gives us two more stress responses. The challenge response gets your blood vessels to open and your heart to beat more strongly.  You get more oxygen in your brain and feel more energy in your body.  If you are an athlete or performer, you’ve experienced this response.  It gives you inspiration to do your very best under challenging circumstances.

The tend/befriend response makes us go out of our way to help others during stressful times. We’ve seen this in our country’s worst attacks, from the doctors who rushed into harm’s way to help the injured at the Boston Marathon bombing, to the first responders during 9/11. A powerful cocktail of chemicals gets released in the brain: oxytocin, which prompts the need to connect, dopamine, which inhibits fear, and serotonin, which helps with intuition.

So how do we shift to these other forms of stress response?  McGonigal’s advice is clear.  First, acknowledge your stress.  Second, welcome it, because it means you care deeply about something.  Third, use the energy provided by your stress to pursue your goal.

She offers many examples of how connecting to what we value changes our response. One that stood out for me: a group of physicians were experiencing serious burnout due to the stress of caring for their patients’ needs. When they connected to the meaning of the work they were doing, their energy was renewed. They learned to see their stress as a resource.

Our response also changes when we feel part of a community with a larger mission. A study of employees going through difficult corporate transitions found that those who helped their colleagues through the tough times had fewer health issues than those focused on their own survival.  (Not coincidentally, companies connected to the greater social good showed higher revenues and growth.)

The last segment of the book covers somewhat controversial territory.  McGonigal delicately addresses resistance to new research about post-traumatic stress. However, people are not “doomed to be damaged”, as she phrases it.  If we see the good and bad of life events, we gain resilience. And if we grow from those experiences, we will have better physical health, protect ourselves against depression, and strengthen our immune functions.

Midway through the book, McGonigal offers ways to prepare ourselves to welcome stress. Bring your deepest values into your daily activities, she says. As I read this, I thought of the Buddhist monk sweeping the temple with the same attention that he gives his prayers.  Then, do one small action every day to help someone else. My husband calls his daily practice “compliment a stranger”.

I am thinking about how these two requests reflect what our holidays stand for, beyond our relationship to stress.  Both should be a part of our traditions, not only in the coming weeks, but throughout the years ahead. Our lives will be better for it.

*McGonigal, Kelly, THE UPSIDE OF STRESS: WHY STRESS IS GOOD FOR YOU, AND HOW TO GET GOOD AT IT (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2015).

**Please see my November 2014 post, “Change Your Language — Change Your Life”, for more about mindsets.

The Price of Perfection

I recently returned from a journey to Zurich and Lausanne where I worked with seventy-five women scientists during three days of workshops.  People usually return from Switzerland raving about the landscapes, the languages, and, of course, the delicious chocolate, but these aren’t what stood out for me.

The Swiss manage the logistics of daily life with ease and energy savings.  Take public transit, for example.  Trams, buses, funicular rails, and trains traverse Zurich.  There is a station every few blocks, so you never have to walk far to catch some mode of transport.  All the trams run punctually, and every station has an electronic sign with the number and arrival time of the various lines, never more than two or three or three minutes apart.

In order to ride local transit, you purchase a ticket, which you then time stamp at a machine, available at every stop.  The ticket is then good for twenty-four hours on any line within the specified zone.  There are no turnstiles, no ticket takers, no guards or gates.  You simply get on and ride.  Everyone seems to adhere to this honor system. The cost savings in personnel and infrastructure must be enormous.

Once your tram arrives, you push a green button on the door you wish to enter.  Only that door opens, and a step lowers for you to get on.  Again, a savings in energy.  An overhead screen shows the next several stops as well as the expected travel time between each stop and total travel time to the end of the line.  Other than a perfectly articulated recorded female voice telling you when you are nearing each stop, the ride is smooth and quiet.  When you disembark, you again push the green button and only your door opens.

One of my hosts told me the philosophy behind this efficiency. It is a priority because losing time waiting for a train isn’t only a frustration, it’s an actual cost to the economy.  “It costs less,” she said, “to fix a train, than it would if all the passengers were late to work.”  I couldn’t help think of time I have wasted on the Red Lines in Boston and Washington, D.C..

Everything was clean.  The trains were clean.  The city streets spotless.  Public parks immaculate.  Even public restrooms sparkled.  The flushing mechanism on the toilets themselves were water efficient with two kinds of flush choices.  (Oregon has instituted this in the Portland airport.) Most had a toilet brush next to the bowl, and antiseptic wipes for the seat.  Just as personal responsibility was in force on the trams, so was it also in the toilets.  Imagine the difference when we traveled through Penn Station in New York.

Energy efficient architecture was the norm.  In the university buildings where my workshops were held, the lights were all motion activated.  Room lights, hall lights, and bathroom lights stayed off until someone entered. In our hotel in Lausanne, the hallways were dark until you walked into them. In order to activate the lights in your room, you put your key into a pad at the doorway. When you left the room, you removed your key and all the lights went off, a system I’ve only encountered in one U.S. hotel. What a difference between this and the profligate energy expense of Times Square twenty four hours a day.

The Lausanne hotel had another green feature.  As morning sunlight streamed in from the east, the shades automatically lowered.   It was possible to override this feature to still see the view, but think of the energy savings of all the rooms where no one was there.

The Swiss approach to college education is efficient as well.  Anyone can go to any Swiss university they choose — for free. There are no admission limitations or tuition payments.  I asked my host where students choose to attend. Her response was very practical: the university closest to home.  Because of the high cost of living in Switzerland, most students live with their parents while they are in school.

The catch is this.  At the end of the first year of university classes, every student takes a series of comprehensive exams.  If you pass, you continue at the university.  If you don’t, you switch to a vocational school.

The Swiss sense of shared civic responsibility, not only in the basic honesty of transit and toilets, continues in military service.  Every young man must perform two years of military duty.  (It would be even more advanced if women were included in this requirement.) In one of my many conversations about Swiss culture, a host told me that every Swiss family has a gun.  Hunting is a common pastime. Yet, there are no mass shootings like the current epidemic in the U.S.  “Why?” I asked. “Because every man has had training with weapons,” she said. “They understand the consequences.”

Addiction is viewed as an illness.  Clean needles are sold in vending machines.  I saw no homeless people sleeping or begging on the streets.  Voices are quiet.  People say hello and ask you how you are.  Traffic stops when you enter a cross walk.  The population is well dressed.  No one seems overweight.

What is the price of this perfection?

I began to understand during my workshops.  How many times did I hear the words, “I could never say that.” I had to convince the women I worked with that having a point of view, or expressing a disagreement, or asking for what you need, is not only acceptable, but necessary.  The status quo of the male hierarchy seemed more important than the ability to successfully negotiate advancement.

I heard that the newly empowered political movement in Switzerland is against spending public money on day care.  The rationale is this: taking care of children is the role of women in the family, so why should the government pay for it?  Although the universities currently do provide day care for their employees, there is fear that it will be suspended.

The women I worked with also typically had very quiet voices.  It’s true that the Swiss in general speak more quietly than Americans.  It was difficult, though, to bring out a confident present voice in many of the participants.  I had to encourage them over and over to bring their voices forward and clearly land their points.

This vocal diminishing went hand in hand with a tendency to take up less space.  To many, it seemed unnatural to claim the area around themselves.  Although they acknowledged that men in their science teams felt much more comfortable doing this, the actual physical experience of expanding spacial ownership was challenging.

I hope that I return to Switzerland soon.  I hope that I can work with more women there.  It’s a culture that thrives on obedience and maintaining the norms.  The best parts of this make life run smoothly, easily and efficiently.  The price, though, is a deference to the old rules.  It’s time for all of us to change them, one small step at a time, without losing the best of the past.

Get Your Voice on the Table

Have you ever been at a meeting where you propose an idea and no one seems to notice you?  Then ten minutes later, someone else offers the same notion, and it’s picked up by the whole group.  I hear this scenario often in the work that I do with professional women, followed by the question, “How do I get my voice on the table?”

Body language is a critical part of getting your message heard.  Women have been socialized to take up as little space as possible: crossed legs, collapsed spine, small gestures.  If you take up more space, both in your body language and your gestures, you will have more presence at the table.  Just as an actor experiments with the way a character stands, moves, and gestures, you can create the shape of confidence in your body.  If you do, the inner feeling of confidence will flow into that shape, and the people at the meeting will respond positively to your physical being.

To find your most useful seated posture, push your chair back from the table and bring your sitz-bones to its edge.  Uncross your legs and plant your feet firmly on the floor.  This will bring a sense of energy into and through the soles of your feet.  Lengthen your spine from the tailbone to the base of the skull.  Let your shoulders drop and widen and your chest be open and free.  Place your forearms on the table in a position wider than your shoulders.  Rest your open hands, palms down, on the table. Breathe deeply into your rib cage, and open your face with a smile.  Let your eyes sparkle with positive connective energy.

If you are seated in this way, you will have more breath for your voice.  You can then find more resonance and ease in your speaking.  But vocal clarity is more than how your voice sounds.  It’s important to articulate your words, so that you are easily understood.  When your lips, jaw and tongue move freely and precisely, your speaking will become dynamic. Your colleagues will listen to what you have to say.

Several other language habits keep women from being heard. (I have written about the traps of uptalk in earlier posts.)  We must shorten our sentences, so that our points are concise, and then land them with a strong downward inflection.  In addition, when we use qualifying words to soften a message, it only serves to weaken our interventions.  “I think maybe perhaps it might be a good idea if we might possibly…” are typically gendered word choices.  See what happens if you change that to, “Here’s a new way of approaching this…,” or “Let’s try this…,” or “I observe that we are….”

Whether you in a small meeting or at a large conference, the ability to land your personal energy on each individual in the room will automatically make your speaking more engaging. The individuals in the room will feel that you are actually talking to them.  Your contribution to the meeting will become about your active connection to your listeners.

Remember this simple maxim: there is no meeting at the meeting.  Have you ever watched the U.S. government at work on C-SPAN?  No one is in attendance.  Every decision has made before, or will be made after, the official meeting.  When you have an important concept to present at a meeting, take this to heart.

Find out what the agenda is for every meeting you attend.  How many times do we go to a meeting only to discover that an important issue is to be discussed that day?  We haven’t had any time to prepare, so the best we can do is influence decisions on the fly.  With time, you can do the following three things.

First, assess your alliances.  Who will be with you on your issue?  Our allies aren’t necessarily our close friends, or even people we like, but the ones who agree with us on a particular point.  You must make no assumptions about their participation in the meeting.  Instead, prior to a big meeting, get together individually with each person who might support you.  Elicit an agreement about how and when they will contribute to the issue, so you know they will back you up.  If the topic shifts, your ally can be the one who draws attention back to you and your idea.

Second, when you get to the meeting, sit right next to the person who might give you the most trouble.  This isn’t an easy thing to do, but when you sit across from someone who disagrees with you, your differences are exacerbated by the physical barrier between you.  When you are literally on the same side of the table, you can connect personally in a new way.  You might even have a conversation.

Third, triangulate your allies.  Typically, we sit next to the people who agree with us.  We create a phalanx of like-mindedness, thinking that it will give us more power.  Usually, our group is across the table from the other group.  Break this up by asking your allies to sit in various places around the table, which also splits up the opposition group.  You can then include both allies and opponents in a discussion across lines.

With your allies in place to support you, your voice clear and strong, and your body language open and powerful, you should be heard the first time you present an idea.  But sometimes, your timing might be too soon.  Your proposal may need to percolate in the group before it’s picked up again.  Sometimes the issue is gender.  Sadly, in some organizations, the idea might need to come from a man to be heard.   Or it could be the problem of rank.  Someone higher up in the hierarchy might need to state your idea for it to gain traction.

If any one of these is the case, or you have no ally to back you up, you might need to claim credit for originating the thought.  Don’t remain silent, stewing the in the injustice of it all.  Your mind may be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute.  Didn’t I just say that half an hour ago? What am I? Invisible?”  Instead, take a big breath and use language like the following:

It’s great that the group (or individual) has picked up my idea again.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make this work.  Here is my plan for….

Thanks, (name the person), for reiterating my point.  I hope we can make a decision on this soon.

I notice that we’ve been avoiding this issue for the past twenty minutes.  My interpretation is that it’s a hot topic. Here’s more about what I originally suggested….

Do whatever it takes to get your voice on the table.  Practice your new physical presence.  Rehearse your language.  Create a strategic network of support.  Don’t let your fear, louder voices in the room, or debilitating cultural norms silence you.  Your ideas are important.  Your contributions are necessary.  Your voice must be heard.

The Downside of Uptalk

I have read several articles lately which state that there is a war on how women speak.  The premise is this: the goal of criticizing female vocal habits is to silence women.  Yes, women have been fighting to be heard for millennia.  But that’s not the topic I wish to address here.

I’d like to tackle the notion presented in these articles that uptalk (continuing rise) and creaky voice (glottal fry) are acceptable vocal practices in professional communication. While it’s true that both of these habits are typically used by young women, I’ve worked with numerous men who pepper their language with them as well.

The whole point of verbal communication is to be heard and understood by the people we are trying to reach.  Speaking is a generous act.  We offer ourselves — our passions, our ideas, our perceptions — to others, through our breath, resonance, and the physical act of making language.  We literally touch one another with our sound waves.  If we wish to connect, we must do everything we can to make it happen.

In spoken American English, various inflections inform our listeners of our thought structure. These inflections correspond roughly to punctuation.  For example, when the voice drops from a high to a low pitch on a “.”, it feels like the final note of a song. This downward inflection, or “end stop”, lets the listener know that you have completed your thought. The brain can then process your idea.

Upward inflections fall into two categories. One kind let us know that you have asked a question and would like an answer.  The other kind, the continuing rise, indicates that you are speaking a series of thoughts. We hang onto your ideas without fully processing them, waiting for the “end stop” to let us know that we are free to think about what you said.

When the speaker repetitively uses uptalk, the linguistic information becomes confused.  I have heard both men and women say “good morning?” at the beginning of a presentation as if it were a question.  If you actually meant “good morning”, you would use a downward inflection.  I have heard both men and women introduce themselves with a question mark following their names, and then another one after stating the topic of their talk.  What does this do to their credibility?

Then the talk begins.  With a continuing rise at the end of each phrase, one thought merges into another with no pause for processing.  I’m going to write the next paragraph in this way (/ indicates where uptalk is inserted if you wish to read it out loud):

I want to demonstrate how the continuing rise/ keeps us from understanding/ and so I’ll to try/ to write a paragraph/ to show how hard/ it is to comprehend/ and so I’ll imitate/ how the spoken word/ would be represented on paper/ so that you can get/ how difficult it is/ to process my thoughts/ and so like I’m trying/ to complete my thought/ so that I can finish/ this paragraph/ and so it’s like I can’t remember/ where I began/ and so I don’t know how/ I’m going to finish/ and so I run on and on/ and I don’t even know/ what my first words were/ 

One article I read derided the fact that we need to speak in shorter sentences.  It’s true.  We do.  When we eliminate uptalk, we automatically speak more succinctly. We lose the impulse to connect our thoughts with versions of “and so”.  Not only can the listener remember your content, but you can as well.  This is how that paragraph might read using the “end stop” (| indicates where the downward inflection is inserted for you to read out loud):

I want to demonstrate how eliminating the continuing rise helps us with understanding|  I’ll imitate how the short sentence speaking style would be represented on paper|   I want you to get how easy it is to process my thoughts|  I’m going to finish this paragraph now|

In order to make glottal fry, you must hold back your air flow. If you make a small, tense space in the back of your mouth, the tiny stream of air creates a clacking sound in the glottis. There is nothing harmful about making this sound, but its impact on communication is huge.

First, think about sound waves.  Although we many not perceive that we are being touched by the voices around us, we are.  Air passing the vocal folds creates a sound wave, a tangible vibration.  That sound wave is amplified in the bones of the body (primarily the sternum) and the bones of the face and skull.  That amplified sound wave travels through time and space and reaches the ear drums of your listeners, as well as their bones and skin.  The fullest resonances are created by a steady, supported flow of air and an open mouth cavity.  If we really intend to reach the people we are talking to, we let the vibration flow freely.  If we don’t, we hold it back.

Second, think about mirror neurons.  When the mirror neurons in our brains are activated, we unconsciously mimic the physical behaviors of the people in front us.  If you are not breathing fully and freely, your listeners will be holding their breath as well.  They may not be aware of how your limited breathing is affecting them, but they will feel the discomfort.  Your audience might dismiss your ideas, not because of their value, but simply because they are delivered in an uncomfortable physical way.

Every dialect has a different way of making resonance.  Each one uses rhythm, melody and sound patterns in a unique way. Creaky voice and uptalk might be considered as characteristics of an emerging dialect of American English.  If this is happening, then they should be honored as a way of speaking, just as all dialects should be honored.

However, in order to be understood by their listeners, speakers often code-switch between dialects.  We sound one way with our parents and another with our children.  We talk differently with our peers than we do professionally.  This is a practical and powerful tool that lets our vocal expression be fully appreciated by the people we wish to reach.

By all means, use uptalk and a creaky voice if all of your friends do.  By all means, use these patterns if your boss talks this way.  But if you wish to have an impact on a larger scale, or if your organization values a different mode of communication, code switch.  Breath fully, resonate, and land your points on your listeners.  You will be received in a completely new way, a way that has little to do with your gender and a lot to do with your wish to be heard.  Do everything you can to insure that people are touched, moved, and changed by what you have to say.

You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught

A map circulating on Facebook asks you to log the states that you have visited.  I’ve never been to South Carolina.  I know why.  I do not want to visit a state that flies the Confederate flag.

But I have been to Tennessee. I saw a Confederate flag flying on a construction site crane at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  I have been to Texas.  A Confederate flag was draped over a fraternity house balcony at Southern Methodist University.  I live in Oregon. I cycle on a rural road past a home proudly waving the Confederate flag.

President Obama has changed the conversation about this symbol.  His presidency alone shines a spotlight on the latent and overt racism of our country.  As Republican Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff during his time as secretary of state said, “The real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin. And that’s despicable.”

Why is there so much racial backlash throughout our country, right now, as President Obama nears the end of his term? Events are escalating: police brutalities in Missouri, New York and Baltimore, the shocking murders of the Mother Emanuel Bible study group, and this past week, the burning of southern black churches.

The Adaptive Leadership model, developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky of Harvard’s Kennedy School, can offer some ideas.  First is the concept that having authority is quite different from exercising leadership.  The person in authority is expected to keep us safe from harm, offer us direction, and make sure that order is maintained.  The challenge of being in authority is that you must negotiate compromise in order to stay in that position.

Exercising leadership, however, is about helping people manage the losses that come with change.  It is risky and very difficult to do when you are constricted by the needs of the system.

Until recently, President Obama has been hampered by political pressures, as well as by the obstructionism of Republicans whose racism leads their decision making.  He has had to compromise in order to function as the authority.  But as he nears his last year in office, he has made a commitment to change which is defining his presidency.  He is exercising leadership in new bold ways that are provoking those who expected him to simply finish out his term.

The second concept is to clarify the difference between technical and adaptive challenges.  A technical challenge may be complex and require great expertise, but it is not necessary to change a value system in order to accomplish it.  President Obama has succeeded in many technical challenges by using his authority well.  Osama bin Laden was found and killed.  The Affordable Care Act was created.  The economy was revitalized.

The adaptive challenge, however, demands something new.  It requires a change in values and beliefs.  This is what President Obama is asking our country to do.

In his spectacular and moving speech at the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, he said, “Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”

He separated the technical — take down the Confederate flag — from the adaptive, as he continued,  “To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again.”

Fifty-one years ago, the Civil Rights Act became law.  Fifty years ago President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.  The brutality of events in the south surrounding those epic laws are reflected in the horrific acts of today. The laws are in place; the technical challenge has been met.  And now, President Obama is leading us to the real work.

He then illuminated a third principle of Adaptive Leadership:  we are all part of the mess. “Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty or attend dilapidated schools or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.”

Unless we care for all the children, he is saying, we are complicit in creating a person like Dylann Roof, the boy who was invited into Mother Emanual, who listened to Bible study for an hour, who hoped to re-ignite the Civil War with his heinous act.  He, too, was without education or prospects, living in a culture of hate.  This is a hard message to hear.

Near the closing of his eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, President Obama said, “What is true in the south is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too; that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress. It must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world.”

In the 1949 musical South Pacific, U.S. Army Lieutenant Cable sings:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

We must do everything we can to change the lesson plan.

Plato’s Cave

Last week, I had a conversation with a colleague who told me how difficult the first year of his new job had been.  He had asked several other faculty from his new institution for advice and then tried to teach the way they did.  “Like wearing someone else’s shoes, it didn’t quite fit,” he said.  “I had to figure out my own way of teaching the course, and I’m excited to do it again completely differently next year.”

His statement rang a bell in my mind.  I had just spent a week at Harvard’s Kennedy School on the faculty of an Executive Education program.  One of the perks of this particular program was that I could attend a number of other remarkable presentations.

Lisa Lahey of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education gave a provocative session about the development of the human mind.  Her context was to help people exercise leadership.  But her concepts apply to all of us:  educators, artists, scientists, parents, partners, etc.

Lahey and her colleague Robert Kegan have been studying how adults learn.  They have catalogued five plateaus of conscious development.  The first two are very simple.  The infant’s pre-conscious world centers on physical need.  Movement and sensation drive impulse. The mind gradually begins to understand cause and effect.  Lahey and Kegan call the second phase the instrumental mind.  A child learns boundaries, but is still fundamentally focused on satisfying the self.

The third order of consciousness is the socialized mind. Its core agenda is belonging.  A person of this mind is a team player who believes what the current society believes.  Loyal and unquestioning, in alignment with what others are asking, identity is defined by how others respond. The mind frames it in these words: “If other people think I am good, then I am good.”

The percentage of people in this order is very high, according to Lahey.  Our  educational system reinforces this level of development.  Teachers ask students to acquire facts, but not to think. Many educators find this the easiest way to teach, and they do it very well.  As long as success is measured by test scores and grades, it will be difficult for educators to do anything else.

Actors understand this order of consciousness.  Trained by school or experience to follow direction, to be easy to work with, to be scared of rocking the boat, performers are susceptible to idea that others determine their worth.  This is also the consciousness of the military, organized religion, and political life.  It is the glue that binds civilization; it is also a root cause of sectarian conflict.

Moving to the fourth level of consciousness, the self-authoring mind, is a courageous act.  You step out of your social group enough to create an inner barometer of the truth.  You separate yourself from what others want you to be and live life with your own agenda. You are no longer the passenger, but the driver, making the journey on your own terms.

This is the leap that my colleague made.  He had been functioning in the socialized mind, which was both useful and necessary — up to a point.  He is now in the self-authoring mind, aligned with his own truth.  It’s a great step, seemingly obvious, but hard won.

How interesting it would be, I wondered, if our schools were focused on this kind of development.  Of course, teachers do need to provide information.  But to encourage students to examine their beliefs, to develop a critical inner life, to question social norms — all these should be a part of our education.

The next leap is a big one. Lahey told us that the self-transforming mind is held by only two percent of the population.  A person at this level of consciousness sees the limitations of her own way of thinking and recognizes the value of other points of view.  Contradictions can co-exist. This individual understands that every action is interrelated in a complex pattern.

Lahey used the story of Plato’s Cave to illustrate this development.  In this parable, a group of people are sitting on the floor of a cave looking at their shadows on a wall.  This is their reality.  But one person turns around.  He is surprised to see a light aimed towards the wall making the shadows.  (This, incidentally, is why Plato mistrusted the theater; for him, actors were manipulators of the truth.)

Perplexed, this individual leaves the group.  He discovers a pathway leading out of the cave where he finds a totally different reality lit by the sun.  He comes back to persuade the group to turn around and leave with him.  They mock him and disregard his pleas.  They cannot open their minds to any other reality but the shadows of themselves.

How does one move from one plateau of consciousness to the next?  Until recently, prevailing theory said that the mind stops developing in mid-life.  Now, research has revealed how plastic the brain actually is.

In order to grow, consciousness needs support and challenge in equal measure. For example, the socialized mind loves clear expectations and appreciation for a job well done.  Questioning authority, evaluating one’s own performance, assuming new responsibilities, and making independent decisions stretch a person at this level.

The self-authoring mind is happiest creating its own reality.  This person thrives when recognized for acting upon her own belief system.  Seeing the limits of that system stretches this individual. Can she make space for others’ ideas? Can she identify the patterns?  Can she take responsibility for being a part of the problem?

I have heard both Lahey & Kegan speak about their hopes for world leadership.  They are optimistic that the small percentage of people at the fifth level will grow.  Would it be possible, for example, for the United States to truthfully examine its contribution to the on-going discord in the Middle East? Would it even be thinkable for us to listen when we have so demonized the other?

We don’t land on a new plateau without effort.  Nor do we stay there.  We are moving back and forth between levels in the various strands of our lives: spiritual, emotional, mental, social.  My colleague is using the self-authoring mind in his work; I’m sure that in other aspects of his life he is already headed towards the self-transforming phase.

The point is to challenge ourselves to expand.  Lahey ended her presentation with a quotation from Rumi:  “If your pitcher is small, don’t blame the ocean.”  What we can do, what we need to do, is help ourselves, and the people who surround us, become bigger pitchers.



Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009).

See You On The Water

The wind is blowing.  The spring run-off is high and the river is rushing.  The afternoons are warming up.  The sun comes up before five o’clock a.m. and doesn’t set ’til after nine in the evening.  It’s time to get back on the water.

I’ve been windsurfing for twenty-two years. It’s the most challenging sport I’ve ever
attempted.  Every time I get out on the mighty Columbia River, I don’t know what’s going to happen.  Windsurfing is like being in the center of a gyroscope: nothing is stable — the board, the mast, the boom, the sail all rotate.  Every part of your body is engaged.  Your mind must be completely focused; if your thoughts wander, you’ll be in trouble.  The exhilaration is addictive.

It’s just like being an actor.

As I get ready for the new season of sailing, I am thinking how my three rules for windsurfing apply to the actors graduating in a few weeks with an M.F.A. in hand. If I were speaking at their commencement ceremony, this is what I would say.

Rule #1:  Stay in shape; stay sharp; keep learning.

There’s nothing more frustrating than getting on the water out of shape.  It can take half of the summer to get up to speed.  I work out the rest of the year so that when I’m on the river in the spring, I have a chance.  And it’s still exhausting until the specific muscles I’m using get organized.

It’s so easy for an actor to let her skills subside between gigs.  Don’t.  Do your voice work every day, sing, read plays, go to plays, rehearse Shakespeare pieces, stay physically fit, do readings. You want to be ready so that you waste no time when the big opportunity comes up.

Every sailor is a different age, different physical type, and has different capabilities.  I’d be discouraged if I compared myself to a twenty-two year old world-class athlete (many of whom also sail in the Columbia River Gorge). Instead, I’m inspired by watching them sail; I don’t worry that I’m not able to do what they do.  And every summer, I challenge myself to try new techniques on the water: completing more jibes, approaching larger waves, riding bigger swell. My only competition is with myself.

It’s so easy for an actor to be discouraged by the accomplishments of others, particularly if they are your classmates.  Remember, you are who you are and your gifts are specific to you. Be honest with yourself.  You are a combination of capabilities that no one else has, but you must know your strengths and develop those gifts.  Let others’ successes be an inspiration to be better at what you do.

You are graduating from a great school.  You’ve learned a lot.  I’m sure the last thing you are thinking about is learning something new.  Well, OK.  Take a break for a bit, but then take class.  Push yourself beyond what you know.  Take risks so that you can get to the next level of your craft.  Take every opportunity you can to improve.

Rule #2: Bring your best self every day.

The windsurfing mantra is “attitude is everything.”  It’s a difficult sport with a huge number of variables.  Getting ready can seem like a series of chores: from watching the weather reports and choosing a sailing site, to deciding which boards to take and loading all the gear, to driving to the site and scoping out the wind and waves, to picking the right size sail and then rigging it, to slogging out to the wind line, hoping your wet suit is warm enough.

It’s easy to be frustrated when you can’t find a parking spot, or you’ve rigged the wrong sail, or you didn’t bring the right board, or the wind changes, or dies, or the water’s cold, or you’re tired, or, or, or…  It’s essential to bring the right frame of mind to every moment of the whole experience.  A positive mind creates a positive time both on and off the water.

And of course, this is the same for an actor.  You can use any excuse to be less than who you are.  You are working two jobs, your agent doesn’t send you out, you can’t afford new head shots.  You know how to create a character in a play; use those same skills to create the you you want to be. If you are one-hundred-and-ten percent present, you will never regret a moment of your life.  You will have always brought your best.

Many days, I sail like a pro. I fly over the water at rocket speed, pushing my limits, delightfully balanced between sail and board. I’ve also had days on the water where I’m ready to give up. I’ve cracked ribs, bruised muscles, torn my meniscus.  I’ve been so exhausted I could cry. I decided one day to stop beating myself up for what I didn’t do and start celebrating what I’ve accomplished.  Just getting on the water is the accomplishment on those days. This attitude shift has completely changed my experience — I now look forward to facing the challenges.

The life of the actor can be filled with pitfalls, disappointments, and despair. You can choose to berate yourself for what you imagine to be failure.  Or, at the end of the day, you can ask yourself, “What did I do well today?”  You will always find something to celebrate.  Soon you will notice that your accomplishments are piling up and there are more wins than losses.

Rule #3: See the big picture.

The crests of the waves refract the sunlight into a thousand sparkles. The water wakes up every part of your body.  The summer snow on Mt. Hood glistens against the cloudless sky.  The bright sails of windsurfers in the distance look like butterfly wings.  If I’m just focused on my success or failure on the water, I will never see the beauty around me.

Being an actor can become an narrow obsession.  You can lose sight of the world around you. Don’t. See the L.A. hills turn green in the winter.  Watch the flowering trees bloom in spring in Manhattan.  Take a walk in the February slush along Lake Michigan.  Enjoy a wonderful meal.  Treasure your friends.  Be in love.  Remember that you have chosen this life and its tremendous creative rewards.

Adam Phillips wrote in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, ”Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live.”  Be the person who is living their life fully, learning, growing, celebrating, seeing.  Remember, if you believe that you live in a state of grace, you will live in a state of grace.

And as they say out here in the Gorge, “See you on the water.”