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Sacrifice

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Having recently returned from Italy, where images of sacrifice surrounded me, I find myself contemplating sacrifice and suffering.  In the midst of co-leading a pilgrimage, I saw everywhere biblical images of sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac, Jesus), as well as images of saints who sacrificed wealth, health, and life itself.

“What do these images have to do with me?” I asked.  Coming from a culture in which the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, I find the medieval preoccupation with sacrifice distant, strange, and even repulsive.  Yet, precisely because of their strangeness, these images, I sense, have something to teach me.

Back home in the U. S. now, this is Memorial Day weekend, the day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for their country.  In the midst of a “me”-centered culture, soldiers understand sacrifice in a way that most of us don’t.  Soldiers sacrifice the comforts of home, risk life and limb, and ask their families to sacrifice their presence. If they are lucky enough to return home, they return with the physical and emotional scars of battle, facing the often insurmountable challenges of adjusting to re-entry into family and work.

What can we learn from these men and women in our midst who understand sacrifice so much better than most of us do?  How can we begin to practice sacrifice in small ways, to contribute to the betterment of those around us?  How does sacrifice relate to our day-to-day work lives?

Possibilities for small sacrifices abound. An employer might hire a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and provide him or her with the support needed to heal.  Such an act is a small sacrifice compared to what the veteran has given.  Or, in these tough economic times when layoffs become necessary, executives might give up part of their profit by investing in retraining workers and assisting them in finding new employment, as CoreStates Bank in Philadelphia did.  Or, when layoffs occur and employees are asked to do more with less, someone might step in to go the extra mile and support a stressed co-worker.

What am I being invited to sacrifice?  Perhaps it is something as simple as sacrificing an evening out in order to prepare well and offer my best work to participants in a program in which I am teaching.   Or to sacrifice my carefully planned schedule to support my husband when he’s facing a work deadline. Or to sacrifice sleep to sit with a friend in the emergency room of a hospital.

Medieval saints and modern soldiers all have something to teach me.  Inspired by them and with gratitude to them, I want to learn to practice appropriate sacrifice in my daily life.

(This post is a slight revision of a post that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in May 2012.)

 

6 Leadership Lessons of St. Francis

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As I walked on pilgrimage this month in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, I pondered what I could learn from him about leadership.  Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership.  And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance what approach to leadership would prove effective.  As I reflect on Francis’ life, six lessons in leadership effectiveness stand out to me.

  1. Be true to yourself. Francis traveled a number of paths before he found the one that was right for him.  The son of a successful cloth merchant in thirteenth-century Italy, Francis seemed destined for business success.  From playboy to soldier to knight to cloth merchant, Francis experimented with paths he thought might suit him.  It was only when he heard God’s call to rebuild the church that he discovered his true path.  Yet when he abandoned his father’s business and embraced poverty and service, the townspeople called him crazy.  For years he wandered through his native city following a path that no one understood.  In time, as he persevered in pursuing the way that was his to pursue, a few people caught his vision and began to follow him.  Eventually, his followers numbered in the thousands.  By being true to himself and persevering in the face of misunderstanding and mockery, Francis forged a new way that attracted thousands.
  2. Love God passionately. Francis brought the passion of his former life to his love of God.  Not one for half measures, Francis fell utterly in love with God, and loved with abandon.  He roamed the countryside singing of his love, and he constantly sought ways to please God.
  3. Embrace all. Francis learned early on that rebuilding God’s church meant embracing everyone.  He embraced the leper who represented the lowest caste in society.  When people began to follow his way, he embraced brothers from the highest class to the lowest, inviting them to live together in simplicity and community.  When Clare ran away from home in order to follow him, he embraced her and helped her establish a women’s order.  Francis learned to see the gifts that each person brought and to embrace people with gratitude for their contributions.
  4. Live with joy. Francis lived with contagious joy.  His delight in the beauty of nature, in the uniqueness of each person, in the gifts of God, drew people to him.  Even in adversity, Francis lived with joy.  For example, when a hut in which he took refuge for a night proved to be infested with mice, after an initial expression of displeasure, Francis welcomed his “brother mice” with joy and hospitality.  His joy disarmed friends and detractors alike.
  5. Approach power courageously. Francis, the “little poor man of Assisi,” decided early in his ministry that he and his tiny band of brothers should approach the Pope to ask for his blessing on their way of life. Undaunted by Pope Innocent III’s wealth and power in contrast to their outcast status, the rag-tag band walked from Assisi to Rome.  Rebuffed by the cardinals when they arrived, they persevered in seeking an audience with the Pope.  After the Pope had a dream in which he saw a little poor man holding up a huge church, he realized he needed to talk to Francis.  Francis and the brothers, fearless before the Pope, described their way of life as living the gospel as Jesus intended.  The Pope, impressed by their sincerity and commitment, gave his provisional blessing.
  6. Reach across differences. The Crusades broke Francis’ heart. He hated seeing Christians fighting Muslims over the holy land.  In 1219, he traveled to Egypt where the battle was raging, and crossed enemy lines, unarmed, in order to speak with the Ottoman Sultan.  He hoped to find common ground, and risked his life to do so.  He boldly spoke to the Sultan and the Sultan listened attentively.  Though he didn’t achieve reconciliation, the two men left the encounter with mutual respect and admiration.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, discovered how to be an effective leader as he followed his calling.  Much of his success in leadership was a side effect of his faithfulness.

St. Francis displayed a great deal of love and courage during his lifetime, and he influenced many people through his example.  His life, teachings, and spiritual insights have attracted many followers through the years.  His teachings are timeless and continue to live on today.

Note: Francis also suffered a number of failures in leadership which can also prove instructive (to be explored in a subsequent reflection).

An earlier version of this appeared in the May 2015 Executive Soul blog.

 

The Power of Youth and the Wisdom of Age

Photo credit: Phil Roeder via flickr

Last Saturday, I participated in the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC.  Later the same day, I attended a friend’s memorial service. The juxtaposition of the two awoke me.  The vast numbers of youth at the march had inspired me.  Their articulate voices, their energy, their enthusiasm, their vision, all had sparked my energy and vision. At the memorial service, I looked around the room and thought, “We were all youthful idealists once. We were like the young people on the stage this morning (though maybe not as articulate).  Where are we now?”  As we celebrated the life of my friend, a young idealist who had grown into a mature leader, I reflected on the pitfalls she had avoided (and a few she had fallen into).  How did she avoid cynicism?  How did she continue to love?  How did she keep her vision alive?

On the stage that morning, I witnessed young leaders bringing their hearts and their souls to a cause they believed in.  They wanted to be able to come to school and learn in safety.  Tired of mass killings, they called on Americans to stand up to the NRA. So articulate that opponents concluded they must be hired actors, they spoke with passion.  For example, 11-year old Naomi Wadler spoke out for African American victims. Parkland High School student Emma Gonzalez spoke eloquently and then held six minutes and twenty seconds of silence before a crowd of hundreds of thousands.

These voices, fresh and new, are making a difference.  Adults are in awe.  Yet, at the same time, this is nothing new.  Youth have perennially been in the forefront of social change. Many of the prominent human rights activists we now thank for leading us to a more just world got their start at an early age.  The famous suffragette and social reformer, Susan B. Anthony, began petitioning slavery at the age of 17. Ella Baker challenged the “paternalistic racism” of her university’s president. Ida B. Wells was only twenty-two when she bravely refused to give up her first-class seat on a train to Nashville.

America’s progress has been shaped also by young activists whose names never made the history books. The Civil Rights movement was moved forward by children, teens, and young adults facing violence and the threat of imprisonment to stand up for their beliefs. Protests against the Vietnam War were led by young activists who greatly influenced the public’s view of the war. In 1903, children took part in a three-week march from Philadelphia to New York to bring light to the need for child labor laws which could protect them from horrible working conditions in the mills.

As Margaret Mead observed, “the young, free to act on their initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown. . . The children, the young, just ask the questions that we would never think to ask.”

Teens and young adults are making a difference in ways that older adults often miss.  For example, these young adults are having an impact in many different sectors, all over the world.

These young voices must be supported.  How can those of us who are older and hopefully wiser help these young people become the next Martin Luther Kings, the next Dorothy Days, the next Nelson Mandelas?  We must use our influence to open pathways for them, to help them persevere.  At the same time, we must not interfere with their message.  Overly cautious, tainted by cynicism, we could easily pull them down.

The power of youth can be joined by the wisdom of age.  If we do it well, the mature leadership of people like my friend whose life we celebrated last Saturday and her friends gathered around her can propel forward the inspired youthful leadership arising today.

Presidents and Truth

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Last week I visited Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, and found myself inspired by many of the things I learned about him, including his honesty.

The first story I ever heard about George Washington ended with “I cannot tell a lie.”  He had chopped down a cherry tree, the story goes, and when his father confronted him, he told the truth.  This story, whether true in detail or not, reflects an important value: Presidents who tell the truth, Presidents who are honest, are to be honored.

I find myself musing these days on Presidents and truth.  In this “post-truth” era, with a current President who offers “alternative facts,” I’m reflecting on how we got to where we are now.

Our Presidents reflect who we are.  The “post-truth” era started long before the campaign and election of the current U.S. President.  Ken Wilber’s excellent analysis in Trump and a Post-Truth World” traces the development of post-modernism, pointing out its important strengths, as well as pointing to how its shadow, narcissism and nihilism, has led us to where we are today.

If our Presidents reflect who we are, how can we more fully become who we want to be? Where do we go from here?  I believe that the philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan can provide us help.  Lonergan calls humans to “authenticity,” which he defines as openness, questioning, honesty, and good will.  He unpacks those elements of authenticity by focusing on the operations of consciousness within us that result in our knowing what we know, and the inherent norms accompanying those operations. Lonergan demonstrates how the fruit of authenticity is objectivity.  He agrees with post-modernists that there are no “already-out-there-now” facts that we can simply take a look at and know. Rather, all information that comes to us is interpreted through the lens of our identity and experience, in other words, through who we are.  However, Lonergan believes that this reality doesn’t imply relativism and nihilism.  As we move closer to becoming authentic subjects, objectivity results.  Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.

If we want our leaders to be authentic human beings who honor truth-telling, we can begin by becoming more authentic ourselves.  Furthermore, we can create communities of authenticity that call our institutions and our leaders to higher standards.

The hard work of moving out of narcissism and nihilism begins with us.  And when we have blazed a trail and created a path, others will follow.  People yearn for authenticity.  Let us take the lead and challenge our leaders to follow.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the February 2017 Executive Soul blog.)

 

Broken New Year’s Resolutions?

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Have you broken your New Year’s resolutions yet? If so, you’re not alone. A study at the University of Scranton reported that 36% of participants had broken their New Year’s resolutions by the end of January. By the end of six months, over half had broken their resolutions.

What if we thought of our broken New Year’s resolutions not as evidence of weak willpower, but as a sign of other important commitments that need just as much attention as our resolutions need?  A book that can help do just that is Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in You and Your Organization.

Using your broken New Year’s resolutions to identify your competing commitments can help you get to the bottom of what isn’t working for you in your life.  More importantly, identifying competing commitments can help you achieve your goals much more effectively than New Year’s resolutions can.

Here’s how it works, according to Kegan/Lahey:  When you find yourself breaking a resolution, ask yourself, “In addition to this resolution, what else am I committed to?”  (In my own case, my resolution to not overextend myself competes with my commitment to not miss out on something good.)  Once the competing commitment is identified, you can begin to seek a win/win.  Rather than having your competing commitments sabotage your resolution, you can dig deeper, identify your underlying assumptions, and take small steps to test whether those underlying assumptions are valid.

In the workplace, resolutions to change are particularly vulnerable, since many people are colluding in the status quo, and since old patterns die hard in the fast-paced, no-time-for-reflection work environment.  Like individual New Year’s resolutions, organizational change efforts tend to focus on desired change without digging deeper to examine competing commitments. We’re all familiar with the term “resistance,” used to describe the forces that keep us from changing, both individually and organizationally. It’s easy to view resistance negatively, viewing it as the effort to cling to the old when it’s time to usher in the new. If instead of thinking in terms of organizational resistance to change, we can think in terms of competing commitments, we can mine rich veins of learning.

For example, Jean Quinn, the co-executive director of Sophia Housing in Dublin, Ireland, realized that a “command and control” leadership style inconsistent with the organization’s values had established itself in the organization.  Because leaders had learned that style elsewhere and imported it, Quinn knew that their immunity to change would not be easy to overcome.  She decided to call in an organizational consultant who would work closely with supervisors in the organization over an extended period of time to surface underlying assumptions and help people reflect on them. The organizational consultant, invited to offer leadership training in modules over six months, helped leaders in the organization identify their competing commitments, noting how leadership practices out of alignment with Sophia’s culture had crept in and how everyone had colluded in not challenging them.  The supervisors worked with leaders both during the program and after, continuing with them in ongoing supervision after the six months were over.  Through the integration of the training and supervision, Sophia’s leadership culture shifted, once again becoming more person-centered.  Jean Quinn observed that, through surfacing assumptions and helping people talk about them openly, a culture of openness was created.  The immunity to change had been overcome.

The next time you’re feeling discouraged by a broken New Year’s resolution, look deeper. You’re likely to find a competing commitment that is just as important and honorable as the “failed” commitment. If you can find a way to honor both commitments together, you may find yourself well on the road to success. What you learn from your “failure” can ultimately build a stronger foundation for moving toward your goal.

(This article first appeared in the January 2015 Executive Soul blog.)

Light in the Darkness

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At this darkest time of the year, both Jews and Christians celebrate holidays of light. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates one of God’s miracles: the long–burning oil that allowed the Jews to rededicate their holy temple in victory over foreign oppressors. Hanukkah celebrates the light of religious freedom after dark oppression.

Christmas also celebrates the triumph of light over darkness: God’s entering the world in Jesus, and the light of Christ overcoming the darkness in the world.  Both religions exhort the faithful to remember that the night is darkest just before the dawn, that we must not lose hope but that we must trust the God who has the power to deliver from even the darkest night.

Great spiritual teachers throughout the millennia have taught that any spiritual journey consists of ups and downs, and that sojourners on the spiritual path can experience a personal dark night of the soul. If the faithful persevere, they will discover that the personal dark night, like the historical darkness commemorated by Christianity and Judaism, is darkest just before the dawn, and the breakthrough to the other side is worth the walk through the darkness.

In institutions and societies, as in personal lives, the deepest darkness comes just before the dawn. If an institution or society perseveres, it can experience the great power and light that come with breaking through to the dawn.

At this time of bitter political divisions in the U.S. and around the world, of rising racism, terrorism, and scapegoating of minorities, of environmental degradation, and of wars and genocide, it’s easy to wonder where the light is.  

One guide for me in this time of darkness is St. John of the Cross. John describes the personal dark night as a time of necessary self-emptying, not of our choosing. We fill ourselves with knowledge and accomplishments and loves and allow these to define us. Yet growth involves emptying. Constance Fitzgerald summarizes John’s understanding of the process of emptying:

“Only when one becomes aware of the illusory and limiting character of this fullness in the face of the breakdown of what/whom we have staked our lives on, the limitations of our life project and relationships, the irruption of our unclaimed memories, and the shattering of our dreams and meanings, can the depths of hunger and thirst that exist in the human person, the infinite capacity, really be experienced.”

John claims that this deep hunger and thirst, this infinite capacity for love, cannot be fulfilled by our human loves and accomplishments, but only by the transcendent.

Constance Fitzgerald extends John’s work to the societal level.  In this time of societal impasse, when it seems that our human attempts to figure out solutions to our overwhelming problems only run us into brick walls and tempt us to cynicism and despair, John, Fitzgerald claims, offers a way forward.  Fitzgerald claims that “paradoxically, a situation of no potential is loaded with potential, and impasse become the place for the reconstitution of the intuitive self.”

Fitzgerald believes that the insoluble crises we face are signs of transition in societal development and in the evolution of humanity.  These crises provide an invitation for us as a society to empty ourselves of rationally constructed answers that no longer work.  The crises invite us to humble ourselves and seek deeper wisdom, wisdom that emerges from letting go, from our collective intuition, from prayer.  In the words of II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people humble themselves and pray and seek my face. . .”

Fitzgerald challenges us to bring our societal impasse to prayer.  It is only through letting go and seeking God’s perspective and God’s way forward, she claims, that society will be freed, healed, and brought to paradoxical new vision.  Only in this way can we be set free for selfless action.  “Death is involved here – a dying in order to see how to be and to act on behalf of God in the world.”  Dying leads to new life.  Out of the darkness comes light.

In this season of darkness, let us respond to the invitation to let go of our egos and preconceived notions, and seek the deeper wisdom that emerges when we become empty.  And may our society humble itself, recognizing the limits of human understanding and effort, and seek a way forward guided by the emergent divine.

(This article first appeared on the Executive Soul blog in December 2016.)

5 Things You Can Do to Become a Soulful Leader for Peace

Photo credit: Margaret Benefiel

In these times of bellicose threats of nuclear war from world leaders, not to mention various wars around the world, how can one work for peace?  What impact can an ordinary person have?  What does soulful leadership for peace look like?

  1. Prayer and reflection. Soulful leadership for peace begins with prayer and reflection. Being spiritually grounded puts the problems of this world in perspective. Furthermore, prayer and reflection help with discernment, answering the question, “What is mine to do?”
  2. Remember. In the words of Gandhi, “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall.  Always.”
  3. Know what’s effective. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth used to believe that violence was more effective against violence than peaceful protests were. Extensive research convinced her otherwise.
  4. Know the facts about military spending. When people tell you that military spending creates jobs, or that the Pentagon needs more funding, know the truth. Did you know, for example, that military spending is less effective in creating jobs than spending on education, health care, or clean energy? Did you know that the Pentagon itself has identified overspending and misuse of funds within its agency? When it conducted an internal study, it identified $125 billion in potential savings over five years. Furthermore, the Pentagon is the only major federal agency that has not passed a full, clean financial audit. We already spend enough on the military.
  5. Take action. Discern what is yours to do and take action. Perhaps you, like Erica Chenoweth, are a researcher who can discover effective strategies for peace and make them known to the world. Perhaps you are a writer who can write letters to the editor of your local newspaper and speak truth to your community.  Perhaps you are an activist who can join local or national demonstrations.  Perhaps you are an ordinary citizen with little time, who can call your Senator or sign online petitions. Perhaps you can make a financial contribution.  Everyone’s contributions, in whatever form, make a difference.

In these times, the world desperately needs spiritually grounded peacemakers.  What is yours to do?