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On Leadership: There is no spoon

Dear Diary:

It happened again today. I was reading the news on my big, middle-aged guy computer monitor and eating a huge salad that was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. So many things to think about, so many pressures to write. Like:
  • The Supreme Court upheld DACA. That’s two times in one week the Supreme Court that Donald Trump front-loaded has flipped him off. Are they insane? Impaired in some way? Being extorted by radical liberal interests? Or are they just doing their job, as the founding fathers saw it, and balancing executive (and legislative) power with impartial judgment? I have my suspicions, but we may never know. After all, why would a group of nine men and women vote to do the right thing, just ‘cause? 
  • John Bolton is trying to publish his book. Two problems with this: One, he’s a piece of crap. He had an opportunity to do the right thing, but he didn’t. Then he had an opportunity to tell his story, but he declined. Then he wanted to tell his story, but his former handlers wouldn’t let him. Then he wanted to make a few bucks off the back of the President by telling us what everyone knows anyway. (Quick check-in: Can we all stipulate to this fact? There isn’t anything that Trump says, thinks or does that is in dispute by anyone, anywhere, no matter which jersey you happen to be wearing. Everyone already knows exactly who he is. The only difference between the teams is whether or not you’re cool with it.) But the real problem with Bolton is that he called his book The Room Where It Happens, which is flat-out theft of intellectual property from Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. He should be released in Times Square in his underwear and forced to pose with the Naked Cowboy for pictures with tourists. 
  • Donald Trump is trying to keep John Bolton from publishing/distributing his book. Sigh. See above, the part about, “There isn’t one thing that Trump has said, done, asked someone else to do, watched other people do, paid someone to do, paid someone not to do, paid someone to do and then deny doing, etc. that is going to change anyone’s mind about who he is, or whether he is Michael or Lucifer.”

As Willy Wonka famously said, "So much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.”

Ironically, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership. Not because there’s an abundance of it, anywhere, mind you; but because, in the dearth of leadership that does exist, the outliers – the men and women who are superior leaders – stand out even taller. 

First, let’s talk about what makes a good leader. I don’t mean a good manager. Managers are a dime a dozen, managers can be trained. Managers implement and organize and enforce and perpetuate. Leaders are something else. Leaders inspire people. Leaders have vision, and the will to act on it. There are literally one point five zillion articles about the differences between managers and leaders, and I have no desire to read another one or, for that matter, recommend one. 

OK, I lied. Lisa Kohn has been a friend for a long time, and on various occasions she drops in from the sky to check up on me. When she does that, my first (inside voice) reaction is, “Oh no! Am I putting out the crazy vibes again? Am I leaking? Where is the duct tape?” And my second (outside voice) reaction is usually, “Why yes, I’m fine, why do you ask?” But Lisa knows me well and, despite that, cares. And she just happens to be one of the brightest, smartest, coolest, most emotionally intelligent people I know. Which is good, because she co—owns, with Robyn McLeod, a consultancy called The Chatsworth Group. 

Not coincidental to this rambling, Chatsworth publishes a blog called The Thoughtful Leaders, and I am one of those people who gets every notification, actually opens a cross-section of the posts, reads a smaller cross-section, and then beats myself up because I don’t read every post, all the time. I recommend this process to anyone; or you can just read them all and not beat yourself up. 

A recent post talked about pushing out of your comfort zone. This is a leadership skill I have been thinking about, and talking about with colleagues, quite a bit recently. Like I said above, I don’t think it can be learned. I think being a leader who is committed to venturing out of your comfort zone is something like being a coffee drinker who won’t take the spoon out of the mug. You can tell someone how to do it; show someone how to do it; watch them do it. But, left to their own devices, most people won’t do it when you turn your back on them. 

It’s called a comfort zone for a reason.

But I know someone who has relentless, superhuman self-discipline. I’ve known him and worked with him for more than two decades. Let’s call this guy Paul Rudd. He’s not Paul Rudd, but I like the idea of projecting these qualities onto the universally likable mental image of Paul Rudd.

Paul Rudd has single-handedly ruined almost every excuse I’ve ever concocted for myself. It is impossible to claim being too busy, too tired, too conflicted, too frustrated, spread too thin. Oh, you can claim it, but then you look at this guy, and it’s ruined. Because he (Paul Rudd) is busier, more tired, more conflicted, completely frustrated, spread way too thin, and still manages to do the right things, eat the right things, exercise, make time for everything that is important – at work and at home – and generally ruin it for all us normal guys. And I don’t even want to talk about his hair: a full head of thick hair like I had when I was 30. Don’t get me started.

Now, a lesser man would punch Paul Rudd in the face. But I am not a lesser man, and I have spent years working with this guy, sighing deeply, and trudging behind him loyally, hoping to catch a glimpse of the secret. Sadly, I have come to believe there is no secret, only commitment and resolve. It’s the spoon in the coffee cup: You either commit to drinking coffee or you switch to martinis and call it a day. 

It’s like Judas. No, not the real Judas, but Judas as played by Harvey Keitel in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Everyone knows the main story, there’s no spoiler alerts here, but in the movie Harvey (Judas) shows up to kill Jesus, but gets sucked in and eventually admires him, buys in to everything the Chosen One is putting down. I have this fantasy that he shows up every day, like the Dread Pirate Roberts in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, telling Jesus, “Well I’ll probably kill you in the morning, but just for today let’s see how this goes.” 

Harvey/Judas sees this guy not just talking the talk, which is common, but walking the walk; and he wants to kill him – because that is what he was supposed to do – but damnit, there’s something awfully compelling about someone who wakes up every morning committed to doing the right things for the right reasons, and then actually does them. That’s someone you want to hang around with a bit longer. That’s someone you want to stick kind of close to.

Someone you want to follow.

So Paul Rudd has famously come up through the ranks of his company and his career. It’s all very Horatio Alger, except that, in hindsight, you can track each new level with the acquisition of a new skill set and the discipline to learn it, commit to it, execute on it. Comfort zone be damned. He gets to the top, and does exactly what anyone would do. 

Well, not exactly.

He re-examines everything. People, jobs, values. It would be so easy at the end of a long trip to put on the cruise control and just coast. After all, everything behind you is what got you here today.

Nope. Doesn’t do that. I’m not saying that he’s perfect or Teflon. Plenty of things ruffle Paul Rudd’s feathers, believe-you-me. Despite the world’s best poker face, I’ve seen him pissed off. I’ve seen him feeling defeated. I’ve seen him virtually upside down. But then, the next moment or the next day, he’s back again, hunkered down, poker face in place, doing the right thing. Asking questions (often questions he already knows the answers to, just so you have to say them out loud and concede a point). Resolute. He invites in the opposition, gives them a fair shot. Challenges himself as much as anyone, and probably more. Then he makes his decision. He leads.

As a leader there’s a lot to consider these days, and so much of it is strange and new despite having been around all our lives. It has been suggested that Black Lives Matter, and many reasonable white people have responded for years that All Lives Matter, and believed they were good people. And I’m here to tell you, without hesitation, that many or even most of them are good people. 

We didn’t know. How could we know? It doesn’t make sense. Our society is built on things that work: if it works, it stays; if it fails, it’s replaced by the next thing. Evolution. I’m told the word in Japanese is shinka

How could something so fundamentally wrong have stayed around for so long? 

But clearly, as we have seen play out in front of us recently, there are problems that are deep-seated and difficult to explain, impossible to justify. Divisions that have always been are growing wider. That’s never good. Answers are easy but solutions are not.

So many of us have had hard conversations: with family members who stand on opposing sides of the issues. With neighbors and “friends” – or at least we believed they were friends. Have they always looked at me through that lens? What have I looked like to them? To me, they only ever looked like my friend. 

And in business the rules have seemingly changed overnight. The world has tilted like a carnival fun house, and we are all being asked to proclaim. We now live online, 24-hours-a-day, in full and unfiltered view of one another, and so the value of authenticity and hard work has diminished. But the importance of performative alignment – mimicking catch-phrases, literally the root of memes! – has grown obscenely. It’s wrong. It assuages the weak-minded and does nothing to advance discourse. Nothing to bring us together.

Here’s a dollop of truth: You can buy the T-shirt. You can wear the T-shirt. But at the end of the day you’re naked, and it’s what you’ve done – that’s the only thing that counts.

Or, to quote Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins: "It’s not who you are inside, it’s what you do that defines you."

I have spent a long time believing that mantra, and working for someone who lives it. 

And yet there’s the comfort zone. Every day we get up, likely having slept poorly the night before. And we pour the cup of coffee, steel ourselves, leave the spoon in, and drink. Because there’s no way to ignore what’s going on. Doing nothing is not an option. Doing the same thing is not an option. The road forward is anything but clear and well-lit. But we march.

Every now and then there’s a break in the tension. Someone shares a heartwarming story from outside work, or a heartbreaking one. And we are brought back together for a hot minute; we virtually huddle – we Zoom-hug – around that person. We get the chance to reaffirm, through how we behave, that we are all in this, somehow, together and it will get better. It has to.

I will say from experience that when you’re the person getting Zoom-hugged, it’s embarrassing and wonderful and scary and validating, all at the same time. It makes getting up the next morning worth it. 

Getting up and pouring the coffee.


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