Vision in Organizations

As the business unit I led at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN (and especially our Customer Service Center) began transformational change, people asked often about “vision”. They wanted a detailed description of what things would be like when the organization “got there.” We wanted to become faster moving, more creative, value driven, and engage employees. We wanted to enhance customer satisfaction and improve financials. I could paint a word picture of those ideas for them, but I could not be specific about details that would emerge far into the future.

I talked with them about the first settlers crossing eastern Colorado by covered wagon and seeing the outline of the Rocky Mountains in front of them. What can people know of the pioneers as they pursued their vision? They were searching for a better life, they were courageous, they believed in themselves, and they had confidence in their ability to overcome unknown obstacles. They understood that life had risk and uncertainty. Their dream was powerful, and they would not quit.

They were cooperative. Had these settlers been competitive with one another, they would not have survived. The pioneers were afraid a good part of the time and felt overwhelmed and inadequate frequently. They knew there were no guarantees of success. They made mistakes, and they suffered. Less hardy souls ridiculed them. Sometimes their leaders were selfish, cowardly, and incompetent.

The pioneers found their way as they proceeded. They planned as best they could; they took bold action; they reflected on what happened; and they adapted as they went. Some of the wagon trains succumbed to the elements and people perished. These first pioneers knew they might not have a better life for themselves; they were paving the way for future generations. Like all ventures into the unknown, the settler’s journey began with a few. Soon, more people followed. Those who went first inspired those who came later.

As our vision at the Star Tribune crystallized, not all, but enough, maybe most of our business unit employees embraced the goals of value driven leadership, self-managed work teams, skill based pay, one-stop shopping for customers, and partnership with the unions because they helped create them and did the work necessary to bring about deep change. We worked hard to create conditions where employees felt valued, involved, and informed. The vision was for all of us and future employees, for people in other organizations and industries as well as for the Star Tribune newspaper. The desire to create a better workplace for ourselves and others inspired the strongest believers and called on each person to be their best. We everyday people would help to make the world a better place. For those most engaged, our experiences together were a powerful, visceral journey.

Within 15 months of those first days when we had little but a vague sense of possibility, our work became a nationally recognized success story. Business guru Tom Peters wrote about our work, people from a variety of industries visited to observe our self-managed work teams, and we were invited to speak about self-managed teams, partnership with organized labor, and culture change at conferences around the country.

A vision is a powerful picture of the future we want to create. Few organizations create visions that involve and inspire people, bring forth courage, and evolve the status quo. Sustainable organizations create visions over and over again because the enterprise is a dynamic living system that evolves constantly. Absent continual renewal, the organization will decline and die.

Anaïs Nin on Parenting, Character, and Personal Responsibility

We receive a fatal imprint in childhood, at the time of our greatest plasticity, of our passive impressionism, of our helplessness before suggestion. In no period has the role of the parents loomed as immense, because we have recognized the determinism, but at the same time an exaggeration in the size of the Enormous Parent does not need to be permanent and irretrievable. The time has come when, having completed the scientific study of the importance of parents, we now must re-establish our power to revoke their imprint, to reverse our patterns, to kill our fatal downward tendencies. We do not remain smaller in suture than our parents. Nature had intended them to shrink progressively in our eyes to human proportions while we reach for our own maturity. Their fallibilities, their errors, their weaknesses were intended to develop our own capacity for parenthood. We were to discover their human weakness not to overwhelm or humiliate them, but to realize the difficulty of their task and awaken our own human protectiveness toward their failures or a respect for their partial achievement. But to place all responsibilities upon them is wrong too. If they gave us handicaps, they also gave us their courage, their obstinacy, their sacrifices, their moments of strength. We cannot forever await from them the sanction to mature, to impose on them our own truths, to resist or perhaps defeat them in our necessity to gain strength.

From Brain Pickings

Leading in Chaos

In simple terms chaos is order without predictability. That is, there are systems, physical and social, that are well understood and yet are fundamentally unpredictable. Thus, chaos is not anarchy or randomness. Chaos is order, but it is order that is invisible. T.J. Cartwright

Anxiety engulfs many in leadership positions today. To others they display a calm and confident persona. Inside they feel lost, scared, confused, and out of control in response to dangers seen and unseen; known and denied. They often attempt to reduce their distress via quick-fixes: mindless reorganizations, repetitive change programs, and superficial remedies to systemic issues.

They work futilely to avoid discomfort, gain control, and find security not understanding that what is asked of leadership today goes counter to the mental models of the Industrial Era ingrained within them, generally without their awareness. They try to lead from old beliefs in a new world.

Heroic leaders come and go each with their own painless program that promises to make everyone feel in control once again. Most of their programs end before being fully implemented when the next savior takes over with her own plan to restore stability. Most of the time, effort, and money are wasted. Little changes except the organizations become more insidiously paternalistic. No one talks about this repetitive and addictive pattern of behavior.

Dr. Rachel Remen wrote, “In avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all costs we may be left without mercy and compassion. In rejecting change and risk, we often cheat ourselves of the quest. In denying suffering, we may never know our strength and our greatness.” Deep change, which is required, is difficult: scary, painful, and uncertain. Such transformation also renews people and organizations and improves the chances for the sustainability of the enterprise.

D.H. Lawrence wrote, “The great virtue in life is real courage that knows how to face facts and live beyond them.” Much angst comes from people’s refusal to see the world as it is and themselves as they are. We live in the midst of multiple global transformations with outcomes unknown and in the background the deep dangers of global climate change grow daily. People in leadership roles cannot elude the chaos of life that is the context of leadership today and as far into the future as anyone can foresee. Many in the industrial world were conditioned for order, control, and predictability and this blinds many from the truth: chaos is healthy, creative, potential filled, and life renewing.

Leadership in the chaos of a dynamic world requires capacities vastly different than the capabilities needed in a world thought of as a great machine–as different as the skills of a mechanic and an artist.

Many frustrated leaders with mechanistic worldviews try to lead living organizations as they fix machines with control, conformity, and predictability being the goals. The leadership toolkit of the mechanic is mostly wrong for today’s leadership context. The artist’s palette of choices and eye for process, pattern, and relationships feed imagination and are needed on the organizational canvas more than the mechanic’s wrench.

Instead of dampening the energy surrounding them, wise leaders understand its dynamics, embrace its power, bring forth its potential, and develop the artistic capabilities needed to lead within the deeper and unpredictable order.

Astute leaders do not attempt to run and hide from themselves or frantically conceal symptoms of systemic problems with cosmetic solutions. They face their fears with courage and honesty and transform the dangers they sense to opportunities. They confront squarely the genuine problems old-school enterprises face in perpetual chaos: incongruent thought processes, problems of vision and values, the management of change, issues of mediocrity and organizational capacity, questions of sustainability, the truth of leadership capability, and matters of responsibility and accountability.

True leaders embrace the risk, honesty, and loneliness of a leader’s journey within: a creative odyssey of challenge, excitement, stimulation, and development of new ways to think about leadership.

They are the leaders we need for the 21st century.

Loons and Eagles on the Lake

Lots of loons on the lake up in God’s Country of Minnesota this past week:

(click to enlarge images)


So beautiful and majestic:


So serene:



I’ve never seen more than two or three loons together:


A perfect focus was difficult: I hand-held a 400mm lens; the boat was moving,

the water was moving, and the loons were in constant action:




An added bonus: A bald eagle:


An immature bald eagle came in for a landing:





It takes about 5 years for the eagle’s head to turn white:


Granddaughter Saige did a great job driving supervised by Melanie:


George Saunders’s On Failures of Kindness

Syracuse University commencement, 2013

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”  And they’ll tell you.  Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked.  Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret?  Being poor from time to time?  Not really.  Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?”  (And don’t even ASK what that entails.)  No.  I don’t regret that.  Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked?  And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months?  Not so much.  Do I regret the occasional humiliation?  Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl?  No.  I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.

One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.  It might be a simple matter of attrition:  as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really.  We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.  We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.  We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).  Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.  I think this is true.  The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.  YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.   If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment.  You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.  That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today.  One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes.  Can we succeed?  Can we build a viable life for ourselves?  But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition.  You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….

And this is actually O.K.  If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers.  We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable.  “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now.  There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness.  But there’s also a cure.  So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been.  I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

Saunders is a writer and professor at Syracuse University

Addictive Organizations

Many people in organizations are in emotional pain. The suffering is sharp and searing–deep in the souls of so many. The source of much of this unnecessary anguish is, I believe, a worldview that alienates people from others, themselves, and the natural world.

To continue this unnatural, inauthentic, and destructive behavior, men and women must lie to themselves. People then become sincerely deluded; they believe their lies. Their pain becomes normal, and they become the walking dead characterized by anger, cynicism, indifference, and disengagement. Soon men and women fear their inner voices because the voices tell them the truth about what they are doing to themselves and others.

People are able to deceive themselves and numb their pain through denial. In The Birth and Death of Meaning a Perspective in Psychiatry and Anthropology Ernest Becker wrote, “If everybody lives roughly the same lies about the same things, there is no one to call them liars. They jointly establish their own sanity and call themselves normal.”

Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel wrote in The Addictive Organization, “An addiction is any process over which we are powerless. It takes control of us, causing us to do and think things that are inconsistent with our personal values and leading us to become progressively more compulsive and obsessive. A sure sign of an addiction is the sudden need to deceive ourselves and others to lie, deny, and cover up.”

We think of addiction to substances like heroin, alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, or cigarettes. We can also have process addictions. Process addictions are addictions to a series of events or relationships that together form a process. Examples of process addictions are money, power, status, competition, quick-fix change programs, and climbing the corporate ladder.

Addictive behavior in organizations prevents mindfulness, blocks authenticity, and separates people from their values and beliefs. Addictive behavior obstructs the formation of relationships with others, represses emotions and intuition, and blinds people from processes and patterns that embarrass and/or threaten behavior.

Addictive organizations do not allow feelings. People lose touch with their pain, fear, anger, anxiety, and depression. This separation from themselves leads to separation from others. If people felt their emotions, they would want to tell the truth, and there’s no room for truth, about many things, in addictive organizations. People who are honest about what they feel are, in many organizations, a threat to denial and are expelled from the system–literally or figuratively.

Addictive organizations hold out new promises for the future to distract people from the present. In recent years, grand visions for the future driven by quick-fix program after quick-fix program provide the temporary relief, and the distraction from self, that some want. Little really changes, except the level of pain in the organization. At the same time, these organizations absorb into their destructive essence anything that promises to be healthier.

The addictive system moves from crisis to crisis. Most people are kept too busy and too confused to challenge the system. Those who do challenge the behavior of an addictive organization are neutralized and marginalized. Change agents who challenge the status quo are often demonized and scapegoated. Often this neutralization takes the form of fabricated personality conflicts that allow the truth put forth by the change agent to be discounted.

Values and ethics are the ultimate victims of an addictive organization.

Transformation is a recovery process as much as it is a journey. Recovery requires a commitment to seeing the world and ourselves as we are and an intense desire to become who we can be.

Valerie Jarrett on Being Flexible in Life

Valerie Jarrett to Wellesley College graduates on May 31, 2013:

If you are willing to be flexible, you will find your true passion. So don’t restrict your options, and limit your potential, with arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines. During my senior year of college, I made what I thought was the perfect plan. First, I would head straight to law school, then find the love of my life, marry by the time I was 26, have my first baby by 30, ever mindful of my biological clock, and make partner at a great law firm by 31. Well, I went straight to law school. I married the figurative boy next door. After three years of practicing at an excellent law firm, I moved to another firm that I thought was even more prestigious. And my daughter was born just before my 29th birthday. Right on schedule, huh? Not so fast! By 30, I was separated from my husband, and I clearly remember sitting in my lovely office with a magnificent view, staring at a very lucrative pay stub, and bursting into tears because I was just miserable. So, I had to make a decision. Keep following my plan, or be honest with myself, and search for my true passion. A year earlier, at the recommendation of the senior woman partner in my firm and my first real mentor, I had participated in a young leaders program that exposed me to a diverse range of business, civic and political leaders, all working to make Chicago better. That experience motivated me to finally consider public service. So, I took a leap of faith, and began my career in the public sector. I moved out of my cushy office, and into a tiny cubicle facing an alley. But from my very first day, I knew that I was right where I belonged.

And as a bonus, four years later, I hired a brilliant young lawyer with whom I instantly bonded, because she too had become disenchanted with the law firm life, and wanted to serve her community. Her name was Michelle Robinson, and when we met, she was engaged to a skinny guy with a funny name– Barack Obama. And the rest, well, you know the rest.

But the lesson really is that it is healthy to explore, so that you may discover unanticipated detours that will actually hasten your achievement of your dreams. Do not blindly ignore opportunities to change course, and certainly do not let others impose their priorities on you. From the neurobiologist who becomes an author of children’s books, to the editor of law review who decides to run for state senator, to the mother of three who decides to go back to school when her children are older because she always dreamed of being a doctor, to the mom or dad who decides to scale back their responsibilities at work in order to spend more time with their children. These are not decisions that should be judged by others. These decisions are all choices made by people living their lives on their terms.

But to do this will require you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and to be resilient.

Life often surprises us. As I look back on my life and career I never expected to do most of what I did.

Life is not controllable and predictable. Life is messy, inefficient, and nonlinear.

Plan what you can; take bold action, reflect on your experiences, and change your course as necessary.

Travel boldly.