Farewell My Friend

With such a comrade, such a friend, I fain would walk till journey’s end, Through summer sunshine, winter rain, And then? — Farewell, we shall meet again!  – Henry Van Dyke

Diane Olson — my friend and colleague — and I facilitated a management team retreat. I led the morning session. Diane, who would guide the afternoon segment, limped in over the lunch hour. Her leg and back had hurt her for the past three months. She said she had a pulled muscle. During the afternoon session, she could not stand up to lead the discussion. She facilitated the group from her chair.

My telephone rang a couple of weeks later. “I’m in the hospital and have pneumonia,” Diane said. “They did a scan, and my chest is clear but they have to drain my lungs.” She sounded relieved. A smoker, Diane feared lung cancer.

“My doctor is here, I have to go. I will call you right back.” Fifteen minutes later, she called again. “It’s not good,” she said. “There is a mass in my colon, spots on my liver, and a tumor on my adrenal gland.” The pulmonary specialist who examined her earlier had looked only at her lung scan. Her hopes were dashed.

I visited Diane at the hospital each of the next three days. Her room was crowded with gifts and flowers. Visitors came and went. As always, she was more concerned with everyone else’s problems than with her own. She advised me on consulting projects, an upcoming trip, and personal matters. She said I could tell mutual friends and colleagues that she was in the hospital. She commanded, “Don’t tell them that I am dying.” She felt hopeful again.

She called me two days later. It was the call I dreaded, prayed would not come, but knew would. The biopsy was back. Her body was filled with cancer. The doctors had not estimated how long she would live. She believed she would be alive less than a year and more than a month. I sat at my desk and wept for my friend and for all who loved her. Newly divorced and still finding my way as a consultant, I wondered, “How will I make it through all the changes in my life without Diane’s wisdom and support?” The answer came instantly, “Diane taught me well. I am prepared to go forward without her.”

I went to her home to see her. Her bed was in the living room. Three beloved dogs and two large parrots surrounded Diane. The dogs were protective and looked worried. The parrots called the dogs by name. Diane was in good spirits, and we chatted about many things.

I returned a few days later to take her to her radiation treatment. I was shocked at the change in her appearance in such a short time. She took oxygen continually. She used a walker to get to the door. The cancer was in her bones, and her joints were being eaten away. I helped her into her van, and I drove the couple of miles to the hospital. I guided her into a wheelchair and pushed it into the hospital.

We sat in the waiting room. Big black X’s on her legs marked the places radiation was aimed. Diane cried and said, “I cannot believe how fast this has happened.” I comforted my friend the best I could. Diane was hungry for shrimp so after her treatment I took her to a restaurant for lunch. She said, “I have not been angry.” I asked her about fear. “I am not afraid of crossing over,” she said. “I have great faith, and I am curious. I do fear the pain between now and then.” Diane wanted to remain alert and had already refused more potent pain medication.

Diane and I spoke freely of her death. I told her how much she meant to me. For 16 years Diane had been a force in my life. First, she was my consultant when we led industry-leading change at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Then she was my coach when I planned my departure from the newspaper to return to graduate school and to begin a career as a consultant. Later, she served as an advisor on my Ph.D. committee. Finally, we consulted together. Recently she was my coach again as I planned a move to Colorado and a shift in the focus of my work. Extremely mindful, she always knew where my life was headed long before I did. She was a beloved and trusted teacher and friend.

Diane tired, and I drove her home. As I leaned over to hug her goodbye, I told her I loved her. She said, “I love you.” I never talked to Diane again. She died two weeks later.

At age 23, Diane was the youngest person to ever receive her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Minnesota. From 1968 until 1998 Diane was self-employed as a clinical psychologist with a private practice, as an organizational psychologist, and as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. She didn’t think any consultant was worth more than $100.00 an hour and never charged more until recently, when I encouraged her to charge what she was worth.

I met scores of consultants over two decades. Many were good at what they did. None was better than Diane. She made working with groups look easy. She was down-to-earth, plain-speaking, kind and considerate. Workers loved her. She told executives the truth. Sometimes they didn’t like her. I told Diane that if she were a man — and if she cared about money — she would earn $500,000 a year.

Money wasn’t of much interest to Diane. She shook her head at the gurus who got spiritual after getting their money from faddish quick-fix programs that often did more harm than good. She was spiritual — money or not. Her purpose in life was to help other women. I once said her purpose was too limited as she also helped many men. She replied, “I help their feminine side. My commitment is to women.”

Seven years before her death, Diane, her life partner, and close friends took responsibility for a child in need. The child had health issues. For many years, Diane had been staff consultant for a large state agency. Management of the agency wanted her to go on the payroll as an employee for 30 hours a week. Diane wanted the health insurance for the child she loved. She took the job as head of the agency’s Employee Assistance Program.

Diane hated the way the Human Resources Department of this organization was led. A sick, dehumanized, and dysfunctional management abused people routinely. She so wanted the leaders to see the impact their actions had on others. Diane, who was not outwardly emotional, cried as she told me stories of how the executives in this department hurt others in passive/aggressive and cowardly ways.

Secure leaders would have embraced and utilized her grand soul. Instead, the leaders she worked with were threatened by her. She was humiliated and marginalized as she held up the mirror to the organization. A colleague said, “They stripped her of her professionalism.” I felt empathy for Diane. I knew she could not win. The system would destroy her if she did not leave.

She was enraged at the insanity and lost humanity within the organization. She could not make sense of the nonsense around her. She continued to try. Shortly before being hospitalized, Diane called me. “I feel awful. I don’t know if I am sick or if I am just so depressed at work.” She was both, and they were interconnected.

When she told me of her cancer, Diane said, “We cannot put that much stress on our bodies. I was not courageous enough to leave.” I disagreed with her. She didn’t lack courage. She cared too much. She wanted to help the people in the organization and to provide for a child who needed her. Over and over in her final weeks she said, “I am so relieved I don’t have to go back to that place.”

Diane received over 400 cards and letters from employees at this state agency. Efforts to marginalize her had failed. She said, “But not from my boss or his boss.” I am angry at the people Diane worked for. I am sorry for the people who work for them. The leadership of this organization created the culture they live in. They can change it. I hope they do. I hope they can reclaim their humanity.

Diane was a vegetarian who smoked and loved to eat ice cream. When we traveled to northern Minnesota to work, we always had to stop at a casino so she could play the slot machines for a couple of hours while I wandered the corridors.

Diane and I didn’t socialize much. We had lunch a couple of times a month and always shared a chocolate sundae. We exchanged hundreds of books over the years. I finally quit giving them to her because she always forgot to give them back. She was disorganized and always looking for something she had misplaced. We often sent one another dozens of emails in a day’s time. We never had a fight. Jealousy was never a factor in our relationship. We shifted from role to role intuitively when we consulted together.

Many years have gone by. I miss Diane. I miss seeing her come out of her office building and walking to my car with a smile on her face. I miss her profound insights. I miss her forgetfulness. I miss sharing my adventures and misadventures with her. She said, “You kept me alive the last six months.” I didn’t know if she meant the consulting work I sent her way or if I had helped her spirit by sharing the drama and exploits of a newly divorced man with her. I wish I had seen more clearly what was happening to her. I wish I could have stopped the cancer and the abuse she experienced in her last months.

Diane now rests in another place — a more natural place. Her spirit wanders free and she sleeps in peace. She doesn’t have to fight for humanity anymore. I am grateful to her for all she gave me. She inspired me to higher levels of caring, courage, service, and commitment. All of my work bears Diane’s imprint. She will continue to change the world through those she taught. Her legacy will forever be grand and powerful.

We traveled many roads together

We always held the vision.

I could always count on you

In times good and bad.

Farewell my friend

We will be together again.

Excerpted from Learning to Live: Essays on Life & Leadership


On some level we fear boredom. A deeper explanation is that we are afraid that an extended pause would give us the time to realize that our lives are not as meaningful and fulfilled as we would like them to be. The time for contemplation has become an object of fear, a demon.

Brain Pickings

The Servant Leader

I pulled into my parking spot behind the Freeman Building (Part of the Star Tribune complex) at 9:00 a.m. As I got out of my car, a colleague rushed toward me.

“Chuck collapsed in his office. The paramedics took him to the emergency room at Hennepin County Medical Center.”

Only in hindsight were Chuck’s warnings apparent — a persistent headache and soreness in his legs. After some early morning meetings, a day before he was to leave for the Bahamas on vacation, Chuck got up from his conference table and began to walk toward the couch. Suddenly, he put his hand to his head and slumped to the floor. Co-workers rushed to his side and administered CPR. Paramedics took Chuck to the emergency room. We knew his condition was serious. One by one we went to the hospital and stood by our unconscious friend. Some talked to him, some prayed quietly, others wept. Chuck never regained consciousness and died of an aneurysm the next day.

I was stunned by Chuck’s death. I was in shock and denial, and so were many others. Everything felt unreal and moved in slow motion. I woke up in the middle of the first night, went downstairs, sat in the dark with my dog, and wept. The next day a psychologist helped Chuck’s colleagues with their grief. Some who had tried to help him cried out in anguish at their inability to save him.

Hundreds of co-workers attended Chuck’s funeral. I sat in the church filled with pain and anger at the loss of Chuck, the best person I knew at the Star Tribune. This was one of those deaths that felt deeply unfair — to Chuck, his family, and those whose lives he impacted for good every day.

Chuck had worked at the Star Tribune newspaper for over 40 years. People liked being around him, and he had a good personal relationship with scores of employees. Peers, bosses, and subordinates made a constant stream in and out of his office. Chuck was my boss for eight of the almost 18 years I worked at the newspaper. They were my happiest and most productive years. I sensed Chuck’s leadership qualities right away. He was secure and comfortable with himself. He was not threatened by the success of others. Instead, Chuck felt happy to help others succeed. He treated people with respect and dignity and it was easy to see why people loved him. His relationships with people demonstrated that we learn, grow, and develop as leaders through relationship with others. Chuck was testimony that leaders can be healthy, humble, and human.

He wasn’t perfect, and his “niceness” caused some problems. Chuck was patient and took a long time to confront people and to put real issues on the table for discussion. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He could have used his substantial influence more often than he did to change circumstances that needed changing. In the finest sense of the word, he was paternalistic.

Chuck accepted others as they were. When I was angry, he let me be angry and didn’t become defensive. I could tell him the truth about the organization, and he wouldn’t hold my honesty against me. When I was out of line, he forgave me. I can remember only two occasions in eight years when Chuck lost his temper and yelled, “Tom, we are not going to do that!” A half-hour later, we had patched things up and were laughing. He didn’t like to criticize people, but he would when necessary. When he did, people listened.

He gave me opportunities to grow. When I felt bored and wanted new challenges, Chuck created opportunities for me. On several occasions, he even let me write my own job description. He would read my draft carefully and hand it back to me saying, “Add more responsibilities.” I smile when I think of how we were opposites. He was detail-oriented and wanted the fine points, while I focused more on the big picture and the bottom line. We respected our differences, talked about them, and worked on them. We grew together.

Our offices were next to each other, and our paths crossed several times a day. We both worked hard and walked fast as we went from meeting to meeting. We would smile as we approached one another. I could see the twinkle in his eyes, and he would shake his head in amazement at something someone had done that he wanted to tell me about.

I learned many things about leadership from Chuck. We went to seminars to learn how to coach, mentor, cooperate, and facilitate. On the tests we took, Chuck didn’t score high as a leader; he was a pure manager. The tests were wrong. Chuck was a decent and ethical man and good leaders are good people first. Maturity, judgment, collaboration, and a systemic awareness and understanding of the organization were his hallmarks. Chuck was a good listener, was committed to the truth, and did not play games. He kept us hopeful. Chuck did not need to read about leadership or attend seminars. He became a whole person by learning how to live life. He then brought his wisdom to the workplace. With a leader like Chuck, I was content to be a follower.

Chuck remains a role-model in death as much as he was in life. We converted Chuck’s office to a conference room and named it after him. We hung his picture and a plaque in the room so future employees would know who he was and that he stood for decency, integrity, commitment, compassion, and love for his fellow man. A scholarship fund was established in his name. As his protégés mature, we have moments of insight and become aware of the wisdom Chuck possessed that we had not been mindful of when he was with us. After 20 years, Chuck’s memory endures and his stature grows with the passage of time.

How do we recognize the servant-leader in a world of cynicism, deception, and slick self-promotion? Many people correctly believe their “leaders” lie and manipulate them for personal gain. Many in positions of power undermine others and the organization to meet their own selfish needs. Such betrayals lead to the cynicism so pervasive in organizations. These “leaders” do not leader or serve; they destroy.

The servant-leader consciously and courageously chooses service over selfishness because he or she cares. Servant-leaders exude compassion; they understand that one has to love people to lead them. Every action of the servant aligns with the purpose and values of the whole — even at personal cost. Instead of being out for themselves only, the servant seeks to satisfy higher needs in themselves and in followers. The servant-leader and those served form a symbiotic relationship and evolve together. We must observe the impacts people have on others to determine the true servant-leader. Like Chuck, true leaders help others be the best they can be — all the time. You should trust your heart. If what you hear from those with power conflicts with your heart, reject their words.

Excerpted from: Learning to Live: Essays on Life & Leadership

John Whedon on Changing the World

John Whedon’s 2013 Wesleyan Commencement address:

So here’s the thing about changing the world. It turns out that’s not even the question, because you don’t have a choice. You are going to change the world, because that is actually what the world is. You do not pass through this life, it passes through you. You experience it, you interpret it, you act, and then it is different. That happens constantly. You are changing the world. You always have been, and now, it becomes real on a level that it hasn’t been before. And that’s why I’ve been talking only about you and the tension within you, because you are — not in a clichéd sense, but in a weirdly literal sense — the future.

After you walk up here and walk back down, you’re going to be the present. You will be the broken world and the act of changing it, in a way that you haven’t been before. You will be so many things, and the one thing that I wish I’d known and want to say is, don’t just be yourself. Be all of yourselves. Don’t just live. Be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it. And have fun.

Thoughts on Consciousness

From A New Earth, by Elkhart Tolle:

  • Any life-form can be said to undergo “enlightenment.” It is, however, an extremely rare occurrence since it is more than an evolutionary progression: It also implies a discontinuity in its development, a leap to an entirely different level of Being and, most important, a lessening of materiality.
  • To sin means to miss the point of human existence. To live unskillfully, blindly, and thus to suffer and cause suffering.
  • When faced with a radical crisis, when the old ways of being in the world, of interacting with each other and with the realm of nature doesn’t work anymore, when survival is threatened by seemingly insurmountable problems, an individual life-fore-or a species-will either die or become extinct or rise above the limitations of its condition through an evolutionary leap.
  • If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up re-creating fundamentally the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction.
  • Suffering has a noble purpose: the evolution of consciousness and the burning up of ego.
  • My enemies were doing the best they knew how to do at the time. I did the best I knew how to do at the time.
  • The monster within: realize you have it; be aware when it surfaces; do not identify with it. The monster is not you; turn it into fuel for consciousness.
  • I am never upset for the reason I think.
  • With the grace of awakening comes responsibility. You can either try to go on as if nothing has happened, or you can see its significance and recognize the arising of awareness as the most important thing that can happen to you. Opening yourself to the emerging consciousness and bringing its light into the world then becomes the primary purpose of your life.
  • As I age, my responsibility and influence to the outer world declines and re responsibility to my inner world increases.
  • Old age is the time for the flowering of consciousness. Let go of external possessions, acknowledgement, status, and symbols of success in the material world.

Jeff Bezos: Life’s Choices

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, commencement address to Princeton graduates (2010):

Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life — the life you author from scratch on your own — begins.

How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?

Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?

Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?

Innocence & Pseudoinnocence

Organizations are filled with people who kill the spirits of others. I can tell story after story of abuse and injustice done to others in organization after organization by people with power — and so can you. But we don’t talk about cruelty and unfairness as we should. Instead many of us collude with such behavior.

Many of us consider ourselves to be part of a movement of increased consciousness that we hope will evolve the world to be a better place for all. Yet so many of us also deny the existence of maliciousness in ourselves, in our families, in our organizations, and in the movement we consider ourselves part of. We make excuses for those who choose evil acts to express their fear and impotence. Understanding another’s pain and motives does not excuse the acts they choose to express themselves — nor does compassion excuse accountability.

Rollo May defined a “pseudoinnocent” as someone who is naïve, who has blinders on, and who does not see real dangers. Pseudoinnocents cling to childhood assumptions about the nature of the world. We do not see real dangers. When faced with tough issues, we cower into our innocence and make weakness, helplessness, and powerlessness virtues. Our empathy and understanding are misplaced. We do not want to acknowledge power or aggression or use our own innate power and aggression. We don’t want to be angry, and we want anger to go away as a human drive. We close our eyes to reality to make anger go away. Things then seem simple and easy for us. With this innocence, we can deny the destructiveness to our self or others. Evil denies spirit and kills aliveness; pseudoinnocence denies evil and colludes with wickedness.

Many in today’s movements to transform the world are denigrated as “new agers” in part, I believe, because of this pseudoinnocence. Many seem to believe that if only they could get those invested in the status quo to understand their vision that they would change, and then we would move to a world of peace and tranquility.

To the extent that we espouse utopian visions and do not see what is real and do not take responsibility for confronting injustice, we are not transforming anything. Instead we are avoiding the forces that will make the dreamed-of transformation just another failed change effort. Such pseudoinnocence is irresponsible, colludes with abuse, and, ultimately, brings forth destructiveness in ourselves as we become immune to the suffering of others and lose our empathy and compassion. Such pseudoinnocence is not growth — it is regression.

Health requires that we see reality as it is. Villains and injustice exist. We are surrounded by them in, perhaps, more insidious ways than ever before. Much savagery has become institutionalized and accepted as normal.

If we harm the spirits of others to preserve our own shadow sides, we behave in sinister ways. If we do not bear witness when injustice occurs in front of us, we collude with abuse. If we ignore what is real to sell books, gain consulting contracts, and be seen as a prophet, we are not what we purport ourselves to be. To deny our personal power is to collude with the injustice around us. If we do not use our power for good, we create a vacuum that will be filled by those who use their power to harm others. On the other hand, if we see shadow side behavior for what it is, we may be compelled to do something about immorality. Villains and injustice will not go away because we wish it so.

We need to see life as it is and make wise moral judgments. It is wrong not to. We begin with ourselves and clean up our own inner mess. We accept our own aggression and, instead of pushing it away as something bad, use our energy to claim our own power necessary for life and growth. We use our power to carry out the moral judgments that support and sustain life and spirit — that lead us and others to freedom. Consciousness cannot rest passively. Consciousness must be asserted.

Our experience of the good and the bad of life temper us, deepen our awareness, purge us of our mindlessness, and sharpen our sight. We identify with the suffering and the joy of life. We dream noble visions for the future and remain aware of the lessons of history. We open our sensibilities to all of life, stay the course, and fight powerfully for life itself. As Rollo May wrote we are harmless as doves and wise as serpents. This is spiritual growth.