Don’t Let the Fools Drag You Down

I took the title of this post from Detective Harry Bosch in Michael Connolly’s, The Burning Room.

Bosch, one of my favorite fictional detectives, was encouraging his young partner to stay true to her potential and excel despite the pressures she will encounter from other detectives who excel at the “conform, comply, mediocre–don’t rock the boat” culture. Bosch might not be around to support her because he had just been suspended by the bureaucrats who don’t care about people: they care about statistics and going along to get along and they just can’t stand Bosch–I love the guy.

Each of us has fools in our lives determined to drag us down to their particular level of mediocrity. Then they won’t feel uncomfortable seeing in us what they don’t see in themselves because they choose ordinariness over excellence. Bosch spoke in the work context so I will limit my thoughts to my work experience.

I worked at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis and had many management jobs. The first fool I encountered was the smarmy union steward who, on my first day, taught me how to cheat on my expense account and warned me to not make other union members look bad. I didn’t pay any attention to him and set out to excel. So they sent the President of The Newspaper Guild to talk to me. I ignored him too.

Management had an equal share of fools. There was one exception: I worked for a wise, kind and good man named Charles Freeman. Those seven years were the most creative and productive of my career. Chuck modeled how great leaders become great people first. Chuck died unexpectedly and my life at work changed for the worse.

I worked for a vice president. There was nothing special about him. He didn’t initiate things; he didn’t finish things. He didn’t work hard: He came in late and left early. He nodded and smiled and did what he was told, even if what he was told was stupid. He could be cold and abusive to those below him. But he didn’t realize those things about himself. When he acted, he usually created a problem or blundered, and we cleaned up after him. Like so many executives, he excelled at maneuvering and survival, and I threatened his survival. I had a few unhappy and anxious years before I resigned. I didn’t quit the Star Tribune; I quit my boss and some foolish decisions from the top of the company. When I left, the CEO said my leadership had changed the company forever. Go figure.

I went on to work on my own for 13 years as a consultant. I felt most called to educate leaders about how to lead organizational transformation but I took any jobs that involved people. I met many fools in my work around the country. I met leaders who sabotaged their own managers, who abused employees to preserve their own sick selves, and many who had no concept of what leadership is.

Bad leadership left a vacuum that the disengaged workers of the organizations were happy to fill. The least involved sabotaged company strategies and were often enabled by the silence of good people who felt intimidated.

Those good people were not fools but lacked the courage to stand up to the fools they had as managers, coworkers and union leaders.

Harry Bosch doesn’t allow fools to deter him from his mission to solve murders for those murdered. He thinks for himself. The case drives his actions—not the fools around him who care only about politics, position and posturing.

Aristotle teaches us that being a good person is not mainly about learning moral rules and following them. It is about performing social roles well: being a good parent or teacher or lawyer or friend (New York Times Columnist David Brooks in Why Elders Smile).

Good employee’s value excellence and strive for it regardless of the fools around them and good people stand up to the fools in their lives who try to tear them down.

Losing Our Way

If our nation is to be changed for the better, ordinary citizens will have to intervene aggressively in their own fate. The tremendous power in the hands of the moneyed interests will not be relinquished voluntarily. Bob Herbert in Losing Our Way


I just read Herbert’s painful book about the reality of life in America and her decline. This readable book examines crumbling infrastructure, the willful destruction of the middle class, the corporatization of public education, failed wars in which America met evil with evil and shamed our nation, and the disastrous national and political leadership of incompetence and malfeasance by those trusted to lead our nation. The system has become rigged against everyone but the wealthy.

The stories of real people told in raw detail hurt emotionally and demand that we examine our souls; the factual presentation asks us to think and turn our backs on ignorance.

The two sentences I quoted above tell us what citizens must do if we want to renew our nation and our democracy and restore our values and the American Dream for future generations. If we cannot find the energy to intervene in our own destinies, then we will continue the slow and painful decline and will lose our democracy to those who care only about power and money.

The power of the masses lies in demonstration and voting. As people create a movement for equality leaders will emerge. For leaders, we need heart-felt populists like Elizabeth Warren. People who care about everyday people and the involvement and engagement of all in our collective lives.

These leaders can imagine and can articulate a positive and value-driven vision for the future (not just oppose what is wrong) and have the courage to fight for their vision because those who profit from the status-quo will fight without mercy and they will fight dirty to keep what they have even against national interest.

The economic game is rigged against everyday people. Leaders who want to compromise with extremists (always a lose/win negotiation) and avoid conflict, no matter how decent and well-intentioned they are, are not the right people to lead an economic war. Our leaders need to be spiritual warriors who lead from their hearts and values and can also hold people accountable and balance a budget.

Transformative leaders strive to shape the future and mold our collective destiny in a symbiotic relationship with followers. They do not fight to return to a romanticized past that never really existed.

Robert Greenleaf author of Servant Leadership wrote that the problems in the world are not the evil, immature, neurotic, and the irresponsible. They have always been with us and always will be. The problem, Greenleaf wrote, is not them but the good people—people like you and me—who have fallen asleep.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Historian Howard Zinn: “If there is going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.”

We are responsible. God will not save us.

Relieving Our Pain

Why would I judge you for needing relief from the pain you feel inside?

(Terrence Real in I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression.


We do live in times of great pain and suffering—locally, nationally, and internationally. And with television and social media we can see and feel all  of the world’s angst—often more than we can bear.

Some of us use chemicals to alter how we feel and become addicted. Others become dependent on sex, porn, food, power, money, status, gambling, video games, the Internet, “likes” on Face Book, our children’s successes, and scaling the corporate ladder. And most of us appear driven to consume the biomass of the planet as fast as we can despite the threat to humanity.

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.”

Addiction is not the way to end our inner angst nor is profound denial of reality. For those of us with addictions (most of us), we must first manage our dependencies. We see reality honestly and stop the compulsive behavior, we feel the pain within us that we avoid so strenuously and we set out to learn how to live and how to feel alive naturally. We embrace the support of others and we get right with ourselves. We embark on a lifelong journey of human and spiritual development. We become wiser and better people.

Change is hard.

We must fight against relapse (the failure to maintain our improvement) as we work to learn new ways to deal with emotional pain. Research shows that 90% of open-heart surgery patients fail to sustain lifestyle changes longer than 90 days. Diabetics relapse when they eat too many sweets. Most offenders fail to learn how to live and go back to prison. Alcoholics “slip.” Few organizational change efforts sustain themselves because people fall back into old habits when under stress.

Relapse happens to most of us in one way or another — chronic disease or not. How many times have we failed to live up to our commitments for change in our lives?

When we stumble, we get back up, learn our lessons and go back to work.

We want relief from the emotional pain we feel. But quick-fixes only deny reality, refuse new learning, make our pain worse and are never sustainable. We’ll live wiser, better and longer if we do the hard work to manage emotional pain in healthy ways. Some things to begin with: daily exercise, a healthy diet, acceptance of the things we can’t change, change the things we can, cultivate healthy relationships, gain the perspective of time, meditate to calm our minds and make room for new insights, learn to feel and express our feelings appropriately and detach from materialism and nurture the spirit within us. And sometimes we just have to feel the pain of life’s realities.

Colleague Myron Lowe, said, “I learned to live with pain and joy at the same time.” We live with the pain of greater awareness and deeper empathy for all that lives and continually transform that sorrow into even greater compassion for others. And we see the joy of  moments of authenticity and glimpses of the potential that exists in each of us.

We may not change the world. But we will live true to the best within us and do what we can to stop the life-destroying ideas, lies and behaviors that destroy our spirits.

No one said life would be easy.



Feeling Alive

I survived without purpose, identity or community for a time in my life.  A dark cloud enveloped me. Imprisoned in a dark Plato’s Cave, I was lost and could not find my way. Alcohol had made me feel good. Now it no longer worked but I couldn’t stop. Such a betrayal. It was a time of despair; I felt dead.

Then the patients and counselors at a tough alcohol treatment program unshackled my chains, confronted my defenses and taught me how to feel alive without chemicals or the other addictions so prevalent in our world. They turned me from facing a wall of darkness to seeing the light from the entrance to a potential-filled world of spirit and possibility. Their love and acceptance of the worst of me gave me hope and a community with the drug addicts and alcoholics of St. Mary’s Hospital.

Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth that more than seeking meaning for our lives, we seek the experience of being alive. We feel alive when our life experiences align with our own inner worlds. I set out to live a life of spiritual, emotional and intellectual adventures; to live true to my values of courage, authenticity and excellence and my vision for the future I felt called to.

I felt alive leading renewal and change in many positions at the Star Tribune newspaper over 18 years, especially my last leadership experience that engaged the hearts and minds of people and opened my eyes to a new world view. I never felt more alive (I also felt a deep loss when this creative work of art was mindlessly destroyed after I left).

I left the corporate world and felt alive in a Ph.D. program that I completed at age 52. I began to write. With each piece I wrote, I felt energized inside. I  lived on the side of a mountain in Colorado for 14 months  where I grieved the deaths of my mother, marriage, and mentor and wrestled with the big questions of life and the difficult emotions within me. I then fell in love when in Fargo, ND. Those were times of emotional expansion and exploration.

Feeling alive isn’t just the big experiences in our lives that excite and fulfill us. I feel alive when I sit down on a cold winter day with our dogs at my feet, a blanket over my legs and read a book by a favorite author. I feel alive when I take my daily five-mile walk with Melanie and when I venture into nature to photograph wild life and beautiful scenes. An introvert, lots of people tire me. But an authentic conversation with another adventurer enriches me.

We are not entitled to feel good all the time. Feeling alive means we experience and ponder all of our human emotions authentically: fear, guilt, grief, anger and anxiety as well as love, passion, gratitude and high energy.

Feeling alive requires us to renew ourselves over and over again by learning new things. We get comfortable feeling uncomfortable much of the time. Our journeys are messy, inefficient and we make mistakes. We feel alive more of the time as we get better at learning how to live.

Finding who we really are  is not so easy in an often anti-human world that treats people as  machines without values, spirit and emotion. We will suffer from others and from ourselves on our unique journeys that expand our souls.

James Hollis wrote in What Really Matters that a more interesting life, a life that demands a larger spiritual engagement than we planned on, to have engaged the big questions, been defeated by ever-larger things and to take one’s journey through this universe and to have risked being who we really are is what matters most.