When You’re Unfairly Criticized, “Don’t Fight Forces, Use Them”

On September 23, 1944, during a campaign stop, Franklin Roosevelt took great offense at criticisms made by his political opponents against his dog Fala. Here’s what he said:

“My opponents have not been content with attacks on me … they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them! You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian Island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of … twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious! He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself … But I think I have a right to resent … libelous statements about my dog!”

The audience roared with laughter. His speech had been broadcast nationally on the radio. As you can imagine, his opponents decided to find other ways to attack the president.

(Hear FDR in his own words, it’s really powerful  —  scroll down toward the bottom)

Roosevelt had used a bit of “political jiu jitsu.” In jiu jitsu, you use your opponent’s movement against him. Here’s an example:

The all-white figure thrusts his right arm toward his opponent. His opponent diverts his arm, moving it in a circular motion around his own body, defeating the attack and putting the opponent in a weak position.

Jiu Jitsu is a wonderful example of an idea suggested by the eminent 20th century architect and innovator, Buckminster Fuller: “Don’t fight forces, use them.” He was talking about engineering, but I find it quite useful in other aspects of our lives. In my role as a management consultant, for instance, I sometimes encounter people who are quite cynical. Being a card-carrying optimist, this used to be a real downer for me. Then I discovered Fuller’s wise comment, and it totally changed my response. When working with a cynic now, I ask the person to take a look at a plan I’m putting together, and invite them to critique it for me. Since cynics love to be critics, they usually jump right in and note several possible weaknesses in the plan.

The result? The cynic’s involved in a helpful way. He might have improved the plan. And I’m feeling good. I’ve “used” the cynic’s “force” rather than fighting it, to my advantage.

Other examples of “using” forces rather than fighting them:

Try “Let’s play this out.”
When a client or friend tells me about a change they’re eager to make and I have some doubts, rather than rain on their parade I sometimes say, “It sounds like you’re really excited about this. You may be right; I’m not sure I see it that way, so let’s play it out. What are some potential benefits and risks of doing this?” Then we explore it together.

Dealing with the force of floodwaters
America’s rivers are flooding more than ever before, the result of climate change. In the twentieth century communities built levees – walls set back a bit from the river – to reduce flooding. In recent decades scientists have found that levees do more harm than good; they can actually increase the risk of major floods. Now they’re lowering the levees and creating floodplains, where the excess water spreads out and is temporarily stored, reducing flooding and erosion and improving wildlife habitat. Rather than fighting the force of rivers, these communities are allowing rivers to follow their natural paths.

Say “Yes, and …”
In the world of improv comedy, the key rule is to take what your partner has just said and add to it: say “yes and …” As comedian Tina Fey writes, “The first rule of improvisation is agree … When you’re improvising, you’re required to agree with whatever your partner has created. The second rule of improv is to not only say yes, but ‘yes, and.’ You’re supposed to agree and then add something of your own.”

Saying “yes, and” in the workplace can be an effective way to encourage creativity. When someone responds to an idea by saying “yes, but …” they’ve just negated what the other person offered. For instance: you think an idea has merit, and you’re worried about the cost. Saying “yes, but it’ll cost too much” may end the discussion (and cancel a potentially good idea). Saying “yes, I think I get your idea. And I’d like to figure out how we can afford it” will lead to more discussion and possibly a usable answer.

What if you’re thinking, “Yes, but …” right now?

The “yes, and” approach can be challenging. It’s difficult to say “yes” when you’re thinking, “Hell no, that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” Think of it this way: saying “yes, and” can be another way of indicating you understand the idea but want the person to reconsider it. Indeed, the Japanese word for “yes” – “hai” – often means, “I understand what you’re saying.”

Creativity expert Chic Thompson has a simple yet powerful way of responding to others’ ideas when your first reaction is negative. Chic calls it curiosity before criticism. Unless an idea is clearly out of the question, make your first reaction one of curiosity. “Interesting, how’d you come up with that?” Or “I never would have thought of that; what are some potential advantages in going that direction?” Once you’ve explored the idea, then it’s time for criticism (meaning, subject it to some standards): Is it feasible? Who might oppose it? Can we afford it? Like saying “yes, and,” Chic’s approach requires us to suspend judgment and give the idea a chance.

Some years ago, a Massachusetts congressman was being vilified for his position on a certain bill by a congressman from Wyoming. The member from Wyoming went at the other congressman for quite a while, his voice rising, his face getting red, even beating his desk for emphasis. When he finally paused to catch his breath, the Massachusetts congressman inquired: “Am I to understand that the gentleman from Wyoming is thinking of taking my wife and me off of his Christmas list?

There was a brief silence, and then members of both parties broke out in wild laughter. The congressman from Wyoming tried to continue his tirade but got confused, forgot the point he was making and soon sat down. Like FDR, the congressman from Massachusetts demonstrated that humor can be a savvy way to use other’s forces rather than fight them.

When can you use forces rather than fight them?

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]

How the Story of Chanukah Advises Us to “Protect the Core”

You may have heard this cute saying among Jewish people describing the observance of many holidays: “They tried to kill us. We prevailed. Let’s eat.” There’s some truth to it. And it certainly describes the Chanukah story most of us learned growing up: In the second century BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by the Syrian Greeks who tried to force the Jews to forget their core values and belief in one God, and accept Greek culture. Against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the service of God.

That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. And, in my mind, it’s not the most important truth. Here’s what most of us weren’t taught:

The cosmopolitan nature of Greek culture intrigued many Jews. It was modern, sophisticated, intellectual. But it also focused on physical pleasures and crass entertainment – hedonistic parties, naked wrestling matches and the like – which were in direct conflict with core Jewish values. As some Jews started to enjoy the Greek ways, Jewish leaders pushed back, worried about assimilation and the loss of the fundamental teachings of the Torah. (“Torah” literally means “instruction” or “guidance,” and contains the body of wisdom and law in Jewish scripture.)

The more Jews who assimilated, the greater the danger of permanent harm to the spirit and existence of the Jewish people. The Maccabees sided with those who wanted to maintain Jewish values. Violence broke out and the Maccabees took power. Sadly, they became corrupt and created lasting political divisions. It was a very bad time for the Jews.

At Chanukah, we celebrate the Maccabees’ remarkable feats against a huge military, as we
should. But I believe the civil war of ideas among Jews that led to violence back then is what’s relevant, and troubling, to us today. Israelis have never been more divided over social and political issues than they are now. And there’s a growing distance between most American Jews and an Israel that doesn’t look like what its founders envisioned.

Our people’s greatest threat isn’t external; it’s within. This is a critical lesson for anyone aspiring to leadership. We need to remind ourselves of our powerful shared values, which are far more significant than our many differences.

The New Year, a Fresh Start: How to Tap into Your Strengths For Real Change

For many Jews, the High Holidays are a time of introspection followed by a desire to improve. It’s our time for introspection as well as a new year, so sentiments are similar to anyone’s “new beginnings.” We’ve acknowledged our human frailties, the many times we went astray: now what? Where do we start? It can seem overwhelming. It can also leave us anxious: what if I commit to some change, and fail (like I did last year)? Better not to try at all?

Don’t despair. There’s a strategy for change and improvement that may give you confidence:

Use a strength to address a shortcoming.
Here’s an example:

Charlie Gilchrist was a competent, bright, driven man. First in his Harvard Law School class, he got into politics and became County Executive for Montgomery County, MD. He came across as totally work oriented, direct, in a hurry, a no-nonsense guy. Political observers expected him to become Maryland’s governor.

One day he called his Director of Human Resources, Chuck Short. Chuck’s wife had just given birth to a child who was born blind, with life threatening conditions. He asked Chuck how his baby was doing. Chuck replied, “OK, his blood work looked good today, we’re praying for him … What can I do for you, Charlie?”

“Nothing,” Charlie said. “You can’t do anything for me Chuck. I was really concerned about your little boy and just wanted to know how he was doing.”

That call had a powerful impact on Chuck Short, one that lasted for decades. When Gilchrist asked about his struggling infant, he was sincere. They talked a while; Charlie, wasn’t in his usual fast-paced business mode. Gilchrist was using one of his strengths – he was a good listener—to deal with one of his weaknesses, that he didn’t seem concerned about his staff.

Chuck Short learned from that interaction. He started calling or sending a short note to a staff member every day, asking about a work or personal matter. Decades later, Short recalled, “it’s amazing how many people mentioned that note or call I’d made. It really impacted them.”

What strengths do you have that can help you improve on a weakness?

A Jewish New Year Message That’s Relevant to Everyone

The Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), offer a guide for introspection. We’re told to pause, take stock, confess our sins and repent: What have we contributed, to our family, our community, ourselves? Where did we go astray, do something harmful to someone else or to ourselves?

The Hebrew word “chet” is frequently used during the holiday services. Chet is usually translated as “sin.” But it comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to miss the mark,” which conveys a very different meaning. As author Debra Darvick has written, “At a most basic level we Jews view sin not as a permanent birth stain upon our humanity, but as a regrettable action whose effect can be remedied.” Consider a dart board: if you throw a dart and it misses the board entirely, the dart isn’t defective, nor should we assume its user is a bad person. The user had poor aim. And that mistake can be corrected.

Another word we read throughout the High Holidays is “teshuvah.” It’s usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “return,” as in turning back to something you’ve strayed from. So let’s put these two words together. The High Holidays call on us to acknowledge where we’ve missed the mark (chet), and then to repent (teshuva) by returning to something we’ve lost. Repentance also involves making amends with those we may have hurt.

Fine and good, but what are we to return to? The rabbis over the centuries have interpreted teshuvah as a return to: oneself, our core values, the essence or root of our soul, to God. To put it another way, we must return to our core, however we might define that.

The Jewish High Holidays call on us to:
• Identify where we’ve missed the mark
• Repent
• Return to what’s at our core

Some of our finest public and private organizations are successful, in large part, because they are fiercely dedicated to what they consider to be their core. For some organizations the core involves certain key disciplines. At the 3M Company, for example, that includes continual innovation and collaboration. For some, the core is about fundamental values. The U.S. Marines have long embraced the values of honor, courage and commitment. These aren’t just parts of a slogan, they’re baked into their training, evaluation, promotion and other key Marine processes.

And for others, the core is made up of their employees. FedEx, one of our most trusted companies, is committed to their P-C-P philosophy: create a positive work environment for the People (their employees) and they’ll provide world-class service to the Customers. The result: increased Profits, driven by delighted customers who keep using FedEx.

Leadership expert Stephen Covey used to preach, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” My initial reaction to this idea was negative; it seemed a bit cutesy. But I’ve come to see its wisdom. It challenges us to first figure out what our “main thing” is, and that’s not always clear. The Jewish High Holidays call on us to think deeply about what our main thing – our core – is.

If we’re to do that, as teshuvah suggests, we first must determine what that core is. And that is a search worthy of our greatest efforts.

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]

Empathy: Where Does it Come From? Why Does it Matter?

“This is a story about something that made an enormous difference in my life.” That’s how Mr. Minnis Ridenour describes a remarkable moment during a visit to Kyiv, Ukraine in 2005. At the time, Ridenour was Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer at Virginia Tech. He heard a member of his Methodist church talk about the church’s relief work in Ukraine. Minnis was moved by the man’s description of young children living on the streets of Kyiv, and soon made a visit there with other church members.

What he saw in Kyiv was distressing: children under the age of ten with no permanent homes, sniffing glue, being mistreated, some sexually abused. Minnis visited a facility where some of the homeless kids spent their daytimes; it was dark, sparse, with no cooking facilities. He and a few of the kids went out to pick up food for the kids who were there. It was a cold, snowy day, and one of the boys asked how he could get a cap like the one Minnis was wearing. Seeing that the boy had no head covering, Minnis took his Virginia Tech cap and gave it to the boy. A while later, as the snow kept falling, the boy gave it back to him, telling a translator who was with the group, “He needs it more than me.”

Minnis later recounted, “’He needs it more than me.’ Those six words touched me deeply.” When he returned home he sent 30 Virginia Tech caps to the facility where those boys spent their days. “I felt a calling because these kids’ needs were so great.” But he couldn’t act on that feeling while working at Tech.

So Minnis retired, giving him time to follow his passion. He and others convinced the members of the Blacksburg United Methodist Church (BUMC) to do something substantial for the Kyiv children. During a 3-week period, they raised over $340,000 to buy and renovate a building in the city to house homeless boys. That money leveraged another $120,000. The result: the creation of the Spring of Life Family Center, which includes a variety of services for the boys, as well as a Methodist Church. (It provided services until Russia invaded Ukraine; now it’s used as a shelter to keep people safe from the bombings.)

Minnis and other members of his church have returned to the Kyiv center several times. On his most recent trip he and his party were going to a new facility for homeless boys when he noticed two young men walking toward the facility. One of them had blood on his face. When Minnis looked closely, he realized, “That’s the boy who returned my cap years ago!” The translator explained, “These people always know they have a home here when they need it.”

The Kyiv center was only the start of the BUMC members’ efforts. They also created an educational program which ordains young men, giving them the leadership skills to do social justice work – addressing poverty, providing health care and the like. And BUMC has opened a Methodist Academy in Africa, the first of three planned for that continent.

Where does empathy come from?

Sometimes it comes from our parents. That was true for Minnis Ridenour. “My parents instilled good values in us. My high school was one of the first to be integrated in the South. It caused huge havoc; in fact, the high school was bombed. Dad made a point of telling me, ‘I don’t want to ever hear you speak negatively about blacks. A black person has the same value you do, the same rights that you have.’”

Empathy can also develop from personal experiences that make a huge impact, which happened to FDR when he got polio. The only child of wealthy parents, he was handsome, athletic and charming. Then the disease hit at age 39. He began to meet people from different backgrounds while recuperating. Their struggles were his struggles, and that opened his mind and heart.

The Biblical character Joseph also learned empathy from a powerful event. He grew up as his father’s favorite, an arrogant young man who so angered his brothers that they threw him in a pit, expecting him to die. He survived but later landed in prison on false charges. When he noticed two prisoners who seemed downcast, he asked what was bothering them. It was the first time he’d ever shown concern for others. Like FDR, Joseph suddenly lost control over his life through no fault of his own, and met others in the same situation.

Grant Tate, an excellent executive coach and author, has helped clients develop empathy by asking them to identify someone so different from themselves that they can’t figure the person out. “Then I suggest the client try to get to know them; ask questions in the spirit of curiosity, and simply listen. It helps the client learn how to understand others.” Many psychologists also receive empathy training. During graduate school they’re taught to listen for and reflect their clients’ feelings, e.g., “That must have been really frustrating.”

Does empathy matter?

Ask people if it matters in their relationships with a spouse/partner, or close friends, and most will say, “Of course!” But empathy’s importance goes beyond intimate relationships.

Research studies show that patients who perceive their doctor as empathetic have more confidence in the doctor. And that results in greater adherence to their doc’s treatment recommendations, resulting in better health outcomes. Leading medical schools have been teaching empathy skills for years, with impressive results. Their graduates have lower rates of burn-out and their patients are more satisfied with their treatment.

And in the bottom-line corporate world, empathy is being recognized as a key skill. Managers who try to understand their employees’ needs and feelings are rated higher by their own managers – and by their employees – than managers who don’t show empathy.

Our parents can instill empathy, major life events can promote it, we can develop it by getting to know others very different from ourselves. And it makes a big difference in our work and personal lives. Empathy gives us insight. It allows us to develop connections with others and with causes larger than ourselves. Empathy led a homeless boy on the snowy streets of Kyiv to give a stranger his hat back, because “he needs it more than me.”

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]

The Power of Probing Questions

In 1983 Apple Computers was looking for a new CEO. Steve Jobs was brilliant when it came to new products, but he was a terrible manager. So, the board asked Jobs to find a promising CEO. After interviewing 20 candidates, Jobs decided that Pepsi executive John Sculley was his choice. When Jobs asked him to lead Apple, Sculley said no. He didn’t want to leave Pepsi. Jobs kept asking, Scully kept declining.

Jobs made a final pitch. He asked Sculley one question: “Do you want to sell sugar water to teenagers for the rest of your life, or come to Appel and change the world?” Sculley said the question landed like “a punch to the gut.” He took the job. Years later Sculley reflected on his decision: “I came out of the world of corporate combat. If Pepsi went up, Coke had to go down. It was a zero-sum game. These guys [at Apple] were talking about a ‘noble cause.’ I had never heard those words before. It stuck with me.”

Sometimes the best way to get someone to change is to take the direct route; say what you want and give them a reason. But that often doesn’t work. If you want your spouse/partner, your adolescent kid or a subordinate to change a habit, it can get complicated. There’s a back story; you need to think about timing and whether it’ll just make person defensive; about your ongoing relationship. Rather than telling the person you want them to change something, what if you were to ask this person what I call a probing question? Here’s an example:

When I started writing a new book in 2019, I asked Warren Blank and two others to read and critique drafts of the manuscript. Warren is a gifted instructor and author. After he read the book’s Introduction, I learned that he’s also a skillful coach. When I asked him a few questions about the Intro, Warren said, “Actually, Russ, I wanted to start by asking you a question. If you had to summarize what your book is about in 30 seconds, what would you say?”

After I talked for a couple of minutes, I laughed. Then Warren joined in. It became clear that I couldn’t state the book’s overriding purpose in a few words. Warren had asked one simple (and fundamental) question. He didn’t have an answer in mind. He thought that the Intro was fuzzy, but rather than say so he asked his question.

Asking a probing question – one that asks the person to reflect on what they’re doing or how they’re thinking – has many advantages. It’s an invitation, not a demand. The person is free to think without pressure. It helps the person reflect on their assumptions and beliefs. Sometimes, it leads to enormous change. For instance:

In 1988, when leadership expert Jim Collins was in his first year on the Stanford University faculty, he wanted feedback on his teaching. So, he asked an older colleague, John Gardner, for his thoughts. Gardner, former Sec. of Health, Education and Welfare and founder of Common Cause, knew the power of probing questions. He made it brief: “Jim, it occurs to me that you spend too much time trying to be interesting. Why don’t you invest more time being interested?” Later, Collins reported that this one question changed his life. He needed to become an active learner and stop trying so hard to impress others.

When a probing question is part of a story, one that grabs us, it can be especially effective. That happened at a fund raiser I attended. The attendees had all decided to donate, the only question was, how much? When the leader made his pitch, he ended with this story:

“The Sea of Galilee is beautiful. Its water is deep blue, it is full of fauna and flora. Life exists. Trees line its banks. The Jordan River feeds the sea, coming down from the north. The Jordan continues flowing south from the Sea of Galilee. and ends in the Dead Sea. This sea is well named. There are no fish, no birds above, no trees along its banks. Nobody would ever drink its water.”

What makes this enormous difference? The Jordan River? The soil? The people? No. So, what is the difference?

“For every drop that flows into the Sea of Galilee, another drop flows out. The Sea of Galilee gives as it receives. But the Dead Sea only keeps. It has no outlet. Every drop stays there. The Sea of Galilee gives, lives, and flourishes. The Dead Sea keeps everything, shares nothing and is dead. Which kind of sea do you want to be?”

As you can guess, I donated more than I’d expected! I’m sure many others did the same.
Sometimes a probing question can be used to reframe a conversation when it’s not going the way you want. Here’s a great example:

A musician named Calvin Earl was trying to line up support for a Congressional resolution to ‘Recognize the African American Spiritual as a National Treasure and honor the enslaved Africans for their gifts and contributions to our Nation.’ When he asked one Congressman to sign on as a co-sponsor, the man answered, “We’ve never had slaves in America, and I don’t know what a spiritual is!” Calvin described what happened next:
“I just took a deep breath, understanding that his intention was to be demeaning to me. I explained that a spiritual was an original song created by the enslaved Africans here in America. Then I said, ‘Did your grandmother sing one of the spirituals to you as a young boy?’ At that point I began singing the African American spiritual ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot.’ After I sang a few bars of the song, he asked me to hand him the legislation and he signed on as a co-sponsor.”

A changed heart? Of course not. That wasn’t Calvin’s goal. Rather than take the bait when the man said, “We’ve never had slaves in America,” he reframed this as a part of the man’s memory. He changed it from the political to the personal.

Finally, the Torah includes several probing questions. One occurs near the beginning, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, become frightened and try to hide from God. God calls out, “Where are you?” It’s a rhetorical question; God obviously knows where they are. What did the question mean? Some religious commentators suggest that God is asking something specific: now that you have disobeyed me, have you changed your mind? Do you regret your act? Others believe that “Where are you?” is far broader. It is God’s question to us all: Where are you in the world? What have you accomplished?

So … where are you? What probing questions have helped you rethink something important about your life? Is there a probing question you want to ask someone else?

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]

Taking Care of Ourselves During These Disruptive Times

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]

On a Friday evening in early 2022, Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour asked her guest David Brooks how he was doing. Brooks, a well-known New York Times columnist, is a popular speaker and author with a quick wit and obvious intelligence. But when Woodruff asked her question, he paused and said, “You know, I’m not doing so well. I’m used to getting up refreshed each morning, focused and ready to meet the day. Now, I feel kind of hazy. I stumble around. I walk into another room and forget why I went there!”

Many of us are feeling this way today. Clearly the ongoing pandemic is one cause, but I’m convinced it’s more than that. I think we are reacting to a series of disruptions in our nation’s life that affect us all – the organized attempt to overturn the 2020 election, the enormous increase of hate groups, extreme weather events like we’ve never seen, to name but a few. These and other disruptions seem to come out of nowhere, they change the rules and leave us feeling disoriented, uncertain, and scared. They are bad for our mental health and for our souls.

Continual disruption is also bad for our brains. That’s because our brains thrive on predictability, certainty, and control. While many of us enjoy occasional surprises in our lives, we expect and need a great deal of stability. Think about it; how would you react if your supermarket moved its items to different shelves each week? Or your favorite coffee shop continually changed it hours?

In Silicon Valley, “Disrupt!” has been the name of the game for many years, and we consumers often benefit. Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi industry, and their apps make it far easier to track and get rides than using taxis. But when it comes to overturning an election or the ever-evolving pandemic, that rattles us. Our brains aren’t wired for this.

I’ve been looking at some research and interviewing a variety of individuals to learn what’s helping people cope – and even thrive – during this time of upheaval. Here are some of the themes. Many people have been:

Managing their attitudes. As some research shows, the most resilient people understand that “attitude is a choice.” We can’t control the macro forces affecting us, but we can choose how we respond. Some people are beginning or increasing their use of meditation and mindfulness practices; focusing on the present and “living in the moment.” Some have become more grateful for their many blessings. Others are even finding humor in these tumultuous times.

Sharing feelings of vulnerability. When the pandemic broke out, the chair of the board of an Israeli nonprofit instituted a small change that had a big impact. At the start of their meetings he asked each board member to say how they were doing. When one of most accomplished members answered, “I’m depressed,” it shocked several. It also helped many to open up. Sharing vulnerabilities makes us more authentic; it shows others they aren’t alone.

Learning and exploring. Many are learning musical instruments, taking an online course, developing a new hobby, learning a foreign language. Several people I asked have taken up painting. They’re surprised at the satisfaction they receive from the process.

Spending more time on relationships. One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard: “I’m getting back to what’s most important.” For many, that means family. One family with kids and grandchildren spread around the country holds a weekly virtual meeting. They discuss a book or video they’d selected. And once a month they decide on a worthy nonprofit and send a check.

Here’s one more approach. This didn’t come from the research or the people I interviewed, but whenever I’ve mentioned it to clients, their eyes get wide and they say’s a keeper:

Letting go of perfectionism. Few of us are at our best when we’re continually bombarded with bad news and disruptive events. Take some pressure off yourself. Appreciate what you are accomplishing and don’t dwell on what you missed. Consider this true example:

A hard-driving New York City executive felt the need to change his ways, so he sought a therapist. Several friends suggested the same person, so he called her office for an appointment. He was told the earliest opening was four months away, and he took it. On the morning of the appointment, he ran into terrible traffic. He got frustrated, furious, (he was used to being in control), and ended up 20 minutes late.

He rushed into the therapist’s office, sat down breathless, and started apologizing profusely. After a minute or two he paused. The therapist smiled and said, “But you made it!”

Sometime later he told friends he was grateful for that reaction, and surprised. “I never imagined this kind response! It opened me up to all kinds of new thoughts and ideas.” The man realized how much his perfectionist standards weighed him down. And he learned a lesson we can all use: letting go of the need to be perfect helps us see how much we have accomplished, probably far more than we give ourselves credit for.

This starter list includes activities we have some control over, which meets one of our brain’s key needs. These also give many people energy.

What are you carrying around that’s wearing you out? What could you do, or let go of, to release new energy?

Learning: A Key to Dealing with Disruptive Times

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change.  [more info]

I grew up in Detroit and learned a good deal about the auto industry. That learning began with Henry Ford. He was a brilliant entrepreneur, he built a strong company and a great car—the Model T—the first car that was affordable to the masses. But Ford was a control freak who wouldn’t delegate and tried to run everything himself. When one of his senior executives told him that consumer tastes were changing and that they had to update his beloved Model T, he fired the exec on the spot! The Model T was hot, and he wouldn’t change.

Twelve years after the Model T came out other auto companies began to offer new options that consumers craved, and they overtook Ford in profits and customer satisfaction. Some auto leaders learned and changed; Henry Ford didn’t. Why not?

What Hinders Learning?

There’s a host of factors that can prevent leaders – and all of us – from learning. Interestingly, one is success. Bill Gates put it well: “Success is a lousy teacher; it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” That was clearly an issue with Ford. The Model T had outlived its success, but Ford was rigid. He blamed people around him for the car’s problems. And that points to another learning issue: egos.

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” – Bill Gates

Ford simply couldn’t accept others’ suggestions. In fact, when he turned over Ford’s leadership to his son Edsel, he kept running the company from behind the scenes. He frequently overruled Edsel’s ideas for modernizing the company’s products. You might think that people like Ford, who demonstrate supreme confidence in themselves, have inflated egos. Some do. But, ironically, people who appear super confident are often compensating for a weak ego. Change, to them, is seen as a weakness. As psychologist Dave Waters puts it, “A fragile ego is a terrible burden to bear.” And that, too, is a barrier to learning and change.

Some Factors That Can Hinder Learning:
• Continual success
• Egos
• Groupthink

“Groupthink,” the tendency to go along with others even when we have doubts, is a problem in many organizations and a huge barrier to learning and change. A classic case was the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy Administration’s effort to initiate a revolt against the Castro regime in Cuba. None of the members of the planning team ever raised serious questions about the plan’s chances of success, although several later admitted to having serious doubts about it. Nor did Kennedy ever insist that they debate the plan’s potential downsides. After it ended in a humiliating defeat, Kennedy later recalled, “We looked at each other and asked, ‘How could we have been so stupid?’”

To his credit, the president then spent many hours listening to advisors and others to learn from the debacle. He put those lessons to great use 18 months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Among other changes, he insisted that the planning team give him at least two different ways to deal with the Soviet missiles that had been placed in Cuba, and that they analyze the pros and cons of each.

And What Promotes Learning?

Again, there are several approaches. One is to adopt an attitude of curiosity. Creativity expert Chic Thompson puts it this way: “Curiosity before criticism.” When someone offers an unusual idea, start by exploring it: what are the potential upsides? How might it fit into the organization’s culture? Can we learn from anyone who’s tried it? Then (but only then), subject it to critical examination: what are the risks and costs? Possible untended consequences?

The story of Joseph in the Torah is a wonderful example of curiosity. His father’s favorite, he was an arrogant youth who earned the hatred of his brothers. But after a near-death experience and later a prison sentence based on trumped-up charges, he matured. He took a genuine interest in those around him, got his ego under control, and became a wise leader.

Another way to foster learning is to focus on our changing, disruptive environment. If the ongoing pandemic has taught us anything, surely it’s that we need to keep learning from the new discoveries about COVID and adapt. The great economist John Maynard Keynes used to tell people, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” Tragically, tens of thousands have died from COVID because they paid attention to conspiracy theories and myths, not to facts.

And that brings up a third potential source of learning: seeking out others’ perspectives. I say “potential” because too many people are creating their own “facts” today. But if we use our judgment and listen to those who have credibility, it can be a powerful source of learning. Here’s a wonderful example told by Bill Ury, a highly experienced mediation expert:

A man left 17 camels to his three sons. On his death bed he told them that the eldest would get one half of the camels, the second would receive one third, and the other would have one ninth. After he died the brothers started to work through the numbers and they got stuck: 17 doesn’t divide by two, it doesn’t divide by three, nor by nine. Tempers got hot; they were desperate.

So, they found an old woman known for her wisdom and asked for advice. The woman went away and thought about the problem for a while, then returned and said, “I don’t think I can help you. But, if you want, I’ll give you my camel.” Now they had 18 camels, and voila! The oldest son took his half: nine camels. The second took his third: six camels. And the youngest took his ninth: two camels. Nine plus six plus two equals 17 camels. They had one camel left over, so they gave the wise old woman her camel back!

I love this story. The brothers realized they were stuck and went to a credible outsider with no stake in the issue. The old woman didn’t give a quick answer; she left and contemplated and then came up with something. Finally, her answer was available to the brothers from the start, but they got too emotional to see it. Sometimes the solution is hiding in plain sight.

Henry Ford was allergic to others’ perspectives, and he didn’t learn. We need to be smarter than that. What can you do to continually learn and grow?

Resilience is Critical Today. But Where Does It Come From?

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change.  [more info]

Why are some people more resilient than others? Researchers have asked that question for decades. Some of the answers relate to individual characteristics like initiative, determination, motivation, optimism, and self-awareness. These all make sense, but resilience usually requires other factors. I learned that from a middle school teacher who told me about two brothers she’d had in her classes. They were raised by a mom who worked long hours at minimum wage and came home with no energy or time for her sons. They lived in a high-crime neighborhood. These were genuinely nice kids. But both struggled in school, both were influenced by the gangs on the streets, neither got support at home.

Over time, one demonstrated what we’d all call resilience. He was accepted to a magnet school where he blossomed. He got into college, worked all four years, became an informal leader on campus, and had several lucrative job offers when he graduated. He turned them down and chose to become a professional human services worker, helping kids who were struggling as he had. His brother, alas, has continued to struggle. If you talk with those who’ve taught school for many years, they’ll probably know of similar stories. One kid in the family escaped a negative situation, the others didn’t. That one kid was somehow “different.”

How did this brother break out? In middle school he met an adult who liked him. She helped him get into the magnet school. She found a college with a work-study program. When he occasionally slipped, she provided confidence and support. She showed him how to use his good people skills to give and get support from others.

This story, and several studies, taught me that resilience isn’t only an individual characteristic. Resilience, it seems, is a team sport.

Many famous leaders relied on others to get through tough times. Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression from the time he was a young man through his incredibly difficult White House years. One of his tonics was spending time with others. He loved to regale friends and colleagues with his colorful stories. He selected his famous “team of rivals” to form the core of his cabinet, and continually talked with them about his most difficult decisions. He often visited with parents who’d lost a son in the war. Lincoln needed a team to be resilient, and he knew it.

Nelson Mandela also gained strength from others. That was especially true during the 27 years he spent in prison. He and the other political prisoners continually shared information about key events in their country. Mandela used his legal skills to write judicial appeals for his fellow prisoners. Remarkably, he found ways to form mutually respectful relationships with some of the prison guards, relationships that often led to improvements in the prison conditions.

Resilience is a team sport. Indeed, on the American Psychological Association’s list 10 ways to build resilience, “build your connections” is listed first. But resilience also requires something else, something that helped Lincoln and Mandela deal with their enormous challenges. They both understood that attitude is a choice. By his own account, Mandela entered prison an angry man. But he let go of the anger and chose to use his prison years to help his fellow inmates develop the leadership skills they would need if and when they were released. He chose to study the prison guards and learn their language and culture, and he used that knowledge when he negotiated with white South African leaders and convinced them to abolish the repressive apartheid system. Once president, he urged his black supporters to see white South Africans no longer as their enemy, but as their fellow countrymen. His most militant colleagues said he’d sold out. But, like Lincoln, he chose to follow the path of reconciliation, not retribution.

Two things to remember about resilience:
1. Resilience is a team sport, and
2. Attitude is a choice.

In the Hebrew Bible, Moses offers another example of extraordinary resilience. Over the 40-year period after he led his people out of bondage he endured their continual complaints, their violations of God’s laws, even attempted rebellions against his leadership. But Moses didn’t take on these burdens alone. He teamed up with his brother Aaron throughout the journey. He took his father-in-law Jethro’s advice to stop rendering decisions on all issues by himself and create a system of judges to share the responsibilities. When the people’s constant carping drove him to such despair that he begged God to end his life, he accepted God’s suggestion to gather 70 elders to share his burden with them. He knew that resilience is a team sport.

He also demonstrated that attitude is a choice. When the Israelites were about to go into the Promised Land, Moses told the people that God wouldn’t allow him to enter it. Rather than betray the disappointment he no doubt felt, he presents their next leader, Joshua, to all of the people, telling him to “be strong and resolute, for you will go with this people into the land that God swore to their father.” It’s an extraordinary act, visibly handing Joshua the mantle of leadership that he so dearly wished to maintain. Moses demonstrated that attitude is a choice.

None of us is a Moses. Few of us will ever undergo what Mandela endured. So, let’s look at an example of resilience that we might identify with more easily.

A week after our stepfather Bob married our mom, he learned that he had cancer. In his next 10 years he went through multiple operations for a nasty and clever cancer that kept finding new places to attack him. He was realistic, he knew his long-term possibilities were grim. Never one for self-pity, he chose to focus most of his time on our mom and others he loved. Those connections meant the world to him. He knew he needed connections to keep on going.

And Bob’s attitude was superb. Before each operation he found something funny or offbeat to say. After every operation he had just one question for the surgeon: “What can I still do?” He never dwelled on what he could no longer do (like eating his favorite foods). And as he was wheeled into what would be his last operation, he told my brother Jim, “And I bequeath to Jim Linden my Los Angeles Lakers tickets!” with a great smile and twinkle in his eye. He understood that attitude is a choice. So, he chose to live in a way that was meaningful, drawing him even closer to those he loved.

What are your ways of maintaining resilience when things are tough? What attitude do you adopt? Who helps you get through it?

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Racial Justice and Policing in Camden NJ: Lessons for Change Leaders

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

In 2012, crime was spiraling out of control in Camden. The city had a murder rate 18 times the national average. Officers saw themselves as warriors trying to dominate criminals, not as professionals there to protect and serve the public. Relationships between the police and African Americans were extremely tense. At that time, most cities had experienced dramatic drops in violent crime, and Camden’s leaders had several models to consider, from tough-on-crime methods like stop and frisk, to community policing, where officers form relationships with the residents and business owners in their precinct.

Camden’s leaders ultimately opted for a version of the second approach, but first they did something radical: they disbanded the police department and gave the county control over policing in the city. Those who’d been laid off could apply to be re-hired. Several new people joined the force. The powerful police union was taken over by new leaders who were committed to change. Interestingly, the county didn’t immediately change its policies and practices (though some were changed in the coming years). Rather, city leaders first spent time meeting with residents to ensure they had a voice in how the new department would operate.

Those conversations proved important, so much so that the person who became police chief in 2015 made clear his top goal: build relationships with the community. Over the next several years the department trained officers in the art of de-escalation; preserving life was the goal, and use of force by cops was to be used only as a last resort. Complaints about police using excessive force fell. By 2020, murders had declined 63%, robberies were down 60%, and overall violent crime had fallen 42%.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the precise reasons for these improvements. But comments from community leaders reveal what changed their perceptions of the police. As one put it: “Before the change, the police department didn’t care about our safety. When they made the transition, they built partnerships with members of the community.” Those partnerships created trust. The residents then started sharing more information about law breakers, helping increase the number of murders solved from 16% to 61%. Significantly, this trend has continued since 2017, when many other have cities experienced big increases in violent crimes.

What can we learn from Camden?

While there are several lessons, I think two are critical to all leaders. First, consider the wise advice from leadership expert Jim Collins. When considering a change, first ask Who? and then What? Start by getting “the right people on the bus, in the right seats,” as Collins puts it. In general, the “right people” are those with character, who play well with others, who are open to change, who have a strong work ethic. That’s what Camden’s leaders did. Rather than institute a host of new policies and procedures (the What), they started by focusing on the Who. As they got those people on the bus, they worked together to plan and implement the What – the strategies, practices, and procedures to implement.

And second, Camden’s leaders understood the power of relationships. Most of Camden’s residents, especially African Americans, didn’t trust the police prior in 2012. They saw the police as an enemy, which only heightened tensions. So, the new Camden police chief emphasized relationship building, and it began making a difference. Most residents were willing to give the new police department a chance when its officers showed a genuine interest in getting to know them and learn about their concerns.

Two key lessons for leading change, from the Camden story:
1. First “who,” then “what” – get the right people on the bus, in the right seats
2. Build relationships with key constituents before initiating the change

I’d argue that these two lessons are ageless. Indeed, they’re present in the Hebrew Bible. God’s decisions to select Abraham and Moses – the Who – for key leadership roles were essential to living out the covenant God wanted with the Israelites. And the trusting relationships God formed with Abraham and Moses were equally critical. Abraham and Moses were able to tell God to cool it when God was ready to unleash massive punishments. God, like all leaders, needed to have a few people who would speak truth to power.

What about you? Do you have the “right people on the bus, in the right seats,” for what you’re trying to accomplish? What’s the level of trust among those people, and with your key constituents?

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