Tag Archives: Paradoxes

The Heat of the Moment

There is a metaphoric story that has been told at several of the workshops conducted by  colleague Rene Mendoza, Interim Director of NITLAPAN.  The idea of the tale is that if you were to place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would immediately jump right out to escape the deadly heat.  But if you placed that same frog in a pot of tepid water and then very gradually turn the heat up to the boiling point, the frog would remain in the water until it died, so gradual and subtle would be the increase in heat and discomfort.

It’s an old metaphor and one that may or may not be literally true.  But it has been used by many leaders to describe the dangers of complacency, of accepting gradual erosions of a healthy state of being to an unhealthy one.  In the workshops, Rene has used the story as a metaphor for rural cooperatives who have gradually lost significant value for their work and product to the marketplace, the “middleman” and managers with unfair leverage over them.  The message is clear: jump out of the hot water of powerlessness and acceptance before the heat consumes you. Continue reading The Heat of the Moment

Empty Hands

I take the opportunity to read many things about Nicaragua. Some are by Nicaraguans, opining about life in that country.  Others are by North Americans who have traveled to the country and been moved to offer written reflections about their experiences.  The following is a portion of a thoughtful and moving piece written by Harvard Divinity School scholar Desiree Bernard upon a meeting she had with Father Fernando Cardenal, the Jesuit priest whose commitment to the poor in Nicaragua has been unwavering over the course of his long service there.  I thank Ms. Bernard for her  reflection which appeared in the March 2013 ProNica‘s “News from Nicaragua:”

Father Fernando Cardenal gave us advice on our last full day as a group in Nicaragua.  He said, first, to stay connected in community.  When one is connected with others and not isolated, it makes the possibility of progress much more vital and accessible.  Also, he said, to think of our children who, perhaps ten years from now, will be asking us the question: where were you, Father?  Where were you, Mother, when this or that event was transpiring in history?  You want to be able to say you were there, said Father Cardenal.  You want to make them proud.

Finally, he told a story of a person who was dying and bemoaning the sense of leaving this world with “hands empty.”  What he meant by this, he explained, was that this dying person was suffering with existential anguish because they felt they had not done anything important, anything that mattered, with their life.  Father Cardenal warned us not to end up this way.  Do not die with your hands empty, he said, do something that matters.  Do not just exist for yourself.  Join with others and serve others.  This exchange from one hand to the other, this giving, is the practice that generates a sense of our life as an offering when it comes time to die.  This is what brings ultimate peace.  Our hands are not empty, because they are full of our offerings.

The stories as told by Father Cardenal remind me of two distinct truths.  First, Father Cardenal understands and communicates the truth of our lives when we often miss such realities ourselves.  When he speaks, either through his stories or visions for the future, he has the capacity to softly touch us in places of the heart, awakening what we know to be true about our lives, what we are here for, what we owe to each other and the world at-large.  The words are gentle, yet often difficult to hear because of what they say about ourselves, our priorities, our missed chances as well as our great opportunities.  He is an avuncular voice of conscience.

Second, the lesson of empty hands reveals one of the most difficult and counter-intuitive truths of human existence.  Our innate tendencies push us to matters of self, to concentrate our energies in pursuit of achievement or acquisitions that can never satisfy an insatiable push for more.  We know that our possessions and accolades are so much “dust in the wind,” and yet pursuit of them is what drives many of us throughout our days.  In that sense, we DO leave this earth with empty hands, unable to maintain our hold on virtually any of these things.  But the work we have done for others during our time here- the answer to the question “where were you?”-  THAT will be the true measure of the fullness of our hands and lives.  It’s a reality that is tough for most of us to live by.  Father Cardenal asks, as a gift to ourselves, that we try….




When I’m Sixty-Four

“When I get older, losing my hair, Many years from now…. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”

The Beatles recorded a song in 1966  called, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a whimsical tune sung by a young man to his girl, an inquiry about their life in future.  The song is also a cute reference to the generation gap, as the young singer tries to imagine life at that ripe old age.  History says that Paul McCartney wrote the song at a very young age and when his father was about to turn sixty-four.  Anyone of my generation hearing the song back in the 1960’s were a little curious to think about becoming as old as sixty-four, an age that seemed nearly as ancient as the planetary system.  For a teenager, imagining a life at such an advanced age was a bit like envisioning life on the moon: it was distant, other-worldly and unlikely.  But suddenly, I am at the threshold of turning sixty-four.

It’s not a cataclysm or even a very important milestone.  I mean, I’m still gainfully employed in a role that I cherish, I’m in good health, physically and mentally active, with a wife whom I love very deeply still, with four grown children who still call and visit.  Life hardly seems to be ebbing away.  Yet statistically speaking, I’m well within the last quarter of my life.  So The Beatles’ tune has given me pause, to think about whatever impacts I might have created thus far, whether good or bad, to consider accomplishments yet to be achieved, and to wonder out loud whether my being here has demonstrated good stewardship of the life with which I’ve been blessed.  It’s a tenuous exercise born out of both a need for affirmation and an avoidance of fears: I hope to leave good tracks, yet fearful that I will not.

I suspect the same uncertainties stir within many of us.  We have been told by others that by simply asking the questions we have demonstrated our awareness of a stewardship obligation, which by itself might assure the high character of our passage on this earth.  I’m not too confident in that conclusion.  Questions make for a good start but an incomplete finish.  So I continue to look for that “report card” to tell me whether I’m passing this stewardship class called life.  And I have anxiety that the test isn’t likely to be graded on a curve, but rather according to more absolute measure.  I look over my life notes, including my “top ten list” of stewardship measures, and see issues like honesty, generosity, respect for others, environmentalism, conservation, lifelong learning, spirituality, care for my physical self.  I wish I knew what was on the test for each of these.  Have I already been quizzed?

Give me your answer, fill in a form…”

Management author Peter Block wrote a book about stewardship years ago (1993) called, appropriately, Stewardship.  It’s still some of the best writing on the subject that I have ever encountered and one portion of that work stays in my consciousness even today, twenty years after my original reading and long after my corporate management roles.  Block referred to stewardship as “choosing service over self-interest and creating redistribution of power, purpose and wealth.”   In other words, Block suggested that the in the interest of becoming good at stewardship (in this case, organizational strengthening), the key would be found in the elevation of others.

About the same time, Robert Greenleaf was teaching much the same thinking in his paradoxical booklet, The Servant Leader.  “The servant leader makes sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.  The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they,while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will he benefit,or, at least, will he not be further deprived?”  The words of both authors opened up vistas of thinking for me that dramatically shaped my behaviors, both at work and in my personal life.  But I still wonder whether they ultimately made me a better steward.  I wish I had studied harder for the test.

Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?”

So as I approach McCartney’s mythic sixty-four,  I cherish the life that has evolved over those years by claiming that I am, in fact, the most fortunate man on the face of the earth.  I really believe it.  But as blessed as that sounds, it simply raises my introspection about good stewardship.  Can one be a truly good steward while at the same time feeling the good fortunes of a lucky man?  Maybe I’ll come to understand the answer to that sometime over the coming year, when I’m sixty-four….





Universal Truths

One of the hopes that I had held during my years at Foldcraft Co. was that some day we might be able to compete successfully enough to acquire one of our local competitors, Waymar.  We actually engaged in conversations with the owner of the company who was contemplating his own retirement, but we never could advance the conversations in any substantive way.  You might imagine my sense of satisfaction, then, when last month Foldcraft completed the process of acquiring that company and its subsidiary in Seattle, Washington.  Some good things just take time to develop.

The acquisition wasn’t free, of course.  The employee owners of Foldcraft have their work cut out for them in order to make a success out of this acquisition.   They will have to learn new things.  They will have to familiarize themselves with the way that Waymar conducted its business.  They will have to envision changes that can be made to blend the two manufacturing operations.  They will have to learn about an entirely new set of customers and their demands.  They will have to make Waymar a profitable enterprise if they are to cover the debt incurred from the purchase, and almost certainly surprises will be encountered along the way.  The two cultures will have to be blended into one, and a collaborative workforce will have to be fashioned out of two previously competing ones.  A great deal of education within both companies will be required.  When you stop to consider all of the hurdles that exist in such a transaction, it sounds downright risky.

That’s one of the realities about being in business of any sort: every one has both its risks and rewards.  It’s never any different.  If success was guaranteed in any particular economic undertaking, everyone would be doing it.  But the tensions between the risks and rewards are what make the success stories so compelling to us.  We marvel at the obstacles that successful enterprises have overcome, and we listen longingly to tales of financial success, often concluding that we should be able to accomplish as much.  Whether a cooperative in rural Nicaragua or a factory on the plains of Minnesota, we love to hear stories that affirm the notion that unlikely- even miraculous- things can and do happen despite the odds.

As a member-owned company, Foldcraft will tackle the challenge in the manner that best assures success, a process that will draw upon some truths and methodologies which pertain to organizational life everywhere.  The first thing that management will do is to recognize that people need to know.  Leaders will ensure that members understand clearly the risks mentioned above and what exactly will be required to counter those risks.  Truth will not be a luxury but a necessity, because where information is lacking, rumors will fill the void and success cannot be built upon innuendo.  There will be nothing automatic about success in this venture, and the owner-members absolutely must know the truths of their new organization, good and bad.

Engagement will require that the members of the organization- Foldcraft and Waymar both- become educated in the new organization’s success equation, those elements that must occur in order for the new business to succeed.  Unfortunately, in all too many organizations even today, members simply do not have knowledge about what creates success for their business.  They only know that they perform certain activities which they have been directed to do, without knowing why or how those activities synchronize with the efforts of others in the organization.  As in any game, the objective is to score, and the players need to understand how those points are made, how certain actions and reactions mesh within the company to reach the goals.  They want to know how to win.  In the case of Foldcraft, principles of open book management will teach members exactly what needs to happen for success and then will track success (or failure) so that members know whether they are winning or losing the game.

Foldcraft will create ways for its members to be involved.   The transition difficulties encountered simply won’t be able to absorb people who not fully engaged in its success; that’s a reality of any business.  Participation of every member becomes magnified in an undertaking such as this.  The company will continue to assemble teams and special project groups to address issues, and for at least two reasons.  First, even when members are excited about contributing to change and improvement, they may not fully recognize what role they should play or where to begin.  The leaders of Foldcraft can help with that by “positioning the players.”  Second, sustainable and effective change needs the wisdom and experiences from as many sources as possible, and that means broad member involvement from all areas of the organization.  Foldcraft has already utilized this approach as it was performing its evaluation of Waymar as a possible acquisition.  Teams of Foldcraft people were involved in assessing factors such as financial health and transparency, company ethics and integrity, employee safety, production methods,  opportunities for improvement, marketplace strategies and more.  Members of Foldcraft shared the responsibility of gathering and evaluating this information under the belief that “no one of us is as smart as all of us.”  As a result, the evaluation was performed more rapidly and thoroughly than it would have been with only a few involved.

Finally, success of the new organization requires that there is a reward for all of the effort and responsibility-taking exhibited by members at both worksites.  In addition to strengthening their job security by forging a stronger company, the members of Foldcraft are owners of their enterprise.  By participating in the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) of the firm, the members are the ones who benefit from stock growth.  And that wealth accumulation can have a major impact on those members who remain with the company for many years.  The incentive to make this acquisition successful is firmly in place, for those members who want the chance to make a better future for themselves and their families.

Of course, Foldcraft knows that success is not fated.  It’s only an opportunity, as any enterprise is.  The good news is that the truths and methodologies mentioned above are ones that resonate with most of us.  They feed a human need to belong, to understand, to contribute, to succeed, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  It’s a truth that transcends national and cultural boundaries because it touches something deep in our psyches, something innately human.

Some organizations allow opportunity to slip through its hands, whether through leadership power struggles or greed or lack of transparency or too few members being seriously involved; good ideas die every day at the hands of ignorance and self-centeredness.  Success stories, though, emerge from the foment of universal truths that absolutely lie within our reach when we’re willing to stretch….




Thanksgiving Tale

There was a holiday, once, that was designated for mostly one thing: for people to give thanks out loud for the manifold blessings in their lives.   The populace agreed that on that day, the normal busy-ness of life should take a time out, families should gather together to renew their bonds of kinship, good fellows would acknowledge their close friendships, and for at least this one occasion all should reflect on the largess and gifts of life.  The day begged nothing from its participants but willing hearts to recognize such abundant bounties and the spirit of thankfulness for all that had been bestowed.  It was said that the uniqueness of the day  mirrored the originality of the people, a society of grateful and generous souls who seemed to comprehend the good fortunes of their existence and to embrace the modesty by which all such generosities surely are to be received.  The day served as a respite, a deep breath within the breathless pace of industry and social intercourse; men and women everywhere lauded this time set aside for a gratitude which they recognized as the debt owed upon their wealth.

Of all places, the initial fractures in this day of thankfulness emerged from sport, that vicarious balm which at times competes with thankfulness for the filling of the spirit.  It seduced people into feeling good, not through personal gratitude, but through reverence to what others were achieving.  Sport invaded the sanctity of the special day, vying for its time and its adulation.   The noise and tensions of competition gradually interrupted the regenerating, languid rest of the holiday.  Families seemed to find a balance within the day and there was coexistence, although an uneasy one.  But the traditional game featured over many years was soon followed by a second contest, and a third, creating an entire afternoon-into-evening of sport enchantment, sufficient to lure many feasting families away from the quiet bonds of fellowship.

Yet the greatest wound occurred when industry made the decision to separate itself from this day and to abduct its meaning for commercial purpose.  Building upon sport’s invasion of the holiday, the commercial moneymakers perceived a profit vacuum.   Not content with dominating people’s consciousness immediately after a day of thanks (an ironic contradiction by itself), the merchants mounted a relentless assault upon the clock and calendar.  Hour by hour, they crept ever closer to that special day with commercial intrusions.  And when the strain against tradition and gratitude could be stemmed no longer, the floodgates of insatiable desires finally broke open in a wild melee of shopping, inundating the people and their culture in unabashed materialism.  Contemplation of simple things soon found itself trampled beneath the onrushing hoards of frenzied consumption.

The deterioration of the day managed to sidestep the conscience of the commonwealth, and still more opportunities were invented for acquiring things.     In place of a shared gratitude, the people shared space upon sidewalks and parking lots, waiting for the moment when the masses would lunge for their portion of discounted excess,  seeking items not needed and spending resources not affordable. Rich family histories yielded to shopping mall  disorder.  Encroachment upon a single day of leisure multiplied itself to encompass nearly a fortnight’s worth of convulsions.

From afar, people in other places looked upon these events with both envy and sadness.  The world recognized the wealth of which no other lands could boast, but they possessed a perspective which allowed clarity of what was being lost.   Other affluent nations looked inward, to examine their own souls.  Impoverished countries watched outward, in needful disbelief.   And some wondered where the slide from humility might finally end….

The Castle Paradox

I’ve had this poster hanging in my office for perhaps the past 30 years or so.  I don’t even recall where it came from, but I was immediately taken with its message of holism and strength and living an integrated life, so I kept it as a reminder of how I thought I should try to build my own life.  Or, at the very least, to remind myself of how out of balance I can become and how easily the imbalances can happen.

The components of the castle construction are insightful and beg reflection, but it’s the heading of the graphic that poses The Castle Paradox: “A Dream Is A Goal Taken Seriously.”  It states in very economical terms an entire philosophy of personal and organizational development.  (Naturally, I am drawn to perceived truths that seem to make sense in my own life.)  And the idea here is essentially that any dream of mine- as nebulous and sometimes impractical as it may seem- might be nonetheless achievable if I will be resolved to wrestle with the enormity of my vision and conquer its small component parts, if I can harness the power of my very own spirit, if I will treat it as an objective or reality as opposed to a fiction.   After all, objectives are things that simply need to be done, while dreams too often occupy the realm of fantasy, well beyond my reach.  I like the idea of grappling with something tangible.

But the paradox is both  encouragingly simple and maddeningly problematic.  Our loftiest aspirations might well be within our reach but only if we can teach ourselves how to re-imagine their achievement.    Sometimes the path to succeeding is, indeed, by the “road less taken,” and that can be a path that is difficult to discern.

The Castle Paradox and the puzzlement that it brings to most of us in real life remind me of the lessons from one of my favorite books, The Paradoxes of Leadership, by Charles R. Edmunson.  Ostensibly written for leaders in employee-owned companies in the U.S., the book is a compendium of lessons that apply equally well to individuals simply trying to get along in life, and with others, as well as they can.  What makes them unique is the way they challenge the traditionally-held beliefs about our interactions, attaining success and the nature of organizational relationships; what they reflect is quite contrary to the views of the status quo:

* We have more influence when we listen than when we tell;
* Profound change comes from a feeling of safety, not from fear;
* We are stronger when we are vulnerable;
* Even when we are effective, we doubt ourselves;
* Our strength is our weakness;
* Less is more;
* Our strength comes through serving, not through dominating;
* We correct better through grace than through confrontation;
* We gain respect not by demanding it, but by giving it;
* We learn by talking, not just by listening;
* With people, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line;
* The hard stuff is the soft stuff;
* Sometimes we have to get it wrong to get it right;
* A full life is achieved not by grasping but by giving.

What Edmunson learned from his own leadership experiences was that a willingness to see things from a very different perspective often generated some very different answers to life’s issues.  The value in his observations lies not in whether one agrees with each of the statements as he wrote them, but that one would invest the time in considering them and discovering perhaps new meanings imbedded within them.   (Life itself is paradoxical in nature: in fact, Edmunson’s own greatest paradox was revealed through the writing of his book, at a time in his life when a neurological disease had robbed him of his ability to speak or even move.)  It seems as though our circumstances can sometimes create dramatically new solutions to the “castle walls” we seek to climb.

Much of what we think we know to be true is actually something less than that; there are few immutable truths to which we can cling for comfort.  Elements of tradition, history, culture, politics, religion and family heritage tend to shape what we believe as much as actual truth does.  Perhaps that’s the reason for so many paradoxical situations in which we find ourselves.  We cling to ideas that we have gathered along the way, worldviews that we have grown up to embrace, perspectives that we hold because “they have always been that way.” These eventually feed and complicate the paradoxes we face.    But recognizing the paradoxical presence in our lives should give us some degree of confidence in resolving these seemingly impossible quandries.  They may be little more than everyday realities which beg for a fresh look, an engaged mind, and an open heart in order to achieve a new resolution.

Solving The Castle Paradox: encouragingly simple and maddeningly problematic….