Chase Meaning Not Happiness or Success

What is the most important thing to pursue?  Is it happiness?  Is it success?  The great philosopher Aristotle said happiness is the thing people most want.  We don’t seem to chase happiness for some secondary purpose.   Everything we pursue and every goal we have we hope will make us happy.  His argument is solid and if you’ve ever read his work Nicomachean Ethics, then you know he makes a great argument for the idea that all human beings seek happiness as the ultimate good.  The problem is happiness has a much broader meaning for Aristotle than it does for us.  The Greek word he uses is difficult to translate into English.  The word he uses is eudaimonia which means “To flourish” more than to experience the emotional state of happiness.  If we’re flourishing happiness will be an effect of that experience, but it’s not the objective of what human beings desire.  We desire to flourish, not just experience a mood labeled as happiness.

If we want to flourish, we need to have meaning and purpose in our lives.  Meaning and purpose pulls us toward a sense of flourishing.  If I find meaning and purpose in my life and direct my actions, goals, and efforts toward fulfilling that meaning and purpose, then I flourish.  I experience happiness at times but also in the struggles and difficulties of life, I overcome and grow.  To suffer for something bigger than yourself stimulates a deeper and more fulfilling life.  To accomplish goals directed toward something more than myself is to feel that I am moving toward something profound and transcendent.  This is what it means to flourish in the broader sense that Aristotle describes in his philosophical work.

Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist captured by the Nazis during WWII, put in some of the darkest and worst conditions a person could ever endure, and who lost his whole family in the death camps believed one must make meaning of life to survive it.  A person will survive almost anything if he or she can maintain a sense of purpose and meaning.  He saw that prisoners who no longer could find purpose succumbed to their conditions in the concentration camps and died.  In his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” he writes:

“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.“

So, my friends, if you want to flourish, be happy, and endure difficult situations when the arise, be sure your life is guided toward something bigger than yourself.  More and more it seems we’re simply floundering in a life numbed by entertainment from glowing screens on our walls, desks, and in our hands.  Ask yourself what the greater and more profound mission is for your life and pursue it with all you have.  It will be the best thing you can do for yourself and those in your life.


The Complexity of Human Nature – A Lesson We All Need

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist. His life story is as interesting as the novels he writes. He was raised Russian orthodox, became an atheist and supporter of the communist movement, and then later, he became one of the government’s greatest critics. Because of this he was put in a gulag to perform forced labor. After his release from the gulag, he once again embraced his childhood religion. As a very devout and philosophically astute believer, he wrote many novels that reflected his beliefs and worldview. I love these lines he wrote in “The Gulag Archipelago “:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.

“Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”

I sometimes wonder if we’ve forgotten this very point. Are we so arrogant that we believe we have everything right and the “other”, whether that be another political party, race, ethnicity, country, etc. has nothing good to offer our collective situation? Likewise, we have to ask ourselves are we so arrogant to believe that we have nothing evil within us that needs uprooted? I hear so many people today call one another numerous awful things and I want to say to them, “Are we sure that very thing you’re calling that person isn’t also a part of you?”

I’m a psychologist and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that people are complex. Most of our problems are the result of the fact we forget about our own and other’s complexity. They oversimplify people and call them good, or evil based on how much these other people agree with their own opinions and beliefs. Likewise, they simplify themselves by investing their whole identity into a political party, sexual preference, race, gender, or any other category they choose to describe their whole existence. We’re way too complex to root our whole identity into one basic category. In fact, that’s a very unhealthy attitude and can lead to some unhealthy ways of understanding ourselves and interacting with others.

Let’s just look at my life for a moment. I‘m from a working-class family in Pittsburgh Pa. I’m also an academic and enjoy that life and the type of work it entails (Which is often strange to my hard-working blue-collar family). I’m a Christian and enjoy my faith and the community that’s part of the faith. Yet, I am a musician and spend a lot of time at open mic nights in bars with people who are very much not Christians. I’m so many things but mostly, all these things converge to become Dominick. Dominick enjoys being all these things and not totally any one of these things. I’m a husband, a father, a brother, a grandson, an uncle, a cousin, a nephew, etc. Above all, I am complex. I pray on Sunday with the saints and can be quite the spiritual person. I drink bourbon and sing the blues on Mondays with the rougher fringe of humanity and enjoy my time with these wonderfully quirky people. All of this makes me who I am. I am capable of being quite the servant and person of Christian virtue, but also one of the greatest sinners the earth has produced. The point is, I am complex and knowing this keeps me from being too judgmental about others.

In the end, there are very few people I see as completely evil or completely saintly. Certainly, no politician or person in power has ever been one of these things completely (although some have come close). My point is this. I hope all of us consider the wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and remember, this line that separates evil from good is much more a line inside the human heart than between human beings. Let me close with this observation. I just finished watching the HBO series “A Band of Brothers” that follows Easy company from the 101st Airborne as they move through Europe during WWII. In each episode they interview the men who were at the battles. One of these gentlemen said something that really captures this idea of where the line of evil and good lies. I am paraphrasing what he said, but it was generally this; “In any other circumstance I believe I could have been friends with some of the Germans I killed. Maybe we would go fishing together or hunting, but I had a job to do just like he did.”

That’s a powerful testimony that shows a real recognition of the complexity of our nature as human beings. He knows those men across the field of battle were simply men. Each could be good, and each could be bad, and some more than others. I wonder if we might start to see other people we encounter the same way. Maybe we should explore our own hearts and recognize we’re dealing with devils and angels like everyone else. Maybe we can use that insight to be a little more understanding of the people we know.

How Life Can Have Meaning and Purpose – The Wren Method

Most of us, whether conscious of it or not, want our lives to have meaning and purpose. We want who we are and what we do to matter, and we want it to be valuable. So much psychology speaks to this innate human desire that it’s not something we can ignore. Just read the work of any philosopher and psychologist and in some fashion, you’ll find they all believe human beings need to have meaning and purpose in their lives. Victor Frankl wrote his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” and in it demonstrates how survival in a Nazi concentration camp came from his ability to make meaning of the most tragic situation a human being can face. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believes all human beings come to a point in life where they ask, “Did my life matter, did I contribute to the world somehow?” This need to have and create meaning and purpose is an essential element of the human experience. The question becomes, where do we get this sense of meaning and purpose?

Frankl believes it comes from several aspects of human living. The main areas Frankl mentions are purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. These cover a significant amount of the stuff human life is made of and I agree it’s wise to think about these things from the perspective of how your life matters and has purpose. It’s exceptionally important you face difficulty with purpose. Why do you suffer? Why must you persevere through disease, disaster, and the loss of loved ones? For many people, it’s to pass on the story of their family, country, and community. Some persevere through disease to help others learn more about that type of suffering. Some through disaster and war so that the country and people they love can pass on their story and the principles they believe are important. Both take great courage and perseverance through any of them witnesses to the greatness of the human spirit. The third one, however, is somewhat interesting. Meaningful work is often misunderstood because its value is believed to only benefit the one doing the work. People think meaningful work is work that satisfies the person doing it but there’s so much more to meaningful work. Some people do meaningful work that no one ever notices or involves the most mundane tasks you can imagine. What makes it meaningful? The fact it serves something valued by the community in which it is exercised. It transcends the individual.

There’s a story about the janitor at a NASA facility in the 1960’s who found significant purpose and meaning in what he was doing. He believed by keeping the facility clean, by mopping, cleaning toilets, and emptying trash cans he was contributing to the effort to put a man on the moon. Do most people enjoy that kind of work? Certainly not, but for this man, it spoke to a greater purpose and served the community he valued. The key to doing meaningful work is to do that which you believe matters for the greater good. In short, it’s discovering how your life uniquely contributes to those around you. Anyone who finds work meaningful discovers very quickly that it’s not the glory of the tasks that make it meaningful, it’s fulfilling a personal mission to serve the community they value.

Most people in the United States have no idea who Christopher Wren is and perhaps a number of people in London don’t recognize his name as well. However, Christopher Wren is the architect that developed a significant number of buildings in London after the great fire of 1666. One of those buildings he helped rebuild was St Paul’s Cathedral, a beautiful and very famous church in England. It took 45 years to complete his renovations, the dome he designed extends 365 feet making it one of the tallest in the world. In the crypt at St Paul’s are monuments to many famous people who contributed to English society and culture. However, you will not find a monument to Christopher Wren. Instead, there is a plain marker on the crypt wall that reads:

“Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, nor for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”

That’s a powerful testimony to a life that had meaning and purpose. You can have that as well, but you need to ask yourself how you can use the gifts and talents God has blessed you with to serve the community. It doesn’t have to be the world and you don’t even need to be recognized for it in any grand way. Simply love and serve your family, neighborhood, church, and community in a way that uniquely reflects what you are good at, no matter what that thing is. By doing this, the monument you create reflecting your contribution will be reflected in the many lives you touch. Who needs a marble statue when the positive impact you have on generations of people will always speak to that which mattered most, even if they can’t remember your name.

Drop the Bad Beliefs – You Don’t Have to Agree With Them Anymore

Does This Idea Work for My Life?

People walk around with a meaning-making system in their head and they’re seldom aware of how much it impacts everything about them.  Much of what I do in therapy is help people become aware of their meaning-making system and how it’s causing them pain.  A component of everyone’s meaning-making system is something philosophers call a worldview.  A worldview is a set of beliefs about things like:

  • What does it mean to be a human being?
  • What is the nature of the world?
  • What’s wrong with the world and why do things go wrong?
  • How can what’s wrong with the world be fixed?

The beliefs you build around these questions guide you and your interactions with the world (and people) in an almost invisible way.  You’re probably not even aware of how you feel about these things until your life gets turned upside down.  For example, You may think human beings are nothing more than evolved animals with complex ways of thinking and behaving that allows them to get what they want in a complex social world.  People can’t just take what they want (Although they would if they could) they need to develop the social skills to get what they want from people in a nuanced way.  At some point in life, you find you need help with something and someone comes along and does just that.  Unconsciously you believe this individual is helping you because they want something.  You engage the world around you with suspicion because you know how people are and you need to protect yourself from their inherently selfish drives.

This belief may allow you to function in the world, but it may also keep you from being happy and enjoying healthy fulfilling relationships.  The beliefs you have about the above subject areas will impact how you engage the world around you.  Because of that, I want to encourage you to spend a little time exploring your meaning-making machine that guides your interactions with the world.  What is a human being?  Are they merely physical creatures, do they have souls, can they be good creatures or are they only evil creatures cloaked in kindness to get what they want?  Is the world created with a design and purpose or is it a randomly evolved biosphere merely meant to nourish life?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  How can people live in the world in a way that limits the bad things that happen?  All of these are good questions to explore.

It is my hope that by spending some time digging into the meaning-making system you have in your head you can see where some of these beliefs have handicapped your ability to thrive, live a fulfilling life, and enjoy other people.  Much of what you carry around in your head are merely beliefs you’ve held on to in order to make sense of the world at a time when you were struggling.  They may not be necessary beliefs but merely constructed lies that helped you when you needed them.  Sometimes the world changes and therefore some of your fundamental belief propositions might need to change as well.  I am not a relativist; I believe there are fundamental truths that human beings need to embrace and in doing so they can thrive.  However, I do know people often carry around useless ideas they used to cope with in a bad situation from the past that no longer serves them well.  Let’s see if you can get rid of some of those.

Receiving Love – The Second Side of Love Languages

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Couples are often told a successful relationship is built upon knowing how to love the person you’re with in the way they need to be loved. While this isn’t bad advice I think it may be just one side of a very complicated coin! Numerous copies of the book “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman have been sold and used to help people get along better. Honestly, it’s a great book and I often mention it when talking with people about improving their relationship. Chapman sums up the core idea of his book when he says:

“We tend to speak our own love language, to express love to others in a language that would make us feel loved. But if it is not his/her primary love language, it will not mean to them what it would mean to us.”

I agree. If you continue to show love to someone in a way they don’t understand or appreciate, they struggle to feel loved. But what if the love language of your partner is one you just can’t learn? What if you’re with someone with a history of sexual abuse or has some physical limitations that keep them from showing love physically? What if sexual love is a real struggle for your partner yet you thrive on it and need sexual love to feel special in your partner’s life? Is the relationship doomed? Should your partner force themselves to learn your love language even though it’s painful, difficult, and something that becomes a real burden for them? Should we demand they speak our love language?

Love can never be simplified to be some general rule of engagement. Love is dynamic, involves an exchange of people, and is best experienced when communication and intimacy is part of the dynamic. Perhaps along with asking your partner to learn your love language you can learn to feel loved based on how they can show you they love you? Love is a mutual exchange and if that exchange occurs in a healthy way, even if its one not important to you, it becomes special because it’s important to your partner. Sometimes the best way to show love is to allow someone to love you the way they know how. Sometimes the best way to know you’re loved is to allow your partner to love you the way they know how and simply receive that as the gift it is.

Sure, learning one another’s love language and showing each other love in the way each of you needs to feel love is great. However, so is learning to be loved in the way your partner shows you they love you as a selfless act of care for your partner. When we sacrifice what we want to allow the other to be themselves we communicate to our loved one what’s most important is not what I get from this relationship but rather that the relationship we share thrives, flourishes, and transcends each of us to create a life of care and grace. Love is complicated but its complications create a mystery in which two people continue to find ways to transcend themselves to become a part of someone else.

The Things You Regret – The Inactive Form of Love

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I teach a course in multicultural psychology. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach. I marvel at the diversity of the human person but also that within that diversity there’s so much we share in common. I know it’s an overused analogy, but what a beautiful bouquet of flowers the human race is. I can only imagine God created it that way so he may “Delight in us” as the scriptures say. In the midst of this diversity I’ve come to marvel at one way we’re all the same and that’s how we view regrets. Studies in multicultural psychology demonstrate regardless of culture people regret the things they’ve never done more than what they have done, even if what they’ve done resulted in mistakes.

In more specific terms, psychologists study something called “Counterfactual thinking.” Counterfactual thinking is a hypothetical belief about your past that could have occurred in order to avoid or change a negative outcome. Basically, you use counterfactual thinking when you look back in your life and say to yourself, “If I had only done (or not done) ______ I might be better off.” Maybe it was a decision to enter a particular vocation, leave a particular city, or something as simple as having bought a particular type of car. In the end, counterfactual thinking often leads to feelings of regret. There are two categories of counterfactual thinking. The first group consists of those associated with actions. So, you might say to yourself, “If I wouldn’t have eaten that last piece of cake I might not be so sick today”, or “If I wouldn’t have majored in psychology I might be more likely to get that job as a business consultant.” The regrets you have are over something you’ve done. The second category of counterfactual thinking has to do with inaction items, those things you wish you would have done. Examples of this category might include thoughts like, “If I would have studied harder at school I might have made something of myself,” or “If I had been a better husband my marriage may not have ended in divorce.” Both of these categories are the types of thoughts that lead us to have regrets and people all over the world have them.

In multicultural psychology we look at these types of thoughts and ask ourselves, “Which category of counterfactual thinking is most prevalent in different cultures and which category do each of these different cultures experience the most? What we’ve found is all people, regardless of culture regret the things they’ve not done more than what they have done. Additionally, in every culture people regret what they haven’t done to the same degree. That means everyone, regardless of where they live, regrets not doing something to the same degree all over the world. We’re most troubled by what we didn’t do. I have a theological speculation why that might be the case.

If you look at how God created the human person, we were created for action, and in particular two actions that strike at our core. We were created to love others and to be loved. Whenever we do not create or experience love we suffer. In fact, love is so important to the human condition those who don’t experience or share love suffer disease much more prominently, recover from illness more slowly, and relapse into disease more frequently. When we cannot do what we were created for we crumble. Like anything created for action, inaction becomes the source of our slow demise. God, who is constant action (Pouring himself out for creation and continually renewing all he created through love) created us to be icons of his active love. Everything the human person does is intended to be an extension of the love of God for the created order. Our jobs, our marriages, our relationships, our leisure, all we do is intended to somehow love God above all other things, one another as brothers and sisters of the same father, and care for the created order. We were created for action, not to be inactive bystanders who do nothing. Because of that, when fear paralyzes us from making ourselves vulnerable to give and receive love we have a strong sense of regret. Mistakes are not our enemy, they’re part of learning to love more perfectly. Inaction and fear are our enemy. We can’t be comfortable in our inactive state, we must be stretched to be a more active agent for the kingdom of God. Innately people are aware of this and that’s why we regret what we didn’t do more than what we have done.

In my role as a minister I’ve had the opportunity to sit with people as they prepared to die. While the evidence is anecdotal at best, in the context of my pastoral care for them the feelings they share with me generally fall under two categories. They want to know if they were loved, but even more concerning to them is whether or not they loved others enough. They regret the love they didn’t show more than their attempts to actualize love. I pray all of you ponder whether or not you’ve become too comfortable in your attempts to actualize love; keeping yourself from “acting” in a more loving way. Never tire from finding new ways to stretch yourself and become more vulnerable for love’s sake. If you do this, your regrets will be minimized. In the end, you will find when you lay your head on your pillow for the last time the comforting voice of God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Should We Embrace a Remote Workforce? – The Organizational Question of the Decade

This is an interesting time to lead an organization. Because of the pandemic most workers who can are working from home. While this is the safe and right thing to do it poses some interesting challenges for leaders of organizations. One of those challenges is to determine whether this organizational structure should be something more permeant. If you’re considering this as a more permanent option, you need to consider it from a strategic perspective, not from a “fear based” posture many of us are experiencing right now. You need to make this organizational structure part of who you are which means you may have to change your organization’s vision and to some degree ethos if this is how you choose to move forward. Here is an example from higher education where we’ve seen that universities already established as distance education institutions transitioned during the pandemic much easier than those who never thought this would be something they would ever have to do.

My alma mater, Capella University provided me with a very good and effective doctoral education in general psychology. I have no complaints. I can compete with and engage other doctoral learners from similar programs that only have on campus classes. Capella’s mission statement is:

“The mission of Capella University is to extend access to high-quality bachelor’s, master’s, specialist, doctoral, and certificate programs for adults who seek to maximize their personal and professional potential. This mission is fulfilled through innovative programs that are responsive to the needs of adult learners and involve active, engaging, challenging, and relevant learning experiences offered in a variety of delivery modes.”

When their students, professors, and much of their staff had to work remotely in a dispersed organization, they did well. Very little of anything changed regarding how they deliver education, measure learning outcomes, and help students feel they are a part of their organization. From the very conception of who they are, a dispersed organizational structure was at the heart of their existence.

Other universities did not make this transition very well. They struggled to keep students engaged and are finding that their professors, administrators, and staff were not well prepared to make this shift. It’s not because these people aren’t intelligent, it’s because it’s not the “ethos” of the organization and therefore those attending and working there do not see remote education as part of who they are.

The reason I bring this up isn’t to critique one way of doing things over another, but rather to highlight an important aspect of organizational design that may get missed as leaders begin to consider whether their organization should become more dispersed. My advice is for many organizations to not do it. Don’t think you can just turn on a switch and “Poof”, you are now a dispersed organization. This approach won’t work for two reasons.

First, implementing any drastic change is met with resistance even when it’s well communicated. When people suddenly realize they’re now going to be a dispersed workforce in a dispersed organization it’s going to affect what they do. Even if the idea is appealing to the employees, it will impact how they do things which leads to some form of resistance. Much of this is because what an employee does, how they do it, and the results they get are intricately connected psychologically to the vision and mission of an organization. That’s what provides them with the “why” regarding what they do. Think of these statements as the DNA of an organization. Someone asks, “Why do all of you work remotely instead of in an office?” The answer is something like “We find that in order to serve our customers 24/7 at times convenient for the customer we need a nimble workforce that can adjust their hours as needed. In order to do that, working remotely gives our employees a lifestyle that allows them to provide our customers the service we say defines us and still have lives of their own.” That’s an answer intimately connected to the vision of an organization. And that is the second reason just “flipping a switch” to be a dispersed remote organization won’t work.

Take a look at Amazon and compare it to another big retailer, Walmart. Amazon’s ethos is to conveniently provide their customers numerous services remotely and yet in a timely and competitively priced way. The shopping experience is intimately connected to their web presence and the fact you can get most anything you want sent to you within days, sometimes in that day, without much of an issue provides the Amazon experience. Amazon thrives as an online experience because at its core this is who they are. Their organization has been developed around this strategy. Walmart, however, is not. People want low prices and the ability to walk into their store and get what they need now. Walmart has a website. In fact, if you go there, you might find it can compete with Amazon in several ways. However, Walmart is NOT an online shopping experience and therefore they will never do online shopping as effectively as Amazon and likewise, even with Whole Foods as part of their organization, Amazon will never do brick and mortar shopping like Walmart. It’s not that they can’t, rather, it’s that to do so means a complete shift in their vision and mission. That would then lead to a change in strategy and for that to work the organization must shift and change to implement that strategy. Basically, each company would be a different organization than they are now. For some, that’s a good idea, but for others, that might be tragic.

So, if you’re thinking that now is the time to transform your organization into a dispersed organization, think hard. Start with your vision and mission statements and ask yourself “Can these be actualized from within that organizational structure?” If the answer is yes, start rethinking your strategy. If you can develop an effective strategy that requires a dispersed organization, you’re on the right track. If at any point your answer to these questions is “no” think of how you will be able to bring everyone back in the office. Your organization’s “life” will depend on it.

Who Can Help You Be a Great Leader?

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If there is one thing I’ve learned from studying leadership as an academic discipline it’s that leadership is as much an art as it is a science.  It reminds me of my training as a therapist.  When I went to Duquesne University to get my graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, we spent a significant amount of time learning techniques and theories about counseling.  However, you could be the best academic student in the program and still fail miserably as a therapist.  Why?  Because just having head knowledge about how to use numerous therapeutic techniques isn’t enough.  One must apply that knowledge in a way that can’t be explained but rather must be experienced and observed.  It would be like learning to swim from reading an article on the subject and never going into the water.  When I saw my professors work with clients, I could see the things we were taught being used but it was like watching someone paint a portrait.  The artistic nature of what they were doing could be seen when they chose an intervention at just the right time and used it in a way that was beautiful.  Leadership, like counseling, is an art as much as it’s a science.

I’ve noticed that several leaders in organizations I have studied or have done some limited training with don’t understand this very basic concept about leading.  They want an academic like me or a successful consultant to “teach” their people how to be better leaders.  It’s not that consultants and academics can’t help improve someone’s leadership skills, but much of what it means to be a leader comes from constantly being challenged by the situations you’re placed in and evaluating how you did, what worked, and how to do it better.  One must take up the “Craft” of leading as an artist learns to shape the most beautiful table from a hunk of wood found in his or her woodshop.

Now, as I’m writing this, I know several you are saying, “If that’s the case, why should I study leadership or engage consultants to help my organization?”  My answer to you is because it helps.  Leadership consultants and educators are people who have spent a significant amount of time understanding and practicing the craft.  They are the sort of people one might have apprenticed with in the ages past to learn a skill.  Yet, its not just the experience they bring to educating future leaders that matters.  If that were the case, all you need to do is find others who are successful leaders and learn from them.  While that can be tremendously helpful, someone who is a fine leader but doesn’t understand how to convey what they know about leading isn’t very helpful.  My point is good practitioners are not always the best teachers and the best teachers are often lacking in significant leadership practice.  Finally, a good teacher and a good practitioner may not be good researchers who can provide you with a good understanding of what the future will look like and the best way to lead in that future. 

So, what does all this mean for you as someone who wants to improve their leadership skills?  Simply this: don’t just learn from one source, become a master leader by engaging the three streams of leadership wisdom I just mentioned.  Find a good leader who you believe is doing a great job.  Learn from his or her approach to leading.  Appropriate what works for you and your organization and fine tune it.  Learn from some of the best educators in the leadership world.  Find teachers who understand the leadership material and learn from them.  Soak in what they have to say and use it in your leadership efforts.  Finally, read the research.  Read what scholars in the leadership field are saying is going to be important as culture, people, and the context of your industry changes.  These three sources for understanding the practice of leadership are essential and without one of them you find yourself woefully prepared for some aspect of leading.  Good practitioners, excellent teachers, and solid research are the different types of canvases and brushes you will use to paint the portrait of a leader you want to be.

As I said when I started this article, leadership is as much an art as a science.  It’s your job as a leader to create something beautiful.  It’s not just your job, it is your responsibility.  The people that depend on you to do what you do well need someone who isn’t just knowledgeable, but creative.  It’s this creative aspect of leading that allows you to inspire others to be more than a cog in the organizational system.  Your craft reminds people they are connected to a bigger purpose and that their work, and dare I say their life, has meaning and purpose.  Go and create something beautiful, it’s what good leaders do.

Middle Management and the Dark Pit

I just finished reading a book called “It’s Your Ship” by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff.  It’s a great read, particularly for anyone who finds themselves working as a middle manager.  Most people think of middle management in negative terms.  Middle managers are often thought of as people who haven’t been able to achieve executive status. Yet, there are many of us who find middle management a good fit for our gifts and talents.  It’s people like us that are able to “stand in the gap” where executive orders need to be translated into something the average team member can understand and execute in a way that accommodates numerous factors higher-level managers can’t appreciate. As Captain Abrashoff puts it:

“The gray areas, in fact, are one reason we need mid-level managers.  If everything were black and white, organizations would need only chief executives to make the rules and workers to carry them out without questions.  Mid-level managers should be the ones to survey the gray areas and provide direction.”

I want to explore this “gray area” many middle managers function in on a daily basis.  It’s probably one of the most dangerous areas in business one has to navigate and it can make or break how an organization performs.  I was reminded of this perilous space recently while watching a movie called “Grayhound” starring Tom Hanks.  The movie follows a Navy Captain named Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks’ character) and is situated just months after the United States was bombed at Perl Harbor.  Hank’s character is commanding a group of international ships that must cross the Mid-Atlantic Gap also knows as the “Black Pit.”  This area of cross Atlantic travel was exceptionally dangerous because of the number of German U-Boats that harassed ships as they attempted to deliver cargo and men to Europe for the war effort.  In the movie, Hank’s team of international battleships had to protect a convoy carrying troops and supplies to Liverpool England.  The reason this area of trans-Atlantic travel was so dangerous is that the allied forces in Europe and the United States could not provide air support in this stretch of the ocean.  Without air support, the ships were exceptionally vulnerable to submarine attacks by the Germans for at least three days.  As the movie unfolds you see how Hank’s character has to make quick decisions, navigate dangerous water, engage the enemy, and do everything possible to limit the amount of damage the convoy they were protecting sustained.  It is a great movie and it leaves you on the edge of your seat for at least sixty of the ninety minutes you watch.  More importantly, it reminds you of how important it is to have solid people working in the “gray area” of life.

This movie works as a great metaphor for describing the life of middle managers.  The mission created by the executive team is clear when understood in the pristine world of a boardroom or conference room.  I’m not implying executive leadership is naive or unaware that this gray area exists, rather I’m saying no one at that stage of strategic development could possibly account for the numerous ways things need to happen for the objective to be reached.  Middle management’s job is to protect the “convoy” and make sure it arrives in Liverpool England with as little damage as possible.  Middle managers are familiar with receiving these types of orders.  It may not be as sexy as protecting a convoy of ships, but it may be just as important.  The order you receive will most likely sound more like, “We need to cut production costs by 10% but still provide a quality product to our customers with as little damage to our customer satisfaction ratings as possible.”  Middle managers need to make that directive work while continuing to keep their team members motivated, the production line flowing, and handle any issues that pop up.  It’s this gray area that makes people in middle management thrive.  Middle managers must be comfortable with ambiguity, demonstrate moral courage to do what needs to be done when what needs to be done isn’t easily identified, and take the heat when things don’t go well.  You can’t be a coward if you’re going to survive as a middle manager.

Over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time digging into the characteristics and skills necessary for functioning well in the middle level of any organization.  Perhaps you’re like me and find that part of the organization’s structure a place that challenges you in a positive way.  Maybe you’re like Captain Krause in charge of the battleship known as “Grayhound” and you’re willing to bravely go where there is little air cover yet the opportunity to do something good for a greater purpose is ready for a person like you to take command.  If so, you’re in the right spot because together, we can explore what it takes to be a successful middle manager.  I look forward to going into the “dark pit” with you over the next couple of weeks.

Translating Executive Strategy Into Team Member Work – The Task of Middle Management

Emotional intelligence is an important topic in leadership studies.  People who are emotionally intelligent are able to harness the power of human emotion and intuition and inspire their team to stay focused on the organization’s vision and mission.  At the core of emotional intelligence is the ability to understand the perspective of others.  Certainly, there is much more to this complex topic, but the truth is if you can’t see things from other people’s perspectives emotional intelligence will be difficult for you to grasp.  The unfortunate result of being at the top of an organization’s leadership pyramid is that you lose some of the ability to understand the perspective of your lower level team members.  When you’re charged with an organization’s overall strategy and direction you just don’t have the cycles to see things from the everyday team members’ perspective.  You need to contend with the board of directors, future initiatives, strategic direction, and other executive-level responsibilities.  Don’t feel this is something you need to apologize for, it’s just the nature of what you do.  You can still care deeply for those who work for you without having an understanding of what they do on a day to day basis.  Sure, you need to care about them, communicate your interest in their lives, and have a basic understanding of the work they do, but it’s more important you see the organization from a visionary perspective rather than a day to day perspective.  The problem is too many executive leaders don’t acknowledge they’re walking around with this blind spot.  When executive leadership refuses to appreciate their lack of perspective at certain levels or worse, believe it doesn’t matter, the ability for that level of leadership to inspire and influence the organization will die.  How does executive leadership overcome this problem while maintaining the energy and focus they need for the other important aspects of their job?  They recruit and keep good middle level managers.

A key role middle management plays is implementing the strategic directives of executive management and helping the front line team members understand what those directives mean for the work they do.  Additionally, middle management takes the everyday work experience of the team members and incorporates it into the vision and strategy of executive leadership.  To do this well middle managers have to be excellent interpreters of both executive directives and day to day team member life.  Middle management walks in both worlds yet belongs to neither.  They are very much aware of the situation and concerns of executive leadership yet understand the complexities and challenges strategic direction has for the day to day work the team is engaged in every day.  To do this well requires middle managers to be flexible and creative every day and with every task they are required to complete.  If they want to succeed, Middle managers need to take a two-pronged approach to their work.  

One of the best examples of how to manage this balancing act can be found in the book by Captain Abrashoff I have been discussing called “It’s Your Ship.”  In regard to seeing things from the perspective of his sailors he writes:

“My organizing principle was simple: The key to being a successful skipper is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew.  Only then can you find out what’s really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.

That’s a very powerful and humble statement to make.  As someone tasked with directing sailors to fulfill the mission given to him by his commanding officers, Captain Abrashoff chooses to set his ego aside and attempts to see what needs done from the perspective of the enlisted.  The enlisted are the ones that must execute the commands.  The everyday sailor is the one who sees the orders being handed down from a bottom up perspective.  Sometimes the perspective closest to the actions needing completed are the most informed and important to listen to and frequently the most ignored.  By empowering his sailors to speak into what needs done he creates a solution focused team of people, not a group of people simply geared toward pointing out problems.  They come to him with more than a list of issues, rather they include potential solutions as well because they know the Captain is able to see things from their perspective and empower them to do their work.

And how does he motivate them to fix what needs to be fixed in order to be a mission-ready ship?  How does he make sure that what he hears from his team is appreciated?

“I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s… My second assumption was that the secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out.  To that end, I focused my leadership efforts on encouraging people not only to find better ways to do their jobs but also to have fun as they did them.”

So what we find here is a leader ready to listen to what the day to day work of his team has to say about getting things done.  However, it doesn’t stop there.  Captain Abrashoff had to report to his commanding officers in the Navy.  He couldn’t just do what he wanted, he had to also be mindful of what his leadership required, the strategy they proposed, and the vision and direction they have for the Navy.  In order to incorporate that perspective into what his crew was proposing as necessary changes he writes:

“You have to train yourself in leadership, and you can’t afford to wait until you get promoted to begin the process.  While you’re still an individual contributor, learn to think like your boss, so when the day comes to be a leader, you’re ready to step right in with your game plan in hand.”

Middle managers need to think like their boss.  When you can do that you’re able to anticipate what needs done and take your team’s feedback on how to get it done into an executive level discussion with your boss.  Instead of merely telling executive leadership “Here are our problems and this is what the team needs to overcome them” you can speak about the weaknesses your team identified, the solutions they propose, and indicate how they are a part of the strategic direction and initiatives of executive leadership.  Being able to frame things in a way that executives understand is as important as being able to demonstrate to your team how executive initiatives add value to the work they do.  Middle managers are master translators of business language.

There is indeed a great deal more that middle management does in regard to this part of their work, but for now, think about this and reflect on how you might improve in this area.  Ask yourself how well you see the work your organization does from the perspective of those on the front line.  Then, make sure you understand the strategic initiatives and direction executive management is implementing so you’re well versed in how these two organizational efforts can work in harmony.  If you can master this part of your work, you’re on your way to a successful career.