Posts

HOW TO BUILD COMMUNITY IN A TIME OF ISOLATION

A research project from the 1980s, documented in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that male heart attack survivors who were socially isolated had more than four times the risk of death than men with strong social connections. And a study of more than four thousand men of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii found that social networks guarded against coronary artery disease (independent of known health hazards such as high blood pressure and cigarette smoking).
Over the past four decades, there has been a sizable body of evidence documenting that being socially isolated significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk equal to that of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Simply put, people are nourished by other people. Research suggests that belonging to a tightly knit community is a significant predictor of health and mental well-being. Living beings yearn for the proximity of other living beings. Humans are happiest and healthiest when around other people, working together and helping each other. For much of history, humans have banded together as a matter of survival.
Even with pandemic fatigue, where we are weary of social distancing and isolating for the sake of our community’s health, our need for community has not changed – we desire to be heard, to be connected, to belong. Social distancing is not the same as social disconnecting. Isolating is not the same as detaching. Working together for the good of the whole is not the same as living in fear and withdrawing from each other. In our current conditions, we are called to develop a renewed connection to ourselves, to learn to enjoy solitude, to appreciate smaller spaces, and to be creative and intentional about sustaining our relationships with each other – thus finding innovative ways of sustaining community.
Living with a propensity for depression and having walked through some very dark periods in the course of my lifetime, I can suggest five strategies for fostering community during this pandemic that have worked for me:
1) Develop self-awareness. When a Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council was asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was almost unanimous: self-awareness. But how do you develop self-awareness? Self-awareness starts with checking in on yourself in the present moment. Are you afraid? Stressed? Inspired? Exhausted? Angry? Renewed? All of the above? Self-awareness comes from introspection and feedback from others. It takes time and intention but is a journey worth taking. You can only connect with others to the degree you connect with yourself.
2) Find a confidant. A confidant is a person with whom you can be real and honest. Confidants provide a space for those who are busy holding a space for everybody else. At this point in the pandemic, as fatigue is settling in for so many of us, we all need at least one confidant who can put us back together at the end of the day. Confidants are friends, spouses, coaches, lovers, or trusted colleagues that provide support, perspective, and accountability in the midst of our frustrations and challenges.
3) Practice kindness wherever you go. We are all doing the best we can to get through these challenging times. Let’s make it a point to grant each other a little grace. Even while wearing a mask we can smile with our eyes, offer encouragement with a hand gesture, and practice patience with our tone of voice. We’ve never been more alone, but we have also never been more together, sharing this experience with eight billion people on this planet. Community is developed one kind act at a time.
4) Find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In a world preoccupied with problems, community is about discovering our gifts and finding ways to bring them into focus. Community is ultimately about being needed, belonging to something beyond yourself, being inspired with a reason to face the day. It is the task of leaders, indeed the task of every citizen, to shine a light on the gifts of those in the periphery and bring them into the centre. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, we need to find a reason to put our feet on the floor each morning.
5) Get comfortable being alone. Loneliness and being alone are distinct. A desire for solitude is a defining characteristic of an authentic person. A quest for community can be one more form of manic activity if it is not rooted in a continual practice of silence and time for reflection. If you work on creating a balance between reaching out to others and enjoying what the Finns call hiljaisuus, or solitude in one’s being, you’ll strengthen your sense of self-worth and find more meaning in your life.
Our intention, in our upcoming Authentic Leadership Masterclass is to do our part to help build communities with like-minded authentic difference makers. While we show how authentic leadership presence can be applied to the leadership practices of fostering trust, building accountability, navigating change, and engaging talent, a major part of the program is to connect leaders with each other to sustain their growth, connections, and sense of community. We work with accountability partners between sessions to support each other’s growth, help each other stay on track, and sustain the insights you glean from the class experience.
We still have a few seats available for our January and February programs for those of you committed to renewed leadership development this year in a community of incredible like-minded difference makers. I hope you will join us.
To mark the passage into the promise and hope for a safe and prosperous new year, I want to borrow from history and visualize an ancient and meaningful ritual. For 2,500 years, the Japanese have been making and drinking sake, a type of rice wine brewed from fermented rice. Throughout all that time, sake has been used to mark special occasions with the people that matter most. In most celebrations involving sake, a glass is placed inside a masu cup and the host pours sake until it overflows like a waterfall. The overflowing is an act of kindness and generosity to show appreciation for the people around them. It also works as a little act of celebration, to lift the spirits and to enjoy the present state of life. Watching the sake overflow and not knowing whether it will tip over presents a beautiful moment of suspense, when time seems to slow down. By introducing a moment of suspense, the ceremony keeps your mind in the present moment, focused only on the beautiful waterfall of sake.
As a message of appreciation to all my readers over the years, I’m taking the liberty to borrow from this little Japanese ritual and overflow some sake with you. My hope is that the image of this overflow will remind us all to bring presence and generosity into this new year. May we all experience the overflow of kindness through our actions as we build community together and navigate into 2021.

DON’T WASTE THIS CRISIS Let’s Not Get Back to Normal

A crisis is really a terrible thing to waste.  – Paul Romer, Stanford economist

In college, while on the track team, I was inspired by the university’s volleyball coach. He had a mantra that guided all his practices. Every time the ball came on your side of the net he would say, “use it.”
“The ball is not your enemy,” he would continually remind his team. “Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. Use it as a way of developing your capacity.”
The ball of COVID-19 has been served to our side of the net and just as in volleyball where you have three touches before you return it, three leadership opportunities arise today. Our response to these opportunities enables us to develop new capacity so we won’t waste this time afforded to us.
1.    Community. Being thrown into chaos has elicited a response of community. We see this all over the planet as people open their hearts to each other in the midst of separateness. This is a time for leaders to build community by reaching out and connecting (even if it is virtual and imperfect). It is a tremendously important time to stay together while being apart. Forgiveness and patience are called for as we stumble forward through this uncertain and unfamiliar terrain. Many employees are juggling trying to homeschool their children while managing the demands of their work. We are dealing with economic uncertainty and layoffs. If there was ever a time for compassion and grace, it is now.
Don’t compromise accountability, but don’t push for productivity; it will emerge naturally from your best people. Extend trust. Most importantly, find any way you can to express appreciation. Of course, our health care professionals and grocery store clerks need our gratitude. But all those who are working tirelessly to provide essential services in the background – electricity, gas, water, and internet, waste removal, to name a few – also need our appreciation right now. Let’s be a little more kind to ourselves and everyone around us. Remember that just because we are expected to have social distance, doesn’t mean we have to be socially disconnected. It’s a time to deepen our community.
2.    Creativity. The second authentic response to crisis and accompanying chaos is creativity. While productivity will surely wain at this time, what is spreading as fast as the fear and the virus is human creativity. From John Krasinski’s Good News Stories to the myriad creative responses to isolation, to the writing of poetry and performance of music, celebrating and expressing the human experience helps keep us entertained and enlightened, and brings light into such potentially dark times.
In a recent coaching call, I was speaking with an owner of a feedlot who is in the middle of reforming her business model. Ordinarily she would be sitting with her team to get their input. And she can’t do it virtually. Only two of her entire team even have computers. So she gave each of them a piece of paper with an initial vision sketched out, along with a request to provide input. What she is getting back is remarkable creativity and innovation. Most importantly, the introverts on the team who ordinarily would be quiet in a group setting have risen to the occasion and are shining brightly for the first time.
In times of crisis, authentic leadership opportunities emerge. How can we help our teams and our families access their creative side amidst the challenge of uncertainty? It’s all there if we simply step aside and allow it to come forth.
3.    Contemplation. There is a third equally important response required in this time of chaos and uncertainty: contemplation. There is a huge difference between surviving this crisis and actually allowing it to change us. To change we must allow ourselves to really s-l-o-w d-o-w-n, get our bearings and allow ourselves to be fully impacted by what is happening.
We live in a time of profound disruption – when something is ending and dying and something else is wanting to be born. How we have been living and working has not been working. It is becoming evident that it is not sustainable. What is dying is a civilization built on a mind-set of excess, of bigger is better, of confusing standard of living with quality of life, and of organized irresponsibility.
What is being born is less clear. It is a future that requires us to connect with a deeper level of our humanity and discover who we really are and how we want to be as a society. We are already seeing changes emerge – both within ourselves and in the environment.
People in the northern Indian state of Punjab are reacting with awe at the sight of the Himalayan mountain range, which is now visible from more than 100 miles away due to the reduction in air pollution as a result of the Coronavirus lockdown. Indians in the city of Jalandhar haven’t seen the peaks of the Himalayas for decades.
There might be a few extra endangered sea turtles in the ocean thanks to the Coronavirus after lockdowns in Brazil left nearly 100 new hatchlings with a clear path across the beach and into the waves. Wildlife officials were the only humans on the beach in the town of Paulista last week when 97 endangered hawksbill sea turtles hatched in front of their eyes.
In Italy, the lockdown is giving the outdoors — which is typically flooded with tourists — a chance to recharge. In Venice, the city’s canals are clearer because there is less boat traffic, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom. And, with fewer water taxis and boats ferrying tourists and residents along the canals, the air has also become cleaner.
What are we allowing to see more clearly and cleanly in our own lives? All social change – from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. – began with a connection to a deeper essence of what our life and our work is about. Nelson Mandela’s capacity to influence came, in large part, from the contemplation amid years of being unjustly imprisoned and emerging with the power of forgiveness. Such movements share an understanding that creating sustained change in the world requires us to connect with an inner authentic self.
If we stop, reflect, and make room for contemplation in order to connect with a deeper side of our nature, the world will change. While it is important to connect with each other and connect with our creative side, it is also vitally important to connect with our inner, most authentic self, to reset the inner compass, and be guided by a life that may well have been buried in the busyness and tyranny of the urgent.
Like the ball that has come to our side of the net, this COVID crisis is not our enemy. Let’s use it. While distraction is, at times, part of the journey, let’s be careful not to distract ourselves to the point that we waste this huge opportunity before us. Authenticity asks us to embrace what is in front of us so it will change what lies ahead of us. This crisis truly is a terrible thing to waste.