Fools fascinate me. Fools are invaluable to our society because they have a knack for exposing the numbskulls who, for some incomprehensible reason, end up in positions of influence in our most important institutions.
I’m not out to bash our leaders wholesale. I am, however, out to extol the virtue of divergent thinking in the service of getting at the truth we must confront to make good decisions.
By NBC Television (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In medieval times, fool was a licensed profession of sorts. In some cases fools were used merely for entertainment. But some monarchs and rulers used the fool, or jester, to bring up the absurd counterpoints that others were too afraid to mention for fear of costing them their head.
Our current day fools are the comedians who spoof the actions of political figures, celebrities, and those at the helms of business, educational, and religious institutions.
Fools change the direction of our thinking
Why? Because the fools invariably see the truthful nuances and absurdities we either don’t see, or don’t want to see. Fools expose the disastrous effects of numbskullery on our institutions and on our freedom and tolerance.
Margaret Heffernan’s comment from her TED Talk, Dare to disagree, struck me as especially poignant (click here to view).
“The truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it.”
Fools possess that skill, talent, and moral courage.
The stand up comic often finds himself or herself being a stand up leader who is INPowered2 LEAD, by speaking a truth through humor. First we laugh; then, we think. Sometimes that leads to action that changes the landscape.
“Steve Martin” by Towpilot – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Comedian, Steve Martin, defined a joke as, “complete knowledge in a nanosecond.” Like the time I heard a local fool in my community say of a hometown political kingmaker, “If you aren’t under his thumb, you’re under his skin.” Complete knowledge in a nanosecond.
Sometimes, a stand up leader must accept the brunt of a fool’s truth directed at them. Like the medieval ruler who was smart enough to recognize the truth veiled in humor, and act on it to change the landscape.
Everybody needs a fool
“It’s no accident that AHA and HAHA are spelled almost the same way.” – Mitch Ditkoff
Those who can make us laugh at ourselves are some of the best friends we can have. They help us relax the tension that comes from taking ourselves too seriously. When we loosen up, we release the creative juices to explore the possibilities we would otherwise squelch.
You have permission to be a fool for the truth.
The sooner you are,
the sooner you will be
Imagine the scene. You’ve tirelessly rehearsed your routine for the past month to polish it for the celebrity judges who now await your first steps onto the competition dance stage.
Your dance teacher whispers her encouragement, “You’re ready. Have fun.”
The music begins. Applause and cheers from a packed house of dancers and dance teachers, sprinkled with friends, parents, and grandparents pushes through the heavy downbeats: one-two-three-four.
This is your very first dance competition.
Sure, you’ve danced for audiences at recitals and festivals, but this is for judges who perform on television and in movies. They know talent when they see it. Will they see it in you?
Mom and dad are watching anxiously. All the grandparents who drove, or flew, for hours just to watch you do this now, hold their breath.
The routine goes perfectly. You hit every beat right in the center. You pivot for the next sequence; then . . . nothing.
The connection between what your body has learned through weeks of repetition, and the music it has learned it to, do not jive. You hesitate a split second, and now nothing will be in sync. They will see the disconnection. They already have. Everyone thinks you have forgotten–choked. What happened?
Eight beats pass. Now sixteen. You look for a place to pick up. Now twenty-four. 5-6-7-8, GO!
You piece together steps that you hope will get you to the end, and you push through. Smiling.
Meanwhile, in the audience, everyone who is seeing your routine for the first time feels your pain. The fear and humiliation of a six-year-old who blew her competitive debut. They explain it away, “Well, she is, after all, the youngest in the competition. It will be a good learning experience.”
But they don’t know what you know: that the music the technician cued and played was the wrong arrangement, not the arrangement to which the dance was choreographed. But that doesn’t matter. You were the one on stage, under the lights.
Two more dancers perform.
Your teacher tells you the judges will let you go again since the technician played the wrong music. The emcee announces to the audience that you will repeat your performance, but she does not explain why.
The music begins. The audience cheers your courage. After all, they think you blew it, and you are getting a charity do over. They know that most of them would have run off the stage in tears. Some would have quit and never gone onto the competitive stage again.
But not you. You believe in your talent, in your preparation, in yourself.
And you nail it.
What looks like bravery to some is your self-confidence shining through the adversity.
Prepare, perform, persevere.
Break a leg!
Not one great leader set out to be known as a great leader. But they did set out to make a difference when they saw that a change was needed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo courtesy of the National Archives
Martin Luther King, Jr. is the INPowering icon of the civil rights movement, although many others were involved in leading the cause. The celebration of his birthday brings to our national consciousness the scope and impact of that movement, which continues today.
All change of any scale, whether it’s a national movement, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or a culture shift in a single company, will go through the same six-phase progression.
INPowering leaders know they must guide followers through each of the six phases if the cause is to be effective and last. This progression is true for any lasting change: in a neighborhood, a community, a business, a state, a nation, or around the world.
Phase 1: Inception
An idea takes seed. One or more individuals see a need for change and shape the first images of what can be . . . if only. A core of true believers forms and begins to share their dream with each other; then, with others. The idea is born.
Phase 2: Vision
A storyteller emerges from the core group who is able to express the goals of the cause in a vision of what can be. They tell the story such that those who hear it can envision themselves, and their place, in the story. The storyteller becomes the embodiment of the vision and often emerges as the iconic individual who represents the vision. This chief storyteller might also be the leader of the cause.
Phase 3: Inspiration
Those who hear the story are inspired by it and what the cause represents. They find purpose and meaning in the mission to make the dream a reality. They feel changed by the power of the story. They tell others about the cause and the storyteller.
Phase 4: Enrollment
The ranks swell as converts join the cause. They communicate with other believers and seek opportunities to meet and share their vision and commitment to the cause. They recruit others.
Phase 5: Engagement
Recruits take action in the name of the cause to achieve its objectives. Passion must have an outlet. There must be something to do–a mission, a quest–or else interest wanes and believers lose interest. Followers look to the leader for motivation and reassurance. Leaders might take on a larger-than-life persona among the rank and file as the mission overcomes obstacles or accomplishes impressive objectives.
Phase 6: Perpetuation
Leaders find and develop other leaders to perpetuate the cause or to expand its reach. INPowering leaders understand that their number one job is to develop new leaders. Unless new leaders emerge, the cause will die with its founder. New leadership might also reshape the cause to meet changing objectives as the circumstances change.
All great movements have followed this progression. See if you can pick them out in the stories of America’s founders, or in the epic stories that inspire us, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, or Abraham Lincoln.
Or see if you can pick them out in the stories of social entrepreneurs, “Uncommon Heroes,” changing the world from stories shared by the Skoll Foundation, whose mission it is, “to drive large scale change by investing in, connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs and the innovators who help them solve the world’s most pressing problems.” (www.skollfoundation.org).
Tell your story of change with passion.
Others will listen and respond.
Because you are
Compromise should be a resolution strategy of last resort, after everything else fails. But our so-called congressional leaders speak as if it were the gold standard of political skill.
INPowered leaders have a higher standard: collaboration.
Some don’t realize there is fundamental difference between the two. I recently heard one politician say that more collaboration was needed so a compromise could be reached. Right then I knew from the semantic garble that the outcome was in trouble.
Let me explain.
Earlier in my career I was on the administrative team at a large school district. Our teachers and support staff were affiliated with a union. Each year we negotiated the contract for the next school year. Since I was not in one of the represented groups, I served on the negotiating team for our board of education.
The first day of the negotiations the teachers’ team came in and laid their demands on the table that included a 30 percent across-the-board raise in salary. We asked why they thought they deserved such an increase. They replied indignantly, “Because we’re professionals.” Then they left the table in a huff.
The next session we asked them what they meant by, “professional.” They became even more indignant that we would even ask, and commented that they were the lowest paid teachers in the region and deserved to be treated more fairly. Then they left the table in a huff again.
If these negotiations followed the compromise trajectory, we would have offered a 5 percent raise; they would counter with 25 percent. Then we would have offered 7 percent; they would counter with 23 percent, and so on and so on, until we either compromised on a number or reached impasse and risked a strike.
Compromise is rooted in competition and debate in which the parties take a firm stand and duke it out until one or both relent and settle. Nothing really gets resolved. They just quit at some point, and live to fight another day. No one ever feels good about the result, or even hopeful that any effective solution will ever be reached. (Sound like our Congress?)
In the case of our contract negotiation with the teachers, we realized what the teachers were really saying was they did not feel respected as professionals and they saw the low salary as a reflection of the board’s attitude.
We realized we wanted the same thing as the teachers, professionalism and excellence in the classrooms. We studied what other professional organizations did to strive for excellence among their members. From that study, we fashioned an approach and presented our idea to the teachers to offer an excellence incentive for professional development outside their contracted work schedule, coupled with a modest across-the-board salary increase.
This approach got us into a collaborative discussion about their experiences, hopes, and dreams with the district. We opened the range of discussion and discovered several other issues relevant to the teachers that we could resolve without the need to negotiate them. We came up with creative approaches that would have never been possible had we resorted to the traditional offer-counter offer scenario of compromise.
The result was a successful settlement and a process that began to heal several years of wounds that had been inflicted during the negotiation process itself. In fact, the collaborative attitude carried forward outside the negotiation environment.
Collaboration begins with the attitude that win-win outcomes are possible if the parties take time to listen and understand from the other party’s perspective.
Collaboration involves revisiting the questions surrounding the core issues. It might be that we are debating the wrong question for the wrong reason.
Collaboration requires putting aside petty egos, power plays, and posturing to score political points with the core constituency.
Collaboration is about doing the real, hard, and gratifying work of making things better for everyone.
The real standard of leadership is one’s skill in collaborating. Collaborative leaders help us get places we cannot go by ourselves.
When I see someone reaching beyond the barriers of ideology and demagoguery to solve important problems, even risking personal popularity, I know I’m seeing someone who is
Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems at first glance. There is always a rest of the story. The context is larger than the event itself.
“The first to put forth his case seems right, until someone else steps forward and cross-examines him.”
Proverbs 18:17 (NIV)
One of the leadership principles I teach is that everything happens in a larger context. No single event can be separated from the circumstances that preceded it or the environment in which it happened. Leaders must be able to rise above the fray and take a 360-degree look at the situation before deciding what to do next.
Such is the difference between reacting and responding.
Reacting is a passionate, thoughtless reflex driven by the unconscious mind in extreme states. Most often, reacting is fear induced, but it can well up from a sense of euphoria or joy.
Responding is a function of the conscious mental processing driven by our brain’s analytical and rational executive center. Responding is more dispassionate, requiring some emotional distance from the event.
It’s a tough balance. Leadership lives at the intersection of the two.
Leaders have to be the cross-examiner to get to the true facts in context as they seek first to understand before taking action. They also must be sensitive to the emotional temperature of those involved, including their own.
Seeking context requires extensive questioning beyond the obvious, because the solutions often are found on the fringes and beneath the surface of the event itself.
Take the recent St. Louis County grand jury investigation of police officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Ferguson, MO, teenager Michael Brown. The grand jury limited its investigation to the event itself and information relating directly to it. However, the national question is broader and goes to the context of policing, training, perceptions of white men about black men, and vice versa, laws allowing deadly force by police officers, distribution of population by race, parenting, on going racial mistrust and misunderstanding, and on and on.
In the larger context, both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are victims of a larger context, a systemic issue that is at the heart of the event.
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones discuss contextual leadership in their book, Why Should Anyone Be Led by YOU? They state:
“(L)eaders are not passive recipients of the context . . . they work with their followers to socially construct an alternative reality. This capacity is what differentiates those who merely react to situations from those who have the capacity to transform them,” (2006, 89).
Who will be those transformative leaders?
Who will step above the fray instead of wallowing in it?
Who will contribute to the healing instead of further inflaming the wounds?
Who will seek to understand and help us to understand more completely?
Who will help us construct the alternative reality?
Who will step up and show us they are
When I think about the people who are and have been influential to me, several factors stand out that all of them have in common.
1. I feel a personal connection to them in some way. They are not necessarily within my circle of close friends, but I have some affinity for them and what they stand for. I can approach them, and they seem to care about my personal wellbeing.
2. I trust their judgment. I have seen them in action and observed that they make reasoned and well-informed decisions, especially in a crisis.
3. They are consistently accountable. They are people I can always count on to keep promises and to be open and honest. Furthermore, they are fair, optimistic, and have a progressive mindset to make things better for all concerned.
As I seek to grow my own influence, I keep these examples in mind. They are good frame of reference for anyone seeking to grow his or her influence.
Power can be an illusion; influence is real. I will go so far as to say that power is what one resorts to when they have no influence.
The television series Madam Secretary contrasts power and influence in every episode. International crises arise in the global power arena. Power oriented solutions either stall or promise even more discord. Then, somehow, the formal and informal channels of diplomatic influence find a way for parties to reach agreement and move on.
Power is an energy that makes something happen. Power itself is value neutral–neither good nor bad. When someone is powerful, they can make a lot happen quickly.
The INPowered are able to summon energy from within themselves to take action that can make life better for themselves and others. As I seek to help develop INPowering leaders, I intend for those leaders to help others become more INPowered as well. But more than powerful, I want them to be influential.
Power can be used selfishly as well as for the greater good. Some people love being powerful because they can make things happen to their liking, irrespective of what others want, or even what is in the best interest of the greater good.
I identified five types of power in an earlier post How Powerful are You? No doubt, power comes from the position one holds. People with position power can use this power legitimately–for its intended purpose–or illegitimately–in ways that coerce and manipulate others to comply or acquiesce.
Personal power, however, is a mega-power. I call this power influence.
The influential do not need to wield power simply because they have the authority to do so. Power demands compliance, and compliance is not necessarily commitment. That’s why power can be an illusion.
Influence captures the hearts and minds of followers who trust and believe in those who influence them. For that to happen, to earn the trust of others so that you become a person of influence, you have to build relationships based on respect, empathy, and compassion.
That’s personal power: when all you have to do is suggest a course of action and others fall in step to use their personal power and resources to support the action.
The foundation of all enduring leadership is this personal power.
Become a person of influence,
and you will be
Think of your network as a coalition of diverse interests. You want to be welcome in a variety of groups, each of which has a special interest. The U.S. Secretary of State often finds the best ally to be someone with whom they have formed a personal relationship to underpin the formal relationship.
The saying goes, “Want a friend? Be a friend.” You are your own best diplomat and statesman to a vast array of social and professional networks.
The key? Be available, be empathetic, be willing to help others achieve their goals and support their interests.
One of Zig Ziglar’s most famous lines is, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” That’s a solid philosophy on which to build your network.
Make a positive difference for someone today, and watch your network grow.