The 4 Traps of “Crying Wolf” and How to Escape Them

We know the moral to the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf–if you tell lies to get attention, when you are telling the truth, no one may listen.

As a leader, that is a bridge over a chasm–a deep, dark, and unyielding chasm–that, when shattered, cannot be either easily rebuilt or crossed. So, how do we avoid even appearing to “cry wolf”?

Here are 4 of the traps of crying wolf and some advice on how to escape them.

Trap #1: Your Statement Comes Out of Nowhere

I know we are used to great journalists breaking stories that seem to come out of nowhere, but we’re not pretending to be great journalists. We’re leaders, and as leaders, we are in the relationship-building and mission-fulfilling businesses where openness and collaboration are essential ingredients.

If you feel a statement rising in you and it is going to surprise others, ask yourself these two questions. Why now? Why will it surprise them?  Odds are likely that you have overlooked some important steps in these relationships or mission work. Instead identify what work you have to do before saying anything.

Trap #2: The “Is-Ness” of the Statement

Beware of the simple, yet powerful verb “to be” and its related friends like “to do.” They tell us very little about anything. They rely heavily on the subject and object of the sentence which are often limited in descriptiveness.

What do I mean by “is-ness” of the statement? “It was this big” or “It doesn’t work.” Can you picture any part of these statements? I can’t. Which usually means that neither can anyone else, and that can lead exactly where you do not want to go–to conflict–all because no one agrees on what actually was said.

If you gravitate toward using “is” and “do” in your statements, think twice. Choose specific verbs that describe a particular action. Use nouns or subjects with as much detail as you can.

Which leads us to . . .

Trap #3: Vague Words

Whereas trap #2 is sort of about a lack of works, trap #3 is about vague, somewhat meaningless words.

Rehearse what you want to say in your head, and listen carefully. Do you use vague adjectives like “very,” “tremendous,” “enormous,” and “terrible”? The descriptors indicate a lack of detail in the action or the object of the statement. It is the difference between saying, “The man was very tall” and “The middle-aged man was about 6 feet tall.” Challenge yourself to be accurate and precise.

And a James-Bondian corollary: Never say “never” again (and the same holds true for “always.”)

Trap #4: A Lack of Physical Evidence

Okay, let’s state the obvious. If you can point to actual evidence of any kind, it is less possible that you will be accused of crying wolf.

Force yourself to have at minimum of 3 concrete objects or experiences that you can point to to substantiate your point. And the “3” is important. If you only have 1, then you might want to rethink saying anything at all. It could just be a one-off. Three examples demonstrate a pattern and give substance to your claim.

When others look to us as leaders, many accept and trust that what we say and do is right, just, and true. Ensure that their faith in us is well-placed by stewarding our language well, completely, and richly, and avoiding the temptation of all of these traps.

Connection or Transaction?

I am not a cat person.

Yet I couldn’t help clicking on a cat video yesterday–two cats, each with a hospitality bell next to them, and a plate. Each time they rang the bell, they got a piece of kibble. Completely Pavlovian to the point where the one cat figured out that it didn’t matter which bell he rang. As long as he rang a bell, he got a treat.

This little video reminded me that we live in a transactional society–you give me 3 oranges and I give you 6 bananas, you post a funny picture on Facebook and I “Like” it, I get rid of all of the Candy Crush icons and the bear rises above the line so I win.

This isn’t new, but transactions have grown in number as technology and the Internet are become more integrated into our daily and work lives. Email–of which I am an enormous fan–gets quicker answers than phone calls or letters. A two-minute Facetime session in the morning means no phone call. Make a quick 360 pirouette in a crowd, and we see smartphones everywhere, and people deeply enmeshed in these transactions.

I have friends and colleagues who will wax poetic on both sides of the argument–“smartphones have created greater connectedness” to “smartphones and technology have depersonalized relationships and isolated us.” These two perspectives represent specific answers to the key questions that arise when we make one of these transactions: What is the value of what we have? What do we seek to get in return for that value? And what must we give up in the exchange?

As Jesus has shown us repeatedly through the Gospels this Lent, we are called to engage in personal relationships with others, not mere transactions. That means that empathy is required of us–being able to listen deeply, hear and understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and respond.

Early in his tenure at our parish, our youth minister met with a young mother who wanted to know if her son who was developmentally impaired could receive his First Communion with the second-graders that year. This was not the first parish she had come to. At the other parishes, she was turned away for various reasons, but they boiled down to either the priest didn’t think he was capable of understanding the Sacrament or it would be an inconvenience.

She was shown very little empathy and compassion. The transaction–Sacrament to a child–required too much than they were willing to exchange.

In the end, the decision for our youth minister to say “yes” was actually easy. He recognized as the mother already had that her son was as much in the image of God as anyone else and quite capable of understanding what he was about to do. What she and her son received in return was more than they expected–they became part of a larger community that fostered and sustained them, and continues to do so. On the youth minister’s part, he gave up some extra time and work to fashion a program that met the young man where he was.

How do we move from transaction to connection? The next time you are faced with a need to connect with people, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is valuable about the connection with the other person? Is the person a friend, colleague, or stranger? Are you trying to forge a stronger partnership or tapping them for information?
  • What do we seek to get in return for that value? Is this a long- or short- or no-term relationship?
  • What must we give up in the exchange? How much time will this take? Can you commit to the exchange? How are you going to overcome what makes you uncomfortable in this exchange?

 

The Law of L . . . Loyalty?

One of the most challenging moments in a Gospel parable for me is when the oldest son says to his father:

‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ — Luke 15:29-30

Who among us has not felt this way at some moment–in our families, among our friends, in our job? Loyalty is something we feel strongly. It is something we give to others as trust grows. As super-heroes and TV and movie protagonists put it, “I’ve got your back.”

We know the power of loyalty in our daily lives. When tragedy strikes the family, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and far-flung relatives come together to “circle the wagons”–to protect, to comfort, to raise up, to pray.

In business and politics, we see this same “herding of cattle” mentality–bringing everyone and everything tightly together to resist any outside attacks or challenges.

Loyalty is a peculiar thing, though. It is by definition devotion or faithfulness to a thing, person, or cause. But what is at the root of loyalty–a common experience, a shared emotion, something more profound?

I’m convinced that one of the most subtle lessons Jesus tried to teach us was about loyalty. It is much easier to stop the parable of the prodigal son after the father rejoices at the return of the younger son, and say, “A-ha. The lesson to be learned is about forgiveness and reconciliation.”

And that is all true. But by the wisdom of those who determined the readings in the Lectionary, it doesn’t end there. And so, we (or, at least, I am) left with this quizzical “hmmm” moment at the end of the Gospel. Because it doesn’t quite fit the easy and obvious lesson of forgiveness and reconciliation. Is there a more profound lesson here? Yes.

The eldest son got the “circling the wagons” kind of loyalty easily. Regardless of what befell the family, he knew his role and what to do in any situation. But there is another “L” in loyalty that has escaped him — Love.

When we are loyal without love or true faithfulness, what we expect of each other can become transactional. “I do this for you. You do this for me.” Instead the father tries to show him how deep and rich the love he has for his older son is, and in that, what true loyalty is. He does not rebuke him for his anger. He accepts it and offers back a gift, everything he has and is.

It is the love of the father for the son–this father, this son; fathers everywhere for their sons; the Father and the Son. This is loyalty.

What Control Is and Isn’t

As many of you know, about 4 weeks ago, we were gearing up for the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress. (We had a record-setting crowd, and many exciting, unexpected moments including the Archbishop Curley High School drum line and Loyola jazz band.)

If there is one thing that I have learned about managing a project or event it is this: Figure out what you can and cannot control early. Otherwise, you will either try to control everything–and alienate everyone around you–or you will control nothing–and stress out everyone around you.

And then there is this humbling revelation. You can’t really control anything. Not really. You and I don’t hold all of the strings to make anything happen the way we want it to. The most you can hope to do is influence a decision, person, or situation in such a way that the outcome you intend takes place.

A few examples.

At the 1999 National Catholic Youth Conference in the RCA Dome in St. Louis, I was the staff person who had overall responsibility for it, and as we were waiting for participants to start coming into the dome to get ready for a keynote, the wave of people was only a trickle. So, I hurriedly got myself to the main doors, and discovered that the dome security staff was forcing everything to walk up to a higher level, then down again to the floor of the dome, rather than just walk straight through to the floor. After some ineffective back and forth, I just “pulled rank” and said, “I pay the bills. Now open those doors.”

Funny thing is, they could have completely ignored me. I looked about 12 at the time, but they didn’t. Not one of my proudest moments, but one in which I felt I needed to take control.

For the current work that I do, I have a very skilled and gifted team that I work with. And when it comes down to it, I generally “sit in the circle of equals” and contribute like everyone else. It’s a more collaborative experience, and we each respect the knowledge and decision-making authority that we have.

One of the hardest things for me to watch these days is when someone tries desperately to grasp for control of the situation around them and hang on by a thread. By doing so, we often hurt the people around us (intentionally or unintentially), gather to ourselves decisions that aren’t ours to make or for which we do not have the experience and/or knowledge, and put distance between those who are willing to support us in our efforts.

The Gospel for the 1st Sunday in Lent reminds us that God is in control of our lives ultimately. The decisions we make and the control we have is only there because of the gifts that God has given us. When we horde or overstep, we inch farther away from God. As this Lent unfolds, check whatever hunger begs you to grab control. And create or join a circle of equals in your ministry or workplace.

“God Once Saw How Good It Was!”

Keynote presentation by Archbishop Wilton Gregory on the theme of the blessings of creation at the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress.

“God saw how good it was” that special phrase appears five times in those opening passages of the Book of Genesis as the sacred text describes how the Lord God was obviously admiring His works of creation.  It is now our spiritual and moral obligation to “see how good it is” the created world that God has now entrusted to our care.  It’s not merely good because it is profitable or usable or exploitable.  First and foremost, it is good because it reflects God’s goodness itself.  In the very act of creation, God was bestowing upon all of nature an undeniable reflection of His own Divine Goodness.  The apex of that reflection is to be found in the women and men entrusted with God’s handiwork. Human beings are God’s creation that most perfectly reflects His Own Divinity.  If we are to begin to safeguard God’s creation, we must launch an increased reverence for every human life.  We must be so grateful for those whose concerns for the planet draw our attention to its fragility.  Yet we must first safeguard human life as the very starting point of environmental security. The life of human beings enjoys a priority of importance in the environmental concerns because those who have been entrusted with the care of creation must themselves be safeguarded in order to accomplish our Divine assignment of caring for His creation.

For the complete text

Why Should Someone Trust You?

How do we determine that someone should be trusted? Is there a definitive test that we subject others to that gets us to a reliable and defensible answer? Are there black-and-white criteria with boxes that we check off as we reach a pre-determined grade or score?

Would that trust were so easy.

We are seeing this question played out practically every day in the political environment. We watch and read bellicose statements that sound more authoritarian and bullying than collaborative and bridge-building.

On the other hand, Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, today included this statement in his remarks to the staff at State: “Hi. I’m the new guy.” With a bit of candor and humility, he may have gained a few points toward the trust that he will need to lead the country in its foreign policy.

We’ve seen the former in our Church, too. We are not exempt. And gratefully, we have heard the latter as well. For folks like me, we were fortunate enough to hear Cardinal Joseph Bernadin refer to himself as “our brother.”

But words are words. And we know it. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” we think, even if we don’t say it.

It’s our actions that speak loudly, and tend to be the building blocks of trust.

Within a few months of starting a new job, I realized that there was a great deal of mistrust between my committee and my position. My predecessor had not followed through on their decisions, and they were mad. With good reason. “Trust me” because I was new wasn’t going to cut it. So I chose actions–regular, detailed communication, opening the budget, as much transparency as possible. Slowly, we built trust between us.

Officials were suspicious of Jesus. His words were probably familiar since there had been others who claimed to be the prophet, the savior, the messiah during his time. It was his actions that distinguished him, and earned the trust of his followers–sitting next to a Samaritan woman at the well, touching the unclean, spending hours and days with the poor and dispossessed.

Let’s leave our words aside, and look at what actions we can take to build the bonds of trust that we need as a Catholic community.

Count to 10

As a child, I was restless and anxious, always looking ahead, anticipating what was to come, but wanting it now. And the repeated chorus that I heard from adults including my parents was, “Be patient.”

Patience became the centerpiece of my prayers throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I was told frequently to “count to 10” before saying something or acting. And as the joke goes, I counted “10.”

Leaders who practice patience have an edge over those of us who want to naturally rush ahead without pausing. The priest who hired me away from Chicago to Washington, DC, taught me a lesson about patience that we should remember as we look about us in our own personal as well as public “chaos.”

During my first week on the job, we were at the conference that I was to eventually manage, and he was introducing me to the leaders of the organization with whom I would be working. I met board members and icons in the field, and then he “tried” to introduce me to a long-standing leader from Iowa.

Before he could finish the sentence, “I’d like to introduce you to . . .,” I said, “You can’t.” And we both paused.

He had three options at this point. One was to plow ahead anyway. (How often have you done that? I have, mostly because I’m more concerned with what I need to get done, and not listening to the other person or paying attention to the situation.)

Two was to ask me questions. Which he didn’t do.

Three was to wait. Which he did.

I think he recognized–because he was paying attention–that there was something more than a simple introduction taking place. And he had the patience to let it play out. Which it did.

(The reason he couldn’t introduce this person to me is that we had known each other since I was a child. We just hadn’t seen each other in a very long time.)

As I look around me, the question I keep asking myself is this: How different would things be if our leaders had more patience, waited a little longer, and let things play out? How well do you cultivate the practices of listening and paying attention to the situation you are in before reacting?

Do You Choose Angels or Devils?

When selecting or inviting people to be part of your team, do you choose angels or devils?

Angels are the people who walk alongside you, keep you from harm, and guide you along the path. They see the path clearly before you, and are eager to accompany you there. They want to see you succeed.

There can be a “devilish” side to them, though. In keeping you from harm, sometimes they prevent you from seeing the people, problems, and issues that can threaten your program or challenge you to grow. Or the path they are treading may not be the path you want to or should be traveling.

And devils? Well, sometimes we are unfortunate enough that they volunteer themselves to work with you. Maybe they have a concern that no one has listened to or acknowledged, and they feel unheard. Maybe they don’t like change, and this is their way of preserving the status quo. Or maybe they just think a different way.

There can be an angel hiding inside that devilish skin. We’ve all known people like this. We call them “devil’s advocates” or the rivals in the infamous Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals.” Their contrariness can be a blessing in disguise when we give it voice and attention. Walking in their shoes, taking their perspective, can sometimes lead us along paths that we would not have considered, or question the path that we have traveled along, maybe, too long (?)

As we journey through this presidential transition, consider who is part of your team–both formally and informally. Who are the angels and who are the devils? Because every team needs a few of each in order to prevent the team from just saying “yes” to every decision, rarely challenging the choices you make, and ensuring that all of the voices and perspectives are heard.

How Loud Is Our Silence?

Most of us are this person, know someone like this, or have been in a situation with someone like this.

An intensive, challenging, vocal, stirring discussion–within the family, at work, in Church, in politics–goes on for a while until there is a lull in the conversation, and one of the people who has said little if anything starts to speak. Quietly, gently, slowly, this person makes an observation or a statement that irreversibly turns the discussion in a different direction or dispels the building or potentially destructive emotions.

Remember the old commercial, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen”? That’s the kind of person we are talking about.

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to listen. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is one who knows when to keep silent and not speak.

Look around, and I’m sure you will see a number of examples of good and bad, great and worst leaders using this specific criteria. And with one hand you can probably easily count the ones who understand the volume of silence.

One. In 1980 while I was studying in Rome, I was sort of enveloped by the hospitality of the Jesuits. Padre Damiani at the Gesu listened quietly and with a gracious smile to me and my friends as we pattered on in badly-conjugated Italian, and when we stopped, he knew what we needed most–to be welcomed. He showed us the private rooms in the Jesuit residence there with their amazing paintings and told us the history of those who had lived there (at least, I think that’s what he said–our Italian was possibly worse than his English!)

Two. Around the same time, I was spending a lot of time with an Italian youth group at a Jesuit parish. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then superior general of the Jesuits, was preaching at Mass one Sunday, and meeting with a group of adults there. We met and talked briefly for a minute or two. What I remember most is the quiet stillness that surrounded him, this fairly tiny, but wise man.

Three. Within the first couple hours of arriving in California for work and/or to visit my parents, I get to hear the stories. The stories of the dying, the stories of the families, the stories of the caregivers–all from my Mom who is a hospice chaplain. She knows how to listen without expectation, and with compassion and kindness. And she knows when silence is the best consolation in times of tragedy and grief, when no words are even close to adequate.

That’s three fingers I can count so far.

What about you? How many people can you count–including yourself–who know how to listen and let silence lead the way?

It’s Moving Day!

Two of my TV favorites reminded me that New Year’s resolutions are not all about dieting, exercising, doing something more or less, or trying something new.

One of the hardest resolutions to make and keep is the decision to move on.

My husband and I were catching up on season 5 of “Once Upon a Time.” It largely takes place in the underworld where souls are there because they haven’t moved on. They have unfinished business. We came to one of those episodes that is a plot turning point, and it ended with two people both promising to move on regardless of how difficult that might be, especially considering one of them was dead. (Living people among dead people in the underworld. Yeah. Watch the show and it actually make sense.)

And then my treadmill companion, “West Wing.” If you’re a fan, you might remember the end of season 1 and start of season 2 where the president is shot at, but it is actually one of his aides who is badly hurt. The writers give us a two-part opportunity to learn how each of President Bartlett’s staff became a part of the campaign and, subsequently, the White House staff. As these new staffers are trying to contribute to the strategy conversation with then-Governor Bartlett, he says, “What’s next?” but they continue with the same topic. He turns to them and tells them that when he says, “what’s next?” he means “what’s next?”

No more standing still or looking back over your shoulder. No more replaying the conversation and figuring out a better or different way of handling it. No more going back over the same points, looking for a different answer.

Today is moving day.

Take a look at three of the relationships that are part of your ministry — your relationship with your boss (e.g., pastor, principal, director, superintendent), your peers, and your volunteers.

What is one conversation or behavior in each relationship that is stuck or has you stuck? You know what I mean. Things like the conversation you have every month that you can repeat word for word.

What one response or behavior have you never tried? I mean NEVER. I used to get picked on when I was a child, and I did what typical children do–I whined, I cried, I gave back as good as I got. Then my mother finally convinced me to “kill ’em with kindness.” As much as I hated doing it because it felt so false, things changed. I never would have tried that on my own.

Then ask yourself, what’s next? What do you want to be next if you could ever imagine getting over this obstacle? I remember growing in confidence around very opinionated people when I finally decided one day to just respond, “Okay,” when someone challenged me on a decision. Then I quickly followed it with a “so what’s next?” Changed the tenor of the conversation and ultimately the relationship.

A new year is all about newness. Embrace it and move on.