Three Steps Ahead

I am a terrible chess player.

When I was in middle school, my younger brother learned to play chess. Since it’s a paired activity, I also learned so that we could theoretically play with each other.

I know he isn’t a savant, but my brother was exceptionally good at chess within days. Really.

You might think, “well, big deal, that’s one thing.” It isn’t. I also learned to play tennis and golf with him. Within a few lessons or rounds, he had exceeded the skill of the teacher or best player in the vicinity. My brother is what you call a “natural athlete.” But more importantly, he has a naturally strategic eye.

Standing at the opposite end of a tennis court, I could see it at work, though I couldn’t catch up to it. The moment he had committed to serving the ball, he saw three steps ahead to where he was going to place the ball so I couldn’t return it. The worst part is that I could see him doing it, but was powerless to stop it because I couldn’t see three, let alone, four steps ahead.

Being able to envision the steps of a strategy multiple steps ahead of those with whom you interact is an incredible gift. This gift gives you the ability to anticipate, prepare, and respond (rather than react) using your best tools or offering your best response rather than just any tool or response.

But not all leaders have it. And in my lifetime, I haven’t come across many ways to gain it.

So, what do folks like you and me do? Three things.

We study. In chess, there are books written ad nauseam about the strategies for chess that one can research and memorize. The better we know the options in our field or about a situation, the more we can learn about all of the possible strategies ahead.

We practice. I have this same strategy problem with the game of bridge–especially knowing what card to lead when playing in no trump. I practice by watching and analyzing my husband’s play. He knows precisely what card to play when in order to make his bid. Same principle. Talk through scenarios with those you trust until you feel confident.

We get advice. The smartest people in the room are smartest when they acknowledge what they don’t know, and ask others for their advice. It’s surprising sometimes to find that the people around you are sometimes wiser than you think. Talk to the parents, participants, other staff about the situation. Listen to the stories of how they responded in a similar situation, and learn from those.

Three steps to getting ahead: study, practice, and advice. Do all three and you may increase your chances of returning a serve or expecting the unexpected challenge in your ministry.

Give into These 4 Temptations

We Catholics spend the 40 days of Lent reflecting on those temptations that distract us from loving and serving God fully. The 1st Sunday of Lent’s Gospel of Jesus’ temptation in the desert sets the course clearly and directly.

With Lent behind us, let’s look at the 5 temptations we should give into as the Easter readings and Gospels and the early Christian community instruct us.

Forgive. From the call of the Baptist to the preaching of Paul, Jesus’ message of repentance and forgiveness rings loud and clear. When faced with the pain and grief that we cause others when we treat them without charity, we are called to summon the strength and unconditional love to forgive. Like the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, forgiveness should be our practice for Easter.

Praise. St. Paul is almost effusive in his praise of the goodness and kindness of the early Christian communities. He is specific and precise about what prompts him to recognize the communities. His model is worth duplicating. Praise must be concrete, not generic (as in “good move to the left on that penalty kick” rather than “nice job”.) Practicing it on adults is even more important in a world where adults, especially parents, are mostly on the giving end of it.

Listen. Have you ever noticed how much the apostles take from Thomas when he doubts that they have seen the Risen Lord? No interruptions. No cutting him off. They listen to his declarations of disbelief fully and completely. And then when Jesus tells them that they know where he is going, Thomas jumps in and says, “We don’t.” No laugh off. No chastisement. Jesus and the apostles model how to be a good listener. Jesus listens to the words, but also hears what is said behind, underneath them. And he responds to all of it. After the speaker is done. . . My mother was right. “Listen more, speak less.”

Welcome. Perhaps the most controversial of these temptations given our political climate, but it is one of the strongest threads in our Easter season Scriptures. Jesus, the stranger, is welcomed to supper in Emmaus. New believers are welcomed daily into the community of faith without limits or ceremony. Jesus prepares them to welcome the Holy Spirit during these final weeks. Welcomes are sometimes surprising, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes challenging, sometimes unexpected. But we are called to extend them — always.

Follow. We think about Jesus so often as the one we follow that we often forget that he too was a follower — of his Father. For leaders, it is tempting to always feel compelled to be setting the direction and standing at the front of the line. Resist that temptation, and follow its sister — to follow.

When to Keep Silent

As my husband and I were binge-watching season 2 of “The Good Witch,” a very wholesome and entertaining Hallmark Channel show, one of the main characters, Martha, the mayor, started to get laryngitis on the eve of a very important award-acceptance speech.

The doctor’s cure? Silence for 72 hours. If you know the show, Martha talks incessantly, so she faced the cure as a “challenge.” That made me laugh!

Why? Because silence isn’t a challenge, but a habit, and one we have to cultivate and practice like any other habit.

Since I participate in many phone and online meetings, silence is a regular component. It’s a space that I am often tempted to fill. But I’ve learned something from my colleagues who are stronger introverts than I am (yes, I am a natural introvert!) Silence is not empty space and time. It is filled with ideas, thoughts, and questions that have yet to be expressed.

So, there are 2 things I try to do more of when the time and space are filled with silence. The first is to do nothing and say nothing. Inevitably, someone breaks into the quiet and articulates some of the ideas, thoughts, and questions that have been gestating in the silence.

The second is to invite someone whose voice has not been heard or heard infrequently to share their thoughts. As a friend reminded me, those thoughts may not be fully formed or the best response, but they are often insightful and provide a different perspective than the others we have heard.

Keeping silent is hard. Especially for me. It is an incredibly humbling experience to say nothing. It is a simple, but sometimes harsh admission that I don’t know or have all of the answers. And that the problem or question needs a “we” not a “me” to address to it.

Next time you are in a meeting and tempted to speak, listen instead. Let the silence be fertile ground for everyone including you.

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.

“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?

Leadership Lessons from the 1st American Saint

Today is the feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. There is a deep connection between her and my chosen home of Baltimore because of the school and religious order she started here.

A few leadership lessons we can learn from St. Elizabeth.

  1. Be a lifelong learner. St. Elizabeth was an avid reader from the Bible to contemporary novels. Reading is a major life skill that feeds curiosity and the desire to learn.
  2. When in doubt, let the Gospels be your guide. This does indeed harken back to the “What Would Jesus Do” rage, but the underlying truth is the same.
  3. Despite the ups and downs of our work, ministry, and lives, God is constant and God’s calling to us is ever-present. Don’t lose hope and always listen for God’s voice.
  4. Family–of origin or by selection–is second only to God as a priority. Make sure your schedule and actions reflect that.