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?

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?

What Is Your Duty?

legalWhat is our “duty”?

We’ve been debating this question (whether we acknowledge it or not) in other arenas for quite some time. You needn’t look any farther than the TV in your living room on any given Sunday regardless of the season and see a baseball, basketball, hockey, or football player who has exhibited the kind of behavior that would have been considered disgraceful by icons like Vince Lombardi (look him up!)

Yelling “what would Vince Lombardi say” is one of my husband’s favorite activities. Very square, tie-tied-tightly, short-haired Vince Lombardi enforced a code of behavior that recognized the public character of the game and its players. And as a coach in Green Bay, the American “Mecca” of football (sorry, Dallas), Lombardi understood that his duty was clearly to the profession and the public, to be the model for good behavior and morals, to go beyond the rule book.

And today we face the question of where is our duty, to the rules and laws or to what is ethical and right.

Is our duty to ourselves as individuals? Or is it to the community at large with whom we interact on a daily basis? Are the rules for those interactions strict and limited, or should we expect ourselves to go beyond them and adhere to a higher standard?

While an action may be legal, the question is, is it ethical? And with that question, we must answer, what is our duty, to do what is in the best interest of our selves or the best interest of others?

Use Specific Examples (Rule #5)

A photo by Alex wong. unsplash.com/photos/l5Tzv1alcpsThe conversation usually goes something like this.

“You didn’t consult me about (pick a subject).”

“I thought you didn’t care.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“That’s what you said.”

“When did I say that?”

And it goes on and on from there.

Want to put an end to this familiar script? Try a specific example.

“I thought I was consulting you when I asked if it was alright to buy steak instead of ground beef. Do you remember that?” Or, “Did you experience that as ‘consulting’ you?”

We can’t correct what we can’t identify. By using examples, we reduce the emotional energy in the conversation. When we use examples, we can test to see if we share common ground, and if not, find it by further refining the examples.

Most importantly, we give ourselves the perspective to step back and look at the situation together rather than as opponents.

So, next time you are tempted to use a generalization, don’t. Be specific.

Lose What You Got to Lose

bridgeAs a middle-aged adult, I learned how to play bridge.

In a game that is very competitive, it is hard to believe that the “first rule” of bridge (at least, the first and best rule that I have learned) is lose what you have to lose first.

Last weekend, my partner and I bid a hand, and when she laid down her cards, we had a perfect fit . . . except that we did not hold 3 of the Aces and 1 King. Four tricks that we had to lose in order to take the other nine. It was clear what I had to do, force the opponents into playing all of those four cards before I could capture what we were capable of winning.

Not all bridge hands are like that . . .  that clear, that easy, that straightforward. At least, not for me. But I’m barely more than a novice.

But what a paradox–lose in order to win. It took the first 3 years of playing before I was able to accept that sometimes I had to lose in order to eventually win the game. Three years of being obstinate, frightened, and stupid.

I can identify with the prodigal son in all of this. Foolishly taking everything that is mine (i.e., all of the winning tricks) at the cost of eventually losing the most important thing (e.g., self-love, father’s love, the game.)

The paradox. Lose in order to win. Be exalted, and you will be humbled. First shall be last. Sinner welcomed home.

None of us is perfect, especially in the ways that we negotiate our leadership. There are always points, discussions, issues, and actions that we are going to face that we’re just going to lose.

These losses don’t necessarily mean we are going to lose the “game” or the goal toward which our ministry and leadership is directed. But we need to know when to lose, when to agree to disagree, when to concede, and when to ask for forgiveness. It’s only then that we can truly move forward.

 

 

 

 

Pizza and Flowers–Or What Do You Really Mean (Rule #3)

pizzaMy brother-in-law has a very dry sense of humor which sometimes gets mistaken for plain grumpiness.

He spent some time in the hospital recently. When he woke up and regained some semblance of lucidity, he asked for pizza. Everyone said, “No.” Then he asked us to order five pepperoni pizzas. Again, the answer was no. We knew he was hungry, but pizza wasn’t on the physician-prescribed diet yet. And there was no way a pizza delivery person was getting onto that floor!

Seemingly cowed by the force of our explanations, he quieted down for a while. Then he asked us to order five flower boxes from the local florist. Initially, we thought maybe he had slipped into that sleepy, confused state he had been slowly coming out of. But he insisted, grumpily. He wanted five flower boxes.

It look a while, but then it hit us.

Buy 5 pizzas. Put them in 5 flower boxes. It’s a hospital!! Who is going to turn away a delivery!

Rule #3. Explain your reasoning and what your intent is.

Just because you say you want something and you want it a certain way doesn’t mean anyone other than you understands what you are talking about. My brother-in-law’s intent? Sneak pizza into the hospital. His reasons? He was hungry, and the solution called for a cover story–flowers.

I have to admit that this one is sort of personal. In grad school, there were many times when I raised my hand, got called on, and made a comment only to be met with absolute silence — then the conversation picked up someplace else.

Why? I did a poor job of explaining the point that I was trying to communicate. My reasoning might have been hard to follow. And the intention behind what I was trying to say was unclear.

Think of the “let’s do it this way” conversations you have had — and which ones have turned into heated discussions. They can quickly and easily turn into “push-me, pull-you” arguments that include a lot of “no’s'” and “but’s” in them.

Instead, replay the last one you can remember. Rewrite the discussion by changing your lines so that you start by saying “this is what I hope we can accomplish” (the intent) and explaining the reasons why your proposal could be effective.

Notice, there is nothing in here about which person is right. Because “right” isn’t the issue. As leaders, the only “right” thing is identifying the right problem. Problems have many solutions, and being able to discuss calmly and rationally multiple good and potentially effective solutions is what leaders are called to do.

 

Words and the Word

words“Ich bin ein Berliner.” “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” “I have a dream . . . ” “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Words have meaning. Kennedy’s brief German phrase showed his sympathy for those who lived within Berlin’s walls. Gandhi’s invitation challenged us to choose a path of virtue and for the common good.

King dispelled the darkness of day with the clarity and light of his dream for all. Roosevelt called us to rise above that which might have held us paralyzed and work together.

The Word of God brought a simple, yet profound message of love, repentance, and salvation that we still seek to unpack each and every day.

Words–and the Word–have meaning. We can’t ignore that. And listeners go where the words lead. That path may be intended or not, clear or ambiguous, but listeners go where the words lead. And that responsibility is with the creator and speaker of the words.

Yesterday, one of the news shows shared an anecdote from one of our past presidential administrations. While the interview with him was over, his microphone was still open, and the president jokingly made the statement that the U.S. was preparing to bomb the Soviets. Upon hearing this, the Soviets prepared for war, going so far as to make their intentions public in the press. Eventually, it came to light that the president’s words were only a joke and no harm was intended. But what if . . .

Most leaders know this. We know that our words have meaning, and that we want to communicate our thoughts and ideas as clearly as possible. With the speed of social media, we know how quickly words can do harm. But we also know how quickly they can bring healing–see the responses to the many human and natural disasters in the last few years, even weeks.

We tell children to use their words. We’re missing one word–“well.”

Turn On the Light

lightThe first two words I heard were “darkness” and “death.”

The various media commentators used these words, reflecting on Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech on Thursday. “Darkness” and “death.”

Our public and political discourse seems to have given voice to a deep-seated anger and frustration that has expressed itself in unkind, even violent (physical and verbal) behaviors.

We have seen “easy” words (“We’re angry”) become “easy” actions (shootings, brawls).

And in direct contrast to that, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” and “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

Light and life. Words we cherish and enshrine in a Constitution and Catechism. Actions that we honor with National Medals and canonizations.

Regardless of how dark and angry our environment, businesses, parishes, or Church may become, we are called to be light — always — in the world. To stand up for what is good and right, to model Christ’s response to the darkness and death that he encountered in his world. To offer faith instead of faithlessness, healing instead of pain, a path forward instead of a pit downward.

One of the stories and pictures that has stayed in my mind lately has been that of the protesters who were joined by police — joined, not opposed by.

Faith instead of faithlessness. Healing instead of pain. Forward instead of downward.

Light instead of dark.

Being Witnesses to Civility

Two somewhat bizarre observations spoke to me about the type of leaders and witnesses we are called to be.

Observation #1: CivilityThe numerous green, magnetic bumper stickers saying, “Choose Civility” on the cars scattered throughout my home county.

Observation #2: The traveler alert from the Bahamas, warning its citizens about the dangers of traveling to the United States.

So, here’s the line that connects the two for me. We in the U.S. are seen by many in other parts of the world as a nation of compassion, peace, and civility. A place where people can openly voice their disagreements and not be thrown into jail or killed. A place where we can practice freely four different faiths on the four different street corners of a city intersection anywhere in the country. A place of welcome and respect for our diversity.

But more than anything, we are–or have been–a model for civil behavior. And I fear that that is changing.

Rather than “using our words” (as some teach their children), we use our fists (or guns, in some cases.) Rather than channeling our anger into non-violent protests as Dr. King called us to over 50 years ago, we choose violence.

Maybe that is why when the families of the Amish children who were gunned down in their one-room Pennsylvania school in 2006 forgave the shooter, it seemed to be extraordinary. When it shouldn’t have.

In a civil society, we as leaders must practice one of the most difficult behaviors we know–that of forgiveness. It’s hard to miss how many times Jesus forgives people throughout his ministry. It’s central to who He is and who He calls us to be.

In fact, it is the only Way.