Archive for November, 2015


Today is the first Sunday of Advent. For me it involves a time of ‘Fasting.’ I strive to ‘Fast’ one day a week during the year and then during Advent and Lent I up the ante and strive to ‘Fast’ two or three days a week.

Fasting is a voluntary restraint – a voluntary removal. I have found that by removing the ‘usual’, the ‘familiar,’ and the ‘constant’ something less visible (or even invisible) is revealed or revealed more clearly. Perhaps the ‘negative’ that resides just below the surface or that has become deeply hidden within is revealed. I believe I am always immersed in ‘negative space’ – external and internal (‘Star Wars’ reminded us that ‘The Force’ does exist and this Force can be quite negative and it is a Force that surrounds us and fills us up). My capacity to be aware of that dimension is what the poet Keats called ‘negative capability.’

I think that what he meant was that I have the capacity to be receptive and mindful so that what is hidden, mute, ignored, hurt, beautiful, good, and true can be revealed, heard, embraced, healed or nurtured – all can be valued. For me, Fasting is a ‘negative capability.’ At times Fasting is about ‘food’ and at times it has nothing to do with what we generally refer to as food for the body.

One of the most challenging ‘Fasts’ for me to embrace is the ‘Fast-From Clutter.’ I live surrounded by books and papers. Piles of books and stacks of papers plus book bags stuffed with more books and papers are strewn about. When I ‘Fast-From Clutter’ I often discern that I have a deeper need for ‘order’ in my life. I also become aware that internally I am also full of clutter and it is the internal clutter that is debilitating (I love the clutter of books and papers milling about waiting to be discovered when I go on a search).

In ‘Fasting-From Clutter’ I often become aware of the internal noise that clutters my mind – or I become aware of the many ways I use external noise as a ‘Clutter of Distraction.’

In addition to Fasting as a means of ‘reducing,’ Fasting can also help me become aware of what I need more of – say, quiet time for reflection or meditation. Fasting also helps me ‘simplify’ – this is no easy task for one who loves clutter.

In the past I have ‘Fasted-From’: complaining, explaining, expecting, anticipating, ruminating (about the past), and worry (about the future). As I ‘Fasted-From’ I also sought to replace the empty space with ‘Care For…’ with ‘Love For…’ and with ‘Compassion For…’ I have learned that if I ‘empty-of’ that I need to ‘fill-up’ with something else.

‘Fasting-From’ food helps me understand how dependent I am and how needy I am, and how vulnerable I am. Where, then, do I turn for sustenance? Where do I turn in order to be nurtured? Where do I turn? For me, ‘Fasting-From’ enables me to choose to seek out Spiritual Sustenance. ‘Fasting-From’ also enables me to become more aware of others and their needs – and I am more likely to be open to seeking ways to serve their highest priority needs.

‘Fasting From. . .’ enables me to ‘Care For. . .’ In closing, I offer us a quotation from Dan Allender: “Fasting from any nourishment, activity, involvement or pursuit—for any season—sets the stage for God to appear. Fasting is not a tool to pry wisdom out of God’s hands or to force needed insight about a decision. Fasting is not a tool for gaining discipline or developing piety (whatever that might be). Instead, fasting is the bulimic act of ridding ourselves of our fullness to attune our senses to the mysteries that swirl in and around us.”

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Team norms are formed when an individual takes a position and the rest of the team deals with that position by either letting it stand (by remaining silent), actively approving it, processing it, or rejecting it. Early on – for some teams this ‘early on’ lasts for a long time – the ‘team’ does not view itself as an ‘interdependent team’ but as a ‘group of independent individuals’ and thus there is no ‘collective emotional ownership’ of the emerging norms.

If one is awake, aware, intentional and purpose-full, three sets of consequences can be observed: (1) the personal consequences for the member who made the suggestion – the person may gain or lose influence, disclose self to others, develop a ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’ etc.; (2) the interpersonal consequences for those members immediately involved in the interplay; and (3) the normative consequences for the team as a whole.

Developing ‘Team Norms’ involves a number of situations in which an ‘individual’ has to act, and the subsequent shared reaction turns the event into a ‘team’ outcome. It is the joint witnessing of the event and the reaction that makes the emerging norm a team outcome (again, this might not operate at a conscious level).

The emerging or intact executive leadership team is filled with thousands of these types of events and the responses to them. At the ‘Cognitive Level,’ they deal with the effort to define working procedures to fulfill one of the team’s primary tasks – to learn as individuals and as a collective. Prior assumptions about how to learn will be carried into the room by each team member and will facilitate and hinder the team’s ability to learn as a ‘team.’

At the ‘Emotional Level,’ the events reveal issues dealing with authority, influence, power, trust, and status. The most critical of such events will be the ones that overtly test or challenge each members ‘authority.’ One will note, for example, that the team pays special attention to the responses that occur immediately after someone has directed a comment, question or challenge to the ‘leader,’ the ‘facilitator,’ the person with ‘power’ or ‘status’ or the person most ‘trusted.’ In a real sense, ‘authority’ issues are being worked out by the team.

If a norm is held, that is, if it is repeated and repeated and repeated over time, then it will transform from a norm to a deep assumption (‘It is a given that this is how we do things here.’). Eventually, the deep assumption becomes rooted in the group’s sub-conscience and then it becomes deep and tacit (i.e. understood without being openly expressed). A new team member will then ‘learn’ the norm by being corrected when he/she goes against the norm or by carefully observing the team’s behavior, reflecting upon it and thus discerning the norms and confirming or disconfirming them by ‘testing.’ Deep-Tacit Norms and Deep-Tacit Assumptions present a daunting challenge for the team or any member of the team seeking to change one or more of them.

It is important to remember that a team does not choose a norm that does not ‘work for the team.’ On the other hand, over time a norm (or a norm that has evolved into an assumption or into a deep tacit assumption) might not serve the team well. Thus, it is crucial for a team to become aware of the norms it has integrated and become intentional about evaluating whether or not they are serving the team well or not. This ‘self-evaluation’ is no easy task for a team, especially for a team that has been together for a number of years.

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Currently I am a thought-partner to an executive. He has been charged with being the organization’s ‘Culture Leader.’ Recently we began exploring how the leadership team he facilitates develops its norms. I have decided to use my next two postings to share with you, gentle reader, one response to the question, ‘How are team norms chosen and set?’

In an intact or emerging team, potential ‘norms’ (NOTE: A ‘norm’ is a model or pattern) emerge through successive dealings with ‘marker events’ – ‘marker events’ are those that rouse strong emotional responses and then are dealt with definitively. It is important to note that the team is not consciously aware of this process of ‘norm building’ unless attention is drawn to it. Here is an example:

A new executive leadership team is exploring options for action; a member strongly advocates for a specific course of action. The suggestion requires some response from the members; therefore, NO MATTER WHAT the group does, it will be setting some kind of precedent for how to deal with future suggestions that are consciously or unconsciously experienced as ‘controlling’ or ‘defining.’ What are the team’s options at this point?

One response is to act as if the suggestion had not even been made. There is a moment of silence, followed by another member’s comment irrelevant to the suggestion. This is a decision by non-action. The member who made the suggestion may feel ignored. At the same time a group norm has been established. The team has, in effect, said that members need not respond to every suggestion, that it is permissible to ignore someone.

Another response is for another person to agree or disagree openly with the suggestion. This response begins to build a different norm – this norm says that one should respond to suggestions in some way. If another team member indicates agreement, the response may also begin to build an alliance among the members who agree; if there has been disagreement, it may trigger a conflict that will motivate team members to take sides.

A third response – a less common response – is for another member to make a ‘process comment’ – ‘I wonder if we should collect some other suggestions before we decide what to do?’ or ‘How do the rest of you feel about the suggestion?’ Again, a norm is being established. This norm says that the team does not have to plunge into action; the team can consider alternatives. This response not only gets the team moving it also sets two precedents: (1) that suggestions should be responded to and (2) that the person who offered the suggestion is someone who can ‘motivate this team.’

A fourth response – another less common response – is for the team to plunge into action.

Finally, the team can initially suspend the suggestion – table it – and come back to it later.  These responses are also ‘norm-setters.’

[To be continued. . .]

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I first began to seriously think about leaders and leadership in 1965. I was an undergraduate and I was participating in a ‘General Studies Seminar.’ There were twelve of us plus our professor-guide. We had the opportunity to read great literature (including plays, novels and essays). The sixteen week seminar was divided into four ‘themes’ and the third theme was ‘leaders and leadership.’ I continue to read and reflect upon great literature as I continue to strive to understand leaders and leadership. I am also intentional and purpose-full when it comes to searching out and immersing myself in the writings (books, essays and letters) of people who are considered to be the prime movers when it comes to the development of leaders – for these folks their word choice was more often ‘executive’ or ‘manager’ or ‘management’ for ‘leader’ was not in common usage when they wrote.

In the seminar one of the pieces we read was Sartre’s play, ‘Dirty Hands.’ One of the ‘leadership’ books that I was introduced to by my mentor, Lowell, in 1973 was ‘The Functions of the Executive’ first published in 1938 (this book continued to be re-issued every year for 40 years – talk about staying power). The author was the president of the Bell System in New Jersey – Chester Barnard.

Chester Barnard is among the most insightful observers of business leaders. For years, Barnard would spend his days at Bell, then he would reflect upon his experiences and what he observed and at night and on the weekends he would write. What he gave us as a gift is a powerful treatise which focuses on leaders, leadership and organization development. What he offered us in 1938 is still viable today.

Barnard explores at length the ‘leader’s’ (think senior manager, director and executive) responsibilities. If you were to read his book you might experience what I continue to experience: You will read a passage that jerks you awake – it is a passage that invites (or is it ‘challenges’) you to stop, step back and reflect. There is a particular passage of Barnard’s that takes me back to Sartre’s ‘Old Communist’ in his play, ‘Dirty Hands’ – the old Communist utters a statement that jerked us awake in 1965 (and continues to do so today). The two quotations are reinforcing complements.

In Sartre’s play there is a moment when a young man accuses his leader of betraying the party’s ideals because of the compromises he has made. Here is part of what the old Communist said in response: …I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently?

Ten years before Sartre wrote his words, Barnard wrote the following: It seems to me inevitable that the struggle to maintain cooperation among men should as surely destroy some men morally as battle destroys them physically.

For both men, being a leader is not the wonder-full adventure that so many ‘leadership books’ have espoused. Both men believed that positions of leadership impose difficult personal challenges that can destroy some (such ‘moral destruction’ is ‘inevitable’ for some) and it can strengthen some. Both men believed that positions of leadership build and reveal character and at times morally wound or destroy the person.

The Old Communist and Chester Barnard were both immersed in a similar quest: to strive to learn the facts and motivations about the lives, decisions, challenges and struggles of human beings who were entrusted with being leaders. Both men remind us that all leaders must be unconditionally response-able and responsible. And at times, all leaders will have ‘Dirty Hands.’

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Gentle reader, you might recall from previous postings that my son, Nathan, is an artist (see below for a photo of Nathan standing near some of his art work which was on display in the Snite Museum of Art this past spring). Recently Nathan and I were engaged in a searching conversation about contemporary art and I asked: Art. . .What is it? For the next several days I continued to hold this question. This morning I will offer some of the thoughts that emerged into my consciousness.

There are, I have discovered, a number of common responses to the question: Art. . .What is it? (1) Art is that which is deemed to be beautiful – ‘beauty’ is in the eye of the beholder; (2) Art is an external manifestation of emotions – art is externally manifested in lines, colors, movements, sounds and words and the person viewing the external manifestation is emotionally impacted; (3) Art involves the production of a concrete permanent object – the production itself brings enjoyment to the producer and conveys to and stimulates in the person viewing it a type of pleasure.

As I reflect upon the question I find that it is not the ‘pleasure’ that art might provide me it is how art serves – will serve – the life of humanity. Art IS a necessary condition of/for human life. We need art in order to be fully human beings. Thus, for me, a ‘work of art’ motivates the one receiving the art to enter into a relationship with the one who has produced – or who is producing – the art.

For example, ‘Speech’ acts as a means of connecting human to human. Art acts in a similar manner. A human employs speech in order to transmit thoughts to another human. The artist, by means of art, transmits feelings. Art creates an opportunity for the recipient of the art to experience the emotion which moved the artist to create.

Consider the following example: I laugh and another who hears me laugh begins to experience pleasant feelings; I cry and another who hears my crying experiences sorrow. Research continues to confirm that we humans are inherently empathetic – we are, by nature, empathic beings.

Consider that it is upon our empathic capacity that we humans receive another’s expression of feeling and experience the other’s feeling as our own and that art is rooted in our empathic capacity.

Art emerges when one person, the artist, wishes to join another person to him/herself via a feeling, creates an external manifestation of the feeling with a goal that the observer-participant feels as the artist feels, or experiences feelings that complement the artist’s feeling or experiences feelings that are dissonant with the artist’s feelings.

The feelings with which the artist infects the other(s) will vary – they will be strong or weak, significant or insignificant, self-centered or other-centered, etc. Consider that if the observer is infected by the feelings which the artist felt then ‘art’ has happened.

I am also drawn to Tolstoy’s definition: Art is a human activity consisting in this, one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.

‘Art. . .What is it?’ My son, Nathan, chooses to live into and out of this question each day.


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