Archive for January, 2016

Recently I had the privilege of engaging in a searching conversation with a man who had become a designated leader 18 months ago. At one point he asked me what it took for a leader to help create an atmosphere of ‘freedom’ and ‘trust.’ After some reflection I suggested that he consider that this ‘creation’ depends in a significant way on the personality of the leader. ‘Who the leader is’ will powerfully determine the extent to which he can help create an atmosphere of ‘freedom’ and ‘trust.’

For example, the less the person reeks of and seeks ‘ambition’ – to be the center-stage star – the easier it will be for him to help create the freedom for others to move to center-stage and the easier it will be for him to engender trust in who he is, as a person and as a leader. The more the leader has the courage (think: heart) to take the risk to stay ‘off center-stage’ (perhaps even to stay in the background, off-stage) the more freedom others will have to move to center-stage and take risks.

Those who choose to take the risk and move to center-stage will not ‘act’ in the same way the leader would act and so it is important for the leader to check his or her defense reflexes and focus on ‘outcomes’ not on ‘methods.’ The more consistent a leader is regarding being supportive and in holding those who choose to move to center-stage, and act, and the more the leader holds the ‘actor’ accountable, the more trust is engendered.

Given this, the leader, as person and as leader, must seek to ‘know one’s self.’ Thus, an important self-discipline (think: practice) for the person-leader is the discipline of ‘self-reflection.’ It will help the person-leader to understand the values, beliefs, principles and assumptions that motivate him or her. Some reflective questions that might help the person-leader are: ‘How important is it for me to be on center-stage?’ ‘How unbiased am I, really?’ ‘What biases do I have and why do I hold onto them?’ ‘What hinders me from trusting – either myself or the other?’ ‘How does my presence engender trust?’ ‘How do I strive to re-build trust?’

The leader must trust him/her self. The leader must trust his/her abilities, skills, gifts, talents and capacities. The leader must be driven to achieve (how many settle for mediocrity). In order to engender ‘freedom’ and ‘trust’ in others the leader must also be willing to take risks (calling others to be on center-stage and helping to create space for them to act, for example) and must be willing to be vulnerable (in the end, it is the leader who will be held accountable – the ‘buck does indeed stop here’). The leader must be response-able and responsible while holding others to also be response-able and responsible. The leader is always ‘act-focused’ not ‘center-focused’ and this helps create space for the others to act (think: freedom to act) and for others to trust (the leader and themselves).

I am reminded of the words of the great Chinese sage, Lao Tzu:

The best rulers are those whom the people hardly know exist.
Next come rulers whom the people love and praise.
After that come rulers whom people fear.
And the worst rulers are those whom the people despise.
The ruler who does not trust the people will not be trusted by the people.
The best ruler stays in the background, and his voice is rarely heard.
When he accomplishes his tasks, and things go well,
The people declare: It was we who did it by ourselves.

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Although this is not a new idea I am not sure how often we think about just how powerfully language does, indeed, help (directly and indirectly) structure our experience.

When I drive to my daughter’s home the majority of my 20 mile trip takes place on an interstate. When I exit the interstate I make a right-hand turn. If I were to make a left-hand turn I would soon come upon what I would call a ‘truck-stop.’ Today, however, they are not called ‘truck-stops’ – today they are called ‘travel-plazas.’ ‘Truck-Stops’ conjure up images of burly guys sitting around eating greasy foods, talking to one another in a special language and telling certain types of stories and jokes. Not very ‘family friendly.’ ‘Travel-Plazas’ invite all travelers and the mini-marts connected to them offer many distractions for a weary family. They have ‘food courts’ and ‘diners.’ Some are so large that they are more ‘attractions’ than a simple oasis for gas hungry vehicles and food hungry travelers.

Here is another example: Most folks would agree that lying on a job application is unethical, if not immoral. Recently I was reading an essay by a ‘well-known’ management guru (whose name I will not reveal). He downplayed ‘lying’ on one’s resume by calling it ‘resume enhancement’ instead. Or consider this: ‘Global Warming’ is reframed as ‘Climate Change’ (which we in Indiana like for it means we might have warmer winters). ‘Climate Change’ is certainly less threatening than ‘Global Warming.’ Then there was the political advisor to a politician who attributed the loss of the campaign to ‘linguistic sloppiness.’

One of my all-time favorite comedians was, and continues to be, George Carlin. He reminds us how silly our choice of words can be (although we laugh when he informs us or reminds us as to how silly our word choice is we still continue to construct and use silly language). Here are some of my favorites (thanks George): free gift, money-back refund, added bonus, future plans, new tradition and jumbo shrimp (some would also add: business ethics).

I was recently spending time waiting for my car to be serviced. Attached to the service bay was the new car show room. I purchased my car from this dealership seven years ago and when I have ‘routine service’ done on my car I generally seek out the general manager and we chat a bit. During my last visit he was showing me a few of the new models for 2016. He stopped by one SUV and began to laugh. He was looking at the sticker that listed both the ‘This comes with’ and the ‘Extras’ for this SUV. He pointed out a phrase and then I laughed. My car came with a number of air bags. This SUV was equipped with a special ‘impact management system.’

Language structures our experience because language has power. These words I’ve shared with you are not simply euphemisms. There are core serious beliefs and values which mark the different usages of these words and phrases: Employees are no longer ‘fired’ they are ‘separated from their work.’ There is less guilt involved in re-engineering than in ‘laying off’ workers.

Language is NOT morally neutral, the words we use provide us an insight into our beliefs and values. I will leave us with another of my favorites from George Carlin: He told the story of about how one day he was driving along in his car and another car ran a red-light and hit his car. They ended up in court. George’s attorney claimed that what occurred was not an ‘accident’ it was, rather, ‘premeditated carelessness.’ Talk about language structuring the experience…

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Creon has declared that Antigone ‘stands alone’ – no one is with her. Haemon, his son and Antigone’s betrothed, enters and tells Creon that it is he, Creon, that ‘stands alone’ for the people of Thebes stand with Antigone. In spite of this and other challenges, Haemon remains loyal to his father. He repeats over and over that it is his father for whom he truly cares; not once does he mention his love for Antigone. Haemon is clear that it is for himself, Haemon, ‘and for the gods below’ that he pleads; his pleas are not rooted in his love for and in his commitment to Antigone. Haemon cannot move his father, he despairs and leaves and in his leaving he lets us know that the house of Creon will fall.

Creon is not an evil person and in spite of his loyalty to the law he shifts a bit; he seems regretful. He modifies Antigone’s judgment in order to give her a slim chance of surviving. Instead of calling for her to be stoned to death he decides to seal her in a cave, provide her with food and water and test whether by ‘praying to Hades, the only god whom she worships,…she will obtain release from death.’

The scales have begun to fall from Creon’s eyes and he is recognizing his error. He is trying to find a way out both for Antigone and for Thebes so ‘that the city may avoid a public stain.’ Of course there would be no error or ‘stain’ if the punishment were in harmony with the laws of this world and the next and if Creon was rooted in both law AND love, in loyalty AND commitment.

Alas, Creon is too late. His world comes undone; blood and doom wash over the ruling house of Thebes. Creon exits in deep anguish bemoaning ‘the crushing fate’ that has ‘leaped upon my head.’

Antigone responds to two commands. The first is the command of the god, Hades, a command that ensures for her that her actions are morally right actions. The second command is the command rooted in commitment and love. Although Antigone reflects upon her decision it does appear as if her decision to act was motivated not by logic but by emotion – deep, abiding commitment and love.

For me, the tragedy was that although both Creon and Antigone were ‘correct’ in supporting their positions (Loyalty-Law and Commitment-Love) they were not able to discern a way of embracing both positions. This, of course, is not uncommon for us imperfect human beings – think of all of the conflicts that emerge as a result of those who are ‘loyal to the law of justice’ and of those who are ‘committed to the spirit of mercy.’

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For centuries upon centuries one question has, and continues to, stimulate our thinking: Who was right? A thoughtful person is able to make a case for Antigone and for Creon. In a way this begs another question: Is there a right answer?

For me, and others, Sophocles’ play expresses a tragedy – the tragedy of irreconcilable conflict. For me, it is a conflict rooted in two views: ‘Loyalty-Law’ and ‘Commitment-Love.’ There is no ‘clear choice’ and so the tragedy emerges because a ‘choice’ must be made. Both Antigone and Creon must choose. For Antigone, no matter which choice she embraces she will have to sacrifice a significant value. Creon’s choice, it seems, is not as impactful for he is deeply rooted in ‘Loyalty-Law’ and this will ultimately determine his choice (a choice, we learn, he will seek to hedge on but not abandon).

Both Antigone and Creon are ‘duty bound’ and Sophocles teaches us that one duty (Loyalty-Law vs. Commitment-Love) has an edge for each AND the conflicting duty remains morally significant, if not compelling (as the centuries have shown it remains morally significant for Sophocles’ audiences).

The intensity of the drama lies not in the ‘act’ but in the ‘arguments’ of the protagonists and in the ‘arguments’ that others offer in order to influence or persuade Antigone and Creon. Ismene, Antigone and Haemon hold distinct positions in their efforts to persuade Creon that he has erred with his choice. For example, Ismene appeals to Creon’s personal interest in his family: ‘But will you slay the betrothed of your own son?’ she asks. Creon’s response is startling crude: ‘There are other fields for him to plough.’ Ismene has missed Creon’s meaning of ‘Loyalty’ – his ‘Loyalty’ is deeply rooted in ‘Law’ not in family. She believed that loyalty to the family would trump loyalty to the law; she did not ‘see’ loyalty through a king’s eyes.

In attempting to convince Antigone, Creon invokes a moral defense of his degree by insisting that it would be unjust to honor the disloyal brother with the same burial accorded to the loyal brother (Etiocles): ‘But the good does not desire a like portion with the evil.’ Antigone sweeps this argument aside: ‘Tis not my nature to join in hating, but in loving.’ Antigone cherished both of her brothers and so to distinguish between them now would not demonstrate commitment nor love.

‘Love’ is not a value for the King of Thebes: ‘If you must needs love, love them. While I live no woman shall rule me.’ Creon’s value of law transcends the love that motivated Antigone to choose and do her deed. Creon’s family is the population of Thebes; his only relevant loyalty is his loyalty to the city and the law. Antigone represents an alternative system of values; a system of values that challenges the supremacy of civic loyalty and civic law.

Creon also accuses Antigone with deviating from the will of the people of Thebes. He suggests that Antigone’s deviance should be a cause for her to feel shame. She is alone and isolated in spite of her commitment to a higher authority (love and Hades). Again, Antigone does not bite for she already made it clear that she has no shame. The burial rites were carried out in public. She reiterates: ‘There is nothing shameful in piety to a brother.’

Enter Haemon, the son and the betrothed.

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A month or so ago I decided to re-visit, re-read, and re-savor Sophocles’ powerful drama Antigone. Sophocles wrote his play 2,400 years ago and through his play Sophocles continues to speak to us today about ‘Loyalty-Commitment & Law-Love.’ His play is a crucible of loyalty, commitment, law, love, religious devotion and secular obligation.

The backstory is simple: Oedipus was fated to kill his father (which he did) and marry his mother, Iocasta (which he did). They had four children: Antigone, her sister, Ismene, and her two brothers, Etiocles and Polyneices. The two brothers killed one another during a battle for control of the city-state, Thebes. Etiocles was on the winning side. Iocasta’s brother, Creon, becomes king. Creon announces that loyal Etiocles will receive an honorable burial while the rebel Polyneices will be disgraced in death by being left outside of the city gates to be eaten by the birds and wild animals (this, act, by the by, goes against what the god Hades wishes and supports what the god Zeus wishes). Creon, in order to show that he is truly a king also announces that anyone, YES, ANYONE, who disobeys his order will be stoned to death. From the beginning Antigone has decided to disobey, Creon, her uncle’s decree.

Creon demonstrates loyalty to Zeus and to the State. Antigone demonstrates commitment to her brother, to Hades and to love above law. Antigone is caught in a dilemma: Does she honor her uncle, Creon, and support ‘the law’ (to complicate things a bit Antigone is engaged to marry Creon’s son, Haemon) – does she demonstrate loyalty? Or does she honor the ‘spiritual law’ (god’s law) and her commitment, rooted in love, to her dead brother, Polyneices? She chooses the imperative regarding commitment rooted in love and obedience to a ‘higher, spiritual, law.’

Antigone seeks out her sister Ismene and proposes that together they disobey Creon’s decree. Ismene responds, ‘What can your meaning be?’ Ismene’s main thought is that the burial is ‘forbidden in Thebes.’ Antigone is not put off; for her the commitment is clear: ‘I will do my part. . .to a brother. False to him I will never be found.’ Ismene chooses not to be involved in ‘the toil and the deed.’

After Antigone acts, Ismene seeks to reconcile with Antigone. In front of Creon Ismene declares herself willing to share in the guilt and suffer the same fate as her sister, Antigone. Antigone rejects her sister’s offer with harsh words: ‘A friend in words is not the friend that I love.’ For Antigone, it is too late for Ismene to be ‘committed’ – she had an opportunity to demonstrate commitment rooted in love by working with Antigone to honor their brother and honor a commitment to a higher, spiritual law and she chose not to do so.

Creon is also caught in a dilemma. There exists a tension between his role as king (loyalty) and his familial tie to Antigone and Polyneices (commitment rooted in love). He chooses to suppress his familial relationships. For Creon, the fate of his nephew (and of Antigone, it seems) means little when compared to the loyalty he must show to his people: The State trumps the Individual. He must punish the traitor(s).

These opposing directions – Antigone and Creon – create the framework for the play’s dramatic conflict. A conflict that for thousands of years we humans have had to face; a conflict rooted in Loyalty and Commitment. A conflict rooted in Law and Love.

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