Serving As A Bystander

“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”  -Thomas Merton

We live in a society that has become increasingly enamored with activity and doing…down time and recharging our batteries is often seen more as a luxury than a necessity in the current world.  Couple this frantic activity with the mounting stress, accountability and transparency of modern society and we have created a culture that is more harried, rushed, agitated, and weary than ever before.  More often than not, we are both engaged and disengaged simultaneously.  Welcome to the digital world.  And unfortunately, this intensifying need to do more and be more has made us much more self-absorbed as individuals and as a society.

As the imbalances of our current circumstances continue to escalate throughout our personal and professional lives…we sense the rising necessity for increasing our efforts towards the teaching and learning of those social and emotional intelligences so needed across the spectrum of our society.  Social and emotional literacies that need to be infused and internalized, beginning at the leadership level.

Leaders not only need to increase their level of social and emotional intelligence…they need to turn a reflective spotlight on those very imbalances that affect them personally and professionally.  Imbalances that very often affect the very organizations and institutions that they lead.

Refocusing our leadership lens will require a high level of self-reflection administered on a continuum.  Skillful leaders understand and acknowledge the need for acquiring a self-reflective stance towards their personal and organizational effectiveness.  They search out honest and truthful feedback, from within and from those they lead.  They create the culture and environment for those discussions to regularly occur.  Transparency and self-honesty heighten awareness and self-reflection that allow them to tune-in to the candid and authentic reality of the current environment and culture that resides within their organization…

Leading to Daniel Goleman’s 2007 TED talk, “Why Aren’t We All Good Samaritans?” which provides a strong and healthy argument for – self-reflective leaders.

In “Why Aren’t We All Good Samaritans?” Daniel Goleman takes the opportunity to push our consideration for why we aren’t more compassionate?   Why is it when we are provided ample opportunities to help others, that we only sometimes choose to help?

Goleman guides us to a study out of Princeton Theological Seminary that tries to answer those very same questions.  The study revolved around a group of Divinity students that were required to give a practice sermon…half were given the topic of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the other half were provided a variety of random topics.  One by one the students were informed that they would be giving their sermon in the adjacent building.  As each student navigated their way from one building to the next, they had to pass by a man bent over and moaning, clearly in need.

The point of the study was to determine if the students would stop to help?  Or more importantly, whether or not it mattered that they were contemplating the Parable of the Good Samaritan?  And would that have any influence in the matter?

The answer…no.  It did not matter, not at all.

Goleman proceeds to share that the determining factor of whether the student stopped to help or not was based solely on how much of a hurry they thought they were in.  Did they have the feeling that they were late?  Or were they absorbed in what they were going to talk about?  

The key take-away from the study that Goleman communicates to the audience…this is the predicament of our current lives.  We don’t take the time to help because our focus is aimed in the wrong direction.

When we are preoccupied, caught up in our own issues and problems – which so often we are – we don’t notice others.  He describes the spectrum as going from self-absorption, to noticing, to empathy, and then to compassion.  And for this reason, focusing on ourselves and focusing on others is something we need to pay attention to…  

Goleman points out that it is our empathy…our tuning in that separates us.  And when we focus on ourselves, we inevitably turn that part of ourselves off.

The critical points made in Goleman’s TED talk are central to leading in today’s modern society.  Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, or a CEO – when we as leaders become self-absorbed – we turn our natural empathy and compassion monitors off.  Not only do we turn those monitors off, we fail to even take notice.  Notice of those red flags that invoke our sense of empathy and compassion.  Self-absorption seeps away that  ability…and when we fail to notice, we in effect, turn off our ability to incorporate the empathy and compassion that is so necessary for leading in today’s world.

Self-absorption transfers a leader from the center to the periphery of their organization.  Self-absorbed leaders fail to create and facilitate positive and effective organizational environments and culture.  They can’t…they have removed themselves from the process.  Which is unfortunate, since it is one of the most important aspects required of their leadership.

Leading is all about noticing and nuances…about having your finger on the pulse of the very people within your organization.  The very act of leading requires immersing yourself in creating connections and building relationships.  Yet, how can we tend to those very relationships and connections when we are continually caught up and absorbed in our own activity and busyness.

The simple act of noticing – stopping to help the stranger on the road – is often the very act that creates momentum for positive change.  In the environment and the culture.  An act, removed from the self, that creates connection and relationship.

When we notice, when we stop, then so do others.

And when we fail to notice…we limit our ability to engage in and transform the culture and environments of our organizations.  Worst of all, we remove our ability to connect with those we lead in an empathetic and compassionate manner.  Which relegates our leadership to that of a bystander to the very environment and culture that we have been empowered to transform.  Self-absorbed leaders, in effect, become cultural bystanders within their very own organizations.

Recognizing subtleties keeps us from becoming cultural bystanders to our own leadership.

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.”

Learning To Fly

“You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”  -Ray Bradbury

The world of education seems to be standing at a precipice…staring off into an abyss – teetering, hovering – trying to determine its way…not sure which direction it will fall.

Or which path it will take…

While the reins of our past pull desperately to reel us back in…the songs of our technology sirens entice us towards the shores of an unknown future.

Disruption feels imminent…if not already in progress.  Change forces abound.

Change forces that convey an air of anticipation and enthusiasm stand defiantly against those that command a heightened sense of anxiety, alarm, and apprehension of what is to come.  And as we stand at the edge and stare down…

That very future resides within our grasp.  What remains to be determined is who will be the ones to lead it forward…will we do it ourselves or will we allow it to be led for us?  For those who will lead and transform education…a certain amount of risk will be required.  It is inevitable.  It will require a willingness to step off that cliff, into that abyss…into the unknown.

As the clip below illustrates…leading education forward will require us to build the plane at the same time we are trying to fly it.  We have no other option.  It will be a necessity…a necessity for educational leaders if they are to do what is necessary to transform their classrooms, their schools, and their districts.

The world of technology and social media is changing the world around us at breakneck speed.  And for that reason alone, we have no other alternative than to build the plane while it is in the air.  We can no longer wait.  Our ever rapidly evolving and changing world requires it…even demands it.  As do our students.  The challenge of change and the need to evolve lays before each and everyone of us…

We need to learn to fly.  And it begins today.

“I” Before “We”…Except When We Lead (Language Of Leadership)

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”  -Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Language is a life driver.  Driving the core of each and every person on this earth.  It is as vital to our lives as the air we breath.  Serving as the nucleus of our communication, collaboration, and learning.  It is how we express our feelings, convey our wants, our needs…

Our language can profess a higher motive…or expose an underlying agenda.  It can create motivation…or steal away enthusiasm.  Language can enlist believers in a vision towards a better future…or detractors to even next steps.  Language not only drives our human need to connect and communicate…it drives our ability to lead.

Some wield it to proclaim and assert their authority…while others gain influence simply through the words they speak and share.  Some see the language of communication as a gong they are constantly clanging and hammering, with a be first and loudest approach…while, for others it best served last, after all other voices have been heard and considered.

Language is how we convey meaning – from our innermost thoughts and feelings – to driving the attitude and culture of our families, teams, institutions, organizations, and society as a whole.

Whether straightforward in delivery, or as a story, a parable, or a proverb…how we communicate drives our ability to lead others.

Language and communication can either transform or impair, creating slow decay throughout our organizations.  Clarity or chaos.  Certainty or ambiguity.  The day-to-day discourse of our people expresses the underlying tone and demeanor we create within our organizations.  The alignment and coherence found at all levels of the system can very well be determined by listening to those very same day-to-day conversations.

Providing the necessity and the why of leaders being attuned and aware of their own words and the discourse of the organization…

Poor use and utilization of language can serve as a detriment, often isolating leaders from the collaborative processes and relationships that create unity within their teams, institutions, and organizations.  Leadership cannot serve as an island to itself.  If it is to last…

Leadership remains founded in the practice and process of creating connections and building relationships…for which our language and communication will always serve as a main driver.

When we lose our sense of others, of connection, and relationships – we have lost the true essence and purpose of leadership…serving others.  When words like “I” and “me” overwhelm “us” and “we”…we have a front-row seat to the oncoming shipwreck.  A shipwreck that will leave that leader a stranded castaway…deserted and isolated in their influence, serving as an island to themselves.

It is said that the plural of “I” is said to be…”we”.  Leadership that serves others is constantly about moving from the service of “me” to the service of “us” and from the idea of the singular to the plural.  True, authentic leaders serve in and for the growth of others, rather than in benefit of themselves.  And that service attitude begins with our language, our discourse…which relays our true motives.

Which is why great leaders understand that “I” never goes before “we”…

How Resilient Is Your Leadership?

“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”  -Robert Jordan

Challenges.  Crisis.  Adversity.  Setbacks.  Stress.  Pressure.  Pushback.  Mistakes.  Failures.

What leaders are bound to face on a daily basis…

Belief.  Hope.  Vision.  Confidence.  Tenacity.  Purpose.  Trust.  Determination.  Drive.

What leaders must instill in those they lead on a daily basis…

We can often get buried under the weight and responsibility that accompanies leading and leadership.  Oftentimes, a minor miscalculation or a poor decision has served as the undoing of many a leader…from which many never recover.  Which leads to one of the most important leadership traits of all…


Resilience is a leadership necessity.  Whether you consider it a growth mindset or having emotional intelligence, resilience serves as a major factor in either equation. Without the capacity for resilience, many a “leader-ship” has been sunk, never to rise again.

A wonderful representation of leadership resilience can be found in the modern day fable of “The Donkey in the Well“, which a portion of is provided below…

“One day a farmer’s donkey fell into a deep well.  The animal cried pitifully for hours as the farmer tried to figure our what to do.  Finally the farmer made a decision: The animal was old, and the well needed to be filled anyway.  It just wasn’t worth trying to retrieve the donkey.

He invited all of his neighbors to come over and help him.  They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well.  At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly.

Then to everyone’s amazement, he quieted down.  A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well.  He was astonished at what he saw.  With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing.  He would shake it off and take a step up.

As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal he would shake it off and take a step up.  Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!”

(portion of the story above taken from

As leaders we often have two choices…we can allow the “dirt thrown on our back” to either bury us or serve as opportunities to “shake it off” and create next steps.  Leadership resilience is all about “shaking it off” as stepping stones to propel us forward…using our mistakes and failures as growth experiences to mold and shape us.  And when we demonstrate resilience we cultivate that same trait and attitude across the organization with those we lead.  Which requires us to consider…

How resilient is our leadership?

“Stars may be seen from the bottom of a deep well, when they cannot be discerned from the top of a mountain.  So are many things learned in adversity which the prosperous man dreams not of.”  -Charles Spurgeon


“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.  And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”  -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Truly great leaders understand that leadership is not a right or an entitlement.  Leadership is a privilege…a privilege to serve others.  A tremendous responsibility and calling that should not be taken lightly.  As Sir William Osler asserts…“We are here to add what we can to, not get what we can from life.”

Yet, we live in an age, where in many ways, servant leadership and service to others is a dying calling.  Altruistic leaders who place the needs of their people and organizations they lead above their own wants and needs are not in abundance.  Misplaced priorities of our modern day society and the state of many of our organizations gives warrant to these assertions.

Which is why real servant leaders are a truly special breed.  They live by a calling beyond and above themselves.  They acknowledge that titles and positions are often fleeting…service to others is their foundation and rock.  Each position has its season and when we hold too tightly to those titles and positions, we often lose our way.

Servant leaders give thanks for their time of leading…for each season.  For it is not about the ranks to which others aspire, but for the lives they change and transform.  They serve with gratitude.  Gratitude and thanksgiving…for the problems they face, they needs they fill, and the lives they touch.

So during this season of Thanksgiving…let us have gratitude for our time and season of leadership and for the lives of those we are privileged to touch and transform.  Let our hearts be filled with gratitude for this honor to serve others.

“There is no more noble occupation in the world than to assist another human being, to help someone succeed.”  -Alan Loy McGinnis

The Imprint We Try To Fill

“We make everything that is uncertain, certain.  Just certain.  The more frayed we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are.”  -Brene Brown

We are built for connection.  Connection, acceptance, relationship.  Dots that we are constantly trying to connect in our lives.  A deep-seated need we all are trying to fill.  We clamor for belonging, even when we put up walls and pretenses that push us away from that very need and want for connection that we desire.  The depths of this need knows no bounds and it affects each one of us in very different and profound ways.

So we spend the precious moments of our time and days in the ongoing search for connection, belonging, and even validation.  An imprint on our very hearts that we so desperately try to fill.

It becomes our driver…

We work frenetically to fill that imprint…a new house, a new car, new knowledge, more knowledge, more prestige, more friends, more likes, more tweets, more, more, more…often feels like the more we try to fill the imprint the deeper its depths.  The bigger the void.

And each of us has a driver in our life…even if we fail to recognize or step up and own it.

Which is why it is so incredibly important for us to open ourselves to being vulnerable.  One of the most difficult and courageous acts that we will offer to those in our lives.  Brene Brown refers to it as “excruciating vulnerability”…being “willing to go there first, when there are no guarantees” and “to let go of who you thought you should be for who you really are.”  

When we give others the green light to be “who they are” rather than “who they think they should be”…we create a connection that is more authentic, more real.  One that removes the need for pretense, for one of acceptance.  Creating a sense of “worthiness” and “belonging”.  Not for what that person brings or provides, but for who they really are.  A deep and authentic connection.

When we create that space for those in our life…we can begin to take those first steps away from the “stuff” that we use to try to fill that imprint on our heart.

Which is why leading is often an act of courage.  Leaders go first…even when it requires “excruciating vulnerability”.

As we take on the days and weeks to come, Brene Brown gives insight to those dots of connection…

“Let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen.  To love with our whole hearts, even though there is no guarantee.  To practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror – to be grateful.  Believe that we are enough.  Stop screaming and start listening.  Then we are gentler and kinder to ourselves and those around us.”

(Quotes in bold taken from two TED talks provided by Brene Brown)

What Is Your Lever of Influence?

“Conversations are the work of a leader and the workhorses of an organization.  While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship, or a life – any single conversation can.”  -Susan Scott

The true weight and depth of any leader will be found and measured in their influence.  Without it, a leader and their leadership will often be found to be lacking and hollow.  Leadership influence is not acquired haphazardly, it requires intentional and purposeful thought and action.

Unfortunately, the daily hustle and bustle required for leading can enable us to overlook those very same levers that create and increase our influence.

Simply stated.  We often fail to intentionally utilize one of the best levers we have at our disposal…

The conversation.

Can you think of any other influence lever that engages the adults in our organizations over one thousand times each day, every day?

A better question is, for those thousands of conversations and opportunities for connection, how many of them are intentional and purposeful?  If not many is the answer, then why may be a question worth considering, why is this not a lever that you are utilizing as an influence builder for your leadership?

“We effect change by engaging in robust conversations with ourselves, our colleagues, our customers, our family, the world.  Leadership should effectively be looking at changing the world – one conversation at a time.”

Very seldom are we intentional with our conversations.  Though we know they serve as the spark to ignite the fires of change and innovation in our organizations.  We fan those same fires of change and innovation by intentionally engaging these conversations, whenever and wherever possible, at all levels of the organization, inside and out.

Well-placed conversations provide the impetus to move the vision and goals of the organization forward.  Conversations provide the necessary transparency and understanding around change, they create the environment and atmosphere that allow for change and innovation to grow and expand.  Conversations create clarity preceding the actual steps forward.

“Leaders must have conversations that interrogate reality, provoke learning, tackle tough challenges and enrich relationships.”  “Our very lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.”

We are not defined by every conversation that we engage in, yet, we could be much more intentional with the conversations that we do engage in.   Conversations that are as much about listening as they are about being heard.  Conversations that allow our leadership to be much more authentic and vulnerable.  Conversations that let people know we are all in.

“Intimacy is required in conversation now – at home and in the workplace.  We must answer the big questions in our organizations.  What are the questions that need posing?  What is real?  What is honest?  What is quality?  What is value?”  

Every conversation has the ability to provide and/or gain clarity for those immersed in the process.  Just as they can lead you towards or away from the goals and vision for the organization.

As author Susan Scott so aptly states, the conversation is not about creating the relationship, it is the relationship.  Conversations not only increase our influence, they increase our relationships.  “Our conversations either enhance our relationships, flatline them, or take them down.”

Consider being more intentional about your conversations if your aim is to increase your influence, your relationships, and the overall trust factor in your organization.  Deep, authentic conversations are the path to the change and innovation necessary to move our organizations forward.  Which causes us to consider…

“What are the conversations you’ve been unable or unwilling to have – with your boss, colleague, employee, spouse, parent, child; or yourself – that, if you were able to have, might change everything?”

What conversations will you have today?

(Quotes in bold are taken from Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.)