On Suicide (after Robin Williams’ passing)

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I wrote this originally as a facebook status yesterday, and the response was rather overwhelming–probably more people interacted with it than any other post I’ve ever written, so I thought to share it here also, in the hope that some part of my experience will be helpful to others.



Most people who commit suicide do not want to die. They want to be whole. They want to cure what ails them. If they are addicts, they cannot forgive themselves for one more lapse, knowing that however long and hard fought their sobriety, there will likely be another, and sooner or later the will to start over erodes. Surrounded by those they love, given assurances, they remain tortured, feeling like they have disappointed and failed so many times that this grace, this love, could not possibly be true, and if true, surely not lasting. And so they turn to what they can control, convincing themselves that the world and all those people would somehow be better without them. And they are always wrong.


Still others are depressed or struggling somehow with mental health. They try to figure it out with meds, they get counseling, they endure the well meaning but terribly misguided comments of friends and family who explain that everything is going to be alright, or, worse, that they can somehow snap out of it if they would just think more positively about life. And slowly they are drawn into the abyss of loneliness and hopelessness, until one day they have the courage to make it stop, and they feel, for once, like they can choose. And though it is always the wrong choice, let us not judge, for most of us have been spared this fight and do not understand it. Rather, let us love without expectation and without condescension, which might be the only hope for any of us.



Heroes and Higher Standards

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Leadership merits a higher standard.  Whether embracing the mantle of public figure, voice of a movement, millionaire athlete, or mom, leaders are people others watch.  A higher standard is an implied contract with the position.  Perhaps it is unfair, but I submit that the best leaders among us will always welcome this aspect of leadership and seek to present themselves well, imperfect though they will inevitably be.

Consider Lance Armstrong.  He has been the face of cancer survivors for years, and there can be no doubt that his Livestrong foundation has done great things for people who are fighting that arduous battle, but his protestations of innocence and virulent attacks against his accusers in light of mounting, and now overwhelming, evidence for all those years has tarnished his legacy, his credibility, and his integrity.  He has done precious little to embrace the mantle of leadership.  Even if he did not want it (remember the commercials with Charles Barkley?  “I’m not a role model!”), it comes with the territory.  One cannot be the face of a movement and yet eschew a higher standard.  Fair or not, it is reality—a reality that must be embraced if one is to lead well.

Regrettably, Armstrong has failed to understand this.  He will, no doubt, be forgiven and remain in the public eye.  While we should not withhold forgiveness and reconciliation from the contrite, we would do well to choose our heroes more carefully, and, having done so, to hold them to higher standards.


In Whom Should We Invest?

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As I was perusing the forum board of a social media group today, I came across an interesting question from one of its members:

“What guidelines do you use in determining who you pour your life into?”

Pretty big question, right?  A potentially defining question, in fact.

Among the many thoughts this question prompted for me was that regardless of their positions, people often feel confusion, guilt, or uncertainty about the time or energy they invest in others.  Is it fair?  Is it enough?  Have I chosen correctly?  Am I making an impact?

Left unaddressed, these questions can continue for an entire career, if not a lifetime.  Unanswered, they can grow into self-doubt that affects other areas.  For example, if a person lacks the assurance that her efforts have helped others to grow, she might be less inclined to volunteer to train or coach others in the future.  If this is part of her role, she might be less enthusiastic, less willing to take risks, or further from the most innovative aspects of her profession.

For these reasons, feedback is critical.  How we spend our time, and with whom, can depend on several factors, but outcomes should always be among them.  Even qualitatively, a potential discerning question might be, “From what quarters does your most positive feedback come?”  Answering this question, and, importantly, owning the result, can help people allocate their investment in others wisely.  Everyone who coaches and mentors others has a sweet spot, an area of maximum effectiveness.  That is not to say anyone should not strive to be effective no matter who their audience happens to be, but each person will be better in some areas and with some people over others.  If someone receives more positive feedback and produces better outcomes from having invested in associates who have recently joined the organization than they do from working with those who are more tenured, then it is in everyone’s best interest (including the investor’s) to honor that.

A person’s own aspirations also provide an important filter in this discernment process.  For example, some people want to change the world one person at a time regardless of level or station in life, others want to influence only those who can influence others and maximize their potential impact. That filter will determine how one spends time not just in coaching, but in everything else as well.

A final word: Exceptions and missed opportunities will always exist.  Time spent worrying about them engenders guilt, and subtracts from gaining clarity about where to spend time investing.

Examine your feedback.  Own the result.  Consider your aspirations.  Move forward with confidence.


“I Don’t Need a Mentor.”

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“I don’t have a mentor, and at this point in my career, I don’t think I need one.”

Professional decorum kept me from saying what I thought as I listened to a senior executive from a well known company talk about how dedicated he was to developing others and helping them be successful, but in the very next sentence spoke about how he’d accomplished enough to arrive in his dream position, and therefore no longer needed such help from others.

In truth, I hear this often. It always goes something like this: “I can be a mentor, but I don’t need one.”

But it doesn’t work that way. Knowingly or unknowingly, these individuals are taking the position that they have arrived, that they have nothing left to learn–a mistake both in practice and in perception.

Done being mentored=done learning, done growing, content to stay the same.

I concede the point that the higher level one attains, the more difficult it is to find adequate mentors, but is not having one what’s best for any leader, or any organization?


Living (and leading) Differently

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If your family is anything like ours, you’ve probably received dozens of greeting cards, family updates, pictures and the ilk of late.

I read these dutifully, and enjoy hearing about what those I love but do not see often have been up to.  Honestly, though, they do seem to run together after I’ve read the first half dozen or so.  But I was reading the update of some friends of ours last night whose perspective on things was unusual.  It contained bad news as well as good news, joys as well as frustrations.  It was transparent.

This would have been uncommon enough, but it ended with this, a Kenyan prayer:
From the cowardice that dare not face new truths,
From the laziness that is contented with half truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver me.

I think that all of us, as leaders, have a tendency to be cowards, or lazy, or arrogant from time to time.  I would submit, though, that we are more often one than the others, evidenced by how we lead.  Do we make decisions too quickly?  Without enough information?  Do we turn a blind eye toward issues or harsh realities?  Do we expect others to follow without having to explain fully?

My friends have a clear sense of what they know, and of what they do not know.  They’ve reflected on what they’ve learned in 2008, and look forward to applying it in 2009 as they begin the process anew, hoping to gain a greater sense of the truth and continue to share it with others.

And that is good leadership. 


I need help. Do you?

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I am a good leader. Education, experiences and objective assessment would support that. (Yes, that is a confident opening statement, but that is another post for another day.)

None of that, however, precludes me from needing help.

It doesn’t matter what kind of talent or education or experience I have in leadership. I still need help.

Too many leaders, though, fail to recognize this, and even some who do fail to act on it.

I had a conversation with a mentee recently in which I offered to advocate for him in a given situation where I held some influence. To my surprise, he thanked me for the offer, but refused.

I was flabbergasted. I did not feel personally offended by his refusal, but I did wonder what was going through his mind.

Upon further reflection, though, he is a talented individual–very intelligent, charismatic and high-achieving.

This, however, is more than likely what made him think he doesn’t need my help, and probably not anyone else’s.

Counterintuitively, help is what will open doors for greater uses of his talent, and fulfillment of his capacities and potential.

As a leader, I need that kind of help whenever I can get it.

Do you?


Life (and Death)

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I learned today that a guy with whom I played soccer and attended class in high school took his own life this past weekend.  We weren’t really pals, hadn’t kept in touch except through Facebook, but it gave me pause to reflect nonetheless.

I thought about the loneliness he must have felt, and the drastic lows that must precipitate such a decision.  And then I thought about the people in my life, and how I care about them so fervently and hope so desperately that my relationships with them could withstand such storms, or afford them at least one outlet in the midst of their angst were they to encounter it.

But I know all too well that there are also other factors, most well beyond my capacity to control.

So I resolve again anew, as we all must, to play my part in strengthening bonds, in remaining current, intentional, even vulnerable. 

For there is no shame in knowing, nor in being known.

So speak, ask, listen, apologize, hug, smile, cry, admit, persist…  and create an environment in which it is possible for others to do the same.

Even the greatest among us falls when alone.


Leaders Create Community

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I had an opportunity this week to address a group of educators on leadership.

One of the things I said to them was, “A school is the hub of a community, and a community is the hub of the world.”

I am not in the habit of christening my own comments as profound, but I realized as soon as I’d uttered it that it resonated through the room.  I hadn’t planned the comment in advance, which perhaps added to the effect.

It started me thinking about the goals and outcomes of leadership.  Though I often talk about my own family, and leading within the familial context, this, while tremendously important, cannot be the limit of my leadership if I am truly a leader.  I must apply principles I learn in the leading of my family to other contexts: micro to macro.

Given that followers need trust, relationship, hope–surely these are the ingredients of community.

The core questions, then, become, “How do I lead in such a way as to bring these about, and how can I be certain they have transpired?”

This is “The Hope of ‘What If?’”–to imagine that it is possible to extend the concept of family to the entire world–daring to wonder how community, and therefore outcomes like peace, justice and subsistence might be achieved, and then leading toward them with intent, confident that they are, in fact, possible.

And this is why the family is so important, for if I cannot lead to achieve peace, justice and subsistence (among others) there, what business do I have in assuming I might lead others to them elsewhere?