Proud of the USA

I have slept better in the last several days than I have the last 6 years, except the few weeks between election day, 2020 and January 6th, 2021. 

Never in my lifetime would I have I believed that our country could spiral down the path of fascism and authoritarianism fueled by white supremacy and hatred toward marginalized people. Our biases in America, at least in my lifetime, have always been more subtle and hidden. As a Lesbian, I have experienced homophobia. As a woman, I have experienced sexism. As a white person, I have benefited from privilege that has mostly been invisible to me. The path away from our ism’s is to listen to each other’s stories from a place of empathy. By listening to each other, we have been able to connect, and make progress to correct injustices and dismantle racism, homophobia and xenophobia in our minds, institutions and systems of governance. That is the American path—to perfect our union toward the ideals our founders espoused.

As a career bureaucrat, I have worked proudly on behalf of “the people” to make government better. In all my years working in government, I have seen (and made) bad decisions based on flawed assumptions and incomplete information. I have seen (and created) inefficiencies based on following the “rule of law,” often driven by politics rather than good public policy goals. Never, have I witnessed a hint of corruption or intent to circumvent the laws no matter how distasteful or short-sighted they were. The people I work with are honorable and faithful to the systems we support as the implementation arm of the people’s government. I always believed that an inefficient, messy democracy was better than an efficient autocracy.

Never did I imagine that elected government officials would leverage the discontent and fears of ordinary citizens to attack our system of government. In other situations of crisis, it is our leaders who remind us—the people—that preserving the system is more important than any election, politician, or policy loss. We must, above all, support our system if we are to preserve it for future generations. Six years ago, it seemed the rules were changing as the leaders and officials were the ones whipping up hatred and violence, not just against other citizens but against the system itself. A government of, by and for the people can only work if we trust the systems that sustain it.

Tuesday, November 8th, 2022 feels like it might be a turning point back to civility and trust in our democracy. Voters across the county—Democrats, Republicans and Independents voted in support of politicians who espouse belief in our democratic republic and against those with expressed intent to destroy it. 

I am proud of the USA—the people—who showed up to save our system, especially those who voted for leaders who did not represent their policy positions, in order to save our country. It was the people, not the officials, who put country ahead of party. I am grateful for these acts of patriotism from my fellow citizens. Hopefully, this will be a turning point back to decency, healing and building systems that reflect our collective interests of freedom. 

I do so enjoy getting a full night of sleep! 

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Grow a Pair!

Grow a pair of what?

Let’s see, what comes in pairs that humans might need?  Eyes, ears, arms, legs, lungs, breasts, kidneys? No. “Grow a pair” refers to testicles. 

Why would someone need to “grow a pair” of testicles? Obviously, in order to “man up.” Being a man requires courage and strength. Men who are cowards must lack the parts that give them courage and strength so they must grow some.

Lack of courage and strength have been known by other metaphors. Not having “the guts,” “the backbone,” or “the nerve” has largely been replaced by not having “the balls” to do what is right. Hence, the need to “grow a pair.”

At face value, using male genitals as a metaphor for courage and strength is crass, and, perhaps to some,  humorous. It certainly reflects a growing tendency in our culture toward crass and sexualized language to explain everyday human experiences.

On a deeper level, however, much is revealed about the shift in our metaphors about courage and strength. While every human being has guts, nerves and backbone, less than half of the human population has “balls” and lacks the ability to “grow a pair.” Does that mean that these people are not capable of having real strength or displaying real courage? 

On a deeper level still, the phrase “grow a pair” reveals a cultural belief that courage and strength are derived from male genitalia. Like with “penis envy,” the phrase coined by Freud to explain the female experience, our world continues to be defined in terms that place the male experience at the center, as normative, while all other experiences and expressions are understood as varying degrees of deviation, other, inferior, or abnormal. Like all human experiences, strength and courage, are understood to be fundamentally male.

Language matters. Use it carefully and wisely, especially if you are in a position of leadership or authority. Be careful how you depict virtues and characteristics such as courage and strength in your words, actions and communications. 

Be aware of biases and traps within everyday language that may not reflect your values, intentions or beliefs. Check your own assumptions about male-centeredness and superiority, which come at us in so many forms within our our culture. Use of slang and crass metaphors may actually undermine your desire to be sensitive and inclusive of everyone around you.

For more radical ideas about how to create a healthy, inclusive and respectful work environment, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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History’s Lessons

The older I get, the more I appreciate history. I have lived long enough to see the patterns in my life that can be traced back to the experiences, decisions and relationships that set them in motion. 

Ironically, what seemed monumental at the time often turned out to be less consequential than I imagined.  What seemed at the time to be rather ordinary so often turned out to be life-changing. 

I agonized in college over my major and settled on Psychology and Religion because they were of personal interest, and wound up with a career in technology! 

By contrast, a short conversation with my brother-in-law’s father at a family gathering set me on a path for a 35-year career working in government that has been challenging and fulfilling.

Working in the same field for so long, I am also able to see the patterns we created decades ago by our decisions and actions, some of which seemed consequential at the time and some of which seemed so insignificant. 

An abandoned project due to personality conflicts seemed at the time a reasonable decision to stop the drama. From a different vantage point, I see today the substantial negative fiscal, operational and service impacts this decision from decades ago has had.  

By contrast, I see that courageous leadership exhibited decades ago to forge partnerships and shared decision-making led to significant transformations in services that has served the people of Minnesota well. The names of these great leaders have long been forgotten but their legacy lives on.

When we are doing an assessment of today’s challenges, in addition to all of the methods we practice to understand and analyze them, it would serve us well to also look at the historical roots of the decisions that led us to this place. Seek out the old-timers who love to tell stories of the past, for in their stories and observations lies wisdom and insight that can only be gained over time. Seek out old artifacts that explain intention and earlier decisions that could shed light on today’s issues. For there, under an old rock, you might find the key to solving the problem and unwinding the dynamics that led to it.

Though we cannot always know, we must at least consider, what the long term impacts of today’s decisions will be in years and decades to come. Make decisions with humility and courage that are grounded in sound principles and long term values rather than merely short-term relief. Seek out the visionaries who can guide you on the journey of time.

Visionaries have an uncanny ability to see in decisions the dynamics that might be set in motion and the unintended consequences they might bring. Visionaries have the ability to discern which actions might be the most significant for the future and which will likely be inconsequential. Visionaries can also look back to see the root causes and essential threads that link today’s challenges to yesterday’s actions. Visionaries are often viewed as nay-sayers and skeptics but can also be an organization’s greatest asset if they are sought out and heard.

For more ideas on how to create wise organizations, check out my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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Trans-Formation

It was June, 1969 when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn resisted arrest for being in a gay bar, protested for several nights for their right to be treated with dignity, and captured the attention of the media. Though not an isolated event, we celebrate Stonewall as the beginning of the modern Gay Rights movement.

During the 70s, we had the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Pride marches and festivals sprung up around the nation and world. Minneapolis Pride was among the first in the nation and this weekend celebrates 50 years!

The gay community was evolving and forming its identity around pride, affirmation and empowerment to replace the shame and humiliation that was so engrained in our culture.  In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association even stopped diagnosing homosexuality as a mental illness. But, even within the movement, all was not inclusive.

“Gay” was viewed as a male term. Lesbians began to assert our own identity to the movement, as did people who identified as Bi-Sexual. Gay liberation became known as LGB. Still, this was not inclusive enough.

People who identify as Transgender asserted their rights so we became the LGBT movement.  Still, this was not inclusive enough, so the broader term, “Queer” was added, which was a bit controversial as this label had been so violently weaponized over the years against our community.  Still, it stuck. We became the LGBTQ community.  Still, this was not inclusive enough. 

People who identify as intersex, pansexual, asexual and in other ways did not feel included so we added the “+”.  It seems today, we are mostly known as the LGBTQ+ community.

We have evolved toward greater inclusion of sexual minorities. But still, we are not inclusive enough.  

Enter the non-binary folks who are not just looking for another label within our movement or stripe on the flag.  They are seeking a whole paradigm shift for sexuality and gender identity. “They” are questioning bedrock assumptions, not only within the LGBTQ+ community, but within modern society itself.  

Questioning the underlying premise of binary gender may cause us to question other polarities as well, like race, politics, geography, and everything that separates and divides us. This is risky and dangerous thinking within a culture that thrives on “us versus them” mentality.

Through their bold ideas, actions and expressions, they may hold the keys for dismantling destructive patterns of oppression and exploitation that undergird our culture and institutions.

I am grateful and proud to be part of a movement that continues to redefine itself to be more inclusive. Our community is full of visionaries, prophets and role models of authenticity who, since Stonewall, and before, have paved the way, often at great personal cost, for more kindness and compassion toward all.

If you have never been to Pride, I encourage you to go or at least spend a few minutes observing the festivities. You will come away feeling more joyful and connected. What shines through the flamboyant costumes, the feather and glitter, the Dykes on Bikes, the rainbow families and the dancing in the streets, is dignity and humanity.

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Mass Murder

Once again we are shaken by the violence inflicted on the most innocent among us. What is wrong with our country, our society, our culture, our priorities, us—that allows the slaughter of people even children—again and again and again? Why do we call these incidents “mass shootings” rather than “mass murders?” Would a change in language be enough to shake us into solving this problem?

Will we ever find enough common ground to change policies so that schools, malls, grocery stores, concert venues, theaters, salons, night clubs and the communities we live in are safe? Can we summon the collective courage and conviction to relegate the scourge of mass and daily killings to become an ugly stain on our nation’s history rather than a regular occurrence in our present day? Can we move beyond this perpetual state of grieving helplessness and find hope in our ability to fix it?

How can we find solutions if we cannot agree on the causes? There are so many reasons touted for this level of violence in our society, which is unlike any in the world in terms of the scale and frequency. 

Here are a few…

The cause for such carnage is too many guns. There is no logical reason to allow military assault weapons to be easily sold to civilians. Even gun rights advocates and politicians ban firearms at their gatherings while encouraging people to be openly armed in public. More guns do not make us more safe or more free. Instead we are more restricted and more fearful. Perhaps this is true.

The fault for mass killings lies at the feet of entertainment industries. Hollywood spews violence into every form of entertainment. In video games, participants have moved from protectors to perpetrators. This steady diet of violence desensitizes us to cruelty and numbs our empathy. Perhaps this is true.   

The problem is that we don’t have enough mental health services available to all. We have not built the community support infrastructure for people who are violent and dangerous to get the treatment they need. Perhaps this is true.

At the root of extreme violence is often racism and xenophobia. Hatred toward Black, indigenous, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ+ people has deep and long historical roots that get fed by politicians, commentators and cultural leaders. This emboldens acts of violence by people inclined to act against “those”people. Perhaps this is true.

The real problem is social media. Not only do they fail to regulate the hate speech on their platforms, they use their sophisticated algorithms to push people toward extremism, encouraging them to feed each other’s biases and even commit violent acts, often while live streaming! Dangerous views are amplified and encouraged through technology, fueling hatred and domestic terrorism. Perhaps this true.

Big business, big tech, big media and big money are running the government. They use all of the underlying causes listed above to divide people, promote hatred and extremism, pushing politicians to promote their interests. Perhaps this is true.

Capitalism has overtaken democracy as lobbyists dictate the policies they want in order to prosper. The governed are no longer in charge of the government. Instead, it is owned by the rich and powerful who will do anything to retain both. Constitutional Amendments designed to protect individuals have become shields to protect capitalists. Perhaps this is true.

Perhaps there is truth in all of these. Instead of arguing about which is more true, we should each pick the cause that most resonates and work on changing it. 

If you want to work on stopping gun violence, here is a link to Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise. For National Gun Violence Awareness Day June 4th, organizers ask supporters to wear orange June 3-5.

If you want to work on reducing violence in entertainment, you may have to start a movement. The topic appears to be less researched today than in previous decades even as violence in media has grown exponentially.  A good place to start may be a fairly recent position paper from the American Academy of Family Physicians.

If you want to get involved in mental health advocacy, the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) is a good place to start. 

Continue to do all you can to reducing racism, homophobia, xenophobia, knowing that marginalized people experience disproportionally more violence than people perceived as mainstream.   

Get involved politically by supporting candidates that reflect your values and beliefs (e.g., ban assault rifles, require universal background checks, hold gun manufacturers accountable, remove dark money from politics, make social media platforms more accountable, etc.), and have the courage to stand in their convictions rather than cling to their power. It will take all of us to create the society we want for our children and generations to come.    

We must all do something to turn our heartache, our hopeless grief and our rage into action. We can do better. We must do better.

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Micro-Management

People often complain about their bosses being micro-managers. Not only are employees told what to do, which one could argue is a manager’s job, they are also told how, when, where and with whom to work. Thats where it feels a bit micro. 

In some organizations there are performance standards, metrics and reports to assess how well everyone measures up to all of these expectations. Staff who don’t meet requirements are put on probation and may even be fired. Yikes! That’s where it feels really micro! 

Micro-managing is grounded in scientific management which focuses on efficiency and effectiveness of individuals, teams and organizations to meet their goals. Managing down to the micro-level is not necessarily bad. Gathering data on work often creates useful feedback and insights on how to do even better—continuous improvement.

Micro-management also has risks. 

First, performance standards have the potential to create competition where you want collaboration. Pitting people against each other in meeting performance standards seldom drives continuous improvement. It is better to drive competition and performance measurements against team goals or to exceed past team performance in order to engage people to cooperate to reach the standards rather than compete against each other to meet them.

Second, managing micro actions can have the effect of driving out variability and variability is where creativity lives. People are not machines but too often we manage them as though they are. Machines are supposed to be predictable, consistent, stable as they perform repeatable work without variance. Humans, however, have ideas, insights, visions, motivations and goals. Managing people like machines drives out these factors, creating drone-like functions where there could be rich human engagement with the work and within and across teams.

The third risk with micro-management is that too often it assumes that the people doing the work care less about about doing a good job than the people managing it. This is a flawed assumption. Most people care about their work. They want to do a good job and make a meaningful contribution. I have had the good fortune of working in the public sector where most people are downright passionate about their work! When faced with micromanagement they often have to work around their controlling bosses because they care so much about serving residents.

To steer clear of the risks of micro-managing, leaders need to look at the underlying dynamics, beliefs and assumptions. If the job requires performance standards and metrics, co-create them with employees, listen and adjust what is being measured based not only on management interests but also what works and is authentic from employee perspectives. Review performance reports together and find ways to capture the non-quantifiable aspects of performance. Invite whole human beings to engage in how to continuously improve.  Ask people doing the work how to maximize productivity without driving out all variables and human creativity. 

Challenge your assumptions. In my experience, leaders who micromanage are usually well intentioned. It is difficult to be responsible for the work of other people. To be responsible, we assume we need to take control. How else are we to ensure the work is done right? Ironically, this is the wrong path. Effective leaders don’t try to control employees, they engage them. 

“Manage the essence, not the edges” is one of my management principles. Create a structure of alignment on mission, values and goals—the essence; and allow the edges—individual style, expression and creativity—to flourish. Trade control for engagement. Engaging requires humility, grace, respect and trust between managers and employees. It is up to the leader to initiate it.

Humility is admitting that you don’t have all the knowledge, wisdom and answers and are dependent on the contribution of employees to succeed. Grace is noticing and honoring differences, allowing people to make mistakes and owning up to the ones you make. Wisdom is knowing when to influence, interject and intervene and when to let dynamics play out. 

If you are a manager and you believe you care about the work more than the people you manage, consider the possibility that this may not be true. Share ownership and responsibility for the work. Invite employees to help define the work—not only the what, but also the how, when, where and with whom to work. COVID has certainly taught us that employees are resilient and creative and we are all capable of working together in new ways not before imagined. People can be productive even (especially) when their micro-managing bosses are not hovering over them.

Instead of micro-managing, micro-notice what energizes the people you work with and what appears to deflate them. Help bring in more of the former and less of the latter. Micro-notice the good work being done every day and acknowledge it. Say please and thank you. Ask what people need from you and the organization to be successful. Pay attention to micro-dynamics, micro-aggressions and micro-alliances. Ensure there is micro-inclusion of all perspectives at meetings.  Micro-manage your support. Great leaders pay attention and help facilitate the right set of micro-factors to help create a healthy and productive work environment where everyone can thrive. 

For more radical ideas about how to improve the work culture, please check out my book, Management Culture: Innovative & Bold Ideas to Engage Employees (mgmtculture.com).

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Competing with History

Five years ago I would not have imagined that the hot topics of our time would be around public health and history.  

By necessity the world has become conversant in viruses, vaccines, and variants; N95, KN95, respirators and ventilators; monoclonal anti-bodies, social distancing and how long we should wash our hands.

As we learn more about the disease that plagues us, it is so easy to be critical of past decisions and actions as experts scramble to learn and adjust to the new information.  

We now understand that the homemade masks that we considered life savers only two years ago are not effective against new virus strains and need to be replaced by industrial strength masks.  

We also understand that the virus is transmitted through the air rather than on our groceries. Still, we honor the love and care of neighbors sewing masks for neighbors, and mothers disinfecting every can that came into the house to protect their children.  

We would do well to offer the same honor and grace to researchers, officials and bureaucrats who continue to shift and adjust guidance based on the ever changing landscape of knowledge. We evolve and change course as we learn more. That is the definition of progress.  

The same principles apply to human history. We apply today’s standards to yesterday’s actions, often without seeing or acknowledging the pressures and obstacles our predecessors faced. Like us, they inherited their history too. We celebrate the lives and accomplishments of those who broke the barriers and challenged the status quo of their day to make progress for future generations; for us. 

Applying today’s standards to historical events is good and necessary if we are to further alter the course of history for future generations. History is not only in the past. It remains with us in the patterns that previous generations set in motion. 

We recognize continued patterns of racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia that have deep roots in the actions and inactions of our predecessors. The great strides made by courageous heroes altered history but did not eradicate these patterns. 

Abolishing slavery did not eradicate racism; women earning the right to vote did not eradicate sexism; same-gender couples having the legal right to marry did not eradicate homophobia; welcoming refugees did not eradicate xenophobia. We honor the actions of our heroes by continuing their work.   

We cannot change the past. We inherited the culture we were born into. We can study that culture within the context of history with fresh lenses and new perspectives, or we can continue to sensor the ugly truths by banning books, restricting discussions and codifying bias in our current laws. It is up to us to decide what mark on history we leave.

In my view, learning a more complete history does not diminish the legacy of our great country but enriches it, so that we also can help bend history toward a more perfect union. Teaching our children about past sins alongside past acts of courage and love does lay blame at the feet of children. It equips them to be leaders of their generation to judge our actions based on their evolving standards, which I pray to God everyday will be yet more inclusive, just and equitable.

Let us continue to honor the familiar heroes of the past in the fullness of their humanity rather than whitewashing the truth. Let us continue to find and honor those whose stories have not been told. Let us continue to judge the past from the vantage point of today’s realizations so that we can correct current injustices and make life better today and for future generations. 

Happy Black History Month and Happy Presidents Day!!

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My Mission

Many years ago I attending a training course where we were required to write a personal mission statement. The statement was to be a reflection of our core values.

After much reflection, I wrote:

To Speak Truth, To Feel Compassion, To See Beauty, To Know God

My wife gave me a laminated card with these words on it that I have carried in my wallet for more than 20 years.

This simple but difficult exercise gave me a reflection of my values which has served as a guidepost for navigating personal and professional challenges and making decisions. When I stray from these values, I become a less myself, which negatively affects my mental and physical health, my effectiveness and my relationships.

“To speak truth.” The opposite of this for me is not to lie but to conceal truth. This truth that grounds me is not absolute truth but truth from my perspective. I am most alive when I have the freedom and courage to tell the truth as I see it. Living as a closeted lesbian for many years was the biggest violation of this value, for which I paid a high personal cost. 

Not being allowed to speak truth has also been the most challenging aspect of my work-life and compelled me to write a book, Management Culture. Not allowing free expression of ideas or concerns is what makes so many workplaces nearly intolerable. The culture of management is too often grounded in suppressing individual expression of truth. When everyone is free to fully participate and express themselves, work is life-giving and even fun!

“To feel compassion.” The opposite of this for me is not to be heartless or cold but to wallow in guilt about the ease of my life relative to the suffering of others. Guilt is useful in small doses to learn from mistakes and make course corrections but it is not a healthy place for me to live. There is no life in guilt. Guilt causes me to turn away from people rather than toward them because it can consume me. If I stay grounded in compassion, I turn toward people, to feel with them. There is life and connection and action in compassion.

“To see beauty.” Sometimes I focus too much on what is wrong in the world or I am so busy that I fail to pay attention to what is beautiful. I must make a conscious effort to seek and see the beauty around me in the world, in my relationships, in nature and in the fur and purr of my kitties.

“To know God.” I spent many years seeking spiritual truths about God and religion, mostly trying to undue the shame forced upon me from my church for being who I am and speaking my truth. Then one day, I became exhausted from the seeking and remembered that as a child I did not seek God, I knew God. God was with me constantly as a friend, comforter and guide. God was in and around me as I learned and played and grew. Somewhere along the line, I gave up knowing God, and became a seeker instead, focused more on what I don’t know at the expense of what I do know. I know and have always known that there is a loving, compassionate, divine energy that created all that is good and beautiful, and connects everything together. Speaking truth, feeling compassion and seeing beauty are ways that I know God.

If you don’t have a personal mission statement or symbol, I encourage you to try this exercise for yourself. See if you can put into words, or some form of art, symbol, picture or object, a reflection of your deepest values to remind you of who you are at your core. It has saved, grounded, guided and healed me at least a thousand times in the last 20 years.

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Courage Prayer

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

We have come to know these words as the “serenity prayer,” used widely by people in recovery as a guide and touchstone.

The serenity prayer is believed to be the rephrasing of a prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian: 

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

I find it fascinating that Niebuhr’s original prayer starts with courage, not serenity. We could call it the “courage prayer.”  It also focuses on “us” rather than “me.”

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book in 1932, Moral Man and Immoral Society, A Study in Ethics and Politics. The premise of the book is that as individuals, humans have the capacity to be moral, compassionate and caring. However, when humans form themselves into societies and groups, natural moral impulses get lost in collective egoism, power and domination. 

Niebuhr writes, “man’s group behavior…symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit:  its inability to conform its collective life to individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”  

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote Moral Man, Immoral Society in the midst of the Great Depression, not long after the Great War, women’s suffrage, less than 70 years after the Civil War ended legal slavery, and a year before Nazis took control of the German government. He was unaware of the “tragedies of the human spirit” we have known in the 90 years since.   

Though I do not have as grim a view of human groups as Niebuhr (he would call me a progressive romantic), I agree that participating in groups can sometimes allow, encourage or even require that we behave in ways we never would as moral individuals. Social psychologists call this “group think,” which we associate with mobs, cults and groups that view outsiders as inferior, unenlightened or less human than “us.” 

In more subtle ways, we all feel the tension when our participation in collective endeavors pulls us away from our individual convictions that we “ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other.” I found this to be true for me in my role as a “manager.” I felt pressure to behave toward the people who reported to me in ways that did not feel consistent with my values. This tension compelled me to write, Management Culture, which focuses on the cultural expectation placed on managers, which sometimes are not affirming, kind, healthy or even productive. 

Beyond our roles, as member of society, consumers, citizens and even participants on social media platforms (which I used to think of as benign), we participate in institutions that don’t necessarily “love and serve” and “establish justice” between people. Sometimes we are unaware of the immorality of our collective endeavors. And, even when we become aware, we often feel powerless to change the human machines of which we are a part. What are we to do? Stop participating in groups that don’t reflect our individual values? Or fight from within the institutions to shape them in ways that are more moral and loving? Yes, and yes. Which brings us back to Niebuhr’s “courage prayer” and its derivative, the “serenity prayer.” 

Perhaps, we should not view these as two versions of the same prayer but as one prayer that addresses both levels of human experience identified by Niebuhr. The serenity prayer keeps us grounded in our morality so that as members of groups we have the courage to “change what must be altered” in society.    

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

Amen.

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Mission-Driven

What motivates us to work? Making money, making a difference, making friends? Being productive, being creative, being busy? For some, the mission of the profession or organization that employs them is not important. For others, the organizational mission is what draws them to the work. It is to those folks that I write today.

If you are drawn to work that is mission-focused, be it in ministry, public service, non-profits, health care, education, philanthropy, diplomacy, or any other organization focused on helping people, animals, the planet, society or the greater good, beware. The alignment of your personal values with those of your work are fraught with many risks to your well-being, which is ironic because your work is often focused on the well-being of others.

The first risk of being mission-driven is becoming a workaholic. Mission-focused work tends to be underfunded and understaffed. Because you care so much about the work, you will be tempted to set aside your own needs, and often those of your families, to fill in gaps that you know you can fill, even if that means working late nights and weekends, and on vacations (if you take them at all). This is not sustainable. The stress of working too much will eventually make you sick. If you are lucky enough to have friends and family who nudge or implore you to work less, listen to them.

The second risk of being mission-driven is compensating for poor performance. When people are incapable or unwilling to do the work that needs to be done, colleagues are often expected to cover the deficiencies because it is more important to serve than expose and deal with performance issues. Add to this general conflict-avoidance which runs rampant in mission-driven work. However, lack of accountability allows people who should be gone to stay, putting even more stress on the people who are capable and invested. Over time, the lack of accountability is corrosive to the organization’s culture as people who compensate become resentful and exhausted, which ultimately hampers the ability to fulfill the mission. 

If you are a leader, don’t expect others to compensate for poor performance. Deal with the issues even if it makes you uncomfortable. If you do the difficult parts of your job, the people who are struggling, those who are carrying them and the causes you serve will be better positioned to thrive.  

The third risk of being mission-driven is tolerating bad management. This is not to say that all, or even most, mission-oriented work has bad management. On the contrary, most managers and supervisors are themselves as committed to the work as staff. However, when managers are incompetent, even abusive, it is often difficult to see because everyone is more focused on the ends than the means. Bad and abusive management will eventually destroy all that is good and undermine the very purpose of the work.

If you have supervisor or manager who lacks the skills to lead, don’t fall into the pattern of doing their work in addition to your own. It will make you resentful and enable the struggling manager to remain invisible. It is so hard, but stick to doing your job even if it means in the short term that things fall apart and the causes you serve suffer. In the long run, it is better for the mission for bad management to be visible to the people who can do something. If they see it and do nothing, or if you work for leaders who are abusive, get out of the situation as quickly as you can. If your personal risk is not too great, tell someone you trust in the organization what is going on, be it a colleague, another leader or human resources. Do it not only for yourself and your colleagues but also in service to the mission.  

Workaholism, lack of accountability and tolerating bad management are all risks of mission-driven work but they are not certainties. They can be avoided and addressed but only if they are visible and faced head-on, which can feel counter-cultural in organizations and fields that place high value on values. 

In healthy, balanced, accountable, well-managed work environments that serve the greater good, there are many rewards and joys in co-mingling work and mission. Just be sure to take care of yourself on the journey! 

Please check out my website at lifeguidesllc.com and my book at mgmtculture.com or on amazon.com.

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