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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LifeGuides

One of my core beliefs is that life will guide us toward greater joy, deeper connections, and meaningful success if we listen and align our thoughts, actions and decisions with the energy of life.

Life is all that is good and right and true.

Life is all that is beautiful and loving.

Life is what compels a dandelion to grow through the cracks, the daffodils to push through the snow, and the desert to bloom. 

Life is the hope at sunrise and the pull of the tide toward the moon. 

Life is the ability to keep going forward, to feel compassion and to heal. 

Life rejuvenates us through rest, laughter, music and movement.

Life touches us through art.  

Life guides our bodies to grow, our spirits to soar and our minds to find peace.

Life releases us with her blessings when it is time for us to go.

Twenty years ago when my wife and I started a small consulting business, we reflected on what to call it. For once in my life, I did not over-think it. LifeGuides would be the name. Please check out our new website, lifeguidesllc.com to learn more.

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Human Strength and Vulnerability

Human beings are a contradiction of strength and vulnerability. The human mind, body and spirit can endure tremendous suffering through trauma, illness and pain and survive or even thrive. We have an incredible ability to heal. Could you imagine if our bodies accumulated every cut, bruise or illness that we experienced throughout our lifetime without the ability to heal? Most of us would hardly survive childhood!

Just as incredible as our resilience is our vulnerability. We can barely function without frequent infusions of water and food. And we must sleep a full third of our lives. We live every day one tragic moment away from drawing our last breath. A severe blow to the head, a significant puncture to our skin, or an internal malfunction of our complex organs could take our lives in a split second. It is a wonder with the daily risks we encounter that most of us survive to old age.

Our minds and our spirits are as vulnerable as our bodies. Mental and spiritual injury and disease can hamper our lives, at least as significantly as physical ailments. Mental and physical pain from childhood can simmer just below the surface of our consciousness, impacting virtually every aspect of our lives. Mental and spiritual pathology not only occurs in childhood, but throughout our lives. 

Often we heal, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the injury, the illness or the trauma is too great and we cannot recover. We succumb to our ailments, carrying in our bodies chronic or terminal diseases, in our minds hopelessness, and in our spirits apathy. Sometimes our maladies can last a lifetime, and sometimes they even pass from one generation to the next. 

I believe the same contradictions of strength and vulnerability that exists with each of us also exists between us in our interpersonal and organizational behavior. There is a natural tendency toward life and healing. And there are injuries and illness that can stifle this tendency.  And, we have choices on what to focus on and what to move to the background. What is most prominent in our lives individually and corporately is dependent on where we focus.

We have a choice to focus our energy and attention on human vulnerability or human strength. Many dynamics that play out in organizations focus on human vulnerability and neglect human strength. In unhealthy organizations we are engaged in battle, trying to expose and exploit each others’ weaknesses. Healthy organizations, by contrast, promote compassion and accommodation for vulnerabilities, but do not focus on them. They focus energy and attention on human strength, creativity, resilience and hope.

Let us focus our futures individually, organizationally, politically, socially and globally on finding the strength to heal ourselves and one another; the creativity to undo systemic harm and redo systems of justice and inclusion; the resilience to meet the challenges that confront us, in the hope that the human dance of strength and vulnerability can continue long after our lives in this beautiful world have been fully lived. 

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Sins of Our Fathers

This country was founded on the belief that all men are created equal. At the time, this meant only white men.

Indigenous people were seen as savages, exploited for their knowledge and resources, and then annihilated. Black people were viewed as sub-human, exploited for their labor, and enslaved as property. Women were considered inferior, incapable and exploited to care and support the men. Disabled people were regarded as flawed, evil and deserving of their fate.  Homosexuals were believed to be immoral and condemned by God. Waves of immigrants arriving to the country were too often despised and resented by people who are themselves descendants of immigrants.

Around all of these beliefs our country was established, grew and for many prospered. All of our institutions—government, finance, manufacturing, infrastructure, law, commerce—were developed and built with these misguided beliefs imbedded. 

We have been on a journey since our founding to write the original wrongs of our founding fathers. We can point to milestones in the journey—the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, disability rights, LGBTQ+ rights and immigrant rights—and are eternally grateful to those who had the courage to question the status quo and fight to make the promise of our founders more real.

The journey to right the wrongs is not over. Today’s generations are tasked with cleaning up the institutional and structural inequities baked into everything we are and do every day. Those of us who benefit from existing systems cannot easily see the work that remains. We must listen to those who can see the inequities, and work as hard as our predecessors to fix what is broken and right what is wrong to live up to the ideals, not biases, of our founders.  

We can rise to the challenge. We have access to all the institutions that hold the long shadows of —isms that are imbedded in the policies, procedures, laws, practices, products, workings and culture of the organizations that employ us and serve us. We need to see everything anew, looking at everything—our work, our associations, our politics, our purchases, our recreation—to find the long buried biases disguised as “just the way it is” or “has always been.” We need to find and correct inequities, not only for those who are impacted today but for future generations of Americans who deserve to realize their dreams too.

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Cults and Culture

One of the greatest human needs is to belong, to feel connected to others, to be part of a group that understands and welcomes us.

Every group, whether a family, a community, a sports team or a workplace, has a culture, which includes the rules we must follow to enter or remain in the group. 

Some group cultures are open and welcoming, while others are closed to a select few. Some tolerate or celebrate differences while others require strict adherence to a set of beliefs and behaviors. Some groups we are born into and others we choose. Some are bestowed and others are sought. All are significant parts of our lives.

Cultures become cults when they become too closed, too strict and see those outside the group as enemies. Cults often center around charismatic leaders. They are structured to drive out differences, demanding that individual thoughts, values and judgements be replaced by the leaders’ positions and decisions.

It is easy to be judgmental of cults if you have never felt entrapped by one. The sense of belonging, especially if everyone in your world belongs, overtakes everything else, and in extreme cases, can tragically become more important than life itself.

I experienced the slippery slope some years ago when I was part of a religious community that  consistently told me not to trust my own thoughts, feelings and sense of right, as these were all “playgrounds of the devil.” I was told to trust only the leaders who could interpret the will of God for me. Ironically, what saved me was being a lesbian which was strictly forbidden to belong. I had a choice, be me or belong. I chose me.

When I walked away from this cult-like community, I lost my friends, my social connections and even my faith. Over time, I found new friends and new communities. I also discovered that by learning to trust my own thoughts, feelings and deepest stirrings, my faith was reignited. Turns out, my connection to God, others and all that is good is not outside of me but within me.

I was lucky that I had supportive people outside of the community. My (now) wife, Deb, who also was a woman of faith, implored me, “Trust your gut” and “God gave you a brain; use it!” Without her support, and that of my family, I could easily have become one of “those people” who abandon their values to follow leaders who violate them. It is a small step to abandon your values after you have already abandoned so many parts of yourself.

If we truly believe in individual rights and freedom from oppression, we need to foster group cultures that welcome differences, fresh ideas and creative expressions. We need to create bigger circles of community that invite dialogue across our differences, looking for common values to bind us together rather than be drawn to groups that demand strict adherence to group beliefs and drive us apart.  

One thing that gives me hope in these contentious times is that so many people, even those with whom I disagree most, seem genuinely motivated by their love of our country. Though we may disagree on what that means, we can find common ground in our love for this nation. Let us pray we don’t destroy it in our zeal to conform to our group’s demands.

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Division

The division that rocks our nation appears to be political and cultural. People following different leaders, listening to different sources of truth and accusing the other of lies. Everyone wants to be included. Everyone wants to be affirmed. Everyone wants to feel empowered. Everyone wants their version of the USA. 

People fill the streets demanding justice for black and brown people. People protest democratic institutions they feel have betrayed them. People violently storming Capitals to tear down the government. 

I was taught that we are the greatest nation on earth. What the founders got wrong, later generations fixed. Slavery was wrong; the civil war fixed it. Denying citizenship to women was wrong; the 19th amendment fixed it. Jim Crow was wrong; the Civil Rights movement fixed it. Denying LGBT marriage was wrong; the Supreme Court fixed it.

Recent events followed by broader and deeper understanding of our brokenness defy this narrative. We are far from fixed. 

Our brokenness is not just political and cultural, it is fundamentally racial. The systems and institutions we inherited have hardened the biases of our past, and we continue following the same patterns. Black and brown people have always known this. White people like me have been slower to see it, and our realizations have just begun. We may not want to be racists but we all operate within, and many of us benefit from, systems in which racism is so deep it just feels normal.

We are shaken by the truth of brutality and injustice. We are fearful about what it would mean if we became the country we tell our children we are. 

The people who stormed the capital represent but a tip of a deep iceberg that we all sustain. If we despise their blatant racism and violence, we must look at our complicity and participation in sustaining what lurks beneath the surface.

We are in the midst of a reckoning. Will we reach toward our founder’s ideals or retain their biases and bigotries?

I still believe that our founders, flawed though they were, created a brilliant system of self-government. I still believe in equality, freedom and justice for all. I worry that the sins of our past and present that fuel our divisions, will destroy rather than fix the very system of government that could save us from each other.

God help us.

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Let’s Reorganize!

It seems whatever ails us at work, the management solution is often “Let’s reorganize!” (I myself have been guilty of this all too frequent conclusion.) These two simple words often result in weeks (or months) of speculation and anxiety, followed by weeks (or months) of chaos and frustration, followed by years of resentment because everything that used to work broke when we reorganized.  

I have been through a several reorganizations, most did not go well and a couple did.  The difference between them was that the successful reorgs were focused on the actual work.

It seems absurd to say that most reorganizations I have observed or been a part of have not been about the work.  Instead, they have been focused exclusively on management’s goals or consultant’s recommendations without any involvement from the people who do the day-to-day work.

Reorgs that are strictly focused on management goals have lots of words like, productivity, efficiency, effectiveness, alignment, quality improvement and customer satisfaction.  These are all good goals that can only be achieved if they are grounded in the actual work that needs to be done.

Reorgs fail when they are done to staff.  Re-orgs succeed when they are done with staff who bring a different, practical and work-focused perspective to the conversation. Unfortunately, it is against management culture in many organizations to engage staff in reorg discussions because it is assumed that managers (or consultants) know best. They may know a lot but they don’t know everything, especially the details of the work.

Here’s how successful reorganizations go:

  1. Management (or sometimes staff or supervisors) has a notion that reorganizing might be beneficial.  Managers discuss the idea amongst themselves but don’t make any decisions except whether to bring more people into the conversation.
  2. If it still makes sense, management shares the idea with supervisors to get their perspective.  Supervisors engage staff to ask for their input on the idea of reorganizing.  Ideally, there is a whole organization meeting to share the vision and goals with everyone, asking if it makes sense.  There are many different ways for staff to provide feedback and share their ideas for consideration. 
  3. If there is general agreement that reorganizing might make sense, a workgroup with representatives from all levels is formed to start to model the new ways of working.  The workgroup studies the work and researches best practices and talks to other similar organizations about their experiences.  They may develop several options for consideration.
  4. Management reviews the recommendations and shares them with all staff, inviting more feedback.  
  5. Management proposes some preliminary plans and vets them with staff and supervisors, always asking if it makes sense, inviting feedback and participation.
  6. Management ultimately decides whether to go forward and how, and sets up an advisory  group of all levels to provide feedback along the way.
  7. Throughout the entire process, there is complete transparency on management decisions, considerations and ample opportunity for staff to provide feedback and express concerns.

By investing so much up front, the implementation of the reorganization goes more smoothly.  Because staff were involved, there is less chaos, less resistance, and less breaking of what works, and maybe even more efficiency, alignment and better customer service!  Though everyone may not be happy with every decision, all feel included and informed every step of the way, which promotes a culture of collaboration with the new structure.

If you study the work, the work itself will tell you how best to organize to support it.  The people who do the work are the voices of the work.  Listen to them. 

For more radical ideas on how to make work better, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or on Amazon.

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Night Demons

The season calls not for a blog, but a poem. Here is one I wrote several years ago that seems fitting for these times.

Night Demons
by Denise Moreland

During the day they lurk in the shadows
Driven to the edges by light, activity and conversation.
I may get a glimpse of them during a quiet moment
Which immediately vanishes as my focus shifts.

They leave me alone when I first go to bed.
Preparation routines, reflections of the day, nightly prayers
And sheer exhaustion overcome me with fatigue
Keeping them at bay for a few more hours.

Then it happens.
My partner shifts, the cat meows or the bathroom beckons
Awakening me abruptly.
And my night demons come alive.

They take over my mind
Churning my anxieties, fears, regrets and ideas
Over and over as I toss and I turn
And beg to be released.

Night demons are relentless
They are fed and grow bigger by darkness, stillness
And the ticking of the clock in another room
Which I never noticed was so loud.

As night turns into dawn night demons lose their power.
They begin to fade around four-thirty leaving me with a hope
Of getting one or two more good hours of sleep.
Just as I finally doze off the alarm rings.

Soon I forget about the demons that held me captive only hours ago.
I become focused with the demands of the day.
Once more I convince myself that what was so compelling in the dark
Is completely irrelevant in the light.

As I go about my life there are times when I wonder
Whether my night demons 
Could be angels sent to guide me
Toward greater authenticity, wisdom and connection.

Perhaps my demons are not the thoughts and impulses
That possess me in the night
But the activities, obligations and responsibilities
That consume me in the day.
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