Completing a Career

This essay is the first in a series of personal explorations into the completion of careers.   Ending a career marks a monumental shift in a life, especially for those who have very much defined themselves through their work.  The essays will address questions like: what does it mean to be done?; how can we say that we have done enough to satisfy the desires and demons from within; how can we feel proud and at peace with ourselves so that we can meet the challenges in the next stage of our lives.

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The year was 2005.  I was sixty-three years old.  I had already had a substantial career.  In the way that novelists have with book jacket bios—truck driver, cowhand, waiter, and drifter—my own winding career had its own cache: historian, therapist, consultant, writer, entrepreneur. I had adjusted well to my failure to become a professional basketball player, a Pulitzer prize winning novelist, and the leader of a social-democratic revolution. But I didn’t feel complete.  I wasn’t sure why.  And the years were whizzing by.

Part of the urgency came from my sense of living on borrowed time.  My father had died from pancreatic cancer at fifty.  I was twenty-six.  I was filled with a childlike sense of magical thinking and believed that I would also died by the age of fifty.  This wasn’t a vague notion.  I believed it with the same certainty that the sun would rise in the morning.  My friends and family still tease me about how well I prepared them for my impending death.  I seem to have survived my fiftieth birthday but at fifty-eight I got cancer, myself.  When the initial surgery failed to capture all those cruel little cancer cells, my conviction about a short life simply reignited.

The next few years again defied my expectations.  I was alive and energetic, and I was faced with the question of what to do with my life.  I had given up psychotherapy.  After almost thirty years, I was too restless to sit still listening to an endless stream of distress and rage.  I had returned to my consulting business, often working with big organizations like State Street Bank and  Honeywell Corporation.  While lucrative, the work felt barren to me.  I really didn’t care about helping rich people get richer.  I did care about supporting the work of the nonprofits to which I also consulted.  Their mission to empower the disempowered, to house, feed, and educate people living in poverty, appealed greatly to me.

If I was going to live, I wanted that ever-present “one more shot” that you hear from people who are not yet ready to cash in their chips.  And I wanted to focus on communities most in need.  I wanted a shot at doing something worthwhile.  Yes, helping couples and families resolve their difficulties had been a good thing to do.  I loved many of the people I worked with and felt gratified when their lives improved—and heartbreaking when they didn’t.  When I complained to my wife that it wasn’t enough, she would remind me of the hundreds of people I had helped and about the thousands of people that my students had helped.  But it still didn’t feel sufficient.

Sufficient for what, though?  I don’t know how to put this in psychological or professional language but I wanted something that touched my soul.  I wanted work that drew from the well of my deepest values.  Only that would permit me to complete my career and to feel that I had done enough.  At the time, I couldn’t articulate this desire very clearly.  It was more like an ache in my heart in need of fulfillment.

In 2005, I saw an opportunity.  I had been engaged with the Boston nonprofit community for some time, consulting to organizations and coaching its executives.  These are dedicated, often gifted people who work long hours for modest pay.  But they have learned their craft in a hit and miss manner, mostly by trial and error.  Maybe they found a mentor along the way, but they rarely find the time or resources for formal education.  I had some experience building training programs, in 1974 founding, with David Kantor and Carter Umbarger, the Family Institute of Cambridge to teach practicing therapists how to work with couples and families.  I believed that I could do the same for nonprofit leaders.

What made the opportunity most compelling was the potential to build a more diverse leadership cadre.  Nonprofits serve people and communities of color in disproportionately high numbers, but only 12-14% of the organizations are led by people of color.  This needs to change.  It is both unjust and ineffective.  The ability to mobilize the resources of organizations and communities depends in part on the credibility of leadership and the rapport among them.  What’s more, the time seemed ripe to make a great impact on nonprofit leadership.  Research now tells us what I knew intuitively in 2005.  The imminent retirement of the baby boomers meant that 70% of nonprofit leaders would leave their jobs within the next five years.  If we could educate and help place young leaders of color in urban centers—now minority-majority cities—powerful social progress could be achieved.

During that first year, Hubie Jones, the dean of Boston’s nonprofit community and a member of my Advisory Board, asked me a simple question: “What’s in this for you, Barry?”  With a little bit of tongue in cheek, I said “It would make my parents proud.”  Once out of my mouth, I realized that I meant it.  My parents had long championed social justice.  That was the religion into which I was born and raised; and the development of the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML) felt to me like a homecoming, a return to direct contact with the values that animated my childhood.  The possibility of feeling whole, bringing together my values and my actions, seemed tantalizingly near.

 

So I began.  I called lots of friends and colleagues, described the new curriculum and asked them to send students.  They did: fourteen that first year, more than half young leaders of color. I loved the teaching.  I loved just getting to know all of the young people who attended classes.  Even without knowing or, in the beginning, thinking, I could build the INML into a substantial force in Massachusetts, the work was satisfying, in itself.  I didn’t have a blazing dream nor great ambitions nor even clear goals.  I just thought that I’d start something that I liked to do and that I believed in.  Now there are over 700 graduates of year-long programs situated in four cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with more to come.

Building the INML meant talking and writing about it all of the time.  I had to recruit new students.  In the beginning I met with each prospective student to discover his or her goals and to explain what our program was all about.  Our connection felt—and was— personal.  I had to recruit teachers, board members, philanthropists.  There would be weekly meetings with foundations in which I had to try persuading program officers that the INML was a wonderful investment.  All of this meant that all day, every day, I was talking the language of social justice and diversity, skill and network building and gathering a cadre of strong, well-educated, well-positioned leaders of color.  I bathed myself in a world of language that spoke directly to my values and informed my actions.  I was incredibly active but often it felt like the experience was happening by itself and I was carried along in its surge.

I can’t say that I grasped the full meaning that the INML would have for me right away.  Rather the meaning spread through the days until I had to acknowledge it.  There are about 36,000 nonprofits in Massachusetts serving more than a millions people.  If we could make the leadership even a little better, they would make their services better, which would mean a great deal to those millions.  We could make a difference and I, personally, could live in the world of difference-making.

This, more than anything—joining the fight for social justice and doing so in a way that I had something to offer—was not only satisfying, it also permitted me to complete my career.  I had immersed myself for a decade in the convergence of my values and my activities.  The immersion was sustained.  It was like completing a circle, from childhood to old age:  living my values more deeply, more immediately, and to some effect.  My parents might be proud but, at last, I felt proud.  I felt at one with myself, peaceful and fierce in my work.  And ready to let it go, ready to enter the post-retirement stage of life.

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A Report Card on Leadership for Trump

What can loosely be called the Trump leadership team has careened wildly over the last few months.  The last campaign directors, Lewendowski and Manafort, have been ingloriously deposed.  Steve Bannon, an Alt-Right, fire-breathing dirty trickster, has been newly appointed.  Ivanka and husband, Jared Kushner, from ‘behind the scenes,’ are said to be the real leadership.  But everyone concedes that it is Trump, himself, who calls the shots, while those who try to advise—or contain—him generally fall by the wayside.

Donald Trump has been measured on many grounds as a candidate and person, but I have seen remarkably little on how well he would lead a complex organization.  I believe that the United States government fits that designation.  Based on what we have seen so far, I have drawn up a report card.  It is built on the key skills, knowledge, and temperamental qualities that such experts as Jim Collins, John Kotter, the team of Kouzes and Posner have developed. At the risk of immodesty, I’ve also taken a page out of my own writing, Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations.

 

                                                Trump Leadership Report Card

Leadership Qualities Trump Performance  Grade
Create a shared vision of the future.  This is a picture of the future that excites others and motivates them to work on behalf of that vision. Trump has succeeded in mobilizing the anger and yearnings of people wanting relief from lives that seem less than they should be, but he has not shared a positive and convincing vision of what will lead to that relief unless you think that “Believe me” and “I’ll make it happen” can be considered a vision.  Nonetheless, while it may not be pretty, Trump has begun to create a vision. B
Create a viable and believable roadmap.  The map shows how you are going to realize the future vision thus making the vision seem believable. If you consider walls ‘extreme vetting,’ pulling out of long term alliances (such as NATO) and trade treaties, considering nuclear warfare, and forsaking climate control a roadmap, and then Trump has succeeded. But it is not at all clear how these would lead to prosperity for the working classes, his core constituency, and safety for our nation. C-
Hire the right people for the right positions.  This means people who are skilled, creative, and knowledgeable, doing the jobs that best suit their capabilities.  They are the next level organizational leaders, who should be smarter in their area of expertise than the overall leader. As far as I can see, Trump has shown no capacity whatsoever in hiring effective people.  Even Republicans are aghast at the low quality of his campaign organization.

 

F
Support and position your executive team in order to maximize their capacity to lead within their domains and in the organization as a whole. It appears that Trump systematically undermines virtually everyone who works for him.

 

F
Delegate and hold accountable. In order to enable a well-chosen staff, you need to give them broad swaths of responsibility and trust that they will find a way to do the job.  You won’t have the time, energy, or skill to do everyone’s job.  Once they are well on their way and your trust is building, you still have to hold them accountable.  Everyone must be held accountable for achieving goals—including the leader. Generally, Trump seems to delegate to no one, acting as though he can do it all himself.  When he does delegate, he does so in fits and starts, giving and pulling back responsibility almost randomly, and in the process driving employees crazy.  The only accountability he seems to exercise is by firing people.  He doesn’t train, educate or encourage them, nor praise them for good results.  In his mind, he is the sole source of good results.He certainly wants all the credit. F
Create an enabling culture, one that rewards both optimal individual effort and collaboration. Programs in complex organizations cross departmental boundaries and require collaboration to succeed. As far as commentators can see, the culture of the Trump campaign is chaotic and critical, keeping virtually everyone off balance, in spite of the efforts of Ivanka and Jared to calm things down. F
Create a learning environmentBuilding and sustaining organizational success depends on learning from what you have done well and what you have done poorly, on amplifying the former and correcting the latter.  Without the ability to learn, you stagnate or “crash and burn.” The Trump political organization has heeded no one’s advice.  There are no sustained course corrections.  Trump, himself, ignores advice, as though it would take over his personality, like an underworld demon. Trump seems to disdain learning.  After initially touting his University of Pennsylvania Wharton School pedigree, he has mainly made fun of “experts” and knowledge. F
Model exemplary values and behavior.  If you demand that others work hard, you must too.  If you need people to collaborate and to put organizational goals ahead of individual success, you must too.  If you think that treating one another well is not only ethical but leads to organizational success, then you must do it.  If you believe that people must always be learning, then you need to become the organization’s Chief Learning Officer, demonstrating over and again your capacity to change and grow. What’s to say?  Trump has been mean, defensive, narcissistic, self-referential, and bounded. —the opposite of a team player. Has served as a model for angry people who, instead of building something, find and lash out at one “enemy” after another.  We can only hope that few people take him as a guide. F

The United States government is a complex beast, with many interlocking parts, hopefully working in some form of coordination.  There is no way that anyone can run it as a one man show.  Even if you are able to set the national agenda and tone, inspiring the masses to back you, you need to manage the vast machinery of government to realize your goals.  That is not something Donald Trump is capable of doing.

In case you are wondering, I’d be willing to bet that these grades also hold for Trump’s real estate and branding companies.  They are not sustainable.  It appears that he drains them of every cent for himself, gets rid of people and properties when challenged, and destroys companies as fast as he creates them.    This, then is the potential model for Donald Trump as President.

 

Forming a Leadership Identity

Leaders make demands on others, often requiring trust, sacrifice, even obedience.   Sometimes the demands initiate a productive process.  At other times, they create frustration and confusion. How often have we observed people in leadership fail because they do not connect well with their staff.  They may be smart, experienced, forceful.  When no one seems to be listening, they might talk louder, explain themselves at greater length and in many different ways, ask deputies to intervene.  To no avail. Not only aren’t people listening, they may be resisting.  Why? Because connectivity and influence require legitimacy, and somehow they don’t have it.

Where does legitimacy come from?  Position.  “I’m the boss.”  Among other things, the position at the top has cultural currency.  Leverage.  “I control your job, your salary.”  Skill and knowledge are important, especially when clearly perceived and aligned with organizational aims.  A track record of being right helps a great deal.  Honesty and consistency matter more than many leaders know.  Legitimacy requires many forms of currency working together.

In traditional societies, being at the top of the hierarchy may be enough to overcome the deficiencies of other currencies.  In modern merit-based societies, however, currency has to be earned, and it depends as much on the sense that  leadership is consistent, thoughtful, moral, and motivated by the “right” reasons as it does from position and power.

There is something about leaders who do what they say and say what they do, who are pretty much the same inside and out, that makes them trustworthy.  This quality of being yourself, even when it is hard to do, represents a kind of internal or psychological alignment, comparable to the structural alignment of effective organizations.  Let’s call this internal alignment authenticity.

Authenticity comes from a clear sense of who you are in the world: your identity.  Erik Erikson taught us how individuals form their identity, more or less clearly, more or less solidly, as they navigate their adolescent passage.  He also taught that there were a series of “identity crises” that continued to define our adult years.  The emergence of an authentic leadership identity works in this way.

Every leader develops an identity, a self image, a story that s/he tells to herself and to others that more or less unites her internal experience and her external behavior. “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”  Lynde.  The stories are revised to better account for internal changes, new people, and new places.  As you tell the story, for instance, people respond positively and negatively to various parts, and the story teller adjusts the story to get into sync with the audience. There is nothing counterfeit about the activity.  We are social beings.  As Lynde puts it, these stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.” Much of the adjustment is subconscious, but some is intentional.

To put this another way, the identity story forms a bridge between the leader and her staff.  At its best, the story links the inner person to the leadership role in a way that frees the leader to call upon her best and to call upon it often. At its worst, leadership identity is so false or inappropriate for a particular organization that it undermines even the leader’s best attempts to get things done.

Identity is not exactly character—who we are down deep and in mostly unchanging ways. It is not the part of us that is hard wired.  Identity is the person we present to both ourselves and to the world, who we and others know us to be.  Since it is both a private and public thing, identity, unlike character, is constantly shifting here and there, constantly being negotiated with those who we regularly interact with.  For those with a strong identity, the shifting is minimal.  Those with weak identities seem like chameleons.  But all identities change with context.

Among the most coherent stories about leadership identity that I have heard is that of Sister Margaret Leonard, formally the Executive Director of Project Hope, an admired and successful organization, built to care for the homeless.  Here’s how she describes the moment when she recognized herself as a leader.

About forty years ago, Sister Margaret was asked to join a leadership council. While she agreed to attend, she was a little awestruck by the other members and, at first, too shy to speak.  With time and the welcome of others, Margaret grew more comfortable and, by the end of the week’s retreat, began to speak up.  It turned out to be an exhilarating experience for her and it boosted her confidence.  She could hold her own with other leaders.  But when she returned to New York City, she “had to explain to my staff and my colleagues what it meant that I was a leader when I still didn’t completely think of myself that way.” This was a daunting task.  With a twinkle in her eye, she continued, “It just took me about six years to dispel my doubts.”

At the end of that period, though, she still didn’t feel entirely right calling or thinking of herself as a leader.  Why?  She didn’t fit the cultural imagery she had absorbed since childhood of the powerful, assertive, charismatic people—men and women—who could claim the authentic mantle of leadership.  Someone like Moses on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Then a friend brought her up short.

“Margaret,” she said, “you’re a servant of God, are you not?”

“Yes I am,” said Margaret.

“You serve the poor and homeless, do you not?”

“Yes I do.”

“And you serve the Sisters who work with you, do you not?”

“I do”

“Then you’re a servant leader, no doubt,” concluded her friend.

“That’s true. I am that,” said Margaret.

At that moment, something deep within Margaret relaxed.  Finally, the role she played, the responsibility she assumed, and the image she had of herself came together.  She no longer felt self-conscious about being a leader.  She could simply lead, without the internal static of doubt and dissonance interfering with her teaching and decisiveness.  She had come to what I call a leadership identity that fit her and aligned with the organization and culture in which she worked.

In essence, our identity is a story that says what is important in our lives.  Here’s how the historian, Drew Faust puts it: “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous.  As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover—or invent—consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self.  Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”

Stories of leadership identity are told and retold until they become part of the lore of an organization or political movement, so real that they define leaders to themselves and to others, so powerful that leaders, or their stories, come to embody their organizations and causes.  Thus Gandhi becomes “mother India”; During World War II, Churchill becomes the British nation and its resistance to Nazi tyranny.  And, in a lesser way, Sister Margaret Leonard became Project Hope, with its generous welcome to all comers and its gentle but fierce dedication to the empowerment of homeless and disenfranchised women.

The leadership narrative is not something one makes up out of whole thought.  It may emphasize certain things about us and not others but it is not fiction.  Leaders have to believe the narratives as deeply, maybe more deeply, than anyone else.  When leaders believe and when the narrative fits with the culture and objectives of an organization or movement, then the bridge of authenticity has been built and the leader is enabled.