“I am fearless now….”

th-2There are different kinds of memories. Events and happenings. Climactic moments. Hallmark days, such as a wedding, a funeral, a graduation. There are other memories that run deeper.  Memories of…scents…sounds…sight. Memories of emotion and feeling are perhaps the strongest.  The overwhelming moment when something happened inside of you; it changed the way you thought or felt about something. Like you could almost feel your brain morphing. The light bulb went on. The “aha” moment. The door shutting – for good this time – on a path of the past, a path that had been worn down and was going nowhere, and you struggled to get out of its rut, and now you can. These moments are, as they say, more ’emblazoned in our memories’ – because they go to our core – our heart and soul – they become more memorable because we were changed in that moment, that moment that we’ll always remember. We are different going forth.

This week the President gave an interview on radio which was somewhat controversial – but he stood rock solid, with a smile to his critics.  Something had changed in him.  A light bulb moment. An “aha” moment. A door shutting, or perhaps opening.  He put it simply when he said it: “I’m fearless now.” With that familiar jaunty full-faced smile we see more of these days.

This week I listened to a speech made by our new “fearless” President, this new Barack Obama.  And as he was expected to do, but no one could have truly anticipated, he gave a rousing one. But he went beyond rousing. He made a substantive one. He used high emotion, tragedy and deliverance to talk about issues that our country has yet to solve – poverty, poor educational systems, unfair housing, gun control, mass incarceration, jobs, racism, subtle prejudice – and he couched it all in the word “grace”.  Not “hope”, but “grace”.

And as natural as the gently waving program books in that church of 5,400 people – and in our homes and offices as we listened – our President began to sing. Low and deep he began. With the words, “Amazing grace. How sweet the sound…”.

Amazing-GraceI closed my eyes. I wanted to remember this day. Friday, June 26, 2015.  I wanted to emblazon its memory into my mind. I wanted it to change me. I wanted to call my children to gather and listen, but I was frozen watching this all transpire.  And as I thought of my children, grown and working now, I remembered Tuesday, January 20th, 2009.  My daughters were 20 and 22. Just coming of age in this adult world. We sat in the living room with snacks. Dip and chips, Guacamole, Nachos, and fruit. We wore our baseball caps of red, white and blue – one for each of us – with the word “HOPE” stitched right on them. And we watched our President take the oath of office. He delivered another speech that day – and it was a rousing great one, too.

getPartI remember thinking back to another day – September 11th, 2001.  The day when hope died. When ‘future’ seemed grim and hard to imagine. My daughters were 12 and 14. I knew on that day as I watched them come home from school, that their lives had changed. Forever. 2001 began a time of war and fear in our country – faded only somewhat into the hope and change promised to us in 2009.  Things seemed so bright. There was hope again.

Six years we have walked this path with the first black president in our country’s history.  We have seen polarization and stagnation – and yes, we have seen change, and progress. Healthcare. Immigration. Employment. Yesterday we watched as same-sex marriage become the law of the land – and in a moment of glory and grace it became – just – “Marriage”.

We have watched our President age and turn grey. The memory of that promised hope has tinged grey, too.  But he has moved beyond hope. As legacy looms in his mind and for history, he has moved the conversation along and called upon ‘grace’.  He says he’s fearless now. He carries this new state of being with him, as he carries forth with a song from deep inside. He’s making new memories. With new words. Grace. Fearless. Legacy. He says he would have been a better president – today – than he was. Self-awareness is not lacking here.

520976963_295x166But what can we learn? Have we learned that “hope and change” is not a plan? Do we need to conjure up some grace to lead ourselves along? And, if we can conjure up being fearless…think what we might do? Legacy looms closer at my age. The older-agers that 20 year olds grow weary of having around, are so important to moving hope and change along. The young-invincibles with a lifetime ahead of them, with things we need in this country – spark, energy, new ideas, and yes, hope.  But fear stalks the young. It limits them. It holds them back. Fear of speaking out. Of repercussions. Of loss of friends, colleagues, or opportunities. Of career short-circuiting. Of brass-ring missing.

But with the legacy years comes a sense of fearlessness. And that is power. Yes, it’s time to perfect the chocolate chip cookies – to be remembered forever for.  And to try for that hole in one.  But let’s not drift away too far. Together, wrapped in hope, wrapped by grace, together, think what memories we could make. Think what legacies there could be, not just for us as people, but for these United States.

“We” are not amused…

It is almost a knee jerk reaction.  I hear a politician tell us “I need you to…” or “I will be asking for this in my budget…” and I’ve already had a gut reaction to the start of the sentence, such that I really don’t hear what comes after that.  I imagine myself on that podium, saying that sentence.  And I realize that the word I would be so hard for me to utter.  In writing, yes, I can use it.  But in speaking?  To a group?  No, I just sticks in my throat.  But why?

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Linguistically, there is the use of the royal “we”.  First, made famous by Queen Victoria when a vulgar joke was told in her presence. When she replied, “we are not amused”, she “clearly intended to speak on behalf of the other ladies whom she knew were equally offended.” Later, used by royalty to note the collective body of a politically organized nation – most commonly used as a term of separation – them and those – we and they – the intelligentsia and the peasants.

The use of pronouns such as I and we are called functional words.  When used by politicians, the choice can mean the difference between claiming authority and creating community.

There are even studies done about one’s mental state and the use of these functional words.  More people who are suffering from depression use I as opposed to we or they.  Kind of fascinating.

Having spent almost an entire career in the world of nonprofits, I learned quickly that the use of we was, indeed, to build community. And not at all spoken like the “royal we”.  What seemed so odd, at first, became rote.  “We hope you will…we ask you…we thank you.”  Sometimes I felt almost like turning around to see who else was standing there with me.  Never the bolder use of I.  Never as though the individual, the staff member, even existed, except as a title of function, certainly not a separate person. What mattered was the greater good, the cause.

I would like you to donate a major gift towards research.” Imagine! “I would like you to?”  “We need you to donate a major gift towards research.”  OK, but who is the we?  The we is you – and me – and collectively, all of us.

So, staff were in the background, writing the words, designing the photo opp, poised with conductor’s baton, or wind up key, if you will.  It was an adjustment – to deny one’s self – personality – personae – to become invisible.  But soon I came to understand the benefit of this group-being. So, for 20 years I was on behalf of and quite content in that role.  It was deemed to be a best practice of success for a nonprofit.

Today, the role of staff in a nonprofit is quite different.  Today the staff member is often front and center.  Someone whose life has never been touched by the disease du jour is speaking at a podium about the tragedies of some type of cancer they’ve never had.  Often, the volunteers or ‘survivors’ are right there, and willing to speak, but they are not invited to do so.  It is the staff member’s job now.  One they may truly love and be dedicated to.  But one with distance built all around it. Between community – and cause.

All this goes through my mind when I hear the word I spoken by an elected official, over and over again.  What is the purpose?  It must be to reinforce one’s role of power, surely not to build a sense of community – not to sing kumbaya with the people at all.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vo9AH4vG2wA

I think about the organization I worked for and how the tagline, or slogan, it used, changed over the years, reflecting part of this new word order. “We’re fighting for your life.”  Outwardly focused. Inclusive. Involving. Engaging.  “I’M not fighting for your life.  YOU are not fighting…WE are fighting.”  Kumbaya. Exponential engagement!

Today, that slogan has morphed to several others, with degrees of warm and fuzzy. “Learn and Live”  (don’t listen to me and you’ll find out for yourself);  “Your Life is in Your Hands” (it’s up to you, do what you want, you know what you need to do)’ and, today, “Life is Why”. (we’re tired of giving you all the reasons why – you should know why by now).

We have made today’s politicians into caricatures of themselves.  The media has done that.  And we expect it now.  We tweet about the color of the Governor’s jacket and how her hair looked on any one day.  Our obsessiveness would lead one to believe that we have relegated them to use the “royal we”, yet we have created a new level beyond that. Today politicians ask us to do things, to support things, in first person.  I need you to do this.  There is leadership in that, and a sense of authority, but I suggest there is no sense of community or coalition building.

If I were the speech writer I would reserve the authoritarian use of “I” for select moments of crisis.  Rather, I would bring back the royal we, the friendlier we.  For, “it’s all in our backyard”, isn’t it?  It’s not your backyard, or my backyard, it’s ours.  How might we all better respond if we brought back the use of the plural personal pronoun?  Just as your mother saved the use of your middle name for “those times” when obedience meant right now, and no discussion, politicians might command a more communal sense of engagement with the use of we, forgoing the assertive first person singular pronoun for crisis and woe, for that time when “we are not amused”.

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Swimmingly Disruptive

Heat. Water. Poverty. Children. Bureaucracy. Politics. Convening like a perfect storm in the summer of 2013. A community pool was empty. In the heart of the inner city of Providence. More than empty, it was riddled with damage. Rusted and old and hot, the sun reflecting off its chipped and peeling white paint. A pool shouldn’t be hot. It should be an oasis. This one had a history of being more than an oasis. It was a lifesaver. A veritable lifesaver to children who had nowhere to go in the heat of the summer. Adults remembered learning the lifelong, lifesaving, skill of swimming. For others it was a diving board out to a pretty cool life of success.

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Last summer, in the throes of heat and humidity, the absurdity of the situation steamed to a flashpoint. Open the pool. Fix the pool. When would it be done?  A poor neighborhood with small children who wanted to swim in the heat of the summer waited. And then the answer came – it would not be opened. It would be destroyed by a city administration hellbent to make a “cement pond” (to paraphrase Ellie Mae Clampett) out of the whole thing.  Maybe make a water “park”, with little fountains spraying up out of concrete. Or, as one radio talk show host said – let’s watch the kids get their crotches spritzed instead of learning how to swim.

It seemed like an outrageous injustice that would bring so such negative press that surely the administration would see the error of their ways and reverse themselves – maybe even throw a pool party to prove their mea culpas – and ‘what were we thinkings’.  But alas, the wingtips of a politician, and maybe more than one, who all should have known better started to grind into the sand. The more the people asked ‘why’, the louder the silence from the brick office space became. A grinding, seething silence that grew deeper each day. The incredulity of it all was shocking – almost to a one.

Figuring out the ‘why’ is usually what happens next.  But there was no time – there was no time.  Cement trucks were hovering in the dark people thought.  They might have been.

What happened next happened without plan, yet it was exquisitely executed.  It did not involve parading young sweating children out to beg for their pool.  The tactic was a classic disruptive model for change.  For those visual learners, here is a graphic to illustrate the paradigm.  (Credit here to Ted Santos, CEO of Turnaround Investment Partners).  What happened could have been planned out but it wasn’t. It happened by instinct, and was fueled by expediency – and the injustice of it all.leadership_disruptive_model_ts

People began to talk – each coming from their own perspectives and interests. There were advocates for the black community, one coming with a historical perspective who began to organize under the banner of Swim Empowerment.  He even put his own money towards a comprehensive study of why many African-American children and adults do not know how to swim as compared to their white neighbors. He held a community meeting. More people came and talked. The director of the department of health attended and shook his head. Local legislators came. Swim professionals from the “Y” and coaches got involved.  All establishing the bottom of an effective disruptive change pyramid – people with integrity, responsibility and accountability.

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Social media began to flicker as social media does. The conversations rose to a din. The din rose to outrage. People felt passionate and didn’t hesitate to say it.  A “Save the Pool” page on Facebook was born and hashtags developed.  A solid core of people were “in” – they were a committed core, giving this life. The next tier – commitment.

The engagement of a local talk show host quickly won an ally to the cause. Daily he raged on and on, and was joined by others – demanding the official who was ultimately responsible return his calls. No return calls. Silence. More talk show chatter. Support came as a gushing splash, spurred on by the silence from the hot brick building downtown. The community had taken its stand. (see tier 3 of our pyramid).

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Compromises began to be discussed.  “How about filling in part of the pool so it wasn’t deep enough to dive in?” No, the group said. You can’t learn how to swim in a wading pool. “No money to fix the pool.”  Legislators and contractors and community leaders rose up and said – we’ll fix it for free.  “We need to study this whole thing.” “And, oh, by the way, we’re going to fill in the other pools in the city.” By now it was clear the short summer season was passing by. Don’t touch the other pools, the group said, not to everyone’s agreement – but if you don’t touch them, we’ll agree to a [dreaded] commission to “study this”. The goal was clear – the only purpose of the commission was to get the pool open for 2014. We will “study” how we will do this, but we WILL do it. A declaration was made.

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Early in the process – the action step – began. The pool would reopen. Not to be fooled again – and recognizing the devilish details, questions were asked – when, where, how, who. Pressure. More pressure.  July 1st. The pool will be repaired and it will open on July 1st.

Construction began this June, and it was watched diligently, for any possible delays. In the last week of June, the repairs were completed. The water flowed into the pool. And it waits now – warming up – for its debut as this community’s oasis.

It will open tomorrow with a press conference. This year, the talk of making more water parks or cementing in of deep ends is gone – the whole crazy no-pools issue has had a complete breakdown.  There is talk of swim lessons. Around the city. And BBQs for families around the pool. There have been no apologies or explanations – still silence. There will be a lot of people to thank, but for fear of omitting, perhaps it’s best to say this: the story is about the kids smiling, happy to be swimming in the pool, not about the politicos who will want to claim victory or credit in a big splash. Not about any one person really.

This spontaneous, informal, beautifully executed disruptive model – one where people risked possible retaliation, their jobs and votes – bolstered by historical data and facts – spurred on by the urgency of it all and permanency of any failure – with its effective use of the raising of voices and the disruptive media of talk radio and digital news – what can we learn from this stunning success? I don’t propose an answer, but I do pose the question – and I think we should pose it more often.

It is said – “The Disruptive Leadership Model™ empowers organizations to purposefully reach that point which is outside of the business as usual current instead of depending on hope and luck. It is a very effective model for empowering people and organizations to responsibly come out of a comfort zone and produce results that would have never occurred in the paradigm of business as usual. In fact, most breakthroughs change the future of the person or company [or organization] forever,” – Ted Santos.

In this year that has witnessed the loss of Maya Angelou and before that, of Nelson Mandela – what causes speak to you?  What change do you want to see? Make a little noise. Tweet a louder tweet. There are great tools today to bring disruption into very staid systems. Think less about the same ol’ way of doing things if you want to see big change in this, your, lifetime.

Try being more disruptive.  Once you dive into that pool and you learn how to swim – you might very well have changed your own future – and society will be the better for it.

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