Personal Leadership

Leadership is an oft discussed topic, but mainly in the context of work.  What does leadership mean in terms of one’s personal life?  Is it even relevant for our personal lives?

Let’s think about this for a minute.  If leadership at work means acting congruent with your values and morals, serving others and the larger mission, and enabling positive change, it seems like the same criteria can apply to one’s personal life.

I know I don’t typically think of leadership in my personal life, that is, how I conduct myself outside of work.   I also think many of us compartmentalize the two, with our personal life containing the majority of our emotional life.  Does leadership apply to our emotional life?

You bet it does.

It may not feel that way, since most of the time, when we feel an emotion, we treat that emotion as a sacred, immutable, incontrovertible thing.  Sacred and incontrovertible it is.  Immutable, maybe not so much.  In other words, we do need to respect that “we can’t help how we feel” but we can influence how long and how intensely we feel that way.   The ability to manage those emotions is important because our emotions are, well, irrational by definition.  And when I’m being irrational, no matter how well founded the reason, the less likely I am to exhibit leadership, personal or otherwise.

How can our emotions be scared and incontrovertible but changeable?  Our emotions are sacred and incontrovertible because we are essentially driven by our emotions and shadow beliefs, whether we choose to acknowledge them roiling within or not.    This comprises our emotional make-up, and that deserves respect and recognition.  But if I have a shadow belief that I’m not good enough or not lovable, these beliefs will drive my actions (I may not risk conflict with a loved one or apply for that top notch job) but also my emotions (if someone is disrespectful, dismissive or complimentary of someone else I may freak out).  Those actions will tend to produce the reaction I most fear (failure or disengagement) thereby validating my shadow belief.  Note that I created that reality.  It did not necessarily exist before I acted on my shadow belief.

So while our emotions deserve our respect and recognition, it doesn’t mean we have to give them the keys to the city.  Like an unruly two year old, we can soothe that wild beast by acknowledgement and recognition, without rolling over for them.  This is where change can occur.  We can bring those beliefs to light and to question them.  For instance, “that behavior toward me was not loving, but that does not mean that I’m not lovable.”  We can also provide an antidote to that belief, “…and since I’m inherently lovable like everyone else on the planet, I’m going to love myself first and foremost rather than depend on others to feel validated.”

You are your own change agent and in doing so, you retain your personal power both within and outside your inner world.  In doing so, you can then make a choice as to how to react that is consistent with your values, morals and best self, and that is of service to others.

In my book, that is personal leadership.  What is your definition?

Coping Toolkit

It’s been 6 months since I’ve started a full-time graduate program on top of my day job.  Despite having several advantages going in, like having an empty nest and a flexible schedule, it still has been a challenge.  Though it’s been busy, I have felt pretty calm and in control after an initial adjustment period, and I feel I’ve been able to enjoy the program without getting too stressed out.  Here are some useful tools in my Coping Toolkit:

  • Get organized and pace yourself – Getting that calendar and overview of scope of work organized was an absolute necessity.  I also like getting things done early, so I work hard on the front end so I don’t feel rushed later.  If something unexpected comes up (like a forgotten assignment), then I have some leeway.
  • Prioritize and shift – The gym routine has completely gone out the window but I’ve substituted it for walking the dogs with Chris when possible.  I’m not in as good of shape but the dogs are and I have a little extra time with my sweetheart.  I’ve also had to prioritize certain social gatherings – my BFFs get first priority and I do the rest as I’m able.  Then I don’t worry about it. Other lower priority items have to go, and if I’m too tired, busy, or feeling overwhelmed, I beg off without (or rather, with minimum) guilt.  My downtime is a priority to make sure I can cope.
  • Satisfice – Satisfice means do just enough to get a really good result.  No perfectionism here.  Just thinking it should be enough doesn’t work:  I had to build this into my routine.  For example, when I think an assignment is good enough, I go ahead and turn it in so I can’t keep editing until it drives me crazy.    I’m also trying not to look at my grades.  Any external evaluation has the potential to drive me nuts, so I avoid it unless necessary.  I can’t please everyone so I try to please myself in terms of the work and work quality.  When I do need others’ feedback, I remind myself that this is for improvement and a useful outside perspective.  Speaking of which…
  • Perspective – This is the most important one.  I am here for my own education and gratification, not to please the grader.  I approach the assignments from what I want to get out of it, not as to whether I’ll get a good grade or not (you may not have that luxury if you’re not in graduate school).  Granted, if you’re trying to balance work and home life, you do have to please your boss and family to some degree.  Make sure you know what those expectations are instead of guessing what they view as acceptable, good or excellent.  Then find a way to balance them both or negotiate to where you can both be satisfied.   Remember that you can’t please everyone, nor is it your job to do so.  Others sometimes just have to learn to deal with disappointment and their own unrealistic expecations!
  • Self-awareness – Implicit in perspective is having self-awareness regarding self-talk and beliefs.  Usually it’s my own self-talk and my counter-productive beliefs about myself and the world that are really my source of stress.  I’m so accustomed to them, I take them for granted as being true.  By putting unrealistic and unhealthy expectations on myself and my performance, I’m actually decreasing my quality of work.  So, what is it that I’m saying to myself all day?  What beliefs do I have that create anxiety, anger, frustration and disappointment? When my buttons get pushed, likely an unhealthy belief system is at play and it needs to be brought to consciousness, understood and contested.

So school has been an education, not only in terms of content but also my ability to successfully manage a huge workload without driving myself and others nuts.  I know I don’t want to maintain this pace forever, but knowing that I have the tools to handle what comes my way makes me feel confident and capable.  What are your most important tools in you coping toolkit?

Enjoy Your Relationship – Take a Break

Reunions.  Photo credit:

Reunions. Photo credit:

We’ve been doing a little experiment about pleasure and separation.  Chris has been traveling due to work lately and we’ve just completed the longest separation we’ve ever had.  The separation hasn’t been easy, though somewhat mitigated by communication technology.  After all, we’re in the honeymoon stage of our relationship where it’s difficult to be apart, though it would’ve been much harder had I been left caring for a family on top of it.

So what’s so great about separation?

Psychological theory tells us that separation can improve the pleasure in our relationships or anything else we value.  First, sharing an experience is more pleasurable than giving a gift.  For example, doing an outing with the family will bring more pleasure than giving an expensive bauble or toy.  The physical gift is subject to the hedonic treadmill: the pleasure wears off quickly and then it must be replaced with something bigger and better.  Enjoying an activity together is not subject to the hedonic treadmill, so spending time together will be of lasting enjoyment.

Second, we can savor the anticipation.  I didn’t do too much savoring when our reunion was more than a week away, but as we got down to the last 3-4 days, I was savoring the anticipation like crazy!  In other words, delaying gratification can increase your enjoyment of the experience.

Third, the more effort we put into something, the more we value it.  So having a long separation followed by a long trip to the reunion means I put a lot of effort into this reunion and the time together has been precious.   I’ve also tried to savor every minute we’ve been together – I’m blogging now because my sweetie is sleeping.

Finally, to make sure we have a really great visit, we should finish it off with something memorable.    The Peak-End rule states that my recollection of an event will be dictated by the peak and the end experiences.  I will not remember much about the duration, so the short nature of the visit is not relevant.  So I will remember the really lovely bath he lovingly prepared for me and hopefully lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant on the way to the airport.  Then I can savor the short, hard-earned but sweet experience of our visit when I return home.

I’m not so sure about the old adage about how absence makes the heart grow fonder.  But absence can clearly increase your overall pleasure.  You may not be separated from your sweetheart right now but you probably are separated from someone or something that you love.  Get the most out of that separation by savoring, putting effort into the reunion, and making the ending count.

Technology for Strengthening Relationships

I’m going to play devil’s advocate on the technology-separates-us argument.  It’s a complex issue, and like all complex issues, there is another side to the equation.

So let’s consider the ways that technology can be a huge plus and can strengthen relationships.  Skype and Facetime are huuugggeelly positive technological advances!   Sure, it’s nice to talk to someone face-to-face instead of through an anonymous, disembodied telephone.  But when you are long distance from a loved one and you can actually see them while you talk to them in real-time, it makes all the difference in the world.  While my son is far away at college and my sweetheart goes on long business trips, Skype and Facetime are life- and sanity-savers (and they’re free!).

I could stop there because that benefit alone is ridiculous.  But the group video call technology such as Google Hangout is also so incredibly cool.  Not only does Hangout make group calls so much more fun and interactive when video is added, the Special Effects feature had our team in stitches for literally 15 minutes the first time we used it.  Even now, when I put the virtual cat mask and clown hat on during a meeting, it simply lightens my mood.  Hangout is free too!

I won’t stop there either.  Say what you will about texting, but having emoticon apps like the free Emoji app takes texting to a new level.  While celebrating good news by text, my verbal response might’ve been: oh that’s so great!  Congratulations… and…. uhhh…. Emoji allows us to send a host of emoticons that express celebration through fireworks, clapping hands, big smiles, flowers, horns blaring, and so forth.  Those of us with a limited emotional range can really get a lot of mileage out of emoticons.

And then there’s Facebook.  Also free.  You know, you don’t have to use Facebook obsessively if you don’t want to, so the bad rap, though not entirely unwarranted, is also completely under your control.  You can simply use it for whatever enjoyment you might choose to derive from it.  I love to see pictures of my friends, even if we may never really see each other or talk on the phone.  Yes, the photos are usually like putting forward one’s best foot (figuratively speaking) and may not reflect reality, but who cares?  A great picture fills me with positive emotion.  Ditto with uplifiting messages; I just happen to like that stuff.  And I get to disseminate my blog there too.  What’s not to like?

So don’t be grumpy about technology.  Find the features you enjoy and use them shamelessly!  They don’t have to replace your real life relationships, they can be used to enhance them instead.  So reach out to a loved one any way you can, even if it must be virtually.

“Hero of Your Destiny”

Thanks to my friend David for sharing this poem with me.

The Declaration

By Robin Sharma, author of The Leader Who Had No Title and The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

Today, I declare I am strong and brave, not timid nor weak

Today I declare that my past will no longer limit my future and just because I couldn’t achieve something yesterday doesn’t mean I won’t do it this day.

Today I declare that I’ll honor my talents, express my gifts and reveal my creativity to everyone around me.

Today, I declare I’ll be loyal to my values, respectful of my mission and fiercely focused on my dreams.

Today, I declare that I am a maker versus a consumer, a giver versus a taker and a visionary versus a victim.

Today, I declare that I will always be part of the solution and never part of the problem.

Today, I declare that when I fall, I will certainly rise and when I’m in doubt, I will persist.

Today, I declare that I will cherish my health, feed my mind and nourish my soul.

Today, I declare that I am surrounding myself with people who are smarter, faster, stronger and better than me so I am uplifted by their models and inspired by their examples.

Today, I declare that I set the standard in my work, am becoming the icon of my industry and a legend at my craft.

Today, I declare that I adore my family, am grateful for my friends and am an encourager to all those who are blessed to cross my path.

Today, I declare that this New Year is MY year. My time to grow, excel, laugh, love, win, believe, persevere and serve, knowing that I am truly the leader of my fate, the owner of my results and the hero of my destiny.

Civil War Post-Traumatic Growth

Recently I visited the Tredegar National Civil War museum on the banks of the James River.  My homework assignment was to visit and cultural museum and write about what the museum said about well-being.  The museum is housed in a beautiful old ironworks building that I have never visited even though it is adjacent to my favorite spot in all of Richmond.  The facility originally manufactured railroad and locomotive parts beginning in 1830, but during the Civil War the facility made blankets and stored patterns for casting munitions.

Once I entered the museum, I realized with dismay that a museum about the bloody and acrimonious Civil War would not be an easy study in well-being.  The park ranger that chatted with us did not help with my assignment as he focused on the political tension and negative emotions that fueled the start of the conflict.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel that the exhibits, presented in as neutral a political tone as possible, was about post-traumatic growth enabled by focusing on the positive aspects of this bloody and divisive conflict.  For example, the exhibits avoided mention of the impact of brother fighting brother, the number of casualties, and the economic devastation of the South.  Instead, it showed the brave blacks that fought for the cause, the abolitionists that helped slaves, the hospitals with a high success rate, the artistry of the photos taken at the time, the success of the region prior to the war, the hopes and dreams of each side, and the traditions of the region.

To me, I felt there was much pride displayed regarding the identity of Richmond during this era.  I believe the positive explanatory style on display helps us to accept and psychologically manage what was our horrible history, and allows us to move forward and grow from the experience.  Indeed, today Richmond is a beautiful and thriving city that is not defined by the mistakes of the past.  We still have racial and ethnic tension – we were the capital of the Confederacy after all – but Richmond has largely made peace with our chequered past and managed to retain Southern pride without the angry overtones that accompany the defeated.

Despite having ended more than a century ago, I know the echoes of that terrible conflict still resonate in our region.  The symbols of the war are a source of pride for some but a continued source of pain for others.  What more can we do to heal those old wounds?  How can we find the best route going forward  incorporating, not ignoring, the lessons of the past?  How do we do so honoring all sides involved?

Myth: Assh*les Get Ahead

It’s true that the myth above is false:  You don’t have to be Donald Trump to get ahead.  It’s also true that some do despite being jerks, but for a given amount of talent and hard work, you’ll get even farther by being collaborative and generous.

In his book, Give and Take, Adam Grant turns the dominance paradigm for success on its head.  Grant studied all kinds of people from medical students to salesman and found the same surprising theme again and again.  Though the givers tended to be at the bottom portion of the performance curve, they were also at the top.

Why is this?

Grant says that givers are liked and so others go out of their way to promote their success.  Givers are generous of their time and resources, share credit, work to ensure the success of the group over their self-interest, and use a collaborative style of communication.  Givers are not afraid to ask for help, be uncertain or show their vulnerability.  Takers, on the other hand, use dominance and a powerful communication style, hog the credit and limelight, and will work to advance their own interest.  Takers rarely will be willing to show their vulnerability and instead work to display their mastery and dominance.  Matchers, those who try to balance the give and take so it comes out even, tend to punish takers and reward givers.


If you think about it, we are social and hivish creatures.  We have succeeded evolutionarily because we have been willing to work together.  Those that get out of line and try to take too much are punished with gossip and retribution, according to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis.  In other words, the givers will help the group and species advance, while the takers will be punished by the group because they advance themselves at the expense of the group.  While the taker strategy might pay off in the short run, gossip will ensure that everyone knows who the takers are.

The implications of this research are that if I am presented with a choice for self-interest over helping another, that helping not only will help advance my community, but it also is good for me in the long run.

So it’s really true:  It’s better to give than receive.  This giving doesn’t have to mean going out and volunteering and giving all your money to charitable causes.  There are so many ways to give in large and small ways alike.  Find a way to make it your own that is in line with your authentic self and which feeds your soul.  See how you can make your corner of the world a better place and you will find yourself a better person.

Super Bowl and Well-Being

The clan.  Photo credit:

The clan. Photo credit:

I’m a big fan of technology but one of the potential downsides, as we all know, is the risk of isolating ourselves instead of engaging in ‘real’ relationships.  We most often think of those relationship casualties as those of an intimate nature, but what about the group and community bonding we’re giving up? As society has become more individualistic over time, our communities just don’t seem to have the coherence they once had.

Since the baby boom generation, we value mobility and independence over community, where neighborhood is now just a place to sleep at night.  I have literally lived next door for years to neighbors that I have never met.  It always struck me as odd that a sense of neighborhood unity and coherence was only present at times of distress and disruption:  after a hurricane or big snow storm or a national tragedy like 9/11.  But that on-again, off-again sense of community has always been my reality.  Even places that might provide a sense of community bonding, such as school or work, have largely failed to coalesce for me into feeling like an integral part of the whole.  I have spent most of my life feeling like a lone wolf that periodically joins the pack.

But it’s not always that way.  My leadership development programs and my current master’s program have had a very different and distinct sense of community and team spirit.  Getting together has felt like one huge warm bosom of camaraderie and good will.  We’re in it together, and any egos or agendas are left at the door.  Though the master’s program is large enough such that I am not intimate with every classmate, I nevertheless feel we are all one big family.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

What do we give up by losing this sense of community in our daily lives?  Ultimately, humans are pack creatures.  We have huddled together around fires for millennia, and to be isolated in front of the computer or TV in our work or homes is counter to our instinct and basic human nature.  Our species has used collaboration to enable the community to survive and thrive.  Individual self-sacrifice is even necessary occasionally for the species to survive and flourish.  That sacrifice is still evident among those in the armed forces and first responders who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect and advance our communities and nation.

This transition from feeling alone to an integral part of the group is a distinct phenomenon called the hive switch by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind.   The switch from individual interest to group interest makes the individual feel like a part of a whole, provides energy to the group, and elevates the group from the ordinary to the sacred.   We are rewarded physiologically for this switch via a release of oxytocin, the hormone that enables the feeling of connection.

Organized sports and religion continue to provide access to this feeling of community.  The rituals of sports and religion activate the hive switch (imagine the spectators at the Super Bowl), though modern religion is losing the ability to provide the feeling of community in this increasingly individualistic society.   So, regardless of how you may feel about organized sports or religion, they do provide a useful service in the provision of the essential human need to belong. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when my master’s program ends and I’m left with a void that was my community and family-away-from-home.  I’m not a big fan of organized religion or sports, so I’m unlikely to find a surrogate in those arenas.  Perhaps I can use technology to my advantage here and find people of like interests in my area to meet with, either by joining a pre-existing group or organizing my own. What do you do?  Do you have your community or are you like me, a lone wolf who occasionally circles with the pack?