Leadership Paradox

I recently began formally mentoring someone, and so I have been thinking about the nature of leadership. There’s a bind that “leaders” face. It has to do with the expectations of those who are led, and of the person who is trying to be a helpful leader.

Consider the teacher of yoga class. They “lead” the class.

On the one hand, as a member of the class, I want someone to inspire me and instruct me, to push me to do “better” and to “improve.”

But on the other hand, in reality the effort I make is personal. My yoga teacher does not actually make me perform “better,” but instead sets me up to unlock the capabilities I already have. True, she or he may invite me to try to work beyond my limitations. And true, I may practice with others, and the feeling of being in community may lift me. But it is always me, on my mat, alone, making the effort.

The abilities I have are all already locked within me.

And so here is the leadership paradox: If I am a leader, I have knowledge to pass on and I know that I might be able to spur others to self-surpass. But would it not be a shame if what others take away from me was that I “made them do well?” For then, what they learned was that they need someone else in order to perform.

As a leader, I want to awaken people to what they already have the capacity to do. I want to cultivate the sense that a leader is unnecessary — if not now, then soon.

As a student, what I may then learn is that self-surpassing is always fundamentally available to me, solely through my own efforts.

A Personal Mission of Agency

Each year-end I look back and reflect. I look at all areas of my life: family, professional, personal, spiritual, physical, financial.

Across all of the major areas of my life, this has been a pivotal year of conceptual progress for me. I developed great clarity on my personal mission. And three ideas that began to gel for me in 2017 continued to gather strength.

Thinking about 2018, it is fair to say that this mission and corresponding three ideas have revolutionized how I approach almost all of my interactions.

My mission: To spread personal and collective agency. This is true in my professional life (where I explore ways that people can develop their own sense of democratic power) but also across my personal life — where I see my role as creating the conditions in which others can see the power and ability they already have.

Three principles have increasingly governed how I think about this mission:

1. I increasingly see propagation as the key means by which personal agency spreads. This recognition must be passed on from person to person to person. Through direct contact. I am convinced that as an individual my highest and best use is in fostering this spread. More and more, I am trying to organize all of my work with attention to how it might later propagate – not just from me to someone else, but from them to yet another. This is a kind of intentional “viral” strategy.

2. I have come increasingly to place learning at the center of all of my interactions. This is the central consequence of the above point. All progress, whether personal or collective, starts with a mindset change. That means that my task is not just to convey “knowledge” but a way of thinking. Agency must be learned, it cannot be taught. I try to interact in ways that encourages others to discover for themselves.

3. More and more I try to act through attraction. If propagation is the means by which personal agency spreads, and if learning is fundamental to that, then the nature of my interactions changes. When interacting with people, my task is to invite and interest them.

The future may always bring more change and upheaval, for me and for others, so I hesitate to say this is all set in stone. But looking back it is remarkable to me how powerful these ideas have been in my inner life over the past twelve months. I am looking forward to seeing how they further take root in 2019.

Building a Different Kind of Political Candidate

I’m in the middle of doing one of my favorite activities, something I’ve been involved in since the late 1990’s. It’s the Candidate Training Program, run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

I was a part of the design team for this program and have been involved in different ways every since. It’s a multipartisan group (D, R, I) of people who are running for their first political office. Over the course of four days, some of the top political consultants in Virginia share the nuts and bolts of running campaigns from the standpoint of planning, direct mail, fundraising, media relations, crisis management, and more. It’s top-drawer advice and is very effective: roughly a third of alumni have gone on to win races, an astronomical statistic considering that most first time candidates lose.

Here’s what makes the program different from other candidate training programs, though: It is built around ethical decision making. The design of the program is meant to elicit thoughtful reflection by the candidates on what they feel their relationship with the public ought to be. We open with an in-depth discussion of ethical decision-making principles, and then check in repeatedly throughout the weekend to unpack what the experts are saying, relating it to the kinds of relationships the candidates are trying to foster.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts from and about these sessions. Some of the notable ones are:

  1. Resistance” — things I’ve noticed candidates just don’t want to do . . . but must.
  2. Oh, D.E.A.R.” — Tips on campaign crisis management from a real pro.
  3. Free Advice For Candidates” — Just a compendium of tips I’ve heard the experts tell first-time candidates over the years.
  4. On The Lam” — A scenario for discussion that I developed and distribute, based loosely on true events. 
  5. All The News That Fits” — Another ethics scenario, again based on true events.


Starting With What's Important

Landing in Dayton, the pilot told us “temperature is 45°, winds from the southwest at 4 mph, and visibility is excellent.”

This struck me as odd. Usually when landing, pilots tell us the weather beginning with wind. Which rarely seems to me to be very helpful. I’d be willing to bet that most passengers want to know what the temperature is, and whether it is raining. They’re not interested in visibility, except insofar as it lets them know whether it’s raining. Nor are they particular interested in windspeed, except insofar as it impacts their comfort. Yet that is what pilots begin with in their recap of the weather.


Because, I believe, that this is what matters to people who fly for a living. They want to know about the winds, and about how far they can see. Temperature and rain? Less important.

It’s a lesson I often think about when I have to explain something to another person, or deliver a message. Often, the way I want to package the message is not the way I should package it in order for it to be best heard.

This is an important discipline. It is hard to get it right, and I’m always trying to improve. Often, when looking back at earlier communication attempts, it can be disconcerting how far off the mark I was!

Photo Credit: Flickr user markonen

Time For A Conversation

A good friend writes on Facebook:

Now is not the time, but sometime soon, while the searing memories are still fresh, we must have a candid conversation about how we all will live in the new world climate change is bringing to us. After a disaster, there is a defiant urge to remake what was lost, brick for brick and beam for beam. But the real challenge before us will be not to remake what was, but to make something different. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Stilt Houses
By Flickr user dpu-ucl

I think he’s right . . . and I believe there is a growing consensus that it is time to have a national (or global) conversation about climate change and how to live with it. This conversation would not simply be an argument over what causes it or whether it is occurring. Neither would it be simply about how to stop, or slow it.

It would be about what we should do — how should we live, how can we adapt, how can we mitigate?

This is not a technical conversation, but a political (small p) conversation. That is, it is rooted in what we hold valuable. We have mistaken the problem as something that experts can handle, and because all the answers really cause us to face tensions between things held valuable, we slide into partisan rancor. It’s time to hold a conversation on that level, rooted in our concerns and aspirations.

There is a very interesting piece by Andrew J. Hoffman in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic — sorry to say, it may be behind a paywall.

Photo credit: Flickr user dpu-ucl

Creating Values Skeptics: My Latest Column at Ethics Newsline

I write a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about the “ethics fatigue” that has grown up around today’s young people, as they are constantly bombarded with aspirational messages and lists of important values and virtues.

Ethics Newsline

I recently had the good fortune to lead a session on leadership and ethics for a group of high school students. It went well — all except for one part, which fell sort of flat. As I reflected on the ups and downs of the talk, I realized that I had been having the same experience with high schoolers for some time.

I’ve been giving addresses on ethics and leadership in public life for many years and in front of many audiences. These events almost always go well and generate insights in the attendees. I liberally mix my experience with the Institute for Global Ethics, my experience in civic engagement, and my experience in politics to make the basic point that, in public life, we ought to root our decision-making in shared values rather than solely in policy or law. A part of these sessions often includes an exercise in which people identify and discuss what their shared, core values might be. Later in my address, I typically use this as a foundation for other points about how to analyze situations and make decisions.

It is this “shared values” portion that fell flat with my high school audience — as it has been for some time. Why? Students these days continually are bombarded with messages throughout school and extracurricular activities that remind them of what their “core values” ought to be. There are posters in the hallways with acronyms designed to generate pep and morals all at once. There are T-shirts, stickers, decals, pencils, and more — all boasting aspirational lists of values and virtues to be memorized, abided by, and spread the message.

What’s more, many students also have been subjected to meetings, classes, lectures, and rallies designed to underscore these values. They’ve broken into small groups, shared their feelings, written on white boards, and addressed postcards to themselves as reminders, all in workshops designed with the same attention to psychology that an adult-education specialist might use when designing a high-stakes board retreat.

The end result increasingly appears to be cynicism and fatigue.

(Continued . . . )

Read the full piece here.

The University of Virginia and The New Transparency: My Latest Column At Ethics Newsline

As many friends know, I have a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about the lessons organizational leaders should take from the recent University of Virginia contretemps.

Ethics Newsline

One email caught my eye recently. On Sunday morning, June 10, I received an announcement that the University of Virginia’s president was stepping down. The announcement was terse. “On behalf of the Board of Visitors, we are writing to tell you that the Board and President Teresa Sullivan today mutually agreed that she will step down as president of the University of Virginia effective August 15, 2012.” Later in the announcement, a statement from President Sullivan referred to “a philosophical difference of opinion.”

Odd, I thought to myself. She’s new on the job. This sounds like she was fired.

Odd indeed. The announcement email, which had been sent under the name of Helen Dragas, Rector of the Board of Visitors (akin to board chair), turned out to be just the opening act of an intense drama that played out over the next 16 days.

This drama has forever changed how the university of Virginia will do its business. Beyond that, however, it also perfectly illustrates a new set of institutional ethics that leaders must deal with.

(Continued . . . )

Read the full piece here.

The Learning Attitude Curve

I’ve been thinking lately about how our attitudes shift over time, especially when faced with new learning or practices.

Many people are familiar with the “attitude curve,” which describes people’s response to change. It’s a U shape — people have to go through a low point before they accept change. This is a familiar idea in leadership studies (see, for instance, The Art of Leadership for an example).

I have been thinking about attitude curves in a slightly different context, however. Specifically, learning new practices. This can be a new job (learning new functions and norms), a new skill (learning how to do something), or even a new place (learning a new community).

The “Learning Attitude Curve” looks a little different, in my experience:

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • At A, you’re in your normal state
  • At B, you’ve been thinking about making this change, and have just begun. You are elated.
  • At C, you’ve been learning your new skill for a little bit, and the bloom is off the rose slightly. The elation has passed.
  • At D, you’re in the doldrums. This isn’t what you wanted, you don’t like how it’s going, you question whether you even want to continue. People bail out here. But then . . .
  • At E, you’ve turned a corner. Turns out D was a bottom of sorts — here, you begin to acquire your new skill or knowledge with increasing ease. Your attitude improves and you begin to see that, even if you have a ways to go before you are an expert, you might be able to make it.
  • At F, you feel as if you are well on your way. You know the worst is behind you, and you are glad you pushed through. But then . . .
  • At G, it turns out that there are still ups and downs to be had. You continue to encounter mini-troughs. People often bail out at this point, because they worry it’s going to get as bad as it was in D. But it won’t. You’ve passed your low point. This is just a natural “down,” not a true inflection point. If you can stick through, it gets better. (Note that there are a number of “G” points, a number of ups and downs as you go forward.)
  • At H, your new skill or culture or whatever is fully integrated. It’s a part if you, and you’re basically back to your attitude back before you got on the curve.

The length of the curve is different for different people and for different circumstances. As is the depth of the low spots. Taking guitar lessons, for instance, brings less intense low spots, and they come a bit quicker than major life-change pursuits.

When I first learned about the “attitude curve,” I thought it was an incredibly negative way of looking at things. But I have come to see that it is actually quite hopeful — at least it has given me hope, on many occasions.

It also helps me in dealing with others. With a new job, for example, it is helpful to know that “D” often comes about 6 months in. If I am interacting with someone who is new on their job, I can understand more about how and why they are behaving.

In recent months, I’ve been going through a learning process and have been riding this curve. Recently, I woke up and realized I had passed through “D” and was on my upswing. I know there will be ups and downs to come, but there’s a spring in my step and a song in my heart.

Knowing that there is a curve is useful, because it reminds me that whatever I am feeling about where I am at . . . it is temporary. It will change. That gives me the motivation to push through low spots and not bail out.

My Ancestor, Tiernan O'Rourke, The Irish King

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so it is a good time to explore the Irish king in my ancestry, Tiernan O’Rourke. Tiernan (or Tigernan Ua Ruairc) was king of Breifne, a region that no longer exists, from around 1124 until around 1172. Breifne was where the current counties Cavan and Leitrim are. At the height of its power (when Tiernan was king), it extended from County Meath to County Sligo.

They say that, in old Ireland, having a king in one’s ancestry is sort of like having an elected official in the family if you are from New Hampshire. The jurisdictions are so small that there are many such officials. That seems about right. Here are the kingdoms of Ireland around the year 900:

You can see Breifne there, in the middle of the North and the South.

Tiernan, Dervorgilla, and Dermot

Even though there were lots of kings and nobles back then, my Tiernan played a special role in history. You see, he had a neighboring king, one Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait Mac Murchada). In 1152, MacMurrough stole my forebear Tiernan’s wife, whose name was Dervorgilla (Derbforgaill). Evidently, Dervorgilla planned this thievery. According to Irish historian Geoffrey Keating:

[T]he wife of Tighearnan Caoch O Ruairc (Dearbhforgaill was her name, and she was daughter to Murchadh Mac Floinn, king of Meath, and not wife of the king of Meath as Cambrensis says) sent messengers in secret to Diarmaid Mac Murchadha asking him to come to meet her and take her with him as his wife from Tighearnan and she told the messengers to make known to Diarmaid. that Tighearnan had gone on a pilgrimage to the cave of Patrick’s Purgatory, and that, therefore, he would have an opportunity of quietly carrying her with him to Leinster. There had been indeed an illicit attachment between them for many years previously.

As to Diarmaid, when this message reached him he went quickly to meet the lady, accompanied by a detachment of mounted men, and when they reached where she was, he ordered that she be placed on horseback behind a rider, and upon this the woman wept and screamed in pretence, as if Diarmaid were carrying her off by force; and bringing her with him in this manner, he returned to Leinster. As to Tighearnan, when he returned to Breithfne and heard that it was against her consent his wife was taken from him, he made a complaint of this outrage to Ruaidhri O Conchubhair [the High King of Ireland] and to his friends in general.

Upon this Ruaidhri made a muster of the men of Connaught, Breithfne, Oirghialla and Meath, and set out with a large host to waste Leinster to avenge this evil deed Diarmaid had done.

O’Rourke mounted an expedition the next year, 1153, to steal back Dervorgilla. This “exchange” sealed the bad blood between MacMurrough and O’Rourke for good.

Dermot Travels To France With A Proposal

As the years progressed, the political landscape in Ireland shifted until, finally, MacMurrough was forced from his lands in 1166 and fled to France, where he sought out King Henry II. MacMurrough was set on regaining his lands and was looking for sponsorship.

MacMurrough found Henry, finally, in distant Aquitaine, and made his case. He knew Henry had ling been interested in Ireland. MacMurrough would help him, so long as Henry helped him return to power. According to the Old French Song of Dermot And The Earl:

Hear, noble king Henry,
Whence I was born, of what country.
Of Ireland I was born a lord,
In Ireland acknowledged king;
But wrongfully my own people
Have cast me out of my kingdom.
To you I come to make plaint, good sire,
In the presence of the barons of your empire.
Your liege-man I shall become
Henceforth all the days of my life,
On condition that you be my helper
So that I do not lose at all
You I shall acknowledge as sire and lord,
In the presence of your barons and earls.

Henry said he was too busy with other matters to invade Ireland. However, he did encourage MacMurrough to pull together his own forces and forge alliances with other Irish kings — and gave him a letter urging all of Henry’s subjects to rally to MacMurrough’s aid. MacMurrough returned to Ireland in 1167 and set about his new task with gusto.

MacMurrough’s first try was a failure. He set up residence near Ferns, but O’Rourke attacked him and he surrendered — and was forced to pay one hundred ounces of gold in compensation for his wife-stealing fifteen years earlier.

But that did not stop MacMurrough. He bided his time and amassed resources and forces. Eventually, he was ready to restart his campaign to take Ireland on behalf of King Henry II. In 1169, Norman forces loyal to Henry joined MacMurrough and the capture of Ireland began in earnest.

Eventually, this resulted in the Norman conquest of all of Ireland. (Many more were involved, it was not just MacMurrough. Indeed, his role diminished over time.) O’Rourke bitterly fought against MacMurrough throughout, including laying siege to his forces after they had captured Dublin. But, finally, MacMurrough and his allies prevailed. The Normans occupied Ireland until 1541.


Tiernan O’Rourke lived until roughly 1172. As part of the distribution of power, O’Rourkes remained in power as Kings (later Lords) of Breifne until 1605.

Even though he was a cuckold, I hold an abiding pride in my illustrious ancestor Tiernan O’Rourke. His story is dramatic and shows how very human emotions (love, jealousy, rage) can drive historic events.

Learning about Tiernan O’Rourke made me curious to know more about my family lineage. In my studies, one thing I learned that my coat of arms is two black lions on a yellow background, an image I find very attractive.

I also learned that the family motto is “Serviendo Guberno.” I learned that this means “I lead by serving.” This has stuck with me and I have come to try to live my life by this motto (as have other O’Rourkes and Rourkes) — I try to serve others as the highest form of leadership.

I don’t always succeed, but I try.

As a reminder to myself, I have gone so far as to have my family crest and motto memorialized as a tattoo.

Leadership Lessons From The Parable Of Penn State

Like much of the nation, I have been stewing about the Penn State scandal. And, like many, I have been thinking about what lessons can be drawn.

Photo courtesy pennstatelive (Flickr)

There are many raw emotions when it comes to the situation. Many are writing much more eloquently than I could about the disgusting betrayal of trust at the core of the situation, about the moral cowardice exhibited by almost all actors, and the arrogance of the powerful few in the face of the weak. All these things make my blood boil, even as my more moderate self counsels me to withhold judgment until I know more.

But, for leaders of mission-based organizations, there is a clear lesson that can be learned here. It is this: Beware the successful program.

The way the Penn State situation has unfolded has shone a light on the power of sports programs in American academe. Football, for many large colleges, is a highly successful revenue-producing program. Yet, it is just a minor part of the mission of any academic institution. The power that football wields, by dint of its success, vastly outstrips its importance to the mission of a school.

Football, and other intercollegiate sports, very easily becomes the tail that wags the dog. This is the danger that organization leaders must be aware of. In the face of a successful but non-core program, it is easy to rationalize that it must be continued. A leader need only point to all the good that it makes possible — all the good that its money makes possible, to put a finer point on it.

However, once one sets foot on this slope of reasoning, it quickly becomes slippery and an institution can find itself in the valley below. While the Penn State scandal provides a dramatic and high-stakes example, the principle applies beyond sports and beyond schools.

Many years ago, I was in charge of a major program administered by a small nonprofit organization. My program was responsible for about 35% of the organization’s budget each year. However, it was a bit off the beaten path for the organization, which was focused mainly on delivering training and developing new intellectual frameworks. My program, on the other hand, was focused on political advocacy.

Over a short span of time, because my program was so alien to the core activities of the parent organization, I was granted a great deal of autonomy. When it came time to renew the grant application with our funder, the prospect of losing the revenue source became alarming — and so we crafted proposals that would get funded, first and foremost. In some cases, I believe this was at the expense of the mission of the parent organization.

The situation was not cut-and-dried. It was possible, at every juncture, to make a good case: This program was sort of in line with our mission, and it enabled so many other important activities . . . so we ought to keep at it.

Eventually, the chief funder of the program ceased providing resources because of a shift in focus. I believe this was in the end a good thing for the parent organization, as it forced a decision that, up to that point, the leadership team had been loathe to make.

Those who lead mission-driven organizations should take heed of the parable we are offered by the Penn State scandal. It appears that, in the case of the actors involved in Happy Valley, the power of the individual program was sufficient to maintain silence. In many organizations, there is some small pocket that wields a similarly outsize force. They are allowed to continue, in many cases, out of convenience or a sense that they are necessary for survival.

Leaders need to ask themselves: What programs is my organization inappropriately addicted to? How prepared am I to cut the cord?

The answers may give one pause, but they should be heeded.