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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Welcome to the fifth issue of The Lens. After fourteen years at the helm, Paul Houston has retired as AASA's executive director. Jay Mathews, a columnist with the Washington Post, wrote a wonderful tribute to Paul entitled "Contrarian At The Helm,"  which was published in the June edition of The School Administrator.

At the end of May, The Center for Empowered Leadership held a retreat at The Princeton Theological Seminary to explore the theme of empowering leaders and to install Paul Houston as president of our organization.  With Paul at the helm, in collaboration with our partners, associates, affiliates, and colleagues we look forward to expanding CFEL's capacity and positive impact.

- Stephen L. Sokolow, Executive Director



A Mind Vacation


Changing the Size of Your Here and Now

I Didn’t Know That!
By Domenico PIAZZA

Using a Clearness Committee to Make the Decision to Retire

The Power of Storytelling

Tell Me More

Saving Face

Finding Common Ground

Letters to the Editor
From Our Readers


A Mind Vacation

  Dr. Paul. D. Houston
  Dr. Paul D. Houston
Founding Partner

I once saw a quote attributed to an elderly African American woman who said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” That’s funny, of course, but it’s also profound. We are trained from an early age that just sitting is something that shouldn’t be done. We ought to be doing something. And if we’re not doing something, at least we ought to be thinking about something useful. We are taught in school that daydreaming is a bad thing. (I always considered that the best part of my day!) But this is the Western way: do something, move on, do some more. And if you aren’t doing, at least occupy your mind productively.

Well, as Dr. Phil might say, “How’s that workin’ for us?” Let me suggest that it’s not working so well. We live in a culture of productivity and privilege, and yet we also live in a culture that requires that billions be spent on counseling and mental treatment, and billions more on drugs that are supposed to improve our mood. Information is exploding but wisdom sometimes seems lacking. Having and getting aren’t necessarily substitutes for knowing and being.

When I first started reading about Eastern philosophy I ran across a description of Taoism that was as true as it was funny. It was suggested that Taoism is a philosophy that teaches “don’t just do something, stand there.” Whether you are standing or sitting, sometimes it might just be a good idea to stop. Okay, if you have to smell the coffee or the roses go ahead—but don’t think you have to. Just stop.

A central tenet of most Eastern religions is “mindfulness.” It has struck me as ironic that the best path to mindfulness is to empty the mind. The key to finding peace (and, dare I say, wisdom) is to quiet the mind and let it find a peaceful place to rest. That allows enlightenment, or at least insight, to emerge.

In our everyday world, there seems to be a conspiracy that keeps us moving and thinking and staying busy. There is no time for reflection and little encouragement to be reflective. I have spent an entire career responding to the question, “What are you going to do about it?” Like the dutiful servant I was, I always saluted and snapped to attention. In hindsight, I have come to realize that sometimes the best service is rendered by not “doing something about it.” Some things are best left undone; some words are best left unsaid. And there are absolutely lots of thoughts that are best left unformed.

As we enter the time of year when most of us go on vacation, it would be good to remember that the core word in vacation is “vacate.” Leave some room in your life to do nothing. Just sit, and think if you must, but give yourself permission to just sit. No one else will know the difference—and you’ll feel better for it.



  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
Executive Director and Founding Partner

At a recent CFEL-sponsored retreat, Bea Mah Holland, one of the center’s founding partners, led us in an engaging exercise called Stepping Stones. The exercise was designed to foster reflection and community building among the participants. Each person selected six stones from a bowl of river rocks to depict significant events and people that have served as stepping stones in our lives. Five stones represented our past; the sixth, our desired future. As I listened to the fascinating stories people told about their stones and why they had selected particular stones in terms of size, shape, texture, and coloring to depict events and people who had shaped their lives, I realized that I was listening to stories of synchronicity. Synchronicity is a wonderful, wondrous spiritual principle. It is one of the ways the world of spirit and the physical world are connected. It is also a way of seeing.

The world-renowned psychologist Carl Jung observed a universal phenomenon operating in the world and named it synchronicity. (For a wonderful book on this concept I recommend Joseph Jaworski’s Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, from MIT’s Center for Organizational Learning.) Jung found, that contrary to common thinking, there seemed to be two types of coincidences: those that were meaningful and those that were not. He used the term “synchronicity” to describe meaningful coincidences. Whether we are aware of it or not, our lives abound with synchronicity.

Paul Houston and I barely knew each other as new superintendents in 1977. Over the years, we came to know each other well, became close friends, wrote books together, and became founding partners of the Center for Empowered Leadership—all due to synchronicity! We came to New Jersey in the same year, in neighboring counties. My assistant superintendent knew Paul from church and took it upon himself to introduce us. Paul and I would bump into each other at education-related events during the next few years but didn’t seem to have any special connection.

From today’s vantage point and countless hours of conversation and dialogue, I believe that my life’s work (purpose) and Paul’s are intertwined. But given our casual meeting in the late 1970s, how was this possibility to unfold? Unbeknownst to me, in the early to mid 1980’s, as a Harvard alumnus, Paul started attending Harvard’s seminar for superintendents. Looking back, one possibility would have been for me to meet Paul at Harvard, but what were the chances of that happening? I had done my doctoral work at Temple University and wasn’t even aware of Harvard’s summer program—until synchronicity intervened.

Then three things happened within a few months of each other. First, my new high school principal (who had a master’s degree from Harvard) attended Harvard’s Principals Center. When he came back he not only raved about the program but told me about Harvard’s summer program for superintendents. He knew the program director and offered to call him on my behalf to secure an invitation. I said, “Let me think about it.” Second, I was talking with a respected colleague about my career aspirations and my interest in continuing my own professional growth. When I mentioned the program at Harvard, he said immediately, “What are you waiting for? It would be perfect for you.” Again I said, “I’ll think about it.” Finally, out of the blue, I was invited to go on a VIP tour of NORAD in Colorado Springs. Sitting next to me on the plane was a superintendent from another state. Not long into the flight he began telling me that he had attended Harvard’s summer program for superintendents. He said the program was phenomenal and strongly recommended that I apply.

That was enough for me. From my perspective, three times the universe had sent me a message. It was time to act. When I returned, I asked my high school principal to call his contact at Harvard. Paul and I spent the next 15 summers at Harvard exploring the ideas that would become the foundation of the book series we are writing. The rest, as they say, is history.

In our collaboration about the integration of spirituality and leadership, Paul and I identified synchronicity as one of our 35 principles. I told him that long before coming across the term I had noticed a pattern in my own life which I called the rule of 3’s. Whenever something came to me three times within a few months, I considered it a message from the universe to listen up—that whatever was unfolding was something I should pay attention to and act on. Paul responded that he had discovered the same principle operating in his life, but for him the pattern had been 2s! When new circumstances, people, books, and so forth entered his consciousness twice he knew he was supposed to pay attention. I laughed and said, “That’s just because you’re smarter than I am. You only need to see something twice to discern a pattern while I, being more dense, need a third knock at the door (or on my head) to get my attention.” In our writing we decided to call this pattern the Rule of 2’s or 3’s—two if you’re fast like Paul, three if you’re slower on the intake like me.

The bottom line is this: If some coincidence enters your awareness, pay attention to it. If something similar shows up two or three times within a few months, pay special attention because in all likelihood synchronicity is knocking, which is to say these events are not random; they are meaningful coincidences aimed straight at you.

Synchronicity is your friend. You can ignore it, but you may miss a golden opportunity to grow or learn or move toward your optimal future. My experience is that if you choose not to pay attention to a synchronistic message it may not present itself again for a considerable period of time—perhaps many years, or perhaps not at all. Synchronicity is a spiritual process designed to illuminate your path and help you to identify and achieve your life’s purposes. Look for it and you will see it. Embrace it and it will guide you.


Changing the Size of Your Here and Now

  Adam Sokolow
  Adam Sokolow
Senior Advisor

Try this simple mental experiment. Look around and take note of where you are. Then imagine that you are able to zoom up into space, all the while looking back at yourself until you are far enough away to see the whole planet. And there you still are: an ever-so-small luminous dot on the surface of our earth. Then imagine that everyone else on our planet is also a small luminous dot just like you, going about their immediate lives just like you are. What a beautiful sight! Now zoom back down again. Here you are, still doing exactly what you were doing just a few moments ago, but something has changed. It’s the same you, and yet it was clear from your imaginary trip—let’s say to the moon and back—that what you are experiencing in your here and now is, and has always been, part of something so very much larger.

Be here now has become a spiritual cliché. So it’s fair to ask: What is the size of your here and now? Stay with this thought for a few moments. Does your here and now simply include what you are doing, up close and personal, like paying attention to chopping those onions as you prepare your evening meal? (That sounds very Zen, doesn’t it? Aware of chopping onions!) Or is it possible that your here and now radiates outward to include all those hungry children in Sierra Leone who may not have eaten today? That also has the ring of an authentic spiritual statement.

Our thought experiment enabled us to reframe our apparent here and now within a larger frame of reference. When we shift our conceptual boundaries just enough so that our immediate personal concerns are placed within life’s larger contextual flow, then whatever we’re doing—say, chopping onions for our evening meal—becomes a symbolic action (for all people must sustain themselves with food), and we are reminded of our good fortune to have this meal. Momentarily shifting our perspective allows us to recalibrate our here and now; it then becomes an opportunity both to enjoy our good fortune and to reflect on our responsibility to somehow share our fortune with other people who, just like us, would enjoy a life-sustaining meal. This is, in essence, why we give thanks and pray before eating. It’s to remind ourselves that we are always part of larger patterns of life.

Our immediate concerns and tasks at hand are always occurring within a larger context. Yet of necessity we must focus our attention on what we are doing, to the relative exclusion of all else. Everything—playing the piano, gardening, writing a report—requires our focused attention. A narrow focus allows us to be pragmatic and to pay attention to what we are doing. Out of the phantasmagoria of our collective experience we select certain things of interest to us and pull them into the foreground. We then have the opportunity to deal with them exclusively, without the distraction of considering anything beyond the boundaries of our own personal interests. This narrow focus is highly economical in the short term (and very effective for getting things done).

On the negative side, however, by narrowly focusing our attention we may remain oblivious of or unconcerned about the impact that our actions are having on our larger surroundings. All of us have had the uncomfortable experience of the narrowly focused neighbor who enjoys listening to loud rock music in the middle of the night, or the bureaucrat who, more concerned with form than content, just says no without any consideration of what we just said. More often than not, the reason we find ourselves in a power struggle or a turf battle with other people is that one or the other of us is simply too narrowly focused.

The remedy for this is to be wide-angled as well as narrowly focused. When we are wide-angled we also pull things forward from our collective experience, but to a much lesser degree. Our attention can be directed more toward the background patterns and structures that support the emergence of events rather than simply the creation of something discrete. Because our attention is not exclusively focused on any particular thing, we’re able to pay attention to the relationships among things as they move through time and space. This permits us to recognize patterns and to model conceptual trajectories—“if this happens, this will follow.” This type of thinking enhances our ability to project the consequences of what we do into the future. It is economical in the long run because it increases the likelihood of eventual smooth sailing by helping us anticipate potential obstacles and so correct our course if necessary.

Both of these perspectives—the broad and the narrow—are needed in order for us to properly place ourselves within our here and now. During my day, I always take a few imaginary trips to the moon to gain a larger perspective on the affairs at hand; sometimes I try zooming even farther out to another galaxy to gain an even larger perspective. Mealtimes are a wonderful opportunity for recalibrating my here and now simply by offering a prayer of gratitude. All of us have a built-in zoom function that allows us to zoom in or zoom out at any moment in time. We just have to remember to use it.


  Domenico Piazza
  Domenico Piazza
Senior Associate

Rev. Bill Brownson arrived in my life during my freshman year in high school. I was 14 or 15 and had just gone through knee surgery. I’d missed a lot of school and was struggling to catch up. Fresh out of Princeton Seminary, he replaced an aging minister in the Second Reformed Church I attended. His youthful spirit and easy manner were irresistible; we quickly established a bond. Watching him closely, I noticed a few things. He was both articulate, yet down-to-earth. His tone invited both listening and response. For the first time, I experienced conversing with an active listener. His gentle eyes embraced my stilted comments as if he were discovering something about me of which I was unaware. I wanted to be near him; I wanted to study him; I wanted to be like him. In retrospect, I see that he had all the qualities of the true mentor.

After a year or so, Rev. Brownson approached me with this proposition: “I’ve been watching you pretty closely. I think you’ve got something special. Would you like to study ancient Greek and maybe someday read some of the scriptures in the original language?” His offer made no sense to me. I lived in a blue-collar town and spent every waking hour either playing shortstop or thinking about playing shortstop. I didn’t know how to think about what he suggested, or about his seeing “something special” in me. He went on to explain that we could meet before school several days a week and he would teach me the Greek alphabet. Then we’d see where that undertaking led us. When it became clear that he and I would be meeting alone, the reason for the meetings became secondary to knowing that I’d have unshared time with him. I said yes.

During the next year and a half we met two or three times a week in his church office. I loved those sessions and found learning the Greek letters and phrases easy. I enjoyed being taught by this kind, deeply spiritual man. I can still picture him leaning back in his chair, arms folded behind his head as he asked me questions about how I was seeing things. I had never met a man like him before. The men in my life had been cut from rougher cloth; they lived life in the present, argued, had strong opinions, smoked cigars, and had women serving their every need. They did not read and were suspect of those with “fancy” educations. The world they knew extended only a short distance outside the borders of our hometown, and they didn’t like it when their sons and daughters moved away.

After a year of morning meetings, Rev. Brownson asked if I wanted to continue our studies. Unsure of my own feelings, I hesitated. He said, “Look, it’s okay if we stop here. Let me ask you, though, whether you thought you could do this when we started?”

By this time, I had learned enough to translate a few chapters of Matthew from the original to English and back again, with only a handful of errors. “No,” I replied, “I didn’t think I could learn another language.” He watched me for a few moments and said, “Well, great. Maybe we’ve gone far enough. You did well, but this is not really about learning Greek. It’s about you knowing you could achieve anything you set your mind to. Now you know you can. That’s what you should take with you.”

The boy who had begun this journey was forever altered that morning. Rev. Brownson’s words ran through my brain all day, as I tried to understand what it meant to “take with me” the knowledge of being able to do anything I set out to do. And what did I want to do anyway? As an adolescent, I was experiencing emotional and physical changes I was unequipped to comprehend. The future stretched out before me, the present was increasingly hard to interpret, and the past was a ghostly assembly of images that left me feeling uncertain about the truth of my own experience. I was unwittingly primed for an intervention—some event or experience that would set me on a clearer path.

At the time of my immersion in the New Testament, its message provided a context by which to understand the world around me. Given the emerging message of salvation, I had a growing sense that I was among the lucky few who would benefit from the mystery of the Resurrection. Religion had become up close and personal in a way that held out the promise that my life would stand for something bigger than itself. It also provided the first real “content” in my nascent teaching career. I had, after all, plumbed many of the secrets buried in the verses Rev. Brownson and I examined, and now I was anxious to share them.

That I had a growing body of knowledge to offer others gave me a sense of superiority, and my natural ability to use language provided the means of persuasion. Others, suddenly, began to pay attention to what I had to say. I was offered the post of adult Bible teacher in our church even though I was younger than all my students. Not long after, the superintendent of the Sunday school (a fairly exalted title for a group of 10 teachers and a little over a hundred students) left, and I was asked to replace her. That further obliged me to sit on the Board of Elders, which met with Rev. Brownson each month to run the affairs of the church. Not yet 20, I felt absurdly unprepared for such responsibilities.

Rev. Brownson was away one Sunday and a replacement on the pulpit could not be found in time. I was asked to speak to the congregation about—well, whatever I wanted. My mother invited her sister and my two cousins to attend my debut sermon. I don’t know how effective that sermon was, but I do know that something happened to me that turned out to be life-changing. I loved it! Having an audience listening to my thoughts gave me a sense of power. Power was certainly not something I’d ever thought I possessed, until it dawned on me that when I finally got around to speaking passionately, people responded. Maybe they were discovering me at the same time I was discovering myself.

That day, my mother and my aunt responded as if they had just heard the Sermon on the Mount. Later I began to realize that both of them had hopes for my future vocation that I did not share. One of my cousins eventually fulfilled their dream when he became a minister. In a conversation with him many years later, he suggested that I had some role in getting him interested in the ministry. This surprised me, though I have blocked out a lot about those evangelical days in my life. Although I sincerely believed the “party line” of fundamentalist thinking in those days, what became important for me in time was the ability to communicate. I would find further use for this gift.

I sensed that the path I chose, absent the ministry, would be a disappointment to my mother and her friends. I knew then that I would choose the direction for my life and resist any attempt to be “scripted” by others. These conversations shifted something deep inside me.

I was now ready to begin to imagine all kinds of worlds. I could grasp “what if’s” for the first time. New ideas began to occur to me. I could begin to reevaluate my thoughts of the past and start developing a different perspective. The “worldview” that began under Rev. Brownson’s mentorship would provide entrée to the world beyond the borders of town and country and unfold the vast presence of cultures, religions, psychologies, literature, music, and spiritual wisdom. It would, in fact, move me out of my previous center to an ever-expanding circle of consciousness. It was at this juncture that I began to think and speak in my own voice.


Using a Clearness Committee to Make the Decision to Retire

  Dr. Bea Mah Holladn
  Dr. Bea Mah Holland
Founding Partner and Executive Coach

On my own, I would probably see [Clearness Committees] as too “new age” or ethereal for my liking. But I have seen it in operation at least twice and conclude that it offers a way to reflect on my future with folks I know and like and trust. So here we are!
                           —Peter Holland, Superintendent of Schools, Belmont, MA

Having served as superintendent of the Belmont Public Schools for 20 years (well over the three-year average tenure for Massachusetts superintendents), my husband Peter’s recent recurring question has been when and how to leave. With a year and a half left in his contract, Peter was clear about the attractiveness of his current position:

"I really like the people I work with, including the administrators, the School Committee, and—for the most part—the public officials, both appointed and elected. We have made great progress as a school system in focusing our energies and resources on teaching and learning. We have had considerable success in aligning curriculum, instruction, assessment, and staff development to enable all students to access the best curriculum. And we have done this with a per-pupil expenditure that is substantially less than the average for the state.… I also very much enjoy working with and mentoring two recently hired administrators in our system.… In short, we have developed an effective and efficient school system, and I feel good about that. In addition, Belmont is a short commute from my home and compensates me quite well."

However, he had other nagging questions: “How do I know when it’s time to leave my current work? How do I devise an exit strategy? When should I start my entry strategy for the next steps?”

Peter articulated repetitive patterns of demands inherent in the superintendent’s responsibilities, including developing and advocating for the budget, resolving issues with the teacher union, waking up at 4:30 a.m. to make a decision on canceling school because of snow, and adjudicating and reconciling issues between and among various adults in the system and the community. In addition, during Peter’s superintendency, the Belmont Public Schools had experienced several untimely deaths, a strike, and a fire that destroyed the middle school.

Coupled with having focused intensely on such issues for 20 years, Peter wanted to be able to take time to read more widely, explore some of his personal interests in greater depth, exercise more regularly, travel the country and world, enjoy friends more, and spend more time with his vibrant 95-year-old mother in Louisville. In addition, friends and colleagues had begun to suggest seemingly attractive alternatives to his hectic life, including recreational activities such as tennis and golf camps, local and global travel, as well as work roles in academia, other school systems, and nonprofit organizations.

Peter’s eventual clarity about retirement came through a process called a Clearness Committee,* which entails bringing together a group of people who are informed about the issue and who participate with the belief that answers reside within the focal person. Beginning the process by inviting seven people—including members of his school committee, central office administration, professional organizations, church, and family (me!)—Peter followed this invitation with an e-mail summarizing the question to be dealt with and a schedule for the evening. The evening began at 5:30 p.m. with an informal, conversational dinner, and concluded at 9 p.m.

I had the pleasure of facilitating the evening, and opened the session with articulating such ground rules as:

  1. Ask only open, direct questions, to which you genuinely do not know the answer.

  2. Ask intuitive “out-of-the-box” questions, e.g., “What color is your life now, and what color would you like it to be in the future?”

  3. No alcohol is served.

  4. Silence is welcome, and there is no need to rush in with questions.

  5. The focal person can choose to pass on answering any question.

  6. The structure of the session, which in this case consisted of 1¾ hours of open questions, followed by 15 minutes when Peter could decide whether he wanted to hear a summary or more open questions, and finally 15 minutes in which the participants could reflect on their experience and celebrate what had been accomplished.

I underscored the rule of “double-confidentiality,” in that no one present could speak to anyone about the Clearness Committee—not even to Peter—unless he initiated the conversation. Finally, I asked for someone to volunteer to take notes.

To begin, Peter elaborated on his personal and professional life, adding to what he had provided in the initial e-mail about his question regarding retirement. The Clearness Committee members were brilliant in their questions—sometimes intuiting questions that were sequential and building on prior questions, and at other times generating seemingly “left field” inquiries, all adding to the richness of Peter’s reflections. At 8:30 p.m. Peter chose not to continue the questioning; instead, he opted to hear the group reflect back what they had heard. As the group mirrored back what had been said, it rapidly became apparent to Peter that he was ready to retire. At 8:45 p.m., each person spoke about the significance of the evening for them, with everyone acknowledging the relevance of the session—both the questions and Peter’s reflections—to their individual situations.

Within a month, Peter submitted his letter of resignation to the School Committee, and the announcement about his resignation was published by the local newspaper in a wonderful article that traced Peter’s career, leadership, and far-reaching positive impact on the school system and community. As his wife, watching from an intimate vantage point, I experience his reinvigorated joyful spirit and lighter step, and we both feel a buoyant freedom as we anticipate our next chapter.

*For more information about the Clearness Committee, see Parker Palmer’s online article, The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach to Discernment.


The Power of Storytelling

  Claire Sheff-Kohn

Claire Sheff-Kohn
Senior Associate and Mentor

So, how do we understand things? From the first accidental wiener roast on a prehistoric savanna, we’ve understood things by telling stories. It’s through stories we understand how the world works.
                                                                                   —D. Weinberger

I am a sucker for a good story, whether oral, written, or on film. I have always delighted in reading literature, whatever the era, culture, genre, or author. Of course, some stories are more compelling than others. I tend to favor those with fully developed characters, rich descriptions of time and place, a great plot line—one not easily figured out—and a strong, plausible ending.

I think my love affair with stories began when I listened raptly to the librarian as she read aloud during story hour. With six children, and my father juggling two to three jobs to make ends meet, my parents didn’t have much time to read to me. But, oh, those story hours at the library! I had a library card at a very early age and, throughout childhood and adolescence, scoured the stacks for the next story to read.

How did I learn religious traditions and values as a child? Stories! Whether communicated through sermons, or written as stories, those teachings were passed along and learned. And then there were the fables, with “the moral of the story,” as another means through which our superegos were formed.

I believe our love of stories is in our DNA, harkening back to our early beginnings when oral history was the means for passing along important cultural and even survival information, as well as moral lessons. And I think effective leaders today understand the power of storytelling.

I bought a book some time ago titled Managing by Storying Around: A New Method of Leadership, by David Armstrong, which is based on Armstrong’s use of stories to motivate, reward, train, hire, and inculcate certain values in his own company, Armstrong International. Turnover rates are reported much lower when compared to other companies, and Armstrong attributes this to improved communication and the higher morale that storytelling produces. According to Armstrong, stories decrease, or even eliminate, the need for a long list of rules and regulations. Armstrong believes that anecdotes are far more likely to be read and remembered than a dull policy manual.

Armstrong sees storytelling as a great management tool. As he says, “They are simple, timeless, and demographic proof. Everybody—regardless of age, race, or sex—likes to listen to stories.”

I wish I were a better storyteller. I am in awe of those who can hold the attention of listeners with a compelling story. Unfortunately, it’s not one of my gifts.

But I have found something more in line with my abilities. Joseph Badaracco—author of a more recent acquisition to my bookshelf, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature—uses celebrated fictional stories to teach eight universal leadership challenges, which he poses as questions, including “How flexible is my moral code?” and “Do I have unsettling role models?” He says the book is based on an experiment with business executives in which he used Joseph Conrad’s story “The Secret Sharer” as if it were a case study. By looking closely at the protagonist in the story, a ship’s captain, the executives reflected on themselves as leaders.

Badaracco says the book “invites readers to learn—about leadership and about themselves—by taking serious works of fiction, treating them as case studies, and examining them in depth.” His discussion with the executives was based partly on a course he has been teaching at the Harvard Business School, in which his students read works of fiction instead of more traditional case studies. His purpose was “to find stories and questions about stories that cast a strong light on the recurring tests of character faced by men and women in positions of responsibility.” He went on to say that he “particularly wanted stories that would let students examine and test their own characters—by looking at themselves in the mirror of compelling fictional characters.”

I have used this method successfully as a professional development activity with administrators—not only in terms of their own development, but also as it relates to their work with teachers and students. Perhaps my love of stories, which led me to become a teacher of English, makes me more open to this method as a means for facilitating personal reflection and discussion among my administrators. I readily admit that I find it more useful than reading and discussing some of the more popular business books.

So, what’s the moral of this story? If you have the ability, I encourage you to use stories instead of memos to pass along the important information, principles, and values of your organization. Or use stories as a vehicle for leading yourself and your colleagues on a journey of reflection and self-discovery.


Tell Me More

  Kathleen Alfiero

Kathleen Alfiero

“Come in,” I said, responding to the weak knock at my door. Jason took two steps into my office, his cap pulled down low. I realized I had no idea what he really looked like.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I offered, meaning it.

Jason had been caught smelling of marijuana by his sophomore English teacher two days earlier. The assistant principal informed him of the consequences as outlined in the school’s substance abuse policy: “You have two choices. One is a 10-day out-of-school suspension; the other is only a three-day suspension if you agree to meet with the substance abuse counselor.” Jason chose the option that most students caught using drugs chose: climbing to the second floor for a visit with me.

“Take a seat,” I told Jason, thinking that he looked more like a middle schooler. His clothes draped over his slight frame, hiding his body almost completely. “I understand you smelled of marijuana in class the other day. I assume you smoke.”

Marijuana was the most commonly used drug of choice—right up there with alcohol. I went into my spiel about his right to talk with me in confidence: “The Law of Confidentiality protects what you share with me. I will not tell anyone anything you say unless you talk about homicide, suicide, or child abuse. Do you understand?”

“Yup,” he blurted, clearly annoyed. He added quietly but boldly, without any hesitation or tone of regret, “Yeah, I smoke.”

“How long have you smoked?” I asked.

“Since I was 7,” he proclaimed.

“What are the circumstances of your life that you started smoking so young?” I continued, even though I knew most young people didn’t like to be asked a lot of questions. I suspected he would tell me a story that I’d heard too many times from too many teenagers.

“My parents smoke, and one day they gave it to me to try,” he snapped defensively. “It’s no big deal. I hate that everyone thinks it’s a big deal!” I was right. His answer was all too familiar.

“How often do you smoke now?” I continued.

“Every day, of course! So what?” Jason seemed indignant, yet his voice was so low I could barely hear him.

When I met Jason I had worked in a large public high school for 16 years. Twelve of those years I had been a full-time high school substance abuse counselor. My job required me to be available to students and their families to provide support and education about making healthy choices. I often thought that I’d heard it all over the years.

“What are you good at?” I could feel Jason’s discomfort.

“I’m not good at anything,” he assured me.

I didn’t give up easily. “What do you enjoy?”

“Not much except hanging out with my friends.”

“You do have talents and gifts,” I told Jason, fully believing what I was saying. “Everyone does, and you are no different. Has anyone ever told you were good at something? Have you heard that from your parents, a teacher, a friend?”

“No. Never. I told you I don’t do much.” Jason seemed agitated.

I felt sad. I always felt sad when kids didn’t know how worthy they were. Encouraging young people to appreciate who they were was one of the main reasons I worked in a school day after day.

“You are wonderful, Jason,” I happily continued. “I know that you have things that you are good at doing. I know that you care about others. I know that you are very special and that you have a purpose for being here on this earth.”

I leaned back in my chair, trying to see his eyes. They were hidden beneath the visor of his cap. Jason looked up slightly and our eyes met. I shivered. I saw into his soul. He was beautiful. Jason felt something, too—I could tell. It was one of those moments in my life in which I was keenly aware that we are all connected. I realized that I was telling Jason what he already knew about himself but had forgotten. It was my privilege to remind him.

“My biggest concern about your drug use, Jason, is that it may take longer for you to discover what you enjoy doing and what you’re good at if you keep using. Drugs numb people’s feelings—the negative ones along with the feelings of joy. Drugs cloud your mind and your heart.”

Jason was listening; his body language shifted a little and I could tell he was taking it in that I wanted the best for him. Jason certainly knew more about how marijuana affected him than I did. But he didn’t speak.

“Well, we’re all done here,“ I added, “unless you have any questions or anything else you want to say.”

“That’s all I have to do for doing drugs?” Jason spoke quickly, as if he thought he had tricked me.

“Yes,” I said. “However, if you keep using, the next time you get caught it won’t be as easy as this was. I respect that it’s up to you how you choose to live your life. Just know that I care and truly wish you well.” Then I added, “You are welcome to come visit me anytime you want. Come hang out with me if you want some help figuring out what is so great about you and how you contribute to others in this world.”

“Cool,” Jason replied, standing up and yanking on his pants so he could walk without falling. Two of his friends were waiting outside my office. As the three were walking away, I heard one of them ask Jason, “How was it?”

Jason replied, “Not that bad. It’s a piece of cake if you do drugs around here.”

I closed the door and let my tears flow. I was full of love for him and felt deeply touched by our time together. I took a deep breath to prepare myself for my next young visitor.

The following day, eating lunch at my desk, I was thinking how rare it was to be alone in my office when I heard someone at the door. Opening my door, I recognized Jason immediately. He was wearing the same huge gray pants, brown sweatshirt, and Red Sox cap as the day before. His hat was tipped a bit higher off his face than before; I could see some of his handsome features.

“Come in,” I said. “I’m delighted to see you.”

“Do you have a minute?” he said assertively.

“Of course.” I smiled carefully.

Jason immediately sat down in my “wheelie chair.” The kids loved that chair; it served as a fun distraction. Sometimes they would ride around the room as they talked. Jason rolled the chair toward me and put his feet on some papers on the corner of my desk. It made me happy to see how comfortable he was.

“What can I do for you?” I asked eagerly.

After a long, long pause, Jason said, “Tell me more about this purpose crap!”


Saving Face

  Maybeth Conway

Maybeth Conway
Senior Associate

I was recently treated to one of life’s delightful surprises when a friend and colleague whom I’d lost track of for decades reached out to rekindle our relationship. Our reunion was both heartwarming and thought provoking as I realized that this resilient woman had taught me crucial lessons in the art of empowered leadership.

In 1978, when we first met, Lu Phoeng was a recent arrival from Vietnam. In her homeland, she had held an influential position as a bilingual administrative assistant for a major American firm; her husband had served as an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. Following the fall of Saigon, she and her family were abruptly whisked onto an American plane and became part of the first wave of Indochinese refugees.

Our paths crossed when we each agreed to join a federal program that was designed to create linkages between the Indochinese refugee community and the social and mental health service agencies in New Jersey. As a natural leader within her local community, Lu Phoeng joined 20 fellow bilingual refugees from across our state to receive a crash course in social service delivery systems. I was an eager, yet woefully naïve, member of a team that attempted to familiarize these natural leaders with the services available to them within the community mental health system. Our team also provided training in crisis intervention strategies to enable these refugee leaders to offer the first crucial interventions to members of their community who were suffering from the deep trauma of resettlement.

Let me just say that I learned far more from these brave individuals than they ever learned from me. While our efforts to facilitate the use of social service agencies were fairly successful, we struggled mightily in our attempts to encourage greater access to the American mental health system. We gradually learned that their deep-seated cultural reluctance to expose personal and family problems was almost insurmountable. While our bilingual counselors were able to provide invaluable short-term crisis intervention, we were seldom able to follow up with more comprehensive professional care. For most of our refugee community, a public request for American mental health assistance was seen as an enormous loss of face. Sadly, we did little to alter that perception.

Once our federal grant ended, I moved on from this challenging position and this wonderful community. Over time, I’m happy to say, most Indochinese refugees overcame endless resettlement obstacles and gradually completed an extremely successful acculturation process. They taught me an invaluable life lesson in the importance of saving face.

I recently learned that face theory is a significant topic in the arena of international relations. Stella Ting-Toomey, a respected negotiations researcher, defines face as “the interaction between the degree of threats or considerations one party offers to another party, and the degree of claim for a sense of self-respect put forth by the other party in a given situation” (see Ting-Toomey's Face-Negotiation Model from "Face," A Knowledge Base Essay posted on Beyond Intractability. ). Her colleague Raymond Cohen enumerates the many ways in which an individual can lose face, including the following: (From "Face," A Knowledge Base Essay posted on Beyond Intractability.)

• a rebuffed overture;
         • exposure to personal insult;
         • exposure to a derogatory remark or disregard for one’s status;
         • being forced to give up a cherished value;
         • making what may later be seen as an unnecessary concession;
         • failure to achieve goals;
         • revelation of personal inadequacy; and
         • damage to a valued relationship.

These researchers and others in the field repeatedly distinguish between actions that honor and actions that humiliate. They encourage negotiators to develop face-saving or face-honoring processes that blend peaceful compromise with mutual respect.

Long before I learned of face theory, my experience with Indochinese refugees alerted me to the importance of face-maintenance practices in any leadership role. Whether I served as a teacher, a trainer, an administrator, or a stepmom, my efforts to honor and dignify others always trumped those that involved threats or embarrassment.

My experiences with refugees also heightened my awareness of the many subtle ways in which well-intended leaders threaten the face of those whom we attempt to lead. A distracted mechanical greeting, a disparaging glance, or a tasteless joke can easily be perceived as a slap in the face. Our zealous advocacy of personal values or pet solutions can likewise convey a face-challenging message. How often does so-called constructive criticism sting like an insult? Regardless of the leader’s intent, each of these face-threatening behaviors has the power to impede progress and diminish relationships.

On the other hand, face-honoring processes offer so much more promise to the individual and the organization. To the extent that a leader is able to practice face-giving acts that encourage spontaneous overtures, affirm the uniqueness of the individual, protect personal values, promote goal achievement, honor existing relationships, and celebrate individual achievement—to that extent does the leader fulfill his or her role. To the extent that human dignity is preserved and each individual is empowered—to that extent does the organization put its best face forward.

At our recent reunion, Lu Phoeng joyfully reported on the achievements of her family and proudly displayed the pictures of her granddaughter. As we reminisced, she thanked me for helping her with her English-language skills and her assimilation. With sincere humility, I thanked her for the priceless lessons in human relations that she taught me. Now we both know the importance of saving face.



Finding Common Ground

  Robert W. Cole

Robert W. Cole
Managing Editor
and Senior Associate

Recently I witnessed a dazzling display of verbal pyrotechnics by two people who are lots smarter than I am. The argument—centering on the use of a particular word that was thought to carry negative energy—began over the salad course and raged on through dinner and dessert. At meal’s end, both combatants sat spent, able but not willing to continue the contest. Each had tried different ways of making, and re-making, their point; neither had budged the other. I felt as if I’d been sitting in front of my TV with a glass of wine, watching an exercise video but not exercising.

Editor that I am, reductionist that I am, I turned to the gent sitting next to me, who was picking up the tab for the dinner and who, like the rest of us at table, had watched (more or less silently) the entire spirited interchange.

“So…all of this started with a disagreement about a word, right?” I asked. He agreed.

“Then how about if we change the word?” I suggested. He paid, laughing, and we departed.

I relate this story not to suggest that editors can lay claim to any special gifts of observation or summation. Not at all. In fact, my mentor, the amazing Stanley Elam,was fond of saying that a good editor doesn’t have to be smart himself—he just has to know who the smart people are. Clearly, on that evening, I was in the company of some very smart people. And it may be that I was taking on too much in seeking a way out of the rhetorical quagmire in which the two sparring partners seemingly found themselves. Maybe they didn’t need a resolution, as I obviously did. Maybe for them the satisfaction was in the joust itself, not in whether one outlook prevailed over the other. And maybe this is why I never made the debating team in high school.

And yet….this little episode helped me to see myself more clearly, to perceive my natural bent for staying at a bit of a remove from any fray while I search for whatever the common ground may be. Understand, though, that I’m not a “can’t we all just get along” person, though the peacemaker runs deep in me. But I do crave resolution, and I find that resolution is often tantalizingly near—nearer than we think in the heat of battle, when we are defending our own constructs, our own precious worldview. It may be (since this is clearly a column of “may be’s” and “maybes”) that the hope for resolution lies in the Observer self. Moreover, I think this holds true regardless of the arena in which we find ourself—be it classroom, boardroom, or dining room. There are always different paths available to each of us. Occupying a particular space—whether physical, metaphorical, or rhetorical—does not mean that we are that space. Do we insist on being right, or dare we allow the Observer self to help us rise above the fray and see others’ points of view?

Or maybe even—let me call this the editor’s way—to choose to cut the Gordian knot and change the terms of the conflict altogether.


Letters to the Editor
From Our Readers

Steve, Congratulations on your best issue yet (April 2008). It was diverse and interesting. Adam’s piece was really good. By far the best thing of his I’ve read to date. The other contributions were good as well and many were thought provoking.
- Bart Pasternak, Elkins Park, PA

Steve, Thanks for sending the latest edition. I’m enjoying the essays.... I’m impressed by the scope of the work and the discipline to sustain it.
- Al Porter, West Trenton, NJ

Thank you for sharing the latest issue of THE LENS. It is always such an inspiration. In this world where the news seems to focus on violence and negativity, it is a breathe of fresh air, a motivating force to look at positive influences and being thankful for the blessings around us. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I read Kathleen ‘s article. How important it is to “think good thoughts.” Tom Vona’s “a Humbling Experience reveals how one person’s help can snowball and benefit so many. Claire Sheff Kohn’s “Spiritual Consciousness is Growing” is exemplified in Oprah’s Big Give, Extreme Makeover, American Idol Gives Back etc., etc. The word is spreading. A great many people in our society are truly helping others.

I try to begin and end each day with gratitude. Angelrays.com has an inspirational thought of the day such as “the smallest good deed is better than the grandest intention”.  Thank you again for all that you do.
- Sheri Nalbone, Ewing, NJ

Steve, The writing in the April 2008 issue of The Lens is fantastic.  I very much enjoyed all the articles, and especially yours since because of you, I'm learning about Reiki!
- Erin O'Kelley Muck, Ashland, Oregon

I just wanted to share an idea that I heard on TV this morning from the renowned speaker and writer Joel Olsteen. As an assignment, a teacher gave her students a class list and asked each student to write one positive comment about each individual. She then compiled the lists and gave the students all the wonderful comments that had been written about them by their classmates. The results were overwhelming. The students were much more confident. How wonderful and encouraging to know that others think that you are...creative, smart, have leadership qualities etc., etc. Years went by and the teacher found out that a soldier carried the list in his pocket, another had the list in her wedding album. Thought this might be useful for empowered leadership.
- Sheri Nalbone, Ewing, NJ


Center for Empowered Leadership ®
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