“Be curious, not judgmental” – Walt Whitman

Like some of you reading this post, I used to watch a lot of television, but I have cut most of it out over the last few years. The main exceptions are if my wife and I get into a show together and watch one episode per night or watching live sports. During the pandemic, this pattern really has not changed, as I have enjoyed spending time reading and playing with my son.

Not only can watching television be a big time waster, it can also be a source of stress, especially 24 hour news channels, which I actively avoid. Furthermore, I have often worried about Hollywood’s glorification of rude jerk personalities, like Dr. House and Ari Gold from Entourage. One of the final straws which led me to limit my TV-watching was the juxtaposition of the optimistic portrayal of public service through shows like The West Wing in the early 2000s, to the ultimate in cynicism shown through political dramas like House of Cards, which premiered around 10 years later. Every time I would turn on the television, I would see more glorification of the “love-able jerk” characters, which just does not align with my values.

But then much to my surprise, in walks Ted Lasso. If you have not seen the show, Ted Lasso is on Apple+ and I highly recommend it.* In short, it’s the story of an American college football coach who is hired to coach a premier league soccer team in England. Without giving too much away, the Ted Lasso character, played by Jason Sudeikis, is optimistic and resilient, the ultimate “good sport.” Every Friday, I excitedly wait for the next episode, sometimes using the excuse of my son rising early to get my early morning fix before starting the rest of my day.

A recent episode had a moment in it that taught a very important lesson and made me reflect and go deeper.

Take a look:

Instantly, the story and the Walt Whitman quote, “Be curious, not judgmental,” struck me both intellectually and emotionally. I started to consider how often I rush to judgment, and whether doing so was actually serving me well, or limiting me when trying to reach my goals.

Our minds are meaning-making machines, constantly making assumptions, judgements, and looking for patterns. This is not an inherently bad trait – it kept humans safe as we evolved for a very long time. However, interpersonally these same tendencies may not serve us as well. Our internal narratives can be filled with bias, can be self-destructive, or can result in hurting someone else. At the end of the day, our judgments can be the lens through which we understand the world and that lens is foggy at best, opaque at worst.

So what would happen if we replaced our judgments with curiosity? What would that world look like? And what would a workplace like that feel like?

These are all questions that have been on my mind since reflecting on this powerful quote from Walt Whitman by way of Ted Lasso. I have found that I need to check myself all the time to try be more curious rather than judgmental. In doing so, I have found that it is amazing how many of my assumptions are actually wrong. I’ve also learned that being curious is much more enjoyable, light, and energy-saving than being judgmental.

The more we learn about something, the more we open ourselves up to different points of view, and the more we question, the more truths and wisdoms we will learn. Leaders must continue to pursue truth and wisdom as the world continues its fast pace of change. It serves leaders to be curious, to not judge, and to not rely on what has worked in the past.

How will you be curious, not judgmental?

KEY TAKEAWAY: We all have so much to learn and being judgmental can shut us off from truth and wisdom. “Be curious, not judgmental” – Walt Whitman.

*Note: Ted Lasso is rated TV-MA for those who may want to screen before watching with families and young children.

The power of a common story

I’ve written previously about Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who is one of the most respected religious leaders in the world today. While I am honored to share a name (ok, one letter different) with such a great person, I am also humbled to share some of his wisdom with you for the purpose of becoming better leaders.

Rabbi Sacks recently participated in an interview with author Tim Ferriss on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss show. The entire interview is important and worth listening to. Ferriss and Sacks cover topics like leadership, morality, and mysticism. In answer to Ferriss’ questions, Sacks always provides illustrative stories, a lesson in itself around impactful communication. You’ll also hear other important gems like, “Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.”

You can listen to the podcast right here:

For those who prefer to read a transcript of the interview, click here

While there are so many parts of the interview to unpack, let’s devote time and focus to just one this week. Let’s discuss the concept of the common story to help create commonality in a group and it’s impact on leadership.

Here is what Rabbi Sacks said about the common story in America:

“One thing that Britain took seriously, and America took much more seriously, was the concept of national identity. There was a kind of initiation that you went through in the States, in schools, where you learned what it was to be an American, what were the key dates, who were the key people, and so on and so forth.

I once pointed out there’s fascinating experience to walk around the monuments in Washington, and then walk around the monuments in Britain. If you walk around the monuments in Washington, you go to Lincoln Memorial. On the one hand, you’ve got the Gettysburg Address, on the other, the second inaugural. You look at the Jefferson Memorial with screens of text on marble tablets. You look at the Roosevelt Memorial with those six spaces, one for each decade in public life, with the key quotes, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ You look at the Martin Luther King Memorial, with well over a dozen of his most memorable lines.

And I suddenly realized, in America, monuments are something you read. Now, go to Parliament Square in London, and you will find that Nelson Mandela gets three words, or two words, sorry: Nelson and Mandela. Winston Churchill wrote as many memorable sentences as anyone in the English language, gets one word, Churchill. In Britain, monuments aren’t things you read. But, in America, they are. Why? Because America had to integrate successive waves of immigration. So they had to read the American story. They had to live the American story. They had to make it their own story.

The second you have a strong national identity, then you have a strong basis for saying we are all in this together. We all have collective responsibility for the common good. Now, around 2016, just before the presidential election, I was privileged to win quite a big award in the States, presented in the Kennedy Center in Washington. And I mentioned this story. And after I came down and got my award, people said to me, ‘Well, you know, we used to do that. But we have stopped telling the story now, because we’re embarrassed to tell the story.’

And the moment I heard that, I realized that America was in deep trouble. Because there is no way you can generate we within society without a strong sense of we all belong together. All you do is you dis-aggregate and fragment the culture. And the end result is that people like Black Lives Matter and all the others feel they are not fully part of this society. This society doesn’t fully recognize and respect them. And you can’t live with it. So, first things first, tell the story. And I was just thinking, can it really be done?

And then my beloved number one daughter, who has clearly divine insight here, decided two years ago or three years ago that she was going to buy Dad a birthday present of tickets for Elaine and myself to go and see Hamilton the musical. And I suddenly realized what it was, to retell the American story in a new and very inclusive way. So full marks to Lin Manuel Miranda for something that is very creative, in expressing the we in a new way. So that’s the first thing, tell a national narrative.”

Stories are powerful and the lesson here is that one need not look to a country to have culture-building narratives. These narratives exist in our organizations right now. I remember when taking Business ethics in graduate school, professor Judy Frels introduced us to the idea that every company has stories. There are the “formal” stories that are in media, orientation, up on walls, and other channels. And then there are also “informal” stories that are told between team members about how “things really work around here.” Culture exists whether we are intentional about it or not.

As leaders, stories are some of the best communication mechanisms we have and neuroscience tells us that they are memorable and easy to understand. The next time we try to get a point across, especially around culture, let’s commit to using the story as a way to do so, especially a relevant and real-life story about a customer.

The common narrative is but one element that Rabbi Sacks discusses to help create a more communally focused world. I recommend you listen to the conversation in its entirety and remember to notice how Rabbi Sacks frequently begins his answers with…a story.

KEY TAKEAWAY:

We need to be kind

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:18

The COVID 19 pandemic has highlighted to me, more than anything else, how “the golden rule” has been eroded in a time where we need it the most.

Our public health experts have told us that many of the actions they have urged us to take to stay safe during the pandemic, including wearing masks, social distancing, and eventually being vaccinated, are just as much about protecting others as they are about protecting ourselves. If we all were to do those things, we could successfully limit the spread.

But something in our current culture is out of balance. It might be an overemphasis or misunderstanding of individualism, rudeness, skepticism of science and logic, or perhaps believing in conspiracy theories (or many other trends). These elements and others have eroded our kindness, compassion, and the understanding that we share this earth with others. More and more we live in our own headspace and are not considering the needs of our neighbors and those around us.

We all have work to do in this area, and I will be the first to admit that I need to do this work too.

But something from the last week gave me hope. It showed me that examples of how each of us should behave are still out there, and that while we are lost, we can still find our way back.

That inspiration came from a 13-year old boy named Brayden Harrington from New Hampshire. He inspired me with his courage to speak at the Democratic National Convention last week.

Here is Brayden’s speech:

The story of Vice President Biden meeting Brayden Harrington dates back to February 7th. Recently, I saw the video of that meeting on twitter.

Take a look:

Let’s put aside for just a moment that our country is in the middle of a bitterly divisive election. And let’s put aside the fact that one of the subjects of this post is Vice President Joe Biden who is one of the two candidates running for President. If you are an entrenched skeptic, I ask you to put aside your doubts about the genuineness of the interaction too.

I ask you to do this for just a moment, because what we can learn from these two men should not be at all political.

Brayden is a boy with his whole life in front of him. But, he has a disability, and one that makes his life different than most of ours. His disability, a stutter, is something he shares in common with Vice President Biden. Biden worked hard and overcame his stutter, and this young man wants to do the same and took inspiration from Biden.

Biden didn’t have to spend time with Brayden at all. He could have shook his hand, given him an “atta boy,” at their interaction in New Hampshire, and kept going about his day.

But he didn’t do that.

Instead he spent the time with Brayden. Gave him encouragement, which clearly helped him. All of a sudden an inspirational figure, who was a stranger, became a friend and a supporter for Brayden.

The more I have seen the events of the last 166 days unfold, the more I worry about the world my now 4-month old son and other members of his generation will inherit from us. Will that be a world of compassion or a world of anger and self-centeredness?

The more I read and hear, the more I believe that we are all leaders in answering this pivotal question. In these times, we are all just a cell-phone camera capture away from going viral; what was once reserved for celebrities, politicians, and athletes now allows basically anybody to become overnight viral sensations.

We need more moments of compassion like this one to go viral and spend less time on content that may just embarrass somebody else. We need more moments of connection, of support, and of encouragement. In this way, we are all leaders and are all being called to lead during a dark time in our country and the world. Leaders live by example. How can you be more compassionate, more kind, and more understanding to strangers? How can we disagree with civility? What world are we leaving for our children? How could we do better?

KEY TAKEAWAY: We are all leaders in curing the epidemic of anger, cruelty, and selfishness. We can learn from the story of Brayden Harrington and Vice President Biden that we are all leaders in making the world a more compassionate place.

This post was inspired by Brayden Harrington and the book The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki.

Asking the right questions

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Powerful questions can yield powerful insights. However, the nature of those questions will vary significantly based on the environment where they are asked, and the ultimate goal that the individual hopes to achieve by asking them.

I grew up around the media because my father is a photojournalist. If you watch a news conference, you may notice that journalists ask almost entirely yes-or-no questions. For example, this was one of the questions President Trump answered at a press conference just yesterday, “Thanks, Mr. President. I wanted to follow up on two things that you had said earlier in the cabinet room. The first was on TikTok, and the second was on coronavirus. On TikTok, you said that you wanted money for the US Treasury from the sale. Does that mean you expect the Chinese company to pay the US Treasury directly?

Most lawyers are taught the same technique. On a cross-examination, lawyers are taught to ask yes-or-no questions to help them build their case or challenge a witness’ account of an event. An example of Hollywood’s take on a cross-examination can be seen below from the classic movie My Cousin Vinny:

However, when leading teams or in coaching an individual, which is an essential requirement of leadership, powerful questions are rarely “yes-or-no.” In fact, powerful questions are just the opposite, open ended, allowing the team or individual to work through and explore the answers.

This concept has been on my mind a lot lately. While we have no clear signposts in the middle of this pandemic, we know that it is far from over. And while the hope of returning to normal activities soon still remains high, there are many steps that need to take place before we will reach the finish line of this pandemic. So how do we process what is going on? How to we stay focused on both the present and the future? How do we connect with optimism and hope during a time such as this?

As you consider those questions, imagine how essential workers in our communities are answering these same questions. I think about my colleagues and friends who deliver care every day to patients during the pandemic. Have they had time to take a deep breath and process the loneliness, pain, and suffering? How can they connect to an optimistic mindset?

Over the course of the last month, our patient experience team has tried to give our clinical caregivers the space to do just that. We came up with prompts and suggested that our caregivers write down how they were feeling. Our caregivers appreciated this newfound space to think about what they have been experiencing over the past 5 months.

Again, powerful questions can yield powerful insights. One of the keys to asking questions that can be transformational is to ask them in a way that encourages reflection, exploration, and depth. So when working with your teams, don’t be a journalist at a news conference or a lawyer in a courtroom—be a leader.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Powerful questions usually start with the words, “What” or “How”. They are open-ended and encourage reflection, exploration, and depth.

Journaling

notebook with blank pages

Photo by MESSALA CIULLA on Pexels.com

By my count, today is day 138 of the COVID-19 pandemic, or a little over four and a half months of social distancing. While my wife and I feel blessed to have a roof over our heads, jobs, our health, and a healthy new baby boy, that doesn’t mean the last 138 days have been easy. We miss our family, our friends, seeing people in our community regularly and, boy, what I would do for a night out at our favorite restaurant or to go to a ballgame.

With all of that said, there is one practice that I hope to keep when all of this is over and that’s journaling. Pretty much every evening, I have sat down and kept a journal and I have found that, despite the lack of normal activity, I have had a lot to say! I have already filled up 2 journals that I have previously started and stopped over the last decade and am on my third.

I find it therapeutic to get my thoughts down on paper, even if they are disorganized and incomplete. I do not put pressure on myself for it to be elegant prose or the next great novel, it just reflects what comes off the top of my mind and out of my pen. Journaling helps me reflect on and explore conversations I’ve had, think through problems, process things I am learning, and put events that are bothering me into a larger context.

Journaling also gives me a reference point for certain events. For example, without the journal, I doubt that I would have any memory of my son’s first 4 weeks of life. As those of you who are parents know, that time is a sleep-deprived blur. Not to mention that, because of the pandemic, it was just the three of us for that entire time.

Most of all, I have found that journaling gives me context. It is hard not to feel like every notable moment or decision is significant. However, I look back later and realize that I may have blown whatever was going on way out of proportion. Reading through it in a journal allows me to understand my thoughts and emotions so that when I am feeling those same thoughts or emotions in a similar context, I can put them into perspective, reminding myself how it turned out. I had this exact situation happen to me just this week, and by making the comparison, I was able to make myself feel better and better manage my emotions.

Seeing progress over time has been one of the best discoveries in keeping a journaling practice. I highly recommend it, especially if you are leading teams or you desire to engage in self-discovery. Happy journaling!

Journal of choice: Moleskine large soft cover lined notebook

Writing instrument of choice: Montblanc Meisterstück Platinum-Coated Classique Rollerball or my gift shop pen from the President Gerald Ford Museum

KEY TAKEAWAY: Journaling is a great way to collect your thoughts, especially during times of growth, change, or uncertainty.