The Cost and Reward of Teamwork

Learning to Trust and Like One Another

TheBoysintheBoatThe Boys in the Boat, James Daniel Brown’s bestseller is more than the account of how the unlikely United States 9-man crew from the University of Washington won the gold in rowing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

It is about the cost and reward of teamwork, of hardscrabble life in the Pacific Northwest during the great depression on the eve of World War II.

Brown interviewed Joe Rantz one of the 1936 gold medalists shortly before his death in 2007.  Rantz, who as a young teenager lived alone after his parents abandoned him, recounted a conversation with George Pocock his mentor and the boat builder of the shell they rowed to victory.

Pocock warned him –

that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row across the finish line all by himself.  

 He suggested that Joe think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra.   If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined.

Pocock described the attitude he must have to become a part of a team –

A man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened up his heart to them.   He had to care about his crew.   It wasn’t just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt.

Joe Rantz remembered what Pocock said about liking his crewmates –

If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe you have to learn to like him.   It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do.

I paused there, wondering, how do we learn to like people we dislike?   And how can we get anything done if we don’t like the people we are with?

The reward of teamwork would be worth the effort.  Pocock told him –

Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work in you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined.   Sometimes, you feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.

I suspect that one of the reasons The Boys On The Boat has remained a best seller for over a year — beyond the nostalgia and pride of winning the 1936 Olympic gold in Hitler’s Germany – is our longing for the exhilaration of being on a team with people who trust and like one another.

Organizational leaders are expected and need to build highly functioning teams to achieve their goals and fulfill their mission.    They know that it takes more than talent for a group to become a team.   Groups become dysfunctional when members, however skilled and committed, are competitive, hostile or simply dismissive of one another.

But a crew calls it swift when they are in perfect sync.   They can feel it.   Spectators can see it. Despite their obstacles at the Berlin Olympics the boys in the boat from the University of Washington found their swift and became a winning team.

Posted in Leadership, Reviews | 1 Comment

A Wonderful Way to Die

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Doretta B. Nees – 1917-2015 (picture taken September 2015)

Two days before my mother passed away on November 12 she rose up and said to my sisters Lois and Carol – “Isn’t this a wonderful way to die!”

I can only imagine what she meant.

  • Was it being able to spend her final years at home with my sister Lois as her caregiver rather than in an extended care facility?
  • Did she mean dying at home in her own bed surrounded by family and friends and tended to by Hospice with relatively little suffering rather than in a hospital attached to life support systems?
  • Was it comfort in knowing that with my bother Ron serving as the executor of her estate, her end of life decisions regarding her will, and her ‘living will’ were in good hands.
  • Was it her strong faith and assurance for life hereafter?
  • Maybe it was just being aware that at a few days before her 98th birthday she had been blessed with a long good life.

Perhaps all this and more.

She died as well as she lived.   Although she didn’t talk much about dying, it was clear she wasn’t afraid of it.   She was too busy living to spend time worrying about dying.

Her final gift to us, perhaps the final lesson for her children and our families was how to die well.   Recognizing that, her memorial service was a celebration of a wonderful ending to a life well lived.

What a rare gift in our forever young society with heroic attempts to extend life beyond its natural limits.

Being there, holding her hands, singing the hymns she loved when she took her final breath was a profound, sacred experience for all of us and raises within me questions about my own mortality, about how well I am aging and how it will be when I come to the end, which at best is not that far off.

Like my mother, I want to make good end of life decisions and then forget about dying and go on living as well as I can.

Posted in Leadership | 18 Comments

Healing Our Democracy

I have been invited to attend political receptions for two men who are running for Congress.   One is a neighbor campaigning in the Maryland district in which I live, the other in an adjacent district.   One is a Republican and the other a Democrat.   One is a physician and the other a retired commercial pilot.   Neither has held elective office before.   I know them to be men of good character and reputation.

Without more information about their positions on a variety of issues I care about I’ve been wondering – should I get involved? —should I accept the invitations?

I grew up in a conservative Christian environment where in my youth it was assumed that no one could become a politician or get involved with politics without compromising core values.   That of course has changed as religion is increasingly intertwined with electoral politics, used by some for partisan advantage.

Turned off as I have been with political gridlock in Washington and the embarrassing, if not insulting level of some political campaigning, I’ve been tempted to retreat into my private world and avoid the media where opinions are often presented as transcendental truths.

That is until revisiting a 2011 book by Parker Palmer, “Healing the Heart of Democracy: the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit.”

Palmer, a Quaker, author and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal says that we have three lives: private, public and political.

Private – includes family, friends and the extended network of people to whom we are drawn to including neighbors, congregations, book clubs, etc.

Public – is a wider network including those Palmer describes as, “the company of strangers” — the unknown people we rub shoulders with in stores, on the street, on a bus, plane, ball game or concert.

Political – is a life of citizenship in service of democracy upon which ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ depends.

Like most people I’ve been engaged with the first two – private and public – but other than voting, I’ve been mostly a bystander, disengaged from the responsible citizenship needed to preserve and advance the democracy.

Palmer believes our democracy needs healing.   He believes that our life together in the public square has gone wrong because so many of us aren’t involved.   However differently we may view the world of politics we must somehow “transcend our differences and work together for the common good.” That, he writes, is the heart of democracy.

I’ve decided to attend both receptions.

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Overcoming the Feeling of Failure

Leaders know that the things they do and the people they serve with will not always succeed. They know that their organizations sometimes resist change even when threatened with decline.

Disappointment may lead to feeling like a failure.   In a recent blog Seth Godin wrote: Feeling like a failure has little correlation with actually failing.”

I know the feeling.   In my various leadership assignments when at times it seemed that more went wrong than went right, when the annual reports were less than stellar, when personnel performed poorly, and when I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, I felt it.

In leadership as well as life there must be a better way of handling disappointment than feeling like a failure.

Perhaps we are overly influenced by the Vince Lombardi philosophy of competitive athletics – “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

We will never be the best at everything we do.   We won’t always win or succeed. Sometimes our best efforts fail.

A few observations about overcoming the feeling of failure –

  • There are circumstances beyond our control that affect the success or failure of any position, project or person.
  • Feeling the disappointment of failure is not the same as being a failure.
  • Failure and success are not the same as winning and losing.
  • Metrics are not always, perhaps never, a good measure of success and failure, particularly when outcomes are not measurable.
  • It’s not failure when plans, strategies or people don’t work out.
  • Admitting that a position is not a good fit or a strategy not a good plan is not failure.
  • We need to be careful not to act on our feelings of failure.   As the recovery community teaches us: feel—think—act.
Posted in Leadership | 6 Comments

What About a Servant Leader for President?


“We Need A Servant Leader” for President, wrote Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in his New York Times op-ed piece prior to the first Republican candidate’s debate.  To correct reports of his intentions he announced that he is not running for the Democratic nomination.

Schultz doubts that any of the candidates has the courage to ‘rise above petty politics.’   They all, in his estimation, represent the ‘antithesis’ of the example Pope Francis set when washing the feet of prisoners in Rome.

Given the urgency of the times, he believes the country is in desperate need for a President willing to break with the prevailing mold of ego-centered, self-serving leadership in politics and the rest of society. ‘Too many of our political leaders,’ he writes, ‘are putting power before principle, party before country and cynicism before civility.’

For Schultz a ‘servant leader President’ would,

‘kneel and embrace those who are not like them’
‘unite all of us’
‘select a member of the other party as a running mate’
be ‘humble enough to see leadership not as an entitlement but as a privilege’

He believes that the nation needs, in fact deserves servant leaders everywhere – ‘putting others first and leading from the heart – from every corner of American life, including the business community.’

I agree but wonder, will it happen, can it happen?   Will servants run for President and will they emerge in the nonprofit sector, in religious communities, the military as well as in business?

Servanthood is more than a leadership style or role for particular situations.   It can’t be turned on or off to make an impression. It’s more than washing the feet of prisoners, as indelible as that image is. It can be seen in a wide variety of individual leaders in everyday settings. Servanthood is the life or character that individuals bring to leadership.

Some of the signs of servant leaders – they:

  • Treat their followers and/or subordinates as partners engaged in a common mission or purpose
  • Collaborate rather than dictate to reach decisions for the common good
  • Are vulnerable enough to welcome and learn from feedback including criticism
  • Humbly acknowledge and own their own mistakes, flaws and sins
  • Respect and promote diversity, eliminating bias, often hidden, that disadvantages women and minorities

In the mid-‘70’s Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive, initiated the servant leadership movement.   He urged that when choosing leaders we select from those among us who have served well.   Thus the title of his original monograph – The Servant as Leader.

But can leaders learn to be servants?   I hope so.   A lot depends on it.



Posted in Leadership, Serving | 7 Comments


UnknownIt’s hard to believe.  It could have been any church, anybody praying, any pastor.   Except this was a black church and the arrested gunman a young white man.

While in a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, nine parishioners including the pastor state Sen. Clementa Pinckney were shot to death Wednesday.   It is being investigated as a hate crime by the Department of Justice.

We wonder –

To what degree is this more than an isolated psychopath with a gun?
Why would he invade a church?
Why were black people at prayer his target?

We will soon learn more about him and his motives.   More importantly, what will we learn about ourselves?   How does this kind of hate incubate in our society?

If this were an isolated incident disconnected from the nation’s history and context it would be bad enough.   But occurring as it did near where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and given the recent national attention over the killing of unarmed black men by police officers this feels like a pattern of racial violence that began with slavery and continues to reverberate throughout the U.S.

As the 1963 killing of four black girls in a Birmingham church accelerated the Civil Rights Movement, I wonder if this will give birth to a new era of personal and national soul searching over our tragic past and present. Or are we now too jaded by massacres and violence at home and abroad to do anything.

I have spent much of my life working for economic and racial justice, pursuing reconciliation informed by my faith tradition.   That was and is my life’s work.   It’s what motivated me to the start the Community of Hope in 1975 and to continue those efforts across the country.   I came to this conviction uninformed.   Until moving to Washington, D.C., in 1971, I had little first hand knowledge of racism and poverty.   I soon determined to spend the rest of my life learning, listening and acting when and where I could to counter systemic poverty and racism.   At times I have worked at this one person at a time, sometimes through public policy activism but mostly through organizing faith communities to respond to human need and injustice in their own neighborhoods.

That we seem to have made no more progress than we have as a nation is regrettable.   Martin Luther King asked it in the title of his book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”   Indeed.   We are still asking what will it take to heal and reform the nation.

All I know to do is to continue to respond compassionately to human need and to work for a just society.

Posted in Leadership | 4 Comments

On Setting Achievable Goals

One definition of effective leadership is the ability to set achievable goals.

Yet even the best of leaders may be tempted to set unrealistic goals for themselves and others that result in disappointment or worse.

In Graham Greene’s novel, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ set in West Africa during WW II, the protagonist Scobie is tormented by his unsuccessful attempt to make the people around him happy, or at least to prevent their unhappiness.   Greene observes that:

“Despair is the price we pay for setting oneself an impossible aim.”   And continues: “No human being can really understand another and no one can arrange another’s happiness.”

Despair of this sort is what Greene calls a ‘practice’ reserved for good, well-meaning people. Though Scobie is motivated by his sense of integrity and responsibility his life comes to a tragic end.

The Heart of the Matter is a cautionary tale for good leaders.

Leaders who imagine that they can make everyone happy are just as ineffective as abusive leaders.

Despair, Greene writes is, ‘the unforgiveable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practices.’ Corrupt leaders don’t suffer the despair of not being as good as they want to be.   They are not trying to be good and hopeful.

Because, ‘he always has hope,’ Greene concludes that: “Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation.’

In his recent blog Do-able Seth Godin warns that

 “Aiming too high is just as fearful a tactic as aiming too low.   Before you promise to change the world, it makes sense to do the hard work of changing your neighborhood.”

I know more than a few clergy leaders who are disappointed with their inability to grow their congregations in this era of declining church attendance and defections from their traditions. Since they are people of character and full of goodwill, when they don’t succeed as well as they would like they tend to blame themselves.

Some of the goals they set for themselves, and at times the expectations others have for them are unrealistic.   They live with a sense of despair, often looking for an escape from circumstances, trends and outcomes over which they have little control.   Too many give up on themselves too soon.

They would be wiser to say, ‘in this time and place, with these people, this is what we can achieve together,’ and take heart for the good work being done.

Greene describes the despair of good people as the ‘unforgiveable sin’ since it stems from the temptation to do more than is humanly possible.

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The Children’s Riot

Until last Monday, April 27, I thought I knew a little about urban riots – why they happen and how to prevent them.   Over 40 years ago my ministry took me near and eventually into Washington, DC’s so-called ‘riot corridor’ decimated during the 1968 uprising following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I spend over 20 years doing neighborhood development there – providing temporary housing for homeless families, restoring buildings, tutoring children, offering health care and job training.     I listened to the stories of people who lived through the ‘68 riot and worked with some of them to bring about reconciliation and restoration.

When the Baltimore riot erupted, I was watching the Freddie Gray funeral activities from a local Baltimore TV station. The non-stop, uninterrupted news was broadcast from a helicopter hovering over the church – and then the teen gathering that ignited the riot.

For several hours I had a ringside seat on this children’s riot.   From the helicopter’s cameras we watched kids huddle up and then disperse into groups for the mayhem that followed.   While others eventually joined the kids, perhaps gang members, the core group was school kids.

It caught everyone, including the police, by surprise.  Who could have anticipated that a riot would start as an after school escapade?   Parents, grandparents and relatives were urged to call their children and tell them to come home.

The Baltimore riot was different. Different from what happened in Ferguson.   This happened in the light of day, after school in full view of a watching city if not nation.   Baltimore’s mayor retracted her immediate gut reaction describing the rioters as ‘thugs.’   Thugs and criminals work at night.   These weren’t thugs and criminals.  They were school children.  Everyone thought they should have known better.

What became a riot in Baltimore started with children twittering and tweeting on their cell phones. They self-organized to demonstrate after school with no apparent intention to loot, burn and attack the police.   It was more spontaneous than that.

Which leaves me searching for answers.   The social ills that plague Baltimore’s poor, majority black neighborhoods are well known. It’s easy to understand why alienated youth given the opportunity would strike out against their hopelessness. They live with personal experiences of police brutality, unemployment above 50 percent, boarded up houses, and high incarceration rates.   Baltimore has some of the poorest neighborhoods in Maryland, one of the richest states.   The income disparities between black and white populations is as extreme here as anywhere in the country.

And yet, as volatile as Baltimore was and is following Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, this was unexpected and unprecedented. This was a children’s riot – instigated by children still in school who for reasons we don’t totally understand were radicalized to think that since they saw no hope for the better in their own neighborhood it was okay to loot and burn it down.

I use the word ‘radicalized’ cautiously given that it is used now to describe how Muslim youth are being drawn into the violence of ISIS.   However different this is, still there is a parallel. How is it that some relatively privileged Muslim youth in the U.S. want to escape to the Middle East to join forces with ISIS.   How does radicalization happen?

In a recent conversation a Muslim professor at American University described for me how as a youth in the Middle East he was radicalized and upon coming to America was de-radicalized.   I would like to know more.   How and why are young people radicalized to violence and then de-radicalized to become contributing citizens?

Do we really know why and how a few out-of-control Baltimore kids were able to start an after school riot? Most city leaders and pundits assume it was not a controlled or even planned event.   And does anyone know how to de-radicalize them?

We’ll be watching to see what comes of the larger planned demonstrations this weekend. What will happen after order is restored, the National Guard leaves and Oriole fans return to Camden Yards?   And what will become of the children recorded on video as they are arrested and prosecuted for looting, burning and attacking the police?   What next?


Posted in Leadership | 6 Comments

Five Friends on a Sailboat

Just returned from a week sailing with four long-time friends – each one a leader.   Took along Daniel Klein’s little book Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.

In his early ‘70’s, after retirement Klein wrote about his extended return to the Greek Island of Hydra where he lived for a time as a young man.   He packed a few of his favorite books including some with advice from the philosopher Epicurus for living a fulfilled life.     It’s not what we usually associate with ‘Epicureanism.’

While there he noticed a regular patron in a restaurant — an old man leisurely talking with his various companions ‘without,’ Klein observes, ‘wanting anything from them.’

‘Wanting nothing from one’s friends, he concludes, is fundamentally different from the orientation of a person who is still immersed in professional life with its relationships.”

However friendly we may be with one another on the job or in professional life, ‘we are,’ claims Klein, ‘in service of a goal that has little if nothing to do with genuine friendship’.

I remember a comment from a leader who after assuming an assignment said that even though friendliness was essential to getting things done, making new friends became impossible.   His only friends were those he knew before and outside of his professional role.

It was after Klein’s retirement when he was no longer a boss nor had a boss, that he, like the group he saw in a Greek Island restaurant, came to enjoy the pleasures of companionship– having time for friends for no reason other than being together.

I don’t think genuine friendship needs wait for retirement.   At any age and place, the pleasures of companionship,’ of keeping and making new friends, ‘wanting nothing in return,’ is there for anyone who escapes what Klein describes as ‘the prison of everyday affairs.’

Positions of authority and busy schedules need not preclude genuine friendship if we will take time to get away from our jobs and professional relationships to spend time with friends ‘without wanting anything from them.’   That’s a lot more than just being friendly.

By the end of our sailing week the five of us began planning to get together again next year.   As much as we all enjoy sailing, we recognized that for us, sailing is a means to a more important end.


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On Being Vulnerable – having the courage to show up

A few days ago a leader whom I have been coaching and mentoring for several years sent me an email about his concern for a long time friend and seasoned leader about to quit his job with no place to go.

He wrote: (Used with permission without personal references.)

I received an email from a close friend who is planning to resign with no place to go.  Actually I think he has done a pretty good job.  People have been pretty critical, at least according to his perspective.  I had suggested to him earlier the idea of a 360 so that he would be able to discern between one or two vocal people and a consensus.  He confessed that the process is just too threatening.

And then he reflected more broadly on the network of leaders he knows.

My peers seem to be embracing retirement with a great sense of relief when I think that some of them would have had some good years left in them if they could have worked through the issues with which they were confronted.  I feel like they are almost reaching the finish line with a sense of relief rather than a sense of satisfaction.

I responded that making himself vulnerable in a threatening context is the best thing his friend could do.  What does he have to lose?   Every leader I have worked with has confirmed that while threatening at first, a well-done 360 improves morale for the leader and his/her associates.

A 360 multi-rater feedback assessment is a tool used in leadership coaching where a third party or coach interviews selected ‘raters’ – subordinates, peers and overseers – with agreed upon questions about the leader’s performance. The interviews and the report are confidential.

I didn’t know about executive coaching and formal mentoring until my early 60’s.   It was then in the final years of my institutional leadership assignment that I employed a coach to conduct my 360. While I wish I had done this much earlier I’m sure glad I found a coach and mentor when I did.

One of my colleagues was shocked when I requested that he provide feedback about my leadership to a third party.   He asked, “Why do you want to do that?” And then commented, “I sure wouldn’t want to know what people think about me.”

In her books, TED Talks and NPR On Being interview with Krista Tippett, Brené Brown defines vulnerability as courage, the ‘willingness to show up’ and be seen as we are.   Too often she says, we have a vulnerability allergy, thinking of it as weakness, being hurt, or being taken advantage of.   However, she claims that in her 11,000 interviews she could not find a single example of courage that was not born of vulnerability.

In my personal and coaching experience I have found that having the courage to be vulnerable and to seek feedback encourages others to face their own vulnerabilities and show up with confidence.

In 1786 Robert Burns wrote the poem “To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church. The poem’s theme is contained in the final verse:

“And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!”


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