Living and Leading in a Tribal Way

We live in a country ‘at war with itself’ writes war correspondent Sebastian Junger in  Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.Unknown

The battle lines are everywhere—political gridlock and the most divisive presidential campaign in modern times, the widening wealth gap, worsening race relations, irresolvable conflicts over LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, to name a few.

The alarming increase of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) among vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is for Junger the most disturbing symptom of our cultural conflicts.   Some of the PTSD increase is among vets who were never in combat. The reason, he writes, is not the trauma of battle but the difficulty of returning home where there is very little camaraderie.

PTSD, according to studies he cites, is not necessarily caused by war, but the lack of belonging when they leave the military.   In combat platoons close-knit groups of soldiers are always together looking out for one another, willing to put themselves in harm’s way and even die for one another if necessary.

It’s when the vets return home feeling alone, with few job opportunities and not much to live for that the trauma begins.

‘Humans don’t mind hardship,’ he writes, ‘in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.   Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.’  

While tribalism is often used to describe people who—like gang members, are more loyal to their own closed group than their neighbors, friends or even family.

For Junger, a tribe is an open family, a safe place of belonging.

To act in a ‘tribal way’, he says, ‘simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community—be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country.’

The ultimate test of tribe he suggests is – ‘who are you willing to die for?’ –something he knows that seldom if ever most of us will be forced to consider.   Short of that however, Junger describes a tribal community in any setting as –

‘a group of people you would help feed and help defend’

Not all families are tribes in this sense, but they can be and many are.   And not all churches are communities of hope, but they too can be and many are.   The workplace is seldom a tribal community.   The Wall Street Journal reports that less than half of people are satisfied with their jobs.   Does it have to be that way?

What role or responsibility do leaders have to lead in a ‘tribal way’ so that they and their followers defer self-interest for the collective good?

Near the end of the book Yunger tells of a business man who gave up his salary rather than lay off workers when his company experienced a money-losing year.   The man, he writes, “felt that true leadership—the kind that lives depend on—may require powerful people to put themselves last.”

Junger’s point is that whether alone or in a crowd, all of us need healthy tribal relationships.   Without it anyone may spiral down into trauma.

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‘The Poor Who Love Trump’

If you don’t have time to read the Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and51G93vyEl5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ Culture in Crisis, I recommend Jennifer Senior’s NY Times review of J. D. Vance’s new bestseller – A Compassionate Analysis of the Poor Who Love Trump.’   I’m not sure what she means by that other than Trump draws support from people like Vance describes – hillbillies who have given in to their misfortune and given up on themselves.

In his ‘elegy’ or lament Vance attributes much of Appalachian or ‘hillbilly/white trash/redneck’ poverty on what psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’ – a ‘fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.’

It’s his own story growing up in a dysfunctional family network in Middleton, Ohio populated by Kentucky immigrants. However, his observations apply to urban
poverty as well.

It seems to me that in impoverished neighborhoods, whether rural or urban, three things are at work:

  • bad luck – being born into poverty
  • bad structures – sometimes the government hurts as much as it helps, and,
  • bad decisions – perpetuating what Oscar Lewis called the ‘culture of poverty’

Vance escaped the despair of those he left behind with the help of grandparents, four years in the Marines and on to Ohio State and Yale law school.   I know several leaders who, like Vance, have an affection for their hillbilly roots even while recognizing with Vance that the culture ‘increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’

Looking back he wonders – ‘how much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortune?’   The answer is ‘a lot.’

 Those who serve with compassion and justice ministries know that it is always about intervening to help people overwhelmed with bad luck, bad structures and bad decisions.     It is never about blaming the victims or separating the deserving from the undeserving poor.

Senior’s review acknowledges that ‘Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers.  But he’s advancing the discussion.’   I agree.   What think ye?

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“Can We All Just Get Along?” — Rodney King

a684b0359f54d73307ffb3488c1363a369 percent of Americans say that race relations are bad and getting worse according to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken immediately after the killing of five Dallas police officers.   The headline read, we “Hold a Grim View of Race Relations.”

As reported this is the highest level of discord since the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. Later King pled for peace with his famous question, ‘Can We All Just Get Along?’

Poor race relations are one of the dominant big-picture issues of the day.   At work, in stores, at school, in public places, even in churches there is a growing uneasiness.   Across the racial divide we eye one another and wonder.

One of my black friends told me he is hearing things that he thought were long buried, things he thought he would never hear again in America. Deteriorating race relations encourage some people to voice their hostility, even to act out on their otherwise unspoken prejudices.

Following the poll I talked about it with several of my friends both black and white.   I even had a conversation with my 14 year-old grandson Luke – who told me how he came to the defense of one his black friends when he was called the “N” word. He added that his black friend defended him when someone called him a ‘cracker.’ He said, “I can’t stand racists.” Good for you Luke, stand up for what you believe!

I suspect that as I have found in my own limited inquiry, race relations between those who have nurtured friendships over the years are not suddenly threatened by public hostility.   The problem is that too few have nurtured such relationships.

Rodney King knew that rioting wasn’t the answer.   Getting along was. In asking the question he hoped the public outcry against his mistreatment would lead to better, not worse, race relations.

Mark Twain said, “When you need a friend it’s too late to make one.” Building interracial friendships is not a quick fix. It will take much more to reverse centuries of entrenched prejudice and injustice, yet without it race relations are unlikely to improve.

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We Must Not Be Enemies

“We must not be enemies” – from President Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

Following last week’s horrific violence it seems that we are like a ship without a rudder.   There is no national consensus about what to think or to do about guns, the police and race relations.

  • Some want to believe that the sniper in Dallas, the lone-wolf killer in Orlando and a few rogue cops shooting unarmed black citizens are anecdotal and thus ignore or deny the fault lines that divide and threaten all of us.
  • Others would use the tragedies of the past week to support their own convictions as well as prejudices and ideologies: for and against the police, blacks vs. whites, nativism vs. immigrants, straight vs. LGBT, gun rights vs. gun control, for and against Black Lives Matter.
  • In this political season some candidates and their supporters would exploit suffering and grief to advance their own partisan advantage.

Here are some of the things life has taught me about – Guns, Police and Race Relations

 About Guns

I learned something last week about guns in America: that most households do not have guns – less than half, perhaps fewer than a third.   The trend is downward.   As in the headline in a Washington Post article: “America has more guns in fewer hands than ever before.”   Gun sales are increasing because the few who have guns are buying more.

The growing majority of us who choose not to own guns are not necessarily trying to prevent others from the right to bear arms.  However, most Americans with or without guns want a discussion and direction on who should and should not have guns and what kind of guns should and should not be legal.  Gun rights and gun control issues do not need to be in conflict.

About the Police

Like most law-abiding citizens I have never felt threatened by the police.   The few times I’ve been stopped for traffic violations I have always been treated with respect, even protected by the police officers.   I thought that was normal, unrelated to my white skin until I began serving in an impoverished black neighborhood in Washington, D.C.   The police there were viewed by some as an occupation force in a war zone.

One of my first activities was to convene meetings between police officers and community leaders to achieve what is now called ‘community policing.’   We learned together that the neighborhood needed and wanted the police to keep the peace and the police needed and wanted community support to do their work.  It worked!

About Race Relations

In the mid-‘90’s I organized the Institute for Racial Reconciliation to convene discussions between blacks and whites.   I learned that in spite of our differences, and there were and are many, we are more alike than different.  When we took the time to listen deeply to one another most of the time we could find mutually agreeable solutions to long-standing divisions.   The problem is that there are too few times and places where black and white people meet to have candid conversations.

I learned that racial reconciliation will not happen without racial justice.   Displays of racial harmony and claims of interracial friendships are superficial without working together for justice and fairness.

Where do we go from here?

In spite of our national divisions I hold to the truth from President Lincoln’s First Inaugural address to a divided nation on the eve of the Civil War:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Though we will not always agree with one another, the vast majority of us want to live together free from fear – as friends, not enemies.   We are urged in Scripture to pray for those in authority that we might “lead a quiet and peaceable life.” We want leaders who will help us find our way there.

As Lincoln expressed it in that address, we live in hope that eventually we will be touched by the ‘better angels of our nature.

 

 

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Doing Small Things With Great Love

In response to my last blog – “The Inner Life of Leaders,” Gary Morsch posted this comment:

Your post reminds me of a quote from Mother Teresa: “We’re not called to success, but to faithfulness.” Mother Teresa will be canonized on September 4th at a mass in Rome, and, just a few days ago, I received an invitation from the Mother House in Kolkata to attend the ceremonies in Rome.

Dr. Morsch is a family practice physician, founder and board chairman of Heart to Heart International, an organization responding to global disasters with medical supplies and personnel.

Gary_&_Mother_TeresaAs a young doctor he volunteered to serve with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.   Recently I heard him tell the story of his first assignment there.   He had gone expecting to provide medical care to the dying welcomed by the Missionaries of Charity.   Upon his arrival Mother Teresa met him and after he introduced himself as a medical doctor she gave him a note to take to one of the sisters who would direct him to his assignment.

He was sent to the “House of the Dying” but not for the job he had expected. To his surprise Mother Teresa gave directions for him to haul a large pile of garbage to the city dump. He was given two five-gallon buckets and a shovel. He wondered why he was not treating patients, even angry that they were not being good stewards of his abilities.

As he was leaving at the end of that first day he noticed a quote from Mother Teresa painted on a wall:

“We can do no great things, only small thing with great love.”  

Garbage duty was her way of teaching him something essential about leading and serving.  It was then, as I heard Dr. Morsch tell it, when he realized that serving others was not about the great things he was going to do but the spirit with which he served – how much love he put into the doing.   It was a lesson she thought he needed to learn if he was to serve well.

Gary has gone on to set an example of doing small things with great love guiding thousands of volunteers and staff at Heart to Heart.

He will be in Rome in September when Mother Teresa is canonized as a Saint, a faithful servant who spent her life doing small things with great love, helping thousands of Calcutta’s disinherited die with dignity.

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The Inner Life Of Leaders

Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage & Renewal is offering a 6-month program to ‘explore the inner life of leadership.’

I have learned that in their reflective moments good leaders are more interested in their inner life or self-awareness than how to advance to the next level of position and authority.

Since leadership success is often measured by rising to the top, many, if not most leaders live with what Thoreau called ‘quiet desperation,’ never quite accomplishing or measuring up to their aspirations and expectations.

Palmer says that if ‘we want to take on big tasks we need another standard to measure our actions.’

He believes that ‘faithfulness’ is that standard.   It is more that just showing up, although there is something to be said for that.   In his brief 5-minute video he defines faithfulness as being true to one’s inner self, as in the questions:

  • Am I faithful to the gifts I possess – the strengths and abilities that I bring to the world? 
  • Am I faithful to the needs I see around me?
  • Am I faithful to those points where I intersect with the needs of the world and have a chance to serve?
  • Do I enter that opportunity or do I shy away or run away for fear that I won’t be able to serve well, or be stretched beyond my ability?

These questions point to a pathway for rewarding leadership whatever the context or outcomes.   And they suggest a profile for the leaders we choose to follow.

Palmer predicts that ‘on the day that I die,’ I will not be asking myself how effective I was, did my books sell well enough, did I make enough money, etc. Each of must fill in the blank for our own situation in life and the standards by which we judge ourselves and/or are judged by others?

Rather, ‘I think I will asking,’ he reflects, ‘was I faithful to the opportunity I had to be on earth for 70 plus years? Was I engaged as I knew how to be with my life, with the needs around me?.’

The key question for leaders then is – what’s on the inside?

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On Leaving Our Comfort Zones

During my first pastoral assignment at a rural church in Eastern Washington State we lived near a stop for freight trains.   Transients riding the rails would occasionally hop off trains, walk across the road to our house, knock on our door and ask for water and something to eat.   We would invite them to sit near the door and bring them a meal.   Our 4 year-old daughter delighted in eating and talking with them until they left to hop on another train.

I think of that often as I wonder about solutions to hunger and food scarcity in the midst of abundance.   Most people I know are generous and compassionate and would always feed a hungry person at their door.   But we don’t respond with the same urgency when human suffering is distant.

I recently drove through a busy intersection, past a dad, mom and three children huddled at the curb holding a sign asking for food.   I still don’t feel good about continuing on my way.   It was the children.   Should I have turned around and stopped to inquire and offer to help?   I don’t know.

That’s about as near many as of us come to any contact with destitute people. Most of us who care are comfortably distant from people in need.   We know about hunger and poverty yet we are not close long enough to get involved.

In his recent lament over Donald Trump’s popularity, New York Times columnist David Brooks confessed that he has been too distant from working class and poor people to understand and feel the pain and fury welling up in American society fueling the politics of resentment.

I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own.

 However difficult, he intends to change that.

 It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years.

 He invites us to join with him.

 We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

Years ago when I was teaching urban studies the students were required to leave the classroom and spend 24 hours in the city with no money and then submit an essay about the experience.

One of those former students, now in mid-career, told me recently how that one activity changed his life for the better.   It gave him fresh eyes to see and to respond to a world of poverty and disadvantage he had not known before.

 

 

 

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Figuring Out What’s Most Important

In his best-selling posthumous memoir When Breath Becomes Air, 37-year old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi reflected on how his battle with lung cancer led him on a search for priorities and values.

When a terminal diagnosis gave him a year or two at the most to live, he talked with his doctor about work options. She said ‘Many people, once diagnosed, quit work entirely–others focus on it heavily. Either way is okay.’

9780812988406_p0_v2_s192x300He wondered what aspirations he should let go of during his final days.   ‘Well, I can’t tell you that, ‘she replied, ‘I can only say that you can get back to surgery if you want, but you have to figure out what’s most important to you.’

Dr. Kalanithi remembered her ‘oft repeated refrain’ to ‘find his values.’ He wanted to leave behind a record of his quest to find his values and answer the question, ‘what’s most important to you.’

Perhaps it takes mortality at any age, but especially an untimely passing, to bring these questions to mind.   Life is brief at best.   No one can do everything.   And as he came to believe, when the end of life nears, values are all that matter.

Kalanithi narrowed his values down to bonding with family, healing his marriage, having a child, and returning to faith.   When he changed from doctor to patient he realized, that ‘it was the pastoral role I sought.’   Neurosurgery was a means to an end. Care and compassion were most important to him.

 

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Of Covenant Leaders

I thought about the difference between covenant and contract leaders when reading David Brooks’ recent NY Times column – “How Covenants Make Us.”

Contracts are about making deals, providing services, protecting interests.   They are temporary quid pro quo obligations; precise and predictable.   The detail is in fine print.

On the other hand, covenants protect others, offer gifts to people in community.   They are open-ended, often for a lifetime.   They are unpredictable and sometimes messy.   In the Bible the Old and New Testaments or ‘Covenants’ are between God and the faith community.    While covenants may be written they are sometimes oral, unwritten, unsigned agreements that remain even when violated.

Drawing from Commonwealth and Covenant’ a new book by Marcia Pally of N.Y.U., Brooks agrees that our social fabric is held together by multiple covenants binding us to one another in families and communities, providing us, he writes, ‘with values and goals.’

Due to the decline of covenant relationships, he and Marcia Pally believe we are suffering a wide range of social and personal problems: alienation, polarization, racial animosity, powerlessness, lack of identity.

What about leaders?   What responsibility do leaders bear to go beyond their employment contracts to covenant relationships with their colleagues and organizations?   And to what extent is society, as well as organizations, dependant upon covenant leadership?

Contract leaders follow written job descriptions defining their authority and responsibility.   Their success in meeting goals and outcomes is evaluated by performance reviews.

Covenant leaders go beyond their contracts to nurture warm relationships with an unwritten commitment to the wellbeing of individuals within and for the organization.  They seek and welcome feedback, learn from criticism, humbly seek to serve rather than be served. They respect divergent opinions and foster collaborative decision-making. They forgive mistakes and restore those who have fallen or have failed. They give their undivided attention and listen actively.

Covenant leadership is what James MacGregor Burns advocated as ‘transformational leadership’ and Robert K. Greenleaf described as ‘servant leadership.’   It is about the quality of relationships.

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A Pathway Out of Homelessness and Poverty

Having spent over 20 years (1973 to 1995) helping to provide transitional housing for homeless families in Washington, D.C. I was eager to read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityUnknown-1, Matthew Desmond’s narrative of low-income individuals and families locked in poverty, repeatedly evicted, forced from one unaffordable, substandard home to another.

As an ethnographer, Desmond moved into Milwaukee’s poor neighborhoods – black, Hispanic and white where he observed first hand the toll eviction takes on families and the profit it provides for landlords.   He tells the stories of people caught in a downward spiral of bad luck and bad decisions in a bad system.

Among the many positive reviews for Evicted are No Place Like Home, by Barbara Ehrenreich in the NY Times and Kicked Out in America, by Jason DeParle in the New York Review of Books.

Ehrenreich believes Desmond, a Harvard academic, has set a new standard for reporting on poverty’ as did Katherine Boo in behind the beautiful forevers: life, death and hope in a mubai undercity. Add Ben Rawlence for his City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, the story of Somali refugees trapped in Dadaab, Kenya.

Rather than bury us in data and statistics these ethnographers write in-depth descriptions of depravation and suffering – although they have done the research to be certain their stories are not simply anecdotal.

I recognized the voices, the sights and smells in Desmond’s narrative.   I’ve seen evicted families huddled on curbs guarding their meager belongings.   I’ve accompanied families threatened with eviction to the landlord tenant court.   And I’ve toured deplorable overpriced low-income apartments, occasionally contending with landlords and property-managers over deferred maintenance.

The threat of evictions is increasing as the gap between rising housing costs and what people can afford is widening.

Desmond’s solution for the10 million or so low-income families who spend half or more of their income for rent and utilities is universal housing vouchers, guaranteeing that no one below a certain poverty level would have to spend more than 30 percent (the recommended government standard) of their income for rent and utilities. Presently only about a third of poor families receiving housing vouchers or living in public housing fit that criteria.   Most are not so lucky.

I agree that securing safe affordable housing is a key step toward breaking the cycle of urban poverty.   But universal housing vouchers as Desmond suggests is not a viable solution. Federal, State and local governments are unlikely to allocate the billions of dollars needed to make that happen anytime soon, if ever. In his review Jason DeParle cites studies demonstrating that vouchers alone don’t solve the eviction or poverty problem.

And I agree with Desmond that lack of decent housing is a cause as well as a consequence of poverty. But eviction is not the only cause.   There are many causes of poverty including addiction, mass incarceration, lack of living wage jobs, poor health care, failing schools, disabilities, family breakdown, public policies, and more.

There is a way to reduce evictions. That’s why we started the transitional housing program at the Community of Hope over 35 years ago: a systems approach providing affordable housing while addressing the other needs and problems that destabilize poor families and low-income neighborhoods.

Sherlene Phillips tells her story in the current Community of Hope newsletter.  She ‘lost her job, was evicted and could no longer stay at a relative’s home. She knew she had hit rock bottom.   “Here I was,” shephoto110265 recalled, “ a young, educated, attractive mother that was homeless, helpless and with an addiction to alcohol,” about to be separated from her two children.

In 2015, Shirlene and her family moved into Hope Apartments, one of few programs in Washington, D.C. where families remain intact while the head of householdworks toward sobriety goals. The program is designed to help adults attend substance abuse treatment programs while simultaneously finding a job and stable housing. As Sherlene tells it — COH gave me the tools to get back on my feet and improve in all aspects of my life.”

Community of Hope director Kelly Sweeny McShane reports that in 2015 the COH provided supportive services to 435 families who had experienced eviction and homelessness and helped prevent an additional 176 families from becoming homeless.

The Community of Hope is one organization, among others, in Washington, D.C, using private and public funds to help families recover from eviction on a pathway out of poverty.   Could this comprehensive approach to the causes and consequences of urban poverty be scaled up to make a difference nationally?   I think so.

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