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The Neurological Poetry of Leadership (Part One)

This is the second post in a row in which I’ll be referencing something I wrote in the past. Forgive me; I’ve been looking at a lot of old stuff lately. This is something I wrote about two years ago about the way the brain works, while I was trying to explore what was happening to me (I had anxiety at the time):

“Reading about the brain is like reading poetry: the words come together and you see yourself in them and one by one, various glimpses of understanding emerge. You read about how our neurons don’t really regenerate or change like the rest of our cells, and that we’ve had the same neurons since infancy, and you think, “yes, that’s right. That’s why the ‘me’ has been consistent since childhood, even throughout the development of more complex thought. That’s why I’ll still feel like ‘me’ when I’m 70, even under a collection of new experiences.”

“Such comfort in the consistency of self.

“You read about how the limbic system, our mammalian brain, our emotional and instinctual and deep animal side, is the first thing to develop. The emotional connections the limbic system forms in infancy will remain with us for the rest of our lives, despite the ongoing growth and development of our cerebral cortex, our “human” side. You picture yourself holding an infant in your arms and smiling at them, kissing them, cooing to them, “my sweet baby, I’m going to create the most positive connections a limbic system has ever seen.”

“Such romance.

“You read about the left brain versus the right brain, and the right brain sounds so very spiritual, and the left brain sounds so very necessary. The right brain is the “big picture” side, the “oneness” side, the “now” side. It seems to me that time only exists in the left brain; or linear time, anyway. It’s the left brain’s responsibility to absorb and sort billions of pieces of data, to make sense of them, assign them language and give them a context. It’s the left brain’s job to align your body in space and to sort information into a “before” and a “now” and a “tomorrow.” With the right brain, it’s just now, now, now, and I’m assuming that’s why so much creativity originates from the right brain: with no context, you can just invent new ideas. They can just explode out of your head and the left brain will crawl over them and categorize them later.

“Such symbiotic beauty.

“The left brain understands words and the right brain intuits body language. The more developed your right brain, the greater your empathy, the greater your ability to spot a lie, the greater your capacity for reading emotions. I can bet any amount of money that when my sister was having her seizures, it was her left brain that suffered; and when her darling plasticity took over, it was her right brain that overcompensated.

“Such a gift, my sister’s brain.

“Finally, you read about the amygdala, one of the deepest and most ancient parts of our brain. Located in the very basement of the limbic system, the amygdala are our little almond-shaped vehicles for processing fear. The amygdala will tell us when situations are unfamiliar and therefore threatening. It’s up to parts of the cerebral cortext to step in immediately and say, “no, this is familiar. It’s okay.

“The exchange must look like this:

“Is this new? No, this is familiar.

“Is this new? No, this is familiar.

“Is this new? No, this is familiar. Everything is okay. Everything is fine.

“So, during bouts of anxiety I can only imagine my brain must be doing this:

“This is new. This is new. This is new.

“And I like that, the refreshing sense of wonder of it all. It makes me feel like a child in the best possible way, and I hope I never lose that gift. This newness, more than the effortless creativity of the right brain or the rich language of the left brain, makes it possible for me to write.

“And then you put your book down and you sleep well that night, convinced that there is a reason for why we behave the way we do and equally convinced that we can retrain parts of our brain if we need to. And you take comfort in the knowledge that when we die our right brain will take over and we’ll be “one,” and we’ll be “now,” and we’ll be I am, I am, I am.

“Such a lovely song, such a poetic bedtime story.”

I’ve learned a lot since then. And I want to talk about it, at length, in another post. But for now, reading this over strikes me – not as something that comforts me, which it does. And not as something that justifies tough emotions or anxiety, which it also does. But it’s more than that. To me, it teaches me how to lead. I’m going to repeat this ad nauseam: it is only through understanding the human mind that you can understand anything at all. Including teaching. Including leadership.Including business. Including nonprofits.  And I have thoughts, practical thoughts, business-oriented thoughts, about what this piece means to me. But for now I want to share the poetry, my non-practical, poetic self, and hope you understand. I’ll write more soon.


Intrinsic Motivators

I was parsing through some old writing last night, and I found something I had scribbled on a napkin (cliche but yes, I’m that girl) three years ago, when I was living and working in Seattle:

“Walking to work today, for the first time in months I experienced a breath of the Seattle I moved to last March. Maybe it was the time of day, the movement of noon after a morning of working from home and drinking tea. Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was stumbling through three parks that I never knew existed. Whatever it was, a wave of the initial March energy washed over me and my heart hurt, my like I was listening to a beautiful song, like I was singing and playing the guitar with Marius, like it did when I left Portland, and I felt hope. That’s a good sign, I think.

“Days like today make me want to drink too much coffee, to push all those feelings to the point of tipping and explore how it’s possible for happiness and sadness to feel so tangled up in each other sometimes. I think it relates to nostalgia, somehow.

“Work swallows that intensity as soon as I walk in the door, though. The eight hours a day that I’m in the office smooths everything into a professional state of numbness, the gravity pulling and draining my energy long after I’m home. I don’t know how to fit this unwieldy pit of time into the rest of my life. It doesn’t integrate seamlessly; it just drops, plodding, into the very center. The shards of what’s left – giddy songwriting between $1 PBRs, scooter rides on sunny days, shamelessly hip dance parties – vie for attention and finally fade away. Meanwhile, the only thing left to do is resent the mysterious force that leveled the frenetic energy and the moments of peace and reflection between, plowing creativity and leaving an orderly office building in its wake.”

This scratchy little piece of writing means something to me for two reasons. First, it reminds me how much I used to love all the little things when I lived in Seattle. I’ll always reference my time in Seattle as the best two years of my life, and there’s a huge part of me that wants to chalk it up to the place itself, to the salty fresh air, and move back. But it’s not that simple, and that last paragraph is the second reason this piece is meaningful to me: I used to have a really hard time reconciling work and life. And I still do sometimes. When things are the worst, I try to examine them the most mindfully, because that’s when I learn the most about what motivates me and how I think I’ll be able to motivate other people in the future. Here’s what I’m learning: it’s really natural for people to turn to a dichotomy of “work vs life” unless you help them smooth over the line. That doesn’t mean longer hours, though. I think for me, it comes down to what Dan Pink calls intrinsic motivators: feeling a sense of internal worth, purpose, and autonomy. Extrinsic motivators – carrots and sticks, bonuses or punishment – don’t work so well on me, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn I’m with the majority on that one. That whole TED Talk is wonderful, by the way.

When I started to think about intrinsic motivators and the Great Exchange, I wanted to let myself off the hook, because my immediate assumption was that all nonprofits have an intrinsic motivator built in (helping people). But I think that might actually be another extrinsic motivator in disguise.  What actually motivates me, intrinsically, is to have the freedom to work exactly how my complicated, beautiful little brain wants to work. I like working intelligently. I like working efficiently. I like working creatively and happily. I don’t like wasting time in meetings or putting in long hours to try proving my worth. And if this all sounds totally obvious, then look at the average American workplace.

It’s fascinating to read about the brain and discover how many workplace rules and systems go directly against the grain of our neurology. There’s another great TED Talk called Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work that illustrates one of these points really well; he points out that humans are phase-based workers just like they’re phase-based sleepers. So, being interrupted all day at work is pretty much the productive equivalent of having a sleep disorder. I should talk to you sometime about how well sleep disorders work out for people. Allowing people to manage their own time seems like such a simple concept. 

Anyway. When I talk about this stuff, the line is so blurry between workplace management and educational policy that sometimes I can’t tell if I want to run an organization or start a damn school. But I think it’s cool that all of this research can apply to both. I think we’d have much better leaders if we started teaching people, early and often, about the human mind.

My (Authentic) Nonprofit Resolution

I should begin by mentioning that my overall New Year’s resolution is to be more authentic. I’m not even sure if I have a deep enough understanding of what I mean by that to explain it, but I think a lot of it has to do with behaving more like the introvert I am and less like the extrovert I want to be. Maybe it’s as simple as really feeling how exhausted social interactions make me, without passing judgement on the feeling or trying to push through it. Or maybe it’s as complicated as forcing myself to write again – not blog, but write. Blogging has an affected nature to it, because you’re always thinking about what people might want to read, what information would be useful, what’s going to keep people coming back. Writing, which is much more vulnerable and much, much more frightening, is something I probably haven’t done in years.

So bearing that in mind, here’s a resolution related to the Great Exchange that feels authentic to me: Lead like a teacher.

Some of my favorite people in the world are teachers. They’re the ones who noticed my good qualities before I did and unraveled them so subtly and magically that I didn’t even realize they were doing it. I did my work well in school not because I cared about being a good student, but because I wanted to make my teachers happy. To this day, I can sum up the feeling of receiving praise and how good it felt; it’s a content, warm ripple in my mind that moves to my hands and encourages me to keep doing whatever I was doing to warrant that kind of encouragement. And it never, ever had anything to do with turning in work or receiving a grade.

I even started keeping a notebook in high school about things I wanted to do for my students if I became a teacher, often shamelessly ripping off the tactics of some of my own favorites. I had an English teacher, for example, who kept an old, faded, and weirdly comfortable armchair in the corner of the room that he called the “Ugly Red Chair of Reflection.” If a student was having a bad day or even just needed some time to think, he or she could tune out of class for the day, sit in the chair, and write. No questions asked. And the teacher never needed to see what the student was writing. How amazing is that? It’s such an understated but powerful way to tell your students that you’re there to teach and they’re there to learn but you get it; they have a life, and it can get hard sometimes. And sometimes, because students are human beings who exist in a world that’s much bigger than a classroom, they just need some time to untangle their thoughts. To sit with themselves and push through their discomfort without interruption, and grow.

I don’t want to be a teacher anymore but the inclination to understand learning styles, and people in general, is still there. Beautifully enough, all of the qualities that I’ve admired in my teachers can be translated to any leadership role, be it a business owner or a person who’s trying to mobilize a very small nonprofit. I don’t think it’s patronizing at all to consider employees as students, to view office time classroom time, and to hunt down and encourage exceptional qualities the same way a teacher would. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume that positive interactions will lead to great work in the same way that mutual respect will lead to a good grade. And I don’t think it would be unreasonable to have an Ugly Red Chair of Reflection in the workplace.

So I’m done reading leadership books and I’ve moved on to teaching manuals. Neurology books. Mindfulness practices. Anything that can more authentically get to the heart of how people operate and how we can create something beautiful together. Great work isn’t the goal; it’s the bi-product. The goal is happiness, which means doing for people what my teachers did for me: really seeing them.


What can special education teach us about nonprofit leadership?

A lot, I would argue. A special education teacher’s job is to assess the individual learning styles and needs of each of her students, and create learning systems in which each person can thrive. IEPs, for example, outline a specific set of action items based on a thorough assessment of a student’s goals and abilities. Or they should, anyway; some programs are better than others. In the business world, IEPs are called “Performance Plans,” except they’re not as individualized and they’re not always mutually beneficial. They’re usually just a series of goals that will improve the company along with a financial reward if and when the goals are met (or sometimes, repercussions if they aren’t). That’s great if your business:

a. Has a lot of money to give, and
b. Works with employees who value the financial reward above other benefits

But because most nonprofit leaders won’t be working in a world where both a and b are true, they need to get a little more creative with their employees. And by “creative,” I mean “totally intuitive if you just focus on getting to know your employee and what s/he wants and needs.” That’s what IEPs are so good for. When I worked for Americorps, we didn’t really get paid a very livable wage, but one thing we did get was the privilege of devoting a certain amount of time every week to personal and professional development. This meant we could work on projects, take classes, volunteer at other organizations, meet with other people in our field, and just generally feel like our lives as well-rounded, multi-faceted people were being respected. For me, this made all the difference; incidentally, it’s also how I came up with the idea for the Great Exchange and started working on it.

If and when I’m lucky enough to hire employees, I’m never going to presume that their entire lives exist at the Great Exchange. It’ll be a lot more fun for all of us if we see each other as people. I really believe that people who work at nonprofits are motivated by being seen. Well, all people who work anywhere are probably motivated by that. I think it’s undervalued by a lot of leaders, though, and that the basic concept of empathy becomes replaced by band-aid solutions and abstract explanations of where the organization is going.

So, you want to be a good leader with happy employees? Here’s what I propose:

Sit in on a special education class. Notice how many unique learning styles there are and how many people react in different ways to different stimuli. Notice how the teacher treats each student as an individual. Notice how the language gets tailored to each kid, notice the use of visual cues and the amount of space each student is given. And then scale back and realize that, in a much more subtle way, your employees are just like this.

One of the reasons I think non-disabled people can learn so much from disabled people is because people who have intellectual or social disabilities are a more extreme, and very illustrative, example of how we all have brains that work differently. And if you look at any great leader, you’ll probably notice that they understand this concept very well. I’m not completely there yet, but I hope to get there when I’m ready to lead.

Sunday Morning Coffee: My Favorite Blog Posts of the Past Week

Guess and Check's Weekly Blog Post Roundup

My darling friend Jacqueline Stuart used to make me lattes that looked like this.

Once upon a time, I wrote this to a friend about rituals: “We need…rituals because we can celebrate the individual differences of each event while taking comfort in their overarching consistency. The familiarity allows us a moment to breathe, a moment in which we don’t have to test our responses to new situations; and yet with each new version of the same event, more differences and subtleties become clear. We’re able to learn and grow just as much as we’re able to give ourselves a break.”

That said, I bring you one of the happiest rituals of my week, my Sunday morning (or afternoon, as it may be) coffee. Today’s delectable blend is Folger’s, poorly measured and badly burnt. What can I say, I don’t live in Portland anymore. This ritual is really important to me; it’s my time to peruse the list of blog posts I’ve read and enjoyed this week (I read upwards of 50 blog posts every night) so that I can parse different points into my brainstorm document, reflect on good ideas, and finally, share interesting information with you. Here’s my top five list for this week:

  • GOOD Magazine makes an interesting point about fighting world hunger. The answer could be bugs!  I always love a good reminder that many of the things we consider “gross” are just cultural constructs, particularly in the U.S.–I still remember David Foster Wallace’s point (in Consider the Lobster) that lobsters (considerably insect-like themselves) used to be considered so disgusting that they were only fit for inmates. Now, of course, lobster is a delicacy. Also, my old English professor would have an aneurysm over the number of times I just said “consider.”
  • The Charity Navigator blog is one of dozens to document Generosity Day, a thoughtful (and pretty cute) rebranding of Valentine’s Day. Now, this is particularly exciting to me because I grew up around people who called Valentine’s Day a “Hallmark Holiday” or a “Consumer’s Holiday.” I won’t deny the truth in this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love hearts, flowers, chocolate, valentines, and general sap  (third-wave feminism. Thanks, Smith College). Generosity Day is an excellent solution; it keeps the holiday’s inherent cheesiness in tact while shifting the focus from consumption to giving. It reminds you to spend a day leaving 100% tips, saying “yes” to favors, and donating your time to people or organizations. Arguably, it’s stuff we should do every day (maybe not the 100% tip), but campaigns like this are a great reminder and a way to re-situate ourselves within the sphere of giving. Plus, it allows me to continue being a cheeseball every Valentine’s Day, completely guilt-free. I can’t wait to celebrate again next year!
  • And finally, the Center for Creative Leadership brings us an interesting (and reassuring) article about the introvert at work. People never believe me when I say I’m introverted because I tend to be chatty and friendly (a common misconception about introverts is that they’re cold or reserved); but putting on that face takes untold work and energy, and I can only recharge when I’m alone. The proliferation of online social media is an interesting way to bridge the introvert/extrovert gap, and it’s one I take full advantage of. However, I often worry about the impact my introversion will have on my leadership style, and this article raises a lot of great points about the unique qualities introverted leaders can offer (it doesn’t surprise me that they’re able to listen to their employees better).
That’s all for this Sunday. Until next time!