Agency and Emergence

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When do you push forward, and when do you step back?

How do you decide, or is it decided for you?

How does this reciprocal rhythm oscillate and dance in your life?

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Modern western culture tells individuals and organizations alike: Grow! Move! Push! –Or die!  Competition and scarcity dominate the collective psyche, if not consciously then subconsciously, no question.  Even on vacation we are pressured to do something socially noteworthy, lest we have nothing to report upon return.  There is a palpable, frenetic, explicit and implicit drive—to keep driving.  I’m not complaining, necessarily.  Growth, innovation, evolution, improvement, advancement, development—I pursue these with as much fervor as anyone.  It has served me well!  My whole life the hard work (and a lot of luck) has paid off in spades, in school, work, and now leadership in multiple realms.  I have accomplished as much as I could have imagined at this age, and I’m just getting started!  How exciting and rewarding, living a life of audacious acceleration, of claiming agency, of “Yes, AND!”

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Tara Donovan, Chicago IL July 2019

Yet, lately I feel another energy emerging.  It came on unexpectedly, and I welcome it like my oldest friend.

I only realized it as I wrote about ‘Aunt Rachel,’ Dr. Rachel Remen, last month.  “I am called to slow down, to be still, more than I have been (have allowed?), for a very long time,” I wrote, quite spontaneously.  Those words forelighted a month of ‘settling and recharging… awareness and fulfillment,’ as I wrote to my friend, when I realized what was happening.  This meta-awareness always fills me with awe and gratitude, as if the cosmos lets me in on a secret, conspiring to prepare me for what lies ahead. Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings reminds me of the importance of human connection at the deepest level.  Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert makes me confident and brave to create, to make things to share, like this blog or a new oral presentation.  The Art of Possibility helps me dig deep, in a different way every time I reread it, for fundamental relational skills when I need them the most.

The week I wrote about Aunt Rachel, Maria Popova’s post on friendship as rendered by Kahlil Gibran crossed my email inbox.  The Prophet was one of my favorite books in high school.  I found it moving, inspiring, and reassuring, like a lovingly personal counselor, in those emotionally tumultuous adolescent times.  Popova’s post brought that comfort back, similar to how Remen’s book did in recent weeks.  I felt compelled to follow her sequential links to writings by Seneca, CS Lewis, David Whyte, and John O’Donohue, all on friendship.  She quotes Seneca, the stoic: “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself…”  Something within me was deeply moved, activated to seek more.

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Tara Donovan, Chicago, IL, July 2019

How fascinating, what is with this fresh call on my attention?  I’m not sure, but I trust it fully, and have embraced it.  I found To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue, a book of the most eloquent blessings, and Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte.  Both books quench my thirst for beautiful language that articulates the deep longing for meaning and connection, with myself as well as with others.  They call to me.

Between caring for patients, leading work teams, proposing new projects, LOH training, speaking engagements, wife-ing, parenting and friending, life could hardly be more challenging or fulfilling (I should also call my parents more often!).  I see every meeting, every letter, every message as a chance to show up all in, fully present, at my best.  To be my Best Self in all realms, I push myself to learn, practice, and excel, to exercise my agency in service of relationships and connection.  So sometimes the universe approaches me lovingly, jogging alongside, inviting me to slow down.  Take a break, he says, enjoy the view.  Soak it in.  Relish how far you’ve come, what you’ve built thus far.  Breathe deep, stretch out.  Rest a while.  What do you see, she asks, how does it feel? What have you learned, they say, what can you synthesize and integrate, before you march on with resolve and conviction once again, in the direction of your biggest dreams?

The word pairs below emerged, with a little nudging, over the past week.  I see them not as dichotomies, not at all in conflict.  Rather, they are each separate and inextricable sides of the same multifaceted polyhedron of life, necessary counterbalances for a healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful existence.  I started wearing my Yin-Yang ring in January.  It is meant to remind me that opposites are more often complementary than oppositional.  Our society values agency over emergence.  We endorse doing ahead of holding.  But practicing emergence is by no means passive, weak, or unproductive.  It is active, enthusiastic participation in the dance of life, the reciprocal movement of ebb and flow.  Childbirth and heartbeat are quintessential examples of the balance of Agency and Emergence, giving and receiving, contracting and relaxing.

What other word pairs would you add?

I commit to fully inhabiting, savoring this deliberate time and open space, however long it lasts.  Energy will shift again, as it always does.  I have the next self-improvement books and task lists in queue.  I’ll get on the blocks again, ready for the starting gun, soon enough.  But for now, I breathe deeply and look around in appreciation and learning.

 

   Agency                           Emergence

Control                             Relation

        Action                          Observation

Power                        Capacity

Acceleration                          Momentum

      Focus                         Zoom Out

Contraction                       Relaxation

Tightening                      Stretching

Exhale (blow)                     Inhale (smell)

  Intention                        Possibility

  Strength                        Elasticity

Telling                        Asking

             Make this happen                         What’s trying to happen?

            Tap the system                       Watch it spin a while

               Grip                        Hold loosely

Drive                      Ride

Take up space                          Hold space

Yang                     Yin

  Heartbeat

  Childbirth

The exhibit where I took the art photos:  https://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/tara-donovan-fieldwork/

There Is a Good “I” in TEAM

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The joke goes like this:  “There’s no ‘I’ in team… Yes there is; it’s hidden in the A-hole.”  The point of the joke is valid:  Self-absorbed and self-serving individuals make bad teammates.

Yes, AND:  There must be certain kinds of I’s on any good team:  Each of us must have a uniquely contributory identity and role in order for our team to function well.  Diversity—of experience, ideas, and perspective—is always the strength of a good team.  Homogeneity leads to extinction in nature.

Also, we all have to get in the same boat and row in the same direction—each of us I’s must join wholly in the We in order for Us to accomplish anything meaningful.  It is the balance of the Good I and TEAM that determines an organization’s success.

The Good I:  Self-differentiation

We all recognize the kind ofI” who makes team life miserable—that person who’s always competing, always one up-ing us, constantly reminding us how great they are, wondering why we don’t notice.  But then there are the I’s whom we respect.  They exude a quiet confidence, speak their truth with grace.  We seek their opinion even, or especially, when we know it will differ from our own.  Anyone on the team could be either of these people: captain, quarterback, goalie, setter, relay anchor, department chair, CEO, professor, senior resident, intern, president.  Standing out for the sake of lording power over others, or advancing one’s own interests at others’ expense, is the “hidden I” in the A-hole.  This is the bad I.

The ability to stand up and out for our core values and integrity, even in the face of anxiety and external pressure to conform, however, is the Good I; it is an expression of self-differentiation.  To do this well, and to contribute to the team as a creative individual, requires self-awareness, emotional and social intelligence, and self-regulation.  In order to self-differentiate effectively, we must work on ourselves, not just promote ourselves.  It’s not about getting what’s ours in a world of scarcity; it’s about owning our talents and claiming our agency to make a unique and meaningful contribution to the whole.

TEAM: Attunement

If all we ever do is work on ourselves, however, without looking up and around, we may disregard important relationships.  I may have an important contribution to make.  But if I cannot communicate my ideas in a way that you understand, or if I come off as condescending, arrogant, dismissive, aggressive, or otherwise unpleasant, I undermine my own effectiveness, and stymie forward progress of the team.

The ability to withhold judgment, seek understanding of and from others, and recognize their unique and important contributions, is the art of attunement.  Simply, it is the practice of awareness and constructive responsiveness to others.  When I am attuned, I know when I need to set context before pitching my idea.  I observe my colleagues’ posture, body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.  I query for (mis)understanding.  I hold space for open dialogue, debate, and idea exchange.  This kind of resonance, when successful, facilitates the wave propagation of teamwork, and advances objectives faster and more efficiently with the synergy of morale.

Some might see self-differentiation and attunement as opposed or dichotomous—you can or should be one or the other.  Rather, we should consider them as complementary and counterbalancing.  We should each pursue proficiency and mastery of both skill sets, and practice them as both individuals and as whole teams.  I can be both a self-differentiated and attuned leader of my department.  My department can be both a self-differentiated and attuned member of my organization.  My organization can be both a self-differentiated and attuned member of our profession or industry.  And we can all, individuals and organizations alike, be both self-differentiated and attuned members of society at large.

TEAMS get things done when we well-self-differentiated I’s attune to one another and march together on our shared mission—regardless of the size, mission, or make-up of our teams.  Every successful team is made up of individuals who claim their unique strengths, and then direct those strengths in service of the greater good, the overarching intention of the We.

Such harmonious and resonant balance is the quintessential win-win.

A Community of Champions

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Spoiler Alert:  Big Bang Theory Series Finale!

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When was the last time you felt totally safe, at work, to address the central relational challenges that hold you and your team back from your best performance?

How often at work can you really assess and evaluate your own interpersonal skills, their impact on those around you, and on the organization as a whole?

How much time and energy do your teams waste being stymied by relational issues, stuck in redundant, dysfunctional power struggles up and down the organizational hierarchy?

How do you feel in your body just reading these questions?  Perhaps tense and frustrated?

* * * * *

We, the eight participants and two faculty members of Leading Organizations to Health Cohort 11, reported palpable heaviness upon convening for our second training retreat last Tuesday.  Despite the Colorado spring bursting with blooms, wildlife, and vast clear blue skies, dark clouds hung over our collective consciousness, each for our own reasons.  Throughout the week we shared stories of successes, challenges, conflicts, power and powerlessness.  We practiced appreciative inquiry and relational coordination, and explored the insidious impact of unearned privilege.  We spent three days in intense skills training, supporting one another through viscerally gnarly role plays and open, honest feedback about how we impact the group.

In the midst of all this deep work, we also shared meals, walks, a horseback ride, and life stories around a fire pit and drippy s’mores.  As we debriefed around the circle on the last day, something had shifted:  overall we now felt refueled and energized.  The air buzzed with the anticipation of learners on the verge of integrating our emerging skills, excited to bring it all home to practice.  The clouds had parted.  We will keep in touch through peer coaching groups—our newly established, intense-support network.  In my heart, I feel we are really becoming a family.

 

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I headed to the mountains straight from the session, for 24 hours of processing and decompression (and more washi tape card-making).  More and more I marveled at what a rare opportunity I have in LOH, to be led and learn to lead in this relationship-centered way.  For these ten months I am immersed in a professional learning lab, experimenting with different ways of speaking, acting, and being, safe among fellow professionals also grappling with this skill set.  It just does not get any better than this!

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On my way down from the mountains, I listened to an interview with Bonnie St. John on Ozan Varol’s podcast, Famous Failures.  She is the first African-American to win medals in Winter Paralympic competition as a ski racer; she is a lower extremity amputee.  She is also an author, an entrepreneur, and a former member of the Clinton administration.  Her story is inspiring, please take a listen!  At the end of the interview she describes asking a former coach about how he built champions.  He said he never built individual champions; rather, he built communities of champions.  You can only push one person so far, he said; but an allied group of people will hold one another up, push each other harder, make each other better, take one another farther.

That is exactly how I experience LOH—my best self is challenged and called forth in the most loving and professional way.  We hold space for all our struggles, allowing the learnings (epiphanies, in my experience!) to emerge.  It is deeply and literally inspiring.  Though I already do so much of this inner work on my own, there is a profound and unparalleled synergy from learning in this group—we serve as one another’s pit crew for the journey toward our better selves at work and in life.

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Nobody succeeds alone.  In the series finale of The Big Bang Theory (my favorite TV show of all time, which I missed while at LOH!), Sheldon (the obliviously self-centered genius) finally realizes this.  During his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he acknowledges his sudden and profound appreciation for his family and friends, crediting his success to their unconditional love and support, and recognizing them in front of an international audience.  LOH made this finale even more meaningful to me than it already would have been.

It is always through the struggles that we grow.  When struggle together, any and all successes are amplified exponentially.  My nine new friends will make me immeasurably more successful, both professionally and personally, than I would ever be without them.  God bless them all, and may the work we do together ripple out for the benefit of all whose lives we touch.

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Wide Open Spaces

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What to write on vacation?  Depends on the schedule, no?  Happily, on my Rocky Mountain escape this week, time lolls wide open.  How rare and precious to have these days with no commitments, no agenda, and a true feeling of detachment!  Wow.  How refreshing, nourishing, relaxing, and challenging.  No patients to see, meetings to attend, immediate work crises to solve.  I feel at once liberated and anxious—as if I enjoy the bright Colorado sun now, but there must be some black cloud looming over the ridge to the west.  *sigh*

The LOH retreat positively saturated me last weekend—mind, body, and soul.  I had Hippie Zealot Conference High, for sure.  And as so often happens, synthesizing learnings and insights proved challenging off the mountain and in real life, especially with only four intense days of re-entry before leaving again for spring break.  But now I have time and space—physical and mental—to process, hallelujah!

It never ceases to amaze me, the cosmic collision of ideas and insights that simultaneously shape my personal and professional development.  It’s like I feel the universe’s Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and Einstein hands sculpting and unifying my consciousness at all levels—it’s awesome!!

Weeks prior to LOH, my own coach Christine and my coach friend Donna each independently introduced me to the work of Jennifer Garvey Berger, expert in adult development and leadership coaching.  She incorporates ideas of complexity and systems, central tenets of LOH training, in her philosophy.  I started listening to her book, Changing on the Job, the week before LOH started.  My friends came to Berger’s work separately (they don’t know each other, which I intend to remedy soon), and the temporal overlap of their new learning with my own makes my heart leap—my friendships are, without question, divinely inspired.  The central learning for me so far is recognition of my current and aspirational states of development as a person in all aspects of life.  I look forward to acquiring and practicing more skills for growth—it is a lifelong process!

Two weeks ago, while searching links for my Thank You post to Ben Zander, I came across Rosamund Stone Zander’s book, Pathways to Possibility, the follow up to their co-authored book, The Art of Possibility, still my favorite book of all time.  I started PtP days before LOH; the synergism of ideas almost overwhelmed me.  I finished it last week and holy cow, this is advanced practice personal development.  The stories we tell, the ones that rule our relationships and lives, can be so deeply entrenched that even when we recognize their dysfunction, revising them feels almost impossible.  In my personal life, I recognize intellectually that I hold onto some seriously destructive stories—ones that cause chronic and palpable suffering not just for me but those closest to me.  I lose circulation in my figurative hands, my emotional grip on these stories is so tight, and I still refuse to let go of them.  It is positively frustrating and fascinating.  I know this stubborn intransigence has untoward effects on my leadership capacity and style at work, however indirectly, because I firmly believe that ‘how we do anything is how we do everything.’  It just kills me—like a padlocked steel door in the long hallway of self-awareness, behind which live insight and psychological freedom—I know I have the key somewhere, I just can’t find it yet.  I will return repeatedly to integrate the practices in this book, like I do to AoP.  And, I get better every year at holding myself with a little more compassion.  We’re all here doing our best; I am no exception.  Nobody is better supported in this work of self-discovery than I.  So I journey on mostly joyfully, surrounded by fellow wayfinders, working on ourselves for the benefit of us all.  Onward!

Spring break writing

I started this post with at least two other ideas to write about, but I’ll hold off.  I have four more days here in the mountains.  More time and space to think on, manipulate, and start to apprehend all of these ideas and learnings of late.  My thank you cards, washi tape, journal, and laptop are spread out over the coffee table.  My favorite movies play on DVD and cable as pleasant and entertaining background ambiance.  What a gift and a blessing are time and space.  May I savor these days with deep and sustaining gratitude.

This Is My Hogwarts

Sylvan Dale Lodge

My friends, I belong.  This weekend marked the beginning of a ten month training program in communication, leadership, connection, and creativity.  9 of us made it to Colorado after the bomb cyclone (Patrick, we missed you—can’t wait to meet you in May!) to launch Cohort 11 of Leading Organizations to Health (LOH).  Our teachers, Tony Suchman and Diane Rawlins, led us through three days of introspection, skills acquisition and practice, and formation in community.  It all happened at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, surrounded by mountains, river, wildlife, and a rich history of family and hospitality.

We are training in relationship-centered care and administration, helping one another embody our best relationship tendencies, so we may help our organizations function at higher levels of connection and effectiveness.  It’s too exciting!

I walked into the lodge at Sylvan Dale, saw the vaulted ceiling with the icicle lights, and immediately thought of Hogwarts.  I came to this place, called by something to the Why of my soul, to be with others like me.  We are here to train, to hone our skills for good.  Within the first session I realized I can totally be myself in this crowd.  Here, I’m no longer a lone voice focused on relationships ahead of everything else, no longer the only one who cannot help seeing how the nature of our relationships permeates every interaction, every decision—and how we recreate them in every moment.  No more self-editing and explaining, tip-toeing around what matters most to me.  I can fully inhabit my relationship convictions here, in this space and among these new friends.  I feel an ease of purpose and values in this group that I come to, like a deep well, to fill my bucket and irrigate my garden of personal and professional growth.  Here, I am not a black sheep.

I now have 9 new people-nodes to connect and integrate into my existing relationship webs—a new and emerging system.  We share stories with common themes, new insights, and mutual support.  These ten months we will form and evolve as individuals as well as a community.  It’s a type of love, really…  At least that’s how it feels to me.  Hooray!