I had a lot of conversations with clients this week. The election euphoria has all but evaporated. It's back to predominantly pessimism and worry. Note the word "predominantly." There were two conversations this week that left me uplifted. They weren't "head in the sand," unrealistic people either. Both of them face huge business challenges, and worse than that, they're getting barraged by all of the agitation, gossip, and doomsday-ness (yes, a new word) that naturally flows from this unending bad news.
But these two clients (and a rare few others) see it differently. They have made a very deliberate choice in how they're acting. They are speaking to as many people as they can get to, making sure they are not sugarcoating what's going on. They are consciously inviting people around to ask hard questions, and they are looking people in the eye as they talk about the future. No wild punditry about exactly what will happen, trying to somehow convince people that they're the expert. Just a diligent, candid voice and set of ears to match.
As I was thinking about them this morning, I remembered something I read in Richard Rosenblatt's Rules for Aging (a book mentioned here before; if you haven't already, buy it) Rather than just emailing a snippet off to the clients to thank them, I sent the chapter in full:
Rule 38: Push the Wheel Forward:
So many of the rules have been prohibitive or cautionary that I hesitate to offer this one. But since the point of this rule is to avoid hesitation so here goes.
The idea of pushing the wheel forward comes from a film I saw as a kid about test pilots in Britain attempting to break the sound barrier. The quite uncolorful title of the film was Breaking the Sound Barrier; and though it was technically fiction, it had the look and feel of a documentary.
The plot was straightforward. Again and again, pilots would go up in their jets increasing their speed until they hit that invisible wall of sound. When they did hit the wall, the planes would shake terribly. The pilots would announce to the tower: "Buffeting, buffeting!! Then they would pull back on the wheel in an effort to slow the plane down and stop the shaking. When that happened , the plane would nosedive and crash into the ground. This happened repeatedly with every test.
Then one day, a pilot went up and changed the pattern. When his plane hit the wall, he did not pull back on the wheel. Instead he pushed the wheel forward and immediately flew through the wall and broke the sound barrier.
I saw that seen as a little boy, and I can still feel the exhilaration of it today. The lesson was clear to me as a kid, and it should be clear to adults as well. Life gets dangerous if you play defensively or fearfully. Michael Jordan said that he rarely got injured because he played at half speed. Life is rewarding if you play at full speed. It is not only more fun, it is also safer ... When you reach critical speed, you fear that you are going too fast-- you've never traveled at such a speed -- and everything in your system tells you to back off or back down. And here is where you must defy everything in your system. Say it, do it, make it, risk it. Your whole body is buffeting. You are miles above the earth. Push the wheel forward.
PLEASE find a way to push. If you can't think of ways, get some people together and read this chapter out loud. It'll take a little while, but I'll "betcha" it's better than most of the meetings you're having now. You'll learn a ton about the people you work with by what they say after you've read. You want their attention? Tell them it's avoiding the crash.
It’s more than hope.
Leaving politics aside, do not waste the chance to learn something very important from the candidacy of Senator Obama. Since he came on the national scene in 2004 (with, by the way, a speech), he is the most compelling example I have ever observed of increasing positive perceptions of your leadership by how you present yourself.
How else do you think growing numbers of people believe he should and can be elected, even in the face of an obvious lack of experience in governing? More questions: if you want to be a better communicator and leader, what are you learning from such a visible success story? Are there some ways to change (there's that word) yourself and how you communicate your ideas? Do you even believe you can?
As I sit here on Election day morning, the lesson continues. What have we learned about leadership and perception and communication in these past few months? As the election culminates and the real work begins, what guidance has all of this offered. I'm not the first or the last to suggest that the reason Senator Obama is, within a few hours, to become the next President of the United States is because of how he acted under pressure. He has emerged as the far more composed, thoughtful, inspiring choice to more people than have ever gathered to express their opinion. He has, though his choices of action, portrayed and sustained a story that has gained momentum in the face of palpable fear and resistance.
As we look back over this time, I ask you to think about what this all means to you. Move beyond (at least for a moment) how much you think taxes will change and what may or may not happen to the economy. Ask yourself: What will I do about how I treat people around me? Especially if I am facing the always-uphill battle of changing something with them where I work, where I worship, or where my kids go to learn?
As our soon-to-be President reminded us one night:
For many months, we've been teased, even derided for talking about hope. But we always knew that hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.
What do you believe?