I spend a lot of time with individuals and teams working on two big concepts: trust and communication. I always tell them: if trust is the foundation of leadership then communication is the medium.
And yet, I have had several occasions recently where more senior leaders have heard about these topics and figure the discussions and trainings must be for junior leaders. They are so basic!
I would caution here not to confuse basic with foundational. As every architect knows, you can’t build anything without investing in, improving, and innovating at the foundation. Every foundation must be designed based on the needs of the structure, the current standards, the environment, new technologies and materials. No single foundation suits all buildings – or all relationships.
PWC recently published their Trust Survey results for 2023 and they suggest that leaders across industries are underinvesting in their trust foundation – and their people feel it.
Here are a few highlights from their research:
It’s also worth noting that 91% of business executives say that their ability to build and maintain trust improves the bottom line.
Every human being who has ever had a relationship with another human being knows that trust is far easier to break than to build, much less rebuild. And, it’s hard to build a relationship much less a scalable company without due attention to its foundation.
Here are a few tips for checking your foundation:
1. Emphasize the Why: Make sure everyone understands why the company exists and help them find meaning in working there. Help them find their personal "why" in the work regardless of their age, role, or level in the company. Meaning helps us keep a bigger perspective on our work and our relationships and keeps the little things from being trust breakers.
2. Share Values Stories: Trust is built over time and the more you build the more grace you get when a trust-breaking event happens. Your company stories are your “grace bank” that help you build a track record of living your values so that when it appears you had a miss, people see and understand that as the outlier not the norm.
3. Communicate Constantly: Another one of my refrains is that “silence is never silence” in a company. In the absence of your voice, the voice of the company, your people will make up their own stories about you and it – and they are likely to be worse than reality.
4. Own Your Mistakes: Making mistakes does far less damage to trust than not owning those mistakes. You make mistakes. Companies make mistakes. The trust impact comes down to how you handle that reality rather than deny it.
I remember the place, the moment, the book, and the transformation that happened within me when I read: Pain in life is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
I was reading a book on Buddhism and trying to find a way forward in the months following my Dad’s suicide – 17 years ago today. His birthday is tomorrow. He would be 79.
When I read these words all those years ago, my heart and my mind and my consciousness and even my body were being consumed with questions, ravaged by noise:
How could it have been different?
Could it have been different?
Did I say what I needed to say?
Where did he buy the gun?
Who sold it to him? What did he tell them?
I wonder what they'd think now?
How long ago did he buy it?
When had he made the decision to finally do it?
What was going through his mind?
What was he thinking about me?
Was he thinking about me?
Who am I now?
What about Mom? My Sister? Brother? Their kids?
How do I process that I’ll never get another hug?
How do I hold on knowing I will never here “I love you, son” again?
What about everyone else? The ones who didn’t know he struggled with Depression? Who didn’t know about his childhood sexual abuse?
Why don’t I want to see anyone? Talk to anyone?
Why does a crowded place give me anxiety?
Why does the world seem so noisy?
I could write 100 more easy, but you get the point. When I read those words - that suffering is optional - it clicked. My mind slowed. The questions quietly faded. They were still there, just not so loud, so dominant, so consuming. They had been manifesting my suffering and my struggle. The more I struggled, the more questions, the more I suffered. And, the more I fed that suffering, the less I had within me to invest in healing, in reconstituting myself in a new reality. Stuck. Not living.
Those words started my life over.
There was only one undeniable set of facts, without question, that I needed to accept: he was gone. I was here. It hurt like hell. And, it’s inevitable, and it’s life, and it continues.
If I couldn’t own the pain, the pain would own me.
These simple words also offered insight into my Dad’s suffering with Depression and the harsh and confounding reality of mental illness for those of us who do not struggle with it ourselves. For my Dad, pain was definitely inevitable. But, for him, suffering was not optional. Given his Depression and trauma, it too was a fact. Inevitable. Life. He made the choice to seek help, to go to therapy, to change his diet (sometimes), to take his medication. While these at varying times and in varying ways offered him some reprieve, his suffering was still there. It was as persistent as the beat of his heart and as pervasive as the blood it circulated throughout his body.
As I look around at the world today, I find myself coming back to these words again. I find myself suffering. I tense with anger at the chosen-state of gun violence. Of murdered children in schools. I feel despair at the self-centeredness that drives our society and distorts our democracy, which, after all, is built on a premise of we – we the people. I mourn the world my daughters live in and will have to manage when I’m gone. I cry for them. And, I don’t know what to do. I do know I’m suffering. I am very aware that I’m still feeding that suffering. I know it is optional, and I must make a different choice. I just have to figure out how.
For the last two weeks, since the senseless massacre of three young children and their caring adults at Covenant School in Nashville, I’ve been perpetually one thought away from crying.
When I think of the absurdity of defending military assault rifle access for the mentally ill or whoever the hell really wants them and that being more important than protecting children, it’s almost more than I can take.
When I observe the willing blindness that suggests murdering children isn’t about guns when the only country on the planet that systematically murders its children is the one dead-set on defending guns (all countries have mental illness by the way), is the only country that thinks having an AR-15 is a more important right than being safe at school, it’s almost more than I can take.
When my friend writes and asks for any advice on how to talk about it all to his second grader who had friends at Covenant - and I think about all of those difficult conversations for parents and, more importantly, the horror of the fact that our children have dying on their minds, it’s almost more than I can take.
When I think of my 3rd-grade daughter telling me, “it’s really scary”, it’s almost more than I can take.
When I watch the outrage of two young, black, male officials who were duly elected being removed from office by the white, male, politi-christian patriarchy in an attempt to silence their nonviolent voices, simply because there is a white, right, political super majority and a spirit of revenge that lacks empathy, understanding, Christian values, and common sense, it’s almost more than I can take.
When I see yet another massacre yesterday, this time at a bank, and persistent inaction by white, right, politi-christians, it’s almost more than I can take.
And, when my daughter’s school’s front porch ends up the crashing end-point of a car chase in which one car was shooting at the other, it’s almost more than I can take.
And, when my other daughter hears gunshots as she lies down for bed and comes down crying in fear, it’s almost more than I can take.
And, again, when politicians defend policy that has made “the car an extension of the home” and led to thousands of new guns on the streets of Nashville, easily stolen from cars, ignoring pleas from the police who are now under-staffed and under-armed, because guns are just that important to politicians, it’s almost more than I can take.
When I look at my children and the world they are already having to face and will inherit when I’m gone, it’s almost more than I can take.
And, in the silence of a stoplight, these thoughts come crashing in and the tears begin welling. In the fleeting flash of panic when I drop my daughter off at school, smile, chase away horrific thoughts, drive away, and then crumble, the tears rip through me. In the moment I get to silently gaze at my daughters without their knowing, the tears surge. On the walk or the run when it’s just my thoughts and my head trying to clear, my throat tightens and the tears roll out.
I have nothing much to offer here other than to let you know that I see you. And, I know it’s almost more than you can take.
For ten years, probably longer, probably since we learned we were pregnant with our first child, I have imagined the conversation when I would share with my daughter that her grandfather, who she’s named after, died by suicide. His grandfather moniker was “Bugsy” for the older cousins. She never met him.
It was never about shame or anything like that, it was just about figuring out what would be the right time and age to process it in a healthy way. I even wrote a blog about it when she was just 2 years old.
Over the years, I have worked to set up this conversation by talking about mental illness, by talking about how Bugsy died from a “disease of his mind”. Talking about his life.
Yesterday, as I picked her up from school, she was excitedly describing how she had been Googling members of the family and among other things, had come across an article from years back recognizing and celebrating my Mom. We talked briefly about what an extraordinary person my Mom is and what meaningful life she has led. And, then I asked my daughter if she had read the whole article. She said she had skimmed it.
“The article talks about how Bugsy died. Did you read that?”
“Well, it’s important that you hear it from me and not from finding it in an article anyway. I’ve just been waiting until you were old enough to have the conversation. Your Bugsy died by suicide.”
Holy shit. It was out. A 10+ year mental narrative now written, looking and sounding nothing like I’d imagined and being unceremoniously delivered on a drive home from school.
I again talked to her about mental illness and explained that Bugsy’s mind was the thing that might have saved him but that it was actually the thing telling him he was an awful person and a burden to the rest of us. That he felt terrible about himself despite how much we loved him and how much he had accomplished. That’s the thing about mental illness. That he had gotten help and taken medication and done all he could do for decades until he couldn’t anymore. It was Depression that killed him.
I reinforced that it was never about keeping his suicide a secret from her. It was just about her being old enough to process it and to ask the questions she needs to ask. We don’t do secrets and no question is off limits.
I explained to her that if she chose to tell others - friends, teachers, etc. - that they may not understand. That they may try to judge Bugsy, say he did something wrong, say he was weak. This is not our truth and it is not his story. So, if she gets that kind of response, she has to know the truth.
Of course, I told her she could talk to any of the family if she had questions, when she has questions. That we talk openly and honestly about our lives and his life and his death.
She didn’t have any questions at that point, in the car, on the way home from school. Just another day. She now living with suicide too.
The car got quiet. I turned up the Christmas music just a touch.
“So, how was your English quiz?”
The Wisdom of Winter
Wisdom isn’t inherent in our darkest days, but these days are our clearest path to it.
Perhaps it’s only in the darkness, or at least in the rationing of light, that we can come to appreciate it. Appreciate what it does for us. Appreciate what it makes of us. Appreciate what we are in it.
Recognize what it does to others, what they do to it. Who creates it? Who consumes it?
The darkness asks us different questions than the light.
What does it feel like to be cold? To stay ever damp, the light never coming to dry or to offer warm reprieve? The cold and damp merging and wrapping us and dissolving us?
What does it mean to be starved for light? To believe ourselves to be desperate and in need but still knowing the sun will proceed with its plan? No control. Fewer hours. Shorter days.
How does gray feel? What are we supposed to do with it? It is a thing, this grayness. It cannot be ignored or explained with - or in contrast to - other colors. We must own it for what it is.
What happens when life skins us of our perceived beauty, or our defenses, the leaves that sway and flicker and distract with their color and charm? What’s left? We are merely who we are. What do we do with that?
What happens when we feel our bones? The deep ache of brokenness? That dull, radiating sense of being lost, exposed? Bare.
These are not questions of death or desperation or darkness. This is life. This is winter.
In winter, it is our ability to see what is, not what was, or what could be, or what should be that lets the light break through. The warmth. The growth.
In the dark and barren and broken and matter-of-fact of the season, we may see more honestly the layers and cycles and phases of light, of life, of death, of time, of distance, of our place in it all.
This is the brutal wisdom of winter.
Self Portrait: A Walk in the Woods
25 years ago, when I learned to paint and draw, the learning process had nothing to do with technique. In fact, by most people’s standards, it had little to do with painting and drawing at all – at least if I was doing it right.
I was being taught to see. Once I could see, I could paint.
And, while I don’t paint or draw at this point (someday again), I keep this lesson with me in every aspect of my life. To create, to find meaning, to communicate that meaning, I must be humble enough and patient enough and open enough and diligent enough to see myself and my world in its essence, to understand what it is offering and telling me – and then to create from there.
I took a walk in the woods today, and everywhere I turned nature was asking me questions. It caught me off guard honestly. I just wanted to get out and get some exercise with the dog, but the woods wanted me to do more. They wanted me to see. To paint. A self-portrait.
To be clear, I didn’t paint a thing – except in my mind. I tried to see what nature wanted me to see; myself, reflected in her. And, in her own constant changing with the wind and the water and the light and the seasons, she made it clear that my portrait was transient too. I am ever becoming a new self, seeing a new self, if I’m willing.
So, here’s what she asked. 9 simple questions I should probably answer every day:
What color are you today?
Color is a vibration. It is the perception of energy, wavelengths. So, what is yours today? Is it what you want it to be? How do others see it?
What colors do you surround yourself with?
How do they blend or complement or contrast with your own? What frequencies do you absorb? What bounces off?
What’s your texture today?
What coarseness is unavoidable at your age, given your life, experience? What strength can be created in the layers? What wisdom? What beauty?
What’s your light source?
Where do you find your light? Do you run toward it? Look askance? Turn your back? The light is there and it’s bigger than you.
Where do you cast a shadow?
How long is it? Is it getting bigger or smaller? Who is in it? What thrives in its cover? What fades or dies by it?
What’s your background?
What past wraps you in stories without words? What blurs and fades? What defines your form? Your sense of shape?
How much space do you take up?
Do you fill the empty space? How much positive space? How much negative? Are you the right size in your world, for your world?
What is in front of you?
What lies beyond the canvas? What will you see in tomorrow’s portrait? And tomorrow’s tomorrow? Where you look determines what you will have the chance to see.
Do you accept the beauty?
She didn’t ask where I find beauty or what I find beautiful. Its ever-presence was implied in her question. The question was whether and where and how I am willing to accept the gift.
When an artist dies
When an artist dies, the path we travel through the woods toward remembrance and celebration softly, fully thuds beneath our feet, the peaty, pungent soil reminding us it has been formed over millennia through life and death; it is solid; we are solid. But, we should step forward with intention.
When an artist dies, the wind rustles the treetops soaring above us, flickering the earliest yellows of Fall against an azure blue sky, whispering a message without words that she is still with us. The wind is now ours. We must make the meaning; we must deliver the message.
When an artist dies, the sun darts through the trees casting light on her work so we can see her hands in it; we see her labor; we see her mind; we see her heart. And, there it all is, right there before us. The artist is among us. She is not gone.
When an artist dies, the air cools in contrast to the sunny warmth of the light, enlivening and spiriting our bodies from head to toe, reminding us we are alive. We are still here. We have love to share, miles to travel, things to create, life to live.
When an artist dies, the doctrines and diocese and dogmas of the world’s religions come home to find their essence in the woods, among love and loss and celebration, with friends and family, under the gaze of a god you understand and who understands you.
When an artist dies, her work lives. In the untethering from the life of the maker, her art takes a life of its own, creating stories and memories and inspiration for all who encounter it - organically, in the universal life and narrative we share as people, perhaps along another’s peaty path toward remembrance and celebration.
Through her art, the artist reminds us that it is indeed what we do - not what we say - and what we create – not what we consume - that give form and meaning to our lives, that connect us to the regenerative spirit of the world, that give us all access to the eternal.
In loving and creative remembrance of (Aunt) Peg Van Brunt, whose life was art and whose art lives on.
May 27, 1941 – August 2, 2022
Last night, I pulled my kids back out of bed so they could come outside and see the fireflies that were practically swarming in the fields around our place. I wanted them to see the wonder, but what I saw felt far more profound.
After they finally went to bed, my mind swirled with what I’d just witnessed as they bounded and ran and jumped and laughed and frolicked and screeched through the near darkness.
The wisdom of my children and the fireflies they chase:
Create, Destroy, Connect: Digital Health's Creative Undercurrent with Anderson Williams and Kane Harrison
I was out walking my dog the other morning and as he started to slow his gait and do his extra-intensive sniffing, head down, gravity causing his lips to flap open to show his fangs, I knew he was about to do his business.
Circle. Circle. Squat. Avert eyes!
And there, as I looked away, in a lawn full of clover, a big, glaring four-leafed clover is staring right back at me. I ponder a moment to pass the time...
Dog business complete. Steam rising. Bag over hand. Well, you know the rest.
My business now also complete, I looked back to the four-leaf clover still glaring back at me. I picked it to take home to my daughters. You know, share the good luck!
And, as I walked home with a big bag of shit in one hand and a four-leafed clover in the other, I felt there had to be some life learning in the symbolic contradiction and absurdity of the image.
So, here we go:
1. Hold on carefully. Throw away intentionally. We best remember what we have in each hand! Hold on to the correct one. Throw the other one away. How we hold a four-leaf clover or a bag of shit with a loose grip, a tight grip, a couple of fingers minimizing any possible transfer to bare skin, a couple fingers gingerly trying to protect and save - this will remind us in our bodies what we are holding onto even when the mind wanders and life moves on. It will remind us what we need to let go of. We need to pay attention to how we hold things.
2. Clover with a pile of shit in it is still clover. A pile of shit in the midst of clover is still a pile of shit. Our circumstances don’t define or redefine us as we move through the shitty or clover-y parts of life. We define who we are and how we are in the world and carry that with us wherever we go – come what may. We also know this to be true for others. So, we should always recognize shit cloaked in clover for what it is. We also shouldn’t be blind to the clover just because there happens to be some shit around it.
3. Own your shit. We don’t have a lot of choice as to whether or when we have a four-leaf clover or a bag of shit. As with my walk, most of us have some of both most of the time. We can’t just drop the shit for someone else to deal with because it stinks, it’s gross, or we just want to pretend it’s all clover. We have to hold on to it carefully until we can dispose of it. It’s ours. Own it. But, get rid of it as soon as possible.
4. Seize the clover. We also don’t always have the choice to just focus on the clover. Sometimes, shit rules. Focusing on clover doesn’t magically make it disappear. So, when we do have the choice, we have to claim it. If we stop looking for the clover and holding carefully onto what we find, the shit just gets that much heavier and more stinky. Carpe clover.
5. Avoid pattern blindness. Look for the misfits. The four-leaf clover is a misfit. In the land of three-leafers, it’s probably ridiculed and bullied. But, when we look at a field of three-leafers, our eyes eventually blur and we don’t see much of anything specific or nuanced anymore. And then, the four-leafer jumps out! Our senses awaken and we start looking more closely, looking for more like it. We become curious. We become explorers. We look at all of the clover differently.