I love this question, and I believe starting with it can open a world of possibility around addressing the most pressing issues, big and small, personal and public, work and life that we face each day. Here are some thoughts on how to release its implicit power:
Assume possibility. If we genuinely and openly explore “how,” we have the opportunity to both better understand the problem we are facing and to open the door to new solutions. We have to start from a place of faith and confidence in possibility. In turn, solution thinking done well also asks us to think critically about the rules and norms of the problem, the structure. We must analyze and understand better how we arrived at the present to deepen our understanding of how we might address it, not just incrementally, but substantively in the future.
Focus on strategy. To identify “how” substantively, we need to think strategically. When we try to solve problems by starting with what we should “do” then we miss the opportunity to transform the condition that generated the problem in the first place. We end up doing stuff that just gets us to the next iteration of the same problem. Strategy focuses on systems and structures and relationships that we must invest in in order to implement our transformative “how” more consistently, sustainably, and transformationally.
Align tactics. Clearly, at some point, we must “do” something. We just shouldn’t start there because our tactics are often rooted in the skills and perspectives and practices we are most familiar with, the ways we already “do.” It doesn’t take a big leap of logic to see that those ways aren’t going to be sufficient for transforming our problem. In fact, they may be part of it. While our existing skills, perspectives, and practices may be reinvested in or reorganized for incremental improvements, to transform conditions our tactics have to be rethought and reconsidered to align directly with our strategies. We need to “do” things differently, and to make that happen we will probably also need some new skills, perspectives, and practices in the mix.
Question creatively. Genuine belief in possibility begs us to be more creative. Creativity that can support the vastness of possibility starts with a willingness to question everything. This questioning isn’t about throwing out everything and starting over. In fact, it allows us the opportunity to identify and strengthen the core beliefs, the foundations upon which our work and relationships are built, the things we can’t and won’t change. At the same time, deep, creative questioning does allow us to identify ancillary assumptions about “how we do things” that, in fact, are just a matter of bad habit, culture, or climate issues. They might even live only at the small group or even individual levels of our organization or work but deeply impact our ability to accomplish our goals.
Generate lots of solutions: Similar to our urgent need to “do” something, when we start generating solutions, we often have an urgent need to get to the “right” one as quickly as possible. Getting to the right answer, however, usually requires some combination of multiple creative answers. So, we need to generate a lot of possible answers, and some that even seem impossible, before we start whittling things down. The pressure of generating a volume of ideas (in the next five minutes brainstorm some ideas vs. in the next five minutes come up with 20 ideas) forces us to move our thinking beyond our normal parameters. We force ourselves to come up with outlandish ideas – which may just hold the nugget of wisdom that triggers the ultimate solution. It also just generally gets us out of our cognitive lane and frees our thinking.
Iterate. As we start to focus our creative ideas and narrow them down, we need to stay aware of when and how we start to get wedded to them and start building assumptions around them. As we feel that human need to get to the answer, we can inadvertently make the jump to what we believe it is and derail the creative process. We must remain open and flexible and continue to iterate on ideas rather than just carry them forward. In other words, we have to keep learning. Have we uncovered some new truth that changes our assumptions? Have we identified alternative strategies and tactics and are we staying open to those as they come? What are their implications on our previous strategies or tactics? Basically, we have to remain committed to creatively questioning throughout the process.
Engage diverse voices and ideas. To support the generation of lots of solutions, we should also engage diverse voices and perspectives. Generating a lot of the same kind of ideas from the same perspectives doesn’t get us anywhere. But, when we stop and engage stakeholders, and even non-stakeholders, in the ideation process, we generate more raw material to work with, and often material we never thought about, blinded by our own perspectives.
Develop shared purpose. Even though it is the last word in the question, solving for “how might we” starts with the idea of “we.” It’s the subject. It’s collective. We work with and through others. To solve the problems we need to solve and create the future we want to create, we must share a sense of purpose of what we are trying to accomplish. None of the other parts of this process will work fluidly if our purposes are not aligned. The process of creating is hard enough without facing the constant and unnamable stress and frustration of inadvertently working at cross-purposes. This is perhaps the most critical investment a leader can make.
Share responsibility and accountability. When we are trying to transform our work and/or the world, we must not just share purpose but ownership. “We” works at all levels of our creative process and related attempts at implementing new strategies and tactics. So, we must be intentional over time as we continue to ideate, iterate, and implement any change efforts, so that a sense of the collective remains. We will divvy up specific responsibilities, different people deploy different tactics, but we should continue to share accountability for achieving our strategy, driving toward our shared purpose throughout the creative process.
If ever there was a case to be made for being in the moment and being more present, even on a Monday, this week’s solar eclipse was it.
For weeks, it was all over the news. Everyone was talking about it. People were flocking to Nashville. Hotels and bars were packed. It all seemed like another super-hyped special event for a city that loves its own super-hyped special events. More noise in a noisy world. I was kind of over it before it ever happened. It was still Monday.
But then, just before noon central time the eclipse began. To see a small bite being taken out of the sun was surreal. It sparked wonder of what our ancestors must have thought. It challenged me to locate myself in a galaxy, not just a city or country or even planet. All I wanted to do was watch and absorb. Shrink.
But, as the moon covered more and more of the sun over the next hour and a half or so, we battled overcast skies, worried we were going to miss this magnificent moment we had been sold for so many weeks. As the time got nearer, the clouds got heavier. Oh, our misfortune! Oh well.
Totality was moments away. We would miss it. Carry on. It’s Monday.
And, then the clouds broke. There it was. The glowing ring around the complete blackness of the moon. A void with fiery red flashes along the right side. It was nighttime around us. An orange sunset spanned all horizons. The crickets began chirping. The birds went to sleep. There were bats flying around.
All of nature was out of sorts – or, were we all actually in perfect sorts? Present with it.
My reaction and excitement completely surprised me. I was giddy. Oh my! Holy cow! That is unbelievable! Look at that! Goose bumps. Watery eyes. I encouraged my daughters (3 and 5) to try and take it in. This breathtaking moment; mathematically predictable and yet profoundly spiritual. I felt powerfully tiny and humbly expansive.
And then, a piercing white light emerged. Seductive. The “diamond ring.” It was so small and specific. For that brief moment, it felt like a spot light, a beam being sent directly to me. Individual. As it grew, we were all flooded by white light like none of us had ever known. The intense contrast of stage lighting. The hyper-reality of it made us all aware of each other, engulfing us in wonder, looking, observing.
Inexplicable waves of shadows washed under our feet.
And, then it was over.
It was one minute and fifty-five seconds of totality (official time).
One minute and fifty-five seconds on a Monday of observing light.
One minute and fifty-five seconds on a Monday of watching nature.
One minute and fifty-five seconds on a Monday of trying to locate myself in the cosmos.
One minute and fifty-five seconds on a Monday of deeply shared experience with others.
One minute and fifty-five seconds on a Monday of complete presence.
Most of us don’t live our day-to-day lives on the moral horizon. Most of us don’t consider the morals at play in our daily lives and decisions any more than we require directions to put on our clothes, or a map to get to work. The horizon only shows itself when there’s something that disrupts its inevitability, stalls its inertia, and questions its reliability in our lives. We get pushed there.
So, what happens to us when we find ourselves on a moral horizon?
We aren’t used to such clarity. We are shocked by our own deep sense of certainty.
We aren’t sure how we even arrived at having to take note of the horizon. We are stunned that its absoluteness could possibly be challenged.
We can’t comprehend what our world even means if this horizon doesn’t exist as we know it. The implications are too vast to process.
A horizon that feels so clear inside of us, but somehow comes into question by others in our society, triggers the vertigo of the person afraid of heights standing high upon a precipice (I know this well). Our heads are awash with uncertainty about our world, the odd perspective of seeing it more broadly, from above – driven in a self-reinforcing loop by the confusion and concern of why there is even uncertainty in the first place. The ground is firm beneath me. There is no question. I will die if I fall from here, breach the horizon. If I jump, I won’t fly. I know this. Why am I even thinking about it? There is no question. The moral line is clear. My position is established. And yet, this debilitating vertigo.
I want to snap out of it.
I want to buck-up in righteousness, and yet I huddle in disillusionment.
I want to be bigger than the moment, and yet feel swallowed by it.
I want to reclaim the comfort and clarity of a moral horizon that I never even have to pay attention to, the specificity of the position on the precipice, and yet it all seems dangerous and blurry.
I also realize that my vertigo is in part a result of my privilege, which only adds to the weight and the disorientation of the whole thing. I know others are forced to face moral horizons every day because of their race, gender identity, or otherwise.
I don’t have a happy ending here. I’m still standing at this horizon, head spinning, heart aching, writing to try and just make it a little clearer. Writing in hopes that I might talk myself into the clarity of the right next step. Writing to assure myself that the moral horizon does exist and to recognize and do my part such that no one has to live every day at its edge.
I have been writing and thinking a lot about power lately. And, one of the principles of power that has surfaced is the idea that we are often most powerful when we feel most powerless.
I explored this premise based on my own and my family’s experiences with my Dad’s suicide. It was the most broken, disorienting, unstable feeling time of my life. As I have written before, I don’t even remember a lot of what happened for a good year around that time. Yet, mostly thanks to my Mom and fully supported by my immediate family, we took the opportunity to tell our story, and to tell my Dad’s story.
We shared publicly that his death was suicide, that he suffered with Depression, that he had experienced sexual abuse by a neighbor when he was a child. We thought we were being transparent for our own purposes and healing. It turned out that our transparency was of a far greater purpose and broader healing.
We received literally hundreds of personal notes and letters (they continue occasionally over a decade later) of people sharing their own stories of suicide, Depression, and abuse. Some of these people were friends we had known for years but never knew shared these same experiences. Others were total strangers who had simply read the obituary and wanted to share their gratitude and their own story with people they knew would understand.
It was incredibly powerful. We were powerful. My Dad’s life remained powerful, and even took on new power after his death.
I share all of this again as I observe the Mayor of Nashville, Megan Barry, who recently lost her only son to an overdose, as she turns this most powerless feeling moment in her life into perhaps her most powerful. In fact, Mayor Barry’s being open and honest about her loss, her son’s struggle with addiction, and the frustrating and futile need and desire of a parent just to ask her son “what were you thinking” could be the most important work she has ever done.
I know there are parents all over the country, and even the world, who have already read her story, listened to her words, and feel just a little more whole because of it. I know there are parents right now who will lose their child in this sort of tragedy, who have yet to realize how important the Mayor’s example will be to them.
So, I guess this is in part at thank you to Mayor Barry, but also a note of encouragement to everyone else who feels alone, shamed about, or broken by their lives and the tragedies they have experienced. You are not alone.
The more we can all muster the courage to share our struggles openly the more lives we can save, the more families we can heal, and the stronger communities we will build.
We can and will be powerful in our most broken moments.
In an era that has surfaced the gender, race, and economic biases implicit in our cultural definitions of powerful leadership, we have also exposed the self-serving and self-reinforcing nature of that powerful leadership. We can see how our examples and modifiers of powerful leadership have served the powerful and institutionalized powerlessness elsewhere.
Further, in our current climate of one upmanship, brashness, bravado, and the loudest-is-the-leader, we may have actually reached the logical conclusion of our old cultural notions of powerful leadership.
So, I would like to offer a different lens through which we can better see and understand and cultivate our power, as well as the power of those around us: Leaderful Powership.
I am nothing if not a language and grammar nerd, so understanding the concept starts there.
The idea of Leaderful Powership simply inverts the traditional and accepted concept of powerful leadership to make power the subject and leader the modifier.
Power is a condition of human existence (not the privilege of a select few). “Ship” as a suffix denotes that condition. Powership. We all have it, whether we know it, apply it, or leave it wholly untapped.
Being leaderful, then, is a modifier of our human condition of power. “Ful” as a suffix means to be “full of” or “characterized by.” To apply “–ful” to power in a description of the human condition (i.e. powerful) is redundant, or at least not very insightful. Again, we are all powerful.
So, applying “-ful” instead toward how we use that power (leaderful) could provide some clarity and insight to how we live and work with each other, leading, following, and the like.
How do we become leaderful, given that we already have power?
Perhaps in simply reorienting subject and modifier, core condition and qualifier, we can also reorient how we invest in our personal development and our abilities to support others’ development. Perhaps we can use our own power to help others grow theirs, leaderfully.
These basic reflections were the spark that ultimately led to my book: We Power: Building Powerful Relationships That Can Change Your Work and the World.
Check it out to see where the thinking led!