leadership

3 Worries That Can Sabotage Your Leadership

Photo on    Visualhunt

Photo on Visualhunt

There are times when I am laser-focused on my mission. And boy do I get things done. My collaborations move smoothly, without muss or fuss. When I get stuck, I reach out for help and find a way to keep moving.

And then, there are all those other times…

  • When I don't seem to eye-to-eye with anyone

  • When I get stuck and stay stuck, without telling anyone

  • When my motivation and productivity take a nose dive

And there really is a special magic that happens in organizations helmed by leaders and managers who model a commitment to purpose. The good news is that it’s not actually magic. 

Because what’s really going on is this: A compelling sense of purpose keeps us from focusing too much on ourselves, by locking us on to something larger than we are.

Here’s how Kat Calvin, founder of Spread the Vote -- which works to get eligible voters the IDs they need to vote -- put it in on our recent conversation on the Dialogue Lab podcast:

“I think it comes from, how much you actually care about your mission. I actually really do just want to get as many people IDs as possible, so I know I need help to do that. Because I can’t do it alone. So if I actually really care about the damn turtles or whatever else. Then I’m going to do whatever it takes to fulfill my goal. 

“Anyone who has been in this startup or nonprofit world knows plenty of people who only started something because it seemed glamorous, and they wanted to be on podcasts or in the press or whatever. And so they wanted to start things by themselves, and not have any partners or co-founders, because they wanted all of the credit, and never really actually cared about the product they were building or the mission or whatever. 

“And they inevitably fail.”

Spread the Vote is doing incredibly crucial work as we near the midterm elections in November. So please do check out our conversation, and consider supporting their work.

As Kat was saying, so often the thing standing between us and our goals is ourselves. Or rather, our worries about ourselves. And all of us get derailed sometimes. That’s just human. 

The question is, how quickly can we as managers get ourselves back on track? 

So here 3 of the biggest management derailers I know, and how to bounce back.  

They are all concerns about identity. In other words, concerns about “who I am” as a leader and a person -- that run straight to the core of how we see ourselves, and how we want others to see us. I came across a version of these 3 concerns in the book, Difficult Conversations (by Stone, Patton, and Heen), and I’ve expanded on them here.

They are concerns about:

  • Being competent

  • Being good

  • Being loveable

And when triggered, they have the power to knock us flat. But if we peel back the layers just a bit, they can also be a rich source of learning, and a chance to practice resilience. 

Here’s a deeper dive on how each concern shows up. After that, I’ll share steps you can take to rise above all of them. 

1. Being a competent person.

Any leader who has not run headlong into the limits of their competence has likely been playing things very safe. Or, they are a God. 

So the question is not whether a leader will ever encounter a sense of incompetence. The question is, “how do you respond when you DO experience a sense of incompetence?” 

You might reflect on these questions to get a sense of your concerns about competence:

  • Think of the last time you engaged in an activity you are not particularly good at. For instance: playing soccer, painting, writing, dancing, splitting the bill at a restaurant. 

  • How hard was it for you to fully engage with the activity? Were there certain emotions -- like embarrassment or frustration -- that made it difficult to engage? 

  • Did you try and hide those feelings, or your lack of competence? Was it hard to ask for help? 

  • Do you usually avoid doing things that trigger those feelings in you? To the extent that it was hard to answer the first question?

  • How do you judge yourself when you feel incompetent? 

  • How do you judge others when it seems they are out of their zone of competence? 

2. Being a good person.

It was probably your values that drew you in to social impact work. What’s hard is that there are times when our values seem to come into conflict with each other in a way that may trigger this concern.

Here are a few ways it can come up:

  • When bad things happen to good people. You have a volunteer who is a lovely human being, but she keeps showing up late, and she has made a number of costly mistakes. You know it’s time to let her go, but the idea of having that conversation makes you feel like some kind of monster. 

  • When saying yes is terrible for you, but saying no seems terrible for someone else. You have a colleague who has been struggling with some pretty serious personal stuff, and he's been leaning heavily on you for help. You have been stressed out for months about the extra work, and you don’t think you can go on. But you can’t bring yourself to say anything because you feel too guilty at the idea of not helping a friend in need. 

  • When you meant well, but they got upset anyway. A member of your staff is mad at you over an offhand remark you made about them in a meeting. And while looking back, you can see what they mean, but you didn’t intend to offend them, and are pretty upset because you feel your character is under attack. 

Does anything here sound familiar to you?  

3. Being a loveable person. 

We all want to be liked, respected, and to feel we belong. And this can be an especially tricky concern to manage when you are the boss. 

Because being the boss means doing all kinds of things that might make you unpopular: like holding people accountable, or making a controversial decision. 

Being the boss also means you have the authority to make decisions that affect people’s lives: like hiring, promoting, and firing. And that power can feel particularly uncomfortable to exercise -- or even hint at -- in many progressive organizations with an anti-authoritarian streak. 

This concern is particularly likely to surface for new supervisors, but often I see it come up for experienced bosses as well. 

What to do when one of these concerns is triggered:

1. Practice mindful self-awareness. If you are feeling off in some way, ask yourself if one of these concerns is triggered. Quite often, bringing some kind and caring attention to what’s really up will clear a lot of the fog, and help you take the next step forward. Remember to be kind to yourself. You can't help what triggers you, but you can help how you respond. 

2. Reframe. Get out of black and white thinking, which boxes us into rigid beliefs about ourselves.

For instance, instead of looking through the lens of competence, which values only what you know and don’t know, adopt a growth mindset, which values your ability to learn and adapt to what’s needed in the moment. 

3. Empathy for others. I have often found that the best way to stop worrying about what others think of me is to put my focus on them. What are they feeling? What are they worried about? What are they trying to achieve? And how might I be able to support and help them achieve their goals? 

4. Get back to your purpose. What action would you take, if you were not concerned about being or appearing competent, good, or likeable? And how would it feel to take that action? 

So that's this week's Antidote to Burnout.

I’d love to hear from you: Have you ever been sabotaged by one of these concerns?   

If you found this helpful, please feel free to share this email with a friend.

And If you want more one-on-one support in becoming an awesome social impact boss, click here to schedule a no pressure, free consult. 

(P.S. Check out this post, "Can you change the system while being part of it?" It's from Equality Hive, and it breaks down my conversation with Melanie Dewberry in episode 11.)

3 Steps to Move from Self-Doubt to Confidence

Photo via    Pixabay

Photo via Pixabay

I had a great conversation with Daisy Ozim, founder of Resilient Wellness, a nonprofit that builds community-based solutions to address intergenerational trauma. 

We talked about how people who don’t fit traditional straight, white, cis-male templates for leadership often have to build the kind of resilience that allows us to transcend the limiting cultural messages we get about who we are.

Keep reading for 3 tips on becoming resilient in the face of self-doubt, inspired by this week’s episode of the Dialogue Lab podcast

3 Steps to Move from Self-Doubt to Confidence 

Daisy talked about being excluded and bullied at a young age, and how ultimately, she didn’t let any of that stop her from doing her thing. 

When I asked her where she found that strength, she said she didn’t have role models or a supportive home environment. What she did have was this:

“I think my ancestors are really strong. I feel protected. I think that there's always been an energy around me that has been able to guide me and lead me different places and keep me out of certain troubles. I think that's what I was able to rely on.”

As leaders, we often face self-doubt. And some of us (myself included) also deal with imposter syndrome -- particularly those of us who have a marginalized identity. 

Imposter syndrome is just what it sounds like: a persistent inner narrative that can sound something like this:

“I don’t really belong here. Everyone else here is so on top of it. I’m just skating by until someone figures out I don’t know what I’m doing, and that I haven’t earned my spot here the way everyone else has. I’m on borrowed time.” 

And if you haven’t had a lot of role models that look like you, and you can relate to, you are even more likely to develop a case of imposter syndrome. 

And it can hobble us as leaders. 

The good news is that there are ways we can develop an emotional immune system that helps us bounce back when self-doubt strikes. 

Here a few steps to take to do that:

>> LESSON 1: Recognize how self-doubt shows up for you <<

Take stock using the following questions as a guide. It’s normal to not be sure how to answer all of these. If that’s the case, just start where you are, and reflect on these questions over the next few days. 

1. What emotions do I feel when I doubt myself? Anxious? Sad? Angry? Detached? Frustrated? 

2. How does self-doubt feel in my body?

For instance, I’ve noticed that when I’m doubting myself, I feel small, and I get very still, like I’m hoping no one notices me. 

I had one client describe it as feeling contracted and tight. Another said she felt edgy (like she was ready to run out the door). Another compared it to walking a tightrope. These are just examples, and it might feel totally different for you. 

3. What am I telling myself, about myself, when I feel self-doubt? 

For instance, in those times when I feel small, if I listen to my internal dialogue, I might notice that I’m comparing myself (unfavorably, of course) to people that I admire and envy. 

I’ve had clients find that they’ve been dismissing their dreams as naive. Another who dismissed her concerns as too petty to bring up. All of these are examples of common ways that our internal dialogue can fuel a sense of being small, insignificant, and not good enough. 

>> LESSON 2: Practice "catching yourself in the moment" of self-doubt <<

You might start by journaling for 10 minutes every night for a few days, to reflect back on your day and see when it came up. Over time, you will start noticing it more quickly, until eventually, you will be saying, “oh look! I’m experiencing self-doubt right now.” 

And that kind of in-the-moment, mindful self-awareness is pure, unadulterated power. 

Here’s the difference it makes. 

When you don’t realize you are experiencing self-doubt, all those thoughts, feelings, and emotions that come up with it just feel like reality.

For example, when I feel self-doubt, it really, truly does feel like I am small and insignificant, that my ideas are dumb, and my best move is to go hide under my bed. It feels real because my anxiety tells me it’s real. 

This is akin to watching a scary movie. The sounds and images are so overpowering that we really feel like we're being chased by a dinosaur. We get lost in the experience of the movie, which on a certain level, convinces our nervous system that we are in danger. 

And when you catch yourself experiencing self-doubt, it’s like saying, “oh! I’m watching a movie!” Which then gives you a moment to take a deep breath, step back, and take a fresh and more compassionate perspective on yourself.

>> LESSON 3: Reframe self-doubt towards connection rather than isolation, and reach out for support <<

In our interview, Daisy talks about how her healing journey began when she took a psychology class. The class rang a bell of recognition within her, and helped her to understand her experiences within a larger context. 

I had a very similar experience, and I know others who have as well. 

One of the reasons I’ve always felt drawn to studying human development and systems of marginalization is that everytime I learn something new, it helps me put my own struggles within the context of a larger human experience. 

And so it has been with my sense of not being good enough. It’s not just about me. It’s an experience that so many others share, and I feel connected to them through that. 

And whatever particular form your self-doubt takes, I can guarantee that you are not the only person out here feeling that way, and saying those things to yourself. 

Self-doubt is just human. It is an experience of vulnerability that we all share. 

But we forget that when we feel it. When you are in the middle of it, it really can feel like you are the only one who feels that particular, broken way. 

And that is often what is most difficult about self-doubt. It’s isolating. It makes us feel like we are the only one. 

So turn it around. For instance:

1. Reach out to a trusted friend and share what you are going through, and ask them for what you want. 

Maybe you just want them to lend an ear. Or you might ask them if they’ve ever felt this way. Or (as I’ve done on more than one occasion) you can even ask them for a pep talk.

2. Don't fall into the trap of assuming everyone else has it together. Instead, take a moment to wonder about the unique ways other people struggle, and connect with a sense of empathy for them, and all people like them. 

Because the truth is that we all feel this way at times, and it helps to remember that because it connects us to others. 

We are not broken. We’re just human. And as Daisy shows us, wonderful things happen when we refuse to let self-doubt stop us.

What would help you feel more confident in your work for social impact? 

My clients are incredible people whose biggest challenge is often that they don't realize how awesome they are. I talk about imposter syndrome because I have seen how it pops up in social impact spaces. And I've struggled with it myself. 

If you can relate and would like to talk, I'd be happy to lend an ear and perhaps offer you a fresh perspective. Just shoot me an email and we'll set up a free consult.

Thank you for all you do,

How to Lead When You Are An Outlier

I have an amazing conversation with Lousiana prosecutor Daphne Robinson on the podcast this week. We talked about how her concern for kids caught up in the criminal justice system led her to pursue alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.

Keep reading for 4 tips to move from outlier to influencer, inspired by that conversation. You can also hear the episode for yourself here

About Daphne Robinson

In her 20 years of working as an assistant DA within Louisiana’s juvenile justice system, Daphne saw the system failing to protect kids -- kids who were committing crimes, and kids who were victims of crime. She got her masters in public health, founded a nonprofit called, “The Center for Public Health and Justice,” and started her work to bring a concern for every child to the criminal justice system.

3 Lessons from the Lab

Have you ever felt like an outlier?

It’s being the only person who seems ready to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The only person who sees that something isn’t right. Or who sees that something more is possible.

And sometimes, when the stars align, our unexpected insights are welcomed. And at times they are met with skepticism or even hostility. Sometimes that kind of pushback means we’re off track, and we need to course-correct.

But what is often far more difficult is leaning into those times when pushback is a sign that we’ve hit on something that's true.

So being an outlier can be a hard and lonely place to be. But it can also be full of potential. Because change often begins by simply naming the reality that is in front of us, and insisting that something more is possible.

Take Daphne’s experience of being an outlier, which began when she kept seeing that the people walking into courtrooms in her parish, in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits, were African-American men.

And though everyone else sees the same thing, it takes courage to be the one to ask, “what is really going on here?”

In her words:

“You have to recognize that I am an outlier in the system. And I'm an outlier because, number one, I have this desire to be empathetic and to see the side of those who are charged with crime, as well as those who are the victims of crime.

“And an outlier in the sense of, I have had the privilege of gaining all of this knowledge as it relates to public health and the connection between public health and safe communities....Sometimes I think people around me are looking at me like, ‘there she goes with that public health talk again.’

“...And I've made it my mission now, in starting the Center for Public Health and Justice, and becoming a voice for great programs that I've seen… to do the work that needs to be done.”

Here are a few tips -- inspired by Daphne’s story -- on how to navigate the journey from outlier to influencer.

>> LESSON 1: Find and connect with like-minded people <<

One of the first things Daphne began to do was look for allies. This included connecting with people within the legal system, as well as going beyond it to connect with people in public health. And in her search, she found those who were asking the same kinds of questions she was asking.

By doing this, you do two things:

  • You give yourself a way to build confidence, to know that you are not alone, you are not making things up, that there are others that believe something more is possible.

  • You move into conversation with like-minded people, and discover and practice a language that helps you describe what you are seeing, and the path you see forward, in new ways.

And that leads to lesson 2.

>> LESSON 2: Learn and introduce new language that helps you describe the possibilities you pointing to <<

Inside the world of lawyers, trials, and prison sentences, public safety is viewed through the lens of crime and punishment. In that world, there are good people (victims), and there are bad people (criminals). This is the language of the legal system -- not to mention the language of the news media, Hollywood, and our general political discourse. 

The public health sector has a different way of talking about public safety. There, violence can be seen as a disease. Violence is passed down through families and spread through communities. We can have an "outbreak" of violence, which, like a virus, can lead to more violence.

And violence can be treated by building the immune system and resilience of a community. Violence can be prevented. Viewed through this lens, it's not about good people vs bad people.

By finding allies in the public health sector, Daphne is learning new ways to talk about public safety.

And by maintaining strong and mutually respectful relationships within the legal system, she is able to build a bridge between public health and the law. She is patiently and persistently introducing new language to the legal system, building support for programs that address the root causes of violence.

Make no mistake: the public health frame can be a hard sell in the black and white world of crime and punishment.

But Daphne is motivated by what she saw in the juvenile justice system. Over and over she saw kids who were charged with crimes, who were also victims of crime. And her empathy for those kids would not allow her to ignore the gray areas.

>> LESSON 3: Break down silos to build the conversation <<

A wonderful advantage of being an outlier is the ability to step back and look for patterns. Take this quote from Daphne:

“I would love to just sit down to convene a meeting between prosecutors and ER doctors. Think about it, ER doctors are seeing people who experience trauma because of violence, that are either shot or stabbed, or are having some sort of substance abuse crisis.... I mean those people can give you so much insight into what is going on in communities.”

And there are questions underneath all this that can be broadly applied:

  • What groups of people are working on this issue from different angles, and are they talking to each other?  

  • Where are the silos within the issue of public safety, and what conversations and possibilities might arise if we broke them down?

>> LESSON 4: Just start somewhere <<

I asked Daphne to share what advice she would give to someone who is in a place similar to where she was at a few years ago. Her answer:

“Just start. I mean, just start somewhere. I recall a conversation that I had with a woman years ago who was director at the time of juvenile services in Miami. ...I remember meeting with her because they had, of course, this great program that was well-funded. And I said in a meeting, 'how can I do this? I don't have any money.'

And she responded to me, 'you do it and the money will come.' And that's just the way that I've tried to approach things. That I'm going to do what I can. What I think is best and what I think is right... and then hopefully I'm going to do something good ...and it'll get funding. And sometimes stuff that I worked on didn't get funding. But sometimes it did.”

When Daphne began, she didn’t have funding. What she had was a sense that these kids she was seeing needed something that they weren’t getting.

And she didn't wait for permission to start. She started gathering data, asking questions, and having conversations. And she keeps taking that next step, building a path to change as she goes.

Could you use more influence in your work for social impact? 

I've worked with some incredible advocates. And I often run into this irony: 

People who are great at advocating for others often struggle to advocate for themselves, their ideas, and their own needs.

And over time, it affects their ability to show up fully for the cause they want to serve. 

>> If that sounds familiar to you, and you’d like some quick one on one support, click to set up a free consult + strategy session here.

Humility in Leadership Lifts Up Everyone

Photo via    Pixabay.

Photo via Pixabay.

Before I get to this issue of Lessons from the Lab -- A lot of us have on our minds those children being ripped from their parents' arms, by our government, on our borders. 

And I want to say two things about that. 

One is that whatever you are doing in your work for social change, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for doing whatever you are doing, to build a world where we care about children, and the world they grow up in.

Your work matters. And in the midst of these crimes and atrocities, I remember Fred Rogers' advice: To look for the helpers. 

And you are one of those helpers. Thank you for everything you do.

The second thing I want to say is that there are many organizations doing crucial work to address this crisis on our borders. Act Blue has a page where you can donate to 12 of these groups, with just a few clicks. Please consider doing that, here.

And now here is this week's Lessons from the Lab:

Episode 6 of the Dialogue Lab podcast features a conversation on how nurses can transform healthcare by adopting a coaching, anti-racist, and social justice mindset.

Click here to listen, or keep reading for 3 social impact lessons from this conversation with Nikki Akparewa, the founder of Transform Nursing.

About Nikki Akparewa

Nikki is a nurse, a nurse educator, and a coach, and the founder of Transform Nursing. She has been bringing a coaching and social justice framework to nursing, to improve the health of patients as well as nurses, and to support nurses as leaders, so they can become a force for systems and policy change.

3 Lessons from the Lab

One of the things I took away from my conversation with Nikki was a reminder that great social impact leadership is about doing what lifts up everyone. And that takes both courage and humility.

>> LESSON 1: Believe in your people. <<

One of the things I appreciate most about Nikki is her enthusiasm and respect for nurses.

Because while she is clear that she has her concerns about nursing as it is currently practiced; she also champions nurses for their skill, the role they play in society, and for their potential as powerful voices for health policy change.

It’s something that feels familiar to me as a coach. I know my clients are amazing, and I never stop believing in them, even -- especially, actually -- when they struggle.

And my clients find that powerful. But I'm not doing anything magical. If I’m honest, it’s just because most of us are not used to being seen that way.

And this is so crucial in social impact leadership. Because in our work, we are often struggling against all kinds of odds. And as leaders, if all we see when we look around is the struggle, then that’s what we’ll reflect back to our colleagues and our communities.

So, especially in times as hard as the one we’re in, we’ve got to choose to believe in our people. To see that we are all more than the struggle we are in.

We’ve got to choose to encourage our people, especially when the going gets tough. And to mirror back to them our collective greatness.

>> LESSON 2: Embrace a process of learning from others <<

Most of us have it hard-wired into us that leaders are supposed to have all the answers. And if we don’t, we at least better look like we have the answers.

And there are two big places where that starts to break down.

One is that social impact is not simple. It’s complex and unpredictable.

Imagine you run a social impact factory. If things were simple, it’d be like flipping a switch, and boom, your (social impact) light comes on.

But in our factory, there are many switches, being operated by many people, who do not all agree on what the factory is for. We don’t even own this factory. It has, like, millions of owners.

And the switches themselves keep changing and relocating. And when we flip a switch, we don’t always know whether, where, or how the lights will turn on, and what they will illuminate when they do.

And when our work involves so many moving parts, we need strong, collaborative relationships with our colleagues, so they can help us better understand the lay of the land and the impact of our actions.

And what I’ve found is that when a client defines their leadership around having the answers, they are less open to learning from others, and are therefore a lot less likely to be getting that kind of information from their community.

The second breakdown is that leadership is also not simple.

At its core, leadership is about relationships. With humans. And humans are also complex, and unpredictable.

Nikki spoke to this powerfully in our interview, when she spoke about how leadership is usually defined in medicine:

“This is hard work for us because people come to us for answers. They come to us because we have expertise. And we have to do the work ... to learn that, yes, competency comes in understanding the pathophysiology of someone, the biology of someone. But we cannot be competent on someone's emotions, the way that they can. We cannot be competent onwhat people want out of their lives. We cannot be competent on exactly where that person is coming from. For that, we must accept humility.”

And what I’ve found again and again is that my clients who really get that they don’t have all the answers are better at partnering with their colleagues to find what focuses and motivates them, what holds them accountable, and what keeps them moving for the long haul.

>> LESSON 3: Humility is not about playing small <<

For me, humility is about tending to my emotional self-care, so that my ego doesn’t get in the way of my ability to see the bigger picture.

- It’s not about telling myself that I don’t matter, or that my actions don’t matter.

- It’s not about being overly self-critical, nor is it sacrificing my well-being to please others.

- And it’s not hiding out where I’m most comfortable, for fear of being too visible.

Nikki addresses this beautifully here:

“I was just taken aback that nursing wasn't doing more in nursing schools and curriculum. It [race] is just not addressed.

“It’s addressed in a very surface way. We’re very comfortable using expressions such as ‘health equity,’ using expression such as ‘social justice’

“...However what I have found in general is that people just aren't really ready to use the word ‘race.’ To really say that word out loud. Or ‘racism.’ Afraid to say that word to put a name on it. Or ‘class’ and ‘classism.’

“You know we're not comfortable using those types of expressions in professional spaces…. In professional spaces where people's lives actually depend on our ability to not only have these conversations -- and stop playing small about it -- but really depend on our ability to impact people in global ways.”

So those are my takeaways from my interview with Nikki Akparewa.

If you found any of this helpful and would like to learn more about how I help my clients build dialogue, collaborate and innovate for social impact, I'd love to hear from you.

Innovation is creativity within constraint

Photo credit:&nbsp;   Matthew Fang   &nbsp;on&nbsp;   Visualhunt   &nbsp;/&nbsp;   CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: Matthew Fang on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Episode 4 of the Dialogue Lab podcast features a conversation about reproductive justice, speaking race to power, collaboration across difference, and innovation in social movements.  

Click here to listen,or keep reading for 3 social impact lessons from this conversation with reproductive justice advocate, Sujatha Jesudason.

About Sujatha Jesudason

Sujatha is the founder and Executive Director of CoreAlign, which is building collaborations to ensure that all people have the resources, rights, and respect for their sexual and reproductive lives.

She also just started teaching innovation in social movements at the Milano School of Public Policy at the New School in New York.

In her own words:

“I think one of the challenges and gifts of leadership is that you fail on a big screen. You just can't keep this stuff to yourself. You can't hide away your failures.”

“In a sense, as somebody who has been a leader and is trying to do the best that I can, and in a sense, consistently failing, and things just not going the way I thought. I've both developed more compassion and spaciousness around things that actually fail. And was able to connect it to this conversation of "and what could we be doing differently."

“...I mean, resilience isn't doing the same thing over and over again. Resilience is bouncing back to our purpose and trying to do things differently, in order to achieve our purpose.”

3 Lessons from the Lab

Our conversation was wide-ranging, sharing Sujatha’s insights on how to build collaboration across differences and diversity, what it has meant reimagine reproductive justice in a way that is more inclusive, and how she learned (and what she had to overcome) to embrace failure as a natural part of leadership.

And here I unpack one of her key insights: That innovation is creativity within constraints.

>> LESSON 1: Reframe constraints as a springboard for innovation, rather than a limit on it. <<

Sujatha pointed out that we often think in black and white terms when it comes to constraints.

We either focus on what we can’t do, or we are dreaming of a time that is completely constraint-free. Then she told a story of what happened in CoreAlign’s early years when they first started bringing people together to develop a 30-year strategy for the reproductive justice movement.

She said:

“One of the mistakes we made was we actually said, "Start with a blank canvas. How would we do this? What kinds of things we imagine 30 years from now?" And one of the things that happened is that we were all completely immobilized. It just became too much. The canvas was too blank.

“...So thinking about constraints not as a limit on what we can do, but as a springboard of what could be possible, has been for me a critical shift in my ways of thinking and doing. And so everything becomes an interesting opportunity of what we can do, with these constraints.”

So as it turns out, constraints are useful things. Used well, they focus our minds, help us prioritize, and provide the framework within which we can create.

This is a concept that comes from “design thinking.” One image I find useful here is to think of innovation and creativity like a game of tennis.

You are player 1, and player 2 (let’s call her Maggie) is your primary constraint. You hit the ball into another court. If Maggie doesn’t show up, your ball never comes back to you. It just hits the ground, and eventually rolls to a stop on the ground.

Kind of sad, right?

But say Maggie does show up, and she hits the ball back. You respond by running to the ball and hitting it back to her. And she responds in kind. And you and Maggie create a nice rhythm together, and the game progresses.

This is a little different than how we usually see tennis. We usually see it as a competition, with a winner and a loser. But here, the object isn’t to defeat your constraints. Instead, it’s to move the game forward, to find your rhythm, and move your mission.

And here, you and Maggie are playing and collaborating, to advance the game together.

>> LESSON 2: Reclaiming our legacy of innovation <<

What do you think of, when you hear the word, “innovation?”

I think a lot of us imagine large tech firms, spending gobs of money to come up with the next Facebook or Snapchat. It doesn’t sound like something social justice groups have the resources to do.

And that’s what Sujatha was running into when she started talking about innovation. She said:

“One of our aha moments was reframing our understanding of innovation. All human beings throughout history have been innovative. That is what is required for us to survive and thrive.

“And particularly, some of the most innovative and creative people are people who have been the most marginalized and most oppressed. That it is on the margins, under the most constrained conditions, that some of the most interesting and creative stuff has happened. in part because that's what you need to survive....

“And so in terms of innovation, for me a big part for social justice groups and nonprofits, is actually reclaiming our legacy of innovation.

“Not thinking it's owned by the tech bros or the D-schools, or the people who've written the books about it. But to look ... at our lives in the present moment, and say, wait, this is innovative what I did, and this is innovative, what I did. And this is how we can innovate together.”

Here’s an exercise you might try:

1. Think back over your life. What were some of the constraints you had to negotiate? We’ve all had them.

Maybe you have a marginalized identity, like being a woman, or a person of color, or transgender. Maybe your family didn’t have a lot of money. Maybe you were the ignored middle sibling of a large family. Maybe you’ve dealt with depression, or illness. Or maybe you turned 40 and realized you don’t have as much energy as you used to.

2. What did you do to respond to that constraint? How did you (or your family) use the resources and mindset you had at the time to keep moving forward in your life?

3. And what is something valuable that you learned and experienced in life, that you wouldn’t have if that constraint hadn’t been there?  

>> LESSON 3: Build an innovation mindset <<

Innovation isn’t something you have to create, far off in the future, after a huge investment of cash. Innovation starts where you are right now.

Because it’s built into who we are as humans, to help us make the most of the resources we already have. This is how we’ve survived.

So you start by noticing how you’ve already been innovative, and notice how it has been a natural expression of who you are. Reclaim it for yourself.

Then, you might try experimenting with this daily reflection, asking yourself:

  • What constraints did I encounter today?

  • How might they be an opportunity to be creative, and innovate?

  • Which (if any) of these are opportunities I feel inspired to act on?

It’s like working a muscle. Questions like these can help you build your awareness of opportunities that hide in plain sight.

And it so often does start with something that seems mundane. On the podcast, Sujatha shared how she developed the class she’s teaching at the New School on innovation. It started with the realization that she had way more content to teach than she had hours with the students. So she remixed it all and created something streamlined, multi-dimensional, and much more engaging for her students.


So those are my takeaways from my interview with Sujatha Jesudason.

If you found any of this helpful and would like to learn more about how I help my clients build dialogue, collaborate and innovate for social impact, I'd love to hear from you.

Sit at the Table + Get off the Menu

Baltimore City Hall photo via    Pixabay.

Baltimore City Hall photo via Pixabay.

Episode four of the Dialogue Lab podcast features a conversation about the skills you need to build local power and create positive change in your city.

Click here to listen, or keep reading for 3 social impact lessons from this conversation with community advocate Chandra Brooks.

About Chandra Brooks

Chandra teaches women of color how to build local power for themselves and their communities from the ground up, and prepare for running for local office. She knows how, because she’s done it herself.

In her own words:

"I had to build my own visibility, my own clout as Chandra, in order to make things happen the way I wanted to see them. So not only as a person within an organization...but also I had to build it for myself, so I had some major influence on what happened in my city….

“I am just Chandra Brooks. Yeah, I have all these accomplishments now, but I'm just Chandra Brooks from the east side of San Jose that got kicked out of 3 schools, and that graduated pregnant. So understanding that if I can do it, you can do it.”

She is the former Vice President of the Silicon Valley NAACP, the former Northern CA staff director of SEIU, and was the Executive Director of a local nonprofit. She now sits on Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. She’s also an author, an entrepreneur, and a mother of 4.

3 Lessons from the Lab

>> LESSON 1: Sit at the table, or be on the menu. <<

A theme Chandra comes back to again and again is the importance of having community leaders who are connected to the experiences of the people they serve.

And she told a couple of stories to illustrate.

One was a story of a school board that was sitting on funds meant to fix the air conditioning in the schools, while the kids and teachers struggled to learn inside the sweltering hot classrooms.

And another was her discovery that the women inside a Santa Clara County correctional facility were not getting the same kind of access to vocational training that men were getting. In fact, they had nothing but a broken-down embroidery machine.

Chandra is a commissioner on Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, and chairs their work to oversee the Elmwood Women’s correctional facility.



And in that role, she has been working persistently over many months to push the warden and sheriff to address this. And then she shared this:

"And the only way I am able to do that is by being a commissioner and having a seat at the table. If I was just Chandra living on the east side of San Jose CA, with no position, with no title, with no action taken to get on these positions, then they wouldn't listen to me.

"Maybe I could send an email. But with no title behind my name, without any clout, without any development of my credibility, then it wouldn't really go as far. That's why I talk about the importance of taking our seats at the decision making tables."

>> LESSON 2: If you care about your community, then you are qualified to be at the table. <<

Chandra tells her own incredible story of becoming a mother at a young age, and refusing to believe it when others told her she wouldn’t amount to much.



And how every step of the way, it’s been her love for her kids and her community that has motivated her to push past her fears and self-doubt, to get herself into the kinds of roles where she can make a difference.

She also told the story of getting coffee with a young mother who reached out to her because she had wanted to run for school board. But then a school administrator told her that she wasn’t qualified, and unfortunately, she believed it.

But what Chandra reminds us is that for a lot of local leadership roles, if you are connected to and care about the community, then you are qualified. And it’s important we start to believe that. She said this about women, in particular:

"The thing with women specifically, is that when we get ready to run for office, or before we even decide to run for office, we're probably asked about 7-10 times to run, before we decide to do it. And with men, you really only have to tell them one time.

"...And men are so confident, they just go and do it. But with women, we second guess ourselves to take leadership roles."

>> LESSON 3: The other qualification is in showing up. <<

Chandra spoke about having her eyes opened through her experience as development director for a nonprofit. That is where she learned that to get the job done, she often needed to know the right people.

And so often what holds us back is the sense that the people in power sitting at “the table,” are fundamentally different than the rest of us.

They already know who is who. They already sit on the commission or they were elected to the board of education, so they must be much more qualified/smarter/powerful than the rest of us.

But we forget that these people all had to start somewhere too. And any of us can start, just by starting to show up.

I asked Chandra what she would suggest anyone listening to do as a first step, and she said:

"I would want them to go online and check to see what decision-making table they can sit on today, that they can apply for. Where can I apply to be on a board or a commission? Or maybe help with the local election in your community. Go volunteer, go walk precincts, because they need you."

And I see two reasons to do this.



One is that it’s important to show up to support the policies and candidates that will help our communities and to lend a hand to people who are trying to make a difference.

And the other is that these activities are a way to get to know who your local leaders are, and to build your own leadership credibility on issues that matter to you. It’s one thing to care about your community from home. And it’s another to show up and do what you can, when you can.  

So those are 3 things I took away from this interview with Chandra Brooks.

And so much of our ability to lead begins with the kind of confidence Chandra embodies. The kind of confidence that says, "yes I do belong here, because I understand this community, and I care."

If you would like to learn more about how I help leaders develop that kind of confidence and resilience, I'd love to hear from you.

How to Speak Up Boldly to Racism

Bullhorn clipart via    Pixabay.

Bullhorn clipart via Pixabay.

The latest episode of the Dialogue Lab Podcast is out! Listen here, or keep reading for 3 powerful takeaways you can apply to your work for social impact. 

Lee Mun Wah has been talking real about race in America for 30 years. He’s the founder of Stirfry Seminars, and the director of the documentary, “The Color of Fear.”

And when he began leading his workshops in corporate America, he started doing something pretty radical at the time: he put down the Powerpoint slides, and got people actually talking about race.

(All that was enough to get Oprah’s attention, who did an hour-long special on his work.) 

But if you don't have time to listen to the full interview -- not to worry! Here are three takeaways to help you show up even bolder in your work for social impact.

TAKEAWAY 1: Speak up, even when you don’t know exactly what to say. 

Mun Wah spoke poignantly about this: 

“Sometimes you don’t know the words until you start getting mad. And if you think too long, you’ll never say something. But it’ll come to you. No matter what you say, it’ll come out right because you care.”

So often we don’t speak up because we don’t know what to say. Someone says something in a meeting that just feels… off. Or we watch as a colleague is subtly ignored and dismissed. Or we find ourselves feeling small and alone, as WE are subtly ignored and dismissed.

We wrestle with ourselves in silence because the situation feels weirdly ambiguous. Or because we are afraid of making a mountain out of a molehill, or creating more trouble. We stay silent because the situation feels fraught, and we don’t think we have the skills to navigate it.

I’ve been there. And what I’ve found again and again is that the process of speaking up begins at the beginning. Not when I know every point I need to make, in neat and logical order. Instead, it starts when I feel that I must speak.

And often I start by naming that feeling. It might sound like this:

+ “I’m feeling uncomfortable with something, but I’m not sure yet what feels off.”

+ “I don’t feel ready to make this decision.”

+ “I’m feeling concerned because it seems like people might not be hearing what Sarah is trying to say.”

+ “I’m feeling annoyed because this I’ve been trying to speak and I keep getting interrupted.”

And then, as Mun Wah says, the rest “will come to you.”

TAKEAWAY 2: Treat Speaking Up as a practice.

Speaking up is like a muscle that can be worked and strengthened. In the interview, Mun Wah talks about an exercise he sometimes takes audiences through, where they practice finding the words to address an instance of racism. And the reason he does this is because once you discover that you actually DO have the words, you start to trust yourself a bit more. And you get bolder.

And that trust accumulates over time. If you never say what’s on your mind, you never get to build this trust in yourself. So you stay silent in self-doubt.

When you do practice using your voice, you start to find out a few things.

For one, you find out that it is possible to make mistakes, and not have the world end. It’s possible to say I’m sorry for saying it wrong, and then you learn what it means to make it right.

And two, you also start to find out that while it’s not easy, it’s often fairly simple. And it so often starts by just saying, “something is going on here that doesn’t feel right.”

TAKEAWAY 3: Speaking up is solidarity. Silence is lonely.   

Mun Wah said, “My greatest fear isn’t so much that I won’t stand up. My greatest sadness in this country is to be alone when I do that. To feel alone.” When we practice speaking up against an injustice, that is an act of solidarity. The alternative is often to leave people alone with their own oppression.

So that's just some of what I'm sitting with after this conversation. I'd love to hear what you think of these takeaways -- and if you have a chance to listen -- I'd love to hear your response to the interview too. There’s a new episode every other Tuesday! Subscribe in iTunesStitcher, or Google Play, or your favorite podcatcher.

P.S. I was recently invited to be interviewed about my work to build dialogue for social impact. Here's a link to that.