Grateful Dead? Grateful NOT Dead! (My Five Words of Gratitude for the Thanksgiving Season)

I have a new lease on life as my old lease nearly expired on August 3, 2015…but more about that in a moment. 

This blog runs in the United States on my own website ( and on the Tamarack website ( in Canada. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving the second Monday of October; in the United States we celebrate it the fourth Thursday of November. To honor both traditions, I decided to publish a blog on gratitude that runs roughly midway between the two holidays.

However, this blog is not the one I envisioned last May when I posted a request for readers to submit five wordsBroken Heart that expressed their deepest sense of appreciation and gratitude. I have received a lot of responses and, in fact, am still receiving them at Five Words of Gratitude. You are welcome to add your own! In May I imagined using them to write a sweet and inspiring blog for this Thanksgiving season. I could not have predicted then I would be writing such a personal piece on gratitude instead.

About 18 months ago, when I turned 60 years old, I had a lot of people say things to me like, “You know, 60 is the new 50!” The real optimists would say it was the “new 40” and the totally clueless would say it was the “new 30.” In fact, it felt like 80, even 90, to me.

By my 60th birthday I was utterly spent. Fatigue was my constant companion. I attributed the exhaustion to my decision to begin a doctoral program at age 55. I went to school full-time and worked full-time, and then pushed myself to finish my research and dissertation before my 60th birthday. For nearly five years I had sworn, “I will NOT still be doing this at age 60!” I achieved the goal in September, 2013, finishing about 7 months before the big birthday.

Shortly after I finished my doctorate, I noticed that not only was I very, very tired; I was also having some other challenges. While walking our dogs I would occasionally lose my balance and stumble forward, nearly falling. My eyes were increasingly sensitive to light and my vision was occasionally blurred. I sometimes had difficulty swallowing when eating. Most frightening of all, my thinking did not always seem very clear to me.

However, none of these symptoms were ever severe enough to warrant calling my doctor. In fact, each had logical but not very urgent explanations: Balance issues? Inner ear out of whack; it will pass. Light sensitivity and blurred vision? New prescription for my glasses at my next check up. Difficulty swallowing? Probably an allergy; just avoid the problem foods. Exhaustion and difficulty thinking clearly? Dude, you are getting older!

Unfortunately, the problems did not go away and only grew incrementally worse. For two or three weeks in June, it seemed I was viewing everything from underwater; you know, where you can see everything but it seems slightly distorted and, if it moves, it seems to move in slow motion? My balance was quite bad enough I was scared to walk our dogs. Then it all seemed to pass and I was doing well…until August 3.

On the morning of Monday, August 3rd I was not feeling very well. My balance was off a bit yet I drove 120 miles to St. Davids, Pennsylvania to teach my final class of the summer at Eastern University. When I reached Eastern University I felt very dizzy and nauseous. I staggered wildly down the sidewalk to the front door of the building where I met a woman going inside whom I recognized as faculty from the nursing school. She recognized I was not feeling well – it was particularly obvious after I demonstrated how unwell I was feeling with the assistance of a nearby trash bin. While I was recomposing myself, she was calling 911.

When the EMT’s arrived, they assessed me for a possible stroke and took me to a nearby hospital which had a special stroke and cardiac trauma center. Once in the ER a myriad of tests were performed. As a result, I can say with high confidence that I have a structurally sound heart, with very little plaque, that has never been physically damaged and I have no indication of brain tumors or cancer. I was seen by an ER physician and a whole host of specialists within only a few hours. The initial assessment led them to believe I was having inner ear problems. A nurse stuck a scopolamine transdermal patch behind my ear to alleviate the dizziness but the team decided to keep me overnight for observation anyway. It made sense – it was getting late, the patch needed time to work, and I would have had to drive 120 miles back home at night. They also seized the opportunity to hook me up to every available type of monitor they could find at that hour in the hospital.

At 1:30 AM everything changed. My heart paused…for four seconds…and my heart rate was abnormally low, between 35 and 45 beats per minute. Only elite athletes, or nearly frozen people, can even have such low heart rates and still be alive. From that point on, every person that came into my room would ask, “What’s your name?” “What is your birthdate?,” and “Are you an elite athlete?” Really…they asked that, albeit with a bit of polite disbelief once they got a better look at me.

At 6:00 AM my heart paused again…also for about four seconds. At six seconds, by the way, a person passes out. By this time they were already preparing me for additional tests and by noon I had a new diagnosis: sick sinus syndrome. It is a relatively uncommon but pretty straightforward problem with the heart’s natural pacemaker. The fix is just as straightforward: a titanium pacemaker implanted in my chest to “pace” the heart properly. It is really pretty cool technology: if the lower chamber of my heart does not beat within a half second of the top chamber, the pacemaker (whom I have named “Jude”) shoots a 2 volt shock to the lower chamber to wake it up. Jude is also set to regulate my heart rate at no less than 60 beats per minute, which is not a bad ballroom dance tempo either. Jude is monitored each night by a small computer that sits next to my bed and sends real-time data to my cardiac electro-physiologist in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I cannot wait for the version that will “beam me up” to the doctor’s office for my annual appointment.

Of course, living out the story I have just told was not as fun as I have tried to make it here in the re-telling. It was scary and not everything went well. In fact, I had to have two surgeries to finally get Jude to “seed” properly to my heart. The second surgery was done without general anesthetic because I did not do well with anesthetic the first time around. It was a truly surrealistic, but not unpleasant, experience to be awake and talking to the surgeon while he reattached the pacemaker leads to my heart muscle.

Today, though, I am truly grateful not to be dead. It could have happened so easily on August 3rd. I might have passed out while driving to Philadelphia; the woman at the door of the school might not have been a nurse and not known I was in crisis; Bryn Mawr Hospital, nationally recognized for its cardiac care, might not have been the nearest ER and hospital; and, had the ER team at Bryn Mawr not kept me overnight for monitoring, my heart pause might still be undiscovered.

In this Thanksgiving season I have a sense of gratitude unlike any I have ever had before. In part, it is also because I am feeling stronger and better than I have in many years, and all of my symptoms are gone. Wait…maybe 60 really IS the new 30!

Happy Thanksgiving – belated or in the near future!

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.


A Reflection on Reflective Leadership

I have a confession to make. I attend Tamarack’s Collective Impact Summits for very selfish reasons. I have come to experience and appreciate the annual event as a personal retreat. Okay, it is a personal retreat taking place in the midst of several hundred people. Never forget the words, though, of the world famous Anonymous who said, “Even in a crowd, you are alone inside your own head.” (Kudos to the Tamarack team for another extraordinary event last month in Vancouver!)

When I attend this Tamarack event I am in a continuous state of reflection and inner dialogue. 

Filling in for Tamarack's Liz Weaver, I got to facilitate
Filling in for Tamarack’s Liz Weaver, I had the privilege of facilitating “Collective Impact from Around the World,” which featured (from my left to right): Nicola Taylor (New Zealand); Valerie Quay (Singapore); Per Holm (Denmark); and, Te Ropu Poa (New Zealand).

This dialogue is informed and shaped by the people I meet, the conversations I have, my observations, and my experiences at the event. I can appear to be busy on the outside and at this year’s event I was quite busy: I facilitated a daily “Learning Lab” consisting of ten other participants; led a workshop; was a late substitute facilitator for another workshop; and hosted a dinner conversation. Through all of this I was still alone inside my own head…and loving it!!!

In recent years my work has led me to a more intentional practice of reflection and a deeper appreciation for the role of reflection in leadership. For most of my life I have been a Quaker, a member of a group known for its use of meditative silence. However, only recently have I come to more fully connect reflection and leadership. The first point of connection was when I was conducting and writing up my doctoral research on leadership in the intractable conflict over sexuality education in the United States. In that study I found that leaders of sexual health organizations, who are engaged in the conflict, are quite reflective. They are involved in three interactive reflective processes that affect their leader motivations and behaviors, and, yet, contributes to perpetuating the conflict.

The second point of connection was about a year ago when a colleague and I were working together on a “mindfulness” curriculum for teachers at the Transylvania College in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In the process of editing the material I found myself learning more about the practice of mindful reflection and how it related to leadership in the classroom. It inspired me to learn more about both mindfulness practices and reflective leadership.

The third point of connection came earlier this year when I was trying to answer the dreaded question I get from prospective clients: “How much do you charge?” I usually want to say, “Just enough,” because, in fact, it is true. When I moved into consulting work I wanted to stay to true to my personal mission of working on behalf of nonprofit organizations, especially those that can benefit from high quality leadership and organizational development assistance but usually cannot afford the rates charged by large consulting groups. To this end I did my research and I came up with a rate that meets my needs (not my “wants,” to be sure, or else I would not still be driving an eleven year old Subaru) and which rarely gets any push back from my clients.

The process of thinking through an answer to the question of “How much do you charge?” led me, not surprisingly, to a reflection on the values I bring to my work. This resulted in the creation of the TRIBE Guarantee that I offer every client.

When we intentionally embrace mindful reflection as part of our leadership approach there are two benefits that are nearly immediate. First, we are driven to think more carefully about the alignment of our values with our leadership behavior. It pushes us to consider the things we are doing as a leader in light of who we are being as a person. It calls us to look at how we treat followers, colleagues, and those whom we are trying to help or lift up. Even more, it can help us be more present to each. Overall, mindful reflection can inspire us to more authentic leadership.

The second benefit becomes apparent when we are trying to provide leadership in a collaborative effort, such as a Collective Impact initiative. Even on the best days, it can feel like we are one of those legendary cat herders of Western lore.

On more challenging days, those in which we are running severely low on patience and good humor, reflection can save us from damaging over-reactions. Edgar Schein advocates for the practice of suspension which is a reflective process of internal listening that needs to precede response. Suspension is a particularly useful skill in those circumstances when we have been in an interaction that we perceive to be negative (e.g., disagreement, challenge, attack, etc.). Schein writes, “We have to learn to listen to ourselves before we can really understand others.”

These two benefits of reflection are related. Becoming a more reflective, authentic leader will affect our efforts in collective leadership by inspiring us to build relational trust and act more ethically in all of our behaviors. Who can say these are not good things?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.


Who is the Leader?

This week I’m at the 17th Annual Global Conference of the International Leadership Association in Barcelona, Spain. This morning the keynote speaker, John, Lord Alderdice, of the United Kingdom, said, “The leader is not necessarily the brightest or best person, but it is the right person for the time.” Again we are reminded that context matters in leading change, whether it is in organizations, communities, and whole societies.


Here’s the question we were asked to discuss and I pass it on to you for your reflection: When in your work has the situation or context required you to go beyond the typical and usual idea of leadership to arrive at a solution?

On Saturday I’ll be presenting on the Roots to Fruit (R2F), an ecosystem for sustainable community change and tool for measuring change. R2F is a model created by Dr. Ed Saunders and me, over the past several years, that first and foremost considers context in creating change. To learn more, send me an email –

Be Greater. Do Good. Everyday.


CI Summit Update: Shared Measures v. Evaluation and Continuous Learning

On Tuesday (September 29) at the CI Summit 2015 in Vancouver, Fay Hanleybrown and Mark Cabaj shared a dialogue in the morning plenary about arriving at shared measures in Collective Impact (CI). It was a terrific conversation and they did a really nice job of parsing out the difference between shared measures and evaluation.

Mark Cabaj & Fay Hanleybrown discussing Shared Measures
Mark Cabaj & Fay Hanleybrown discussing Shared Measures

Working with CI it is sometimes easy to confuse shared measures and evaluation. Shared measures are a set of agreed upon indicators that mark a CI initiative’s progress toward attaining its ultimate goal or goals. For example, reduction of homeless by XX% or a decrease in the teen birth rate by XX%. Evaluation, on the other hand, is a range of activities that have the purpose thoughtfully collecting useful data about activities and outcomes related to operationalizing the CI initiative. Evaluation data, therefore, is very useful for informing the continuous system improvement that is needed to help the CI initiative become more effective in attaining its ultimate goal or goals. Shared measures help the CI initiative keep everyone focused and moving toward the same vision and mission while evaluation is a “deeper dive” into the data that is then used to improve efforts and adjust strategies.

This discussion converged nicely with the topic of my own workshop yesterday at the CI Summit on the “Roots to Fruit of Sustainable Community Change” (aka R2F). My workshop formally introduced the R2F model that has been in development in collaboration with my friend and colleague, Ed Saunders (recently retired as the Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa). Ed and I have worked together for 25 years in the field of teen pregnancy prevention in the state of Iowa and in national projects in the United States. The R2F model has been simmering and taking shaping through much of the time in a many conversations, discussions, and work sessions. However, it has been since moving into the world of independent consulting in 2013 that I have been able to give it more focused attention. The R2F model offers a strategy for creating a community “ecology” that supports efforts in addressing challenging social problems and a means of monitoring and measuring the change effort for evaluation and continuous system improvement. Central to the R2F model is the integration of the Collective Impact Five Conditions framework.

In this blog space I will begin to share more about the R2F model, its components, and resources in the next few months. Later this year (or even as late as March, 2016, depending on publication schedules), our first peer reviewed research paper on R2F will appear in a special Collective Impact issue of Community Development, the journal of the Community Development Society.

Many thanks to Paul Born, Liz Weaver, and the rest of the Tamarack crew for their support and encouragement during the development of R2F over these past few years and, now, for the opportunity to share it at this CI Summit.

Today is another full day at the CI Summit. Loads of great plenaries and workshops to come. More later.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.


Live from the Collective Impact Summit

Being welcomed to the land by a Musquem elder

This week I am in Vancouver, BC for the Tamarack Collective Impact Summit. After three such events I continue to be impressed with the events. This year I’m  honored to make a small contribution to  the event. I’ll be leading a workshop on out Roots to Fruit model of sustainable community change, facilitating a panel of leaders of Collective Impact from around the world, facilitating a learning lab, and hosting a dinner conversation on shared leadership. As time and opportunity allows, I’ll post to this blog with updates from the event.

Paul Born, president of Tamarack, opens CI Summit and welcomes all.

You can follow the Summit on Twitter at #CISummit.

Be Greater, Do Good. Everyday.


Muckers, Spouters, and Collaborative Leaders

Here we go again. It is the Quadrennial Quest for the next “great” leader of the United States. It is too bad we are fixated on a Presidential leadership model that has not worked well in the recent past and increasingly holds little hope for the future. Are we ready to embrace a different approach to leadership that is a better practice now and in the future?

Real Iowans by Grant Wood (1930): Notice, not flannel, Eldon, Iowa
Real Iowans by Grant Wood (1930): Notice, no plaid flannel. Eldon, Iowa
Imitation Iowan Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, 2015
Imitation Iowan: Carly Fiorina at the Iowa State Fair, 2015

It does not appear so, according to the coverage of the approximately 20 Presidential candidates mucking their way through my beloved Iowa State Fair and spouting their solutions for every issue imaginable during this past week. Yes, mucking and spouting…spouting and mucking, ad nauseam. By the way, my favorite imitation of an Iowan from this week’s coverage was performed by Republican candidate Carly Fiorina. Fiorina appeared in a photo at the Iowa State Fair in front of the famous Butter Cow dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Please. What idiot campaign aide told her THAT would be a good idea? Just to set the record straight, I’m including some random photos of what REAL Iowans look like and how they dress on the job. But I digress.

The United States, and most other countries, are locked into a mythic model of leadership known formally as the “Great Man” theory. In the 1970’s “Transformational Leadership” theory was introduced by James MacGregor Burns as an alternative way to think about leaders. Transformational Leadership became, and remains very popular, though it still retains many elements of the Great Man theory because of its dependence on a single individual to lead the way and call forth the inner leader of others.

Real Iowan: Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines, Iowa
Real Iowan: Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines, Iowa. No plaid flannel here.

I am convinced we will not make real progress in being greater and doing greater good until we renounce our heretical faith in the power of a single great leader. The velocity of knowledge and the complexity of our world are forcing us to consider other approaches. For me, shared leadership in a collaborative culture is more realistic and hopeful.

Recently I again observed the power of shared leadership and collaboration in action. For the past two summers I have taught “Managing for Optimal Performance” in the MBA in Economic Development program at Eastern University. It has been a small class, only three and four students, possibly because the focus on the program is on alleviating poverty which is certainly not the typical career path for many MBAs. The course is very short…barely six weeks. Yet, in that time, students are expected to design, deliver, and report out on a project that is intended to help people living at or near the poverty level. This summer’s projects included a soccer clinic for Haitian immigrant youth; distribution of nutritional information and recipes at an urban farmer’s market; a family photo project for immigrant Latin American single mothers and their children; and a “good neighbor” yard clean up and home fix-up day for a single mom recently debilitated in an accident. In all cases, the students were required to form a team of no less than four people and to use decision making processes that were inclusive and collaborative. The project reports clearly showed the depth of understanding the students’ acquired about establishing a collaborative culture and using shared leadership.

Kurt Warner, NFL MVP 1999 & 2001, Burlington, Iowa
Real Iowan: Kurt Warner, NFL MVP 1999 & 2001, Burlington, Iowa. Still no plaid flannel.

As I reflected on their project journals and reports, I found myself thinking about those things I am most likely to hear come from the mouths of leaders who really try to practice shared and collaborative leadership.

“Please.” Collaborative leaders do not just assume people will follow them because they have the title, the position, the power, or even a “mandate.” They invite others into leadership, humbly seek their expertise, and genuinely value the contribution each makes.

“How or what do you see, understand, experience, or believe about our situation?” For collaborative leaders, the perspectives of others are invaluable sources of information. They understand that many of the problems we face are so large and so complex that the better solutions are found when many eyes from diverse viewpoints are examining them.

“What options do you believe offer us the best chance of addressing the situation?” Working in collaboration means gleaning the best ideas from among the many perspectives on the situation without regard for self-interests. I know. If I had not thrown in that bit about self-interests, it would have been just fine, right? My experience has been that partners in shared or collaborative leadership often filter their ideas in order to protect self-interests. They may fear giving away proprietary information or trade secrets that can weaken their competitive advantage over competitors, who may also be their collaborators on some projects.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
Real Iowan: Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Nope, no plaid, no flannel on Mr. Secretary.

“Thank you.” These two under-utilized words powerfully acknowledge that a single individual alone is not responsible for any good thing that happens. These are words of humility that indicate a collaborative leader’s awareness of the role of others.

“We did it.” This is a tricky thing for a collaborative leader to say because it is so tempting to say it without really meaning it. It can merely sound like an imitation of humility, if it does not come from a genuine posture of humility. Know what I listen for? Emphasis. When I hear the word “we” emphasized too strongly, I suspect leaders are trying too hard to convince themselves and others that they really mean “we” and not “I.”

Spewing from the mouths of muckers and spouters, these same five phrases can be just empty words in a crass imitation of humility. Whether the speakers are vying for the role of President, Prime Minister, or leader of a local community change effort, we must watch and wait. We need to be on the lookout for those who reveal their collaborative nature through the congruence of consistently matching these words with a posture of humility.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.


Real Iowan: A guy who knows how hand-tie and wear bowtie, Morning Sun, Iowa
Real Iowan: A serious looking guy who owns no plaid flannel and knows how to hand-tie and wear bowties, Morning Sun, Iowa.

Redden Your Nose and Join In or Do Even More?

Today is Red Nose Day. “Say what?” you ask.

Red Nose Day is a big thing in the United Kingdom and it has been for 30 years where it has raised billions of British pounds to end poverty. It is a part of the United Kingdom’s Comic Relief charity. “Oh, I remember Comic Relief,” you say, “but isn’t that OUR (the American’s) thing?” Uh, not really. We stole borrowed the idea from the Brits and now we are borrowing Red Nose Day, too, but this time it only took us three decades. NBC is taking the credit for bringing Red Nose Day to the United States. The television network partnered with Walgreens to sell the red noses that I am modeling in this classy photo of myself. Tonight, May 21, NBC is featuring a 3 hour broadcast (think “mini” telethon but without Jerry Lewis) to raise awareness and money.

Hey! It's Red Nose Day! Where's Yours?
Hey! It’s Red Nose Day! Where’s Yours?

Though my Inner Clown compelled me to buy this $1.00 red nose the last time I was in my local Walgreens, it was never very clear to me if this was more than a marketing ploy for Walgreens and a ratings push for NBC. I am still not sure. Frankly, the promotion on the U.S. version of Red Nose Day has seemed more about NBC, its stars and programs, and Walgreens products and services and far less about the cause. (Look, I do understand cause-related-marketing but you still have to highlight the cause, too.) Until you take the cellophane off the nose and read the odd “cut-out”-like information piece that is attached to it, you might not even know which charities stand to benefit from Red Nose Day. To really learn what your Red Nose purchase supports you have to go to the official Red Nose Day website where I found this explanation:

The funds raised during the Red Nose Day campaign will be given to a variety of nonprofit organizations that transform children’s lives. This year we’ve partnered with twelve amazing organizations working in the US and abroad. The great news is the half the money distributed will be spent right here in the US at projects close to home. The other half will be spent in some of the poorest communities in the world in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

However, for me, the clearest explanation of the purpose of Red Nose Day came from an NBC Entertainment promotional site:

The aim of Red Nose Day is to bring about real and lasting change by tackling the root causes of poverty and social injustice.

Now, THAT’s a cause I can really get behind.

Nonetheless, I had secretly wondered if my mild addiction to collecting red noses had led me to unwittingly add to the profits of two big businesses. My angst was increased when I read that only 50 cents of my $1.00 red nose purchase would actually go to the charities listed as beneficiaries of the effort and the remainder would be invested in nose production. Given the scale of production required to supply so many red noses to Walgreens all across the country, I find it hard to believe they really cost 50 cents each to produce. Five cents seems more realistic. Obviously, I could do far more by simply going to each charity’s website and contributing $1.00 directly to each of them. In fact, I could double my contribution by sending the same $1.00 to them that I spent on the cheap red nose at Walgreens…except I would not have the red nose for my collection.

Ouch! That pricks my conscience. It seems like I am not really different than the many others who need to get something in return for investing in a cause. Some people need their name on a building. I simply need a new red nose for my modest collection.

Last night I attended a celebration of the work of Dr. David Greenhalgh, the Director of the PhD in Organizational Development program at Eastern University where I received my doctorate. David is retiring, in his words, “on August 31 at 11:59 PM” and the PhD Summer Residency dinner included a tribute in which students and alumni were present to participate. It was a great party! The after dinner speaker was Dr. Joanne Ciulla, from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is known for her work and writing on ethical leadership and she spoke briefly and engagingly on the topic of “The Ethical Peculiarities of Leadership.” She observed that ethical leaders can be ineffective and effective leaders can be unethical. If we wish to be both ethical and effective we need to examine our leadership actions with these four questions:

  • Am I doing the right thing?
  • Am I doing it the right way?
  • Am I doing it for the right reason?
  • Am I using what I have learned?

I applaud the leadership efforts of NBC and Walgreens and the followership efforts of all of us (even if we are just wanting to merely add to our red nose collections) for falling in behind Red Nose Day. I love it that the cause is “tackling the root causes of poverty and social injustice.” I wonder, though, if we might learn from our efforts this year and improve upon them next year by thoughtfully considering the first three questions from Dr. Ciulla. Perhaps NBC and Walgreens can make it more about the cause than about pushing programming, stars, and products. Perhaps I can add a red nose to my collection and still contribute directly to each of the charities.

Indeed, what more can we all do? 

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day. (with or without a red nose)