Toppling the Cult of Why
Earlier today, I attended an awards ceremony for social impact entrepreneurs in Los Angeles. Every single speaker and awardee alluded to their purpose. A few even urged us to find our ‘why’ and share it with the world.
In my coaching and consulting work with nonprofits and change-makers, clients will often share that they need me to help them find a ‘why’ that will help people get what they do.
It’s proliferating all around me, this Cult of Why.
I don’t have epidemiological data to support this, but I’m guessing that this all started with Simon Sinek’s TED Talk called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
In case you’re not familiar, the talk introduces a simple concept that Sinek calls the Golden Circle. It looks like this:
Lessons From the Heart of A Horse
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Utah with The Nomadic School of Wonder to learn from a herd of wild horses. They live at Windhorse Relations, an organization dedicated to providing care and stewardship of the horses, learning from them, and giving others the chance to experience the power of connecting with the herd.
On the first morning of the experience, the organization’s founder, Mary Lee Brighton, strode into the center of a round pen with a jittery horse named First Star. Mary Lee held a frame drum encased in a deerskin pouch. As she entered the pen, First Star’s eyes widened and his nostrils dilated.
Mary Lee explained that horses are prey animals. Anything unfamiliar represents a potential threat. Since the drum case, with its dangling tassles and odd jangly sounds, was new to First Star, he was understandably anxious.
She moved around the pen and First Star did everything he could to put maximum distance between himself and the drum case.
Over the next hour, Mary Lee worked with First Star, helping him conquer his fear of the threatening drum. In the process, she offered a master class not just in working with horses, but also in leadership.
Here are five lessons gleaned from the heart of the horse:
I recently attended a meeting that went something like this:
Everyone came in, many of them rushing, a few looking at cell phones. They sat at the conference table, laptops popped open. The person who’d called the meeting looked around, said ‘I think we’re all here,’ immediately threw a spreadsheet up on the screen, and started going through a bunch of numbers.
The attendees (I was there as an observer) scrambled to keep up. . .then they started asking a ton of questions about the spreadsheet. They questioned assumptions, tried to solve for problems that hadn’t been directly mentioned, and asked for additional details. The meeting-caller became increasingly flustered as the gathering spiraled out of control.
After 45 minutes, time was up. Laptops collapsed and everyone left. No action items, no real resolution. I wasn’t even clear what the intention of the meeting had been.
It didn’t feel so great. The meeting-caller, who happened to be my client, looked at me: ‘Please tell me there’s a better way to do that.’
Master storyteller and teacher Doug Lipman breaks a storytelling performance into four sections:
When folks in business circles extol the virtues of ‘storytelling,’ they generally refer to the impact that a well-told story can have on an audience. The praise of story generally goes something like this:
‘Storytelling is the single best tool we have to transfer our ideas to another person. Stories inform, illuminate, and inspire.’ (Carmine Gallo on Inc.)
I certainly won’t argue with that because, frankly, it’s true. It also misses about 90 percent of the power storytelling has to connect, build community, and bring greater alignment to teams, companies, and families.
The key lies in distinguishing between ‘story’ as a product and ‘storytelling’ as a process.
Recently, I had the chance to take a class with the wonderful Doug Lipman. If you’ve ever searched for books about the art of performance storytelling, you’ve probably seen some of his work. He gets at the distinction through a simple metaphor:
Imagine a rubber duck race at a county fair. There are only three rules:
A Sweat Lodge in Pine Ridge
**I recently had the chance to spend a week at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It was a beautiful experience filled with challenge, learning, and expansion. This is one Thing that Happened.**
I start to freak out the moment that the door of the sweat lodge closes.
The lodge itself is a small, wooden structure covered in blankets. There’s a depression in the center to hold heated rocks. At the moment, it’s filled with fifteen or so stones of various sizes that have been sitting next to a large fire for a couple of hours. Even with the door open, it has gotten hot.
Door, by the way, is overstating the case a bit. It’s actually a flap of blankets and a weighted tarp.
With the door open, the lodge is dim and warm. Comfortable even.
When the flaps come down, darkness descends. The space becomes stuffy and oppressive.
I’ve never thought of myself as claustrophobic. I’ve explored caves, crawled through underground tunnels, and snorkeled through tight caverns filled with rushing water with only slight anxiety. But there’s something about this that feels different.
The problems of poverty, disease, and environmental decay cannot be solved merely by the use of more and more scientific technology. Technological fixes usually turn out to be a jumble of procedures that have unpredictable consequences and are often in conflict with natural forces. Indeed, technological magic is not much better than primitive magic in dealing with the fundamental issues of human existence, and in addition, it is much more destructive.
–Rene Dubos, 1967
At a recent conference billed as an exploration of the intersection of Social Impact and Exponential Technologies, a prominent tech luminary spoke on the increasing incidence of depression and how technology will be essential to dealing with it.
She walked us through data showing that depression is projected to increase several-fold in the next decade. Other data laid out the developed world’s current capacity to treat depression. There was a clear and growing gap. We simply will not have the resources to handle the epidemic.
We must, the speaker said, find a way to increase our capacity to serve those grappling with depression. It’s not possible to train enough therapists in time to offer support. Fortunately, exponential technology, specifically adaptive intelligence, can help.
Currently, those working with depression have limited options for getting support. Almost all of them involve having to find and vet a therapist, go to therapy consistently, and/or get a prescription medication. With adaptive intelligence, help could be as close as an app on your phone.
The speaker walked us through a use case. Someone feels unmotivated, disconnected, and depressed. They log on to a secure (much emphasis was placed on ‘secure’) app and are greeted by an adaptive Artificial Intelligence that approximates warmth and curiosity. With a few questions customized to inspire reflection and sharing, the AI triages users.
Some people may only need a bit of space for reflection. For them, the AI provides the necessary level of support.
Others may require more intensive support. The AI detects this and links them to a trained therapist for a consultation.
This technology driven solution solves for the problem of capacity. Exponential technology saves the day.
I listened to the talk with a growing sense of dread and frustration in my gut.
Transformational Storytelling: Building Inclusive Cultures That Promote Purpose and Belonging
The world, and people’s awareness of themselves in it, is changing at a rapid clip, yet many organizations still adhere to an outdated model of culture based on traditional economic logic. This logic assumes that employees act purely out of self interest and incentivises performance based largely on salary and bonuses.
More and more, this no longer works. Especially with younger team members.
The mismatch between employee values and organizational culture results in disengagement. Employees may get stuck in a rut, show decreased motivation, develop tense relationships, and stop performing at their potential.
Conventional responses such as, on the one hand, team building retreats, happy hours, and perks become less effective. As do, on the other hand, tighter oversight and control.
So What Do We Do?
By connecting people with a higher sense of purpose, a feeling of belonging, and cultivating strong interpersonal connection, organizations can inspire their people to bring greater energy, creativity, and dedication to their work. The type of ‘higher purpose’ necessary is separate from economic exchanges or financial bottom lines. Rather, it is aspirational, helping each person working within the organization see how their work contributes to a broader goal, mission, or movement.
According to Psychology Today, Americans just broke a new record for anxiety and stress. If you’re into breaking records, that’s very exciting. For the rest of us, it may just be a confirmation that we’re not alone in dealing with that near constant tightness in the chest and knot in the stomach.
When the world goes topsy turvy and a swirling atmosphere of division, outrage and chaos becomes more pervasive, it deepens our stress and can affect us at at every level of our lives.
It can disturb our sleep, eating habits, and behaviors. We can start to define ourselves by our relationship to unfolding events. We’re protesters! We’re victims of a rigged system! We’re builders of a new, more just society!
It’s exhausting, numbing, and overwhelming. And, frankly, it’s dehumanizing.
While it’s true that adopting a daily meditation or yoga practice and exercising several times a week and watching your diet and drinking 10 glasses of water per day and cutting down on coffee and starting a garden will all help reduce stress. . .sometimes there’s just not space in the day for all of that.
Here are five efficient tools I’ve found useful in destressing, remembering who I am beyond the news of the day, opening up a bit of space, and even reclaiming my humanity. They don’t take much time and can be done pretty much anywhere. Hope you find them useful:
Over the past few years, Storytelling has emerged as a critical communication skill. Stories help us establish emotional connections with our audience, community, customers, and contributors. These connections can build over time and create brand loyalty that goes beyond purely ‘business’ transactions.
Story, however, is much more than a tool for communication. It also is one of the most effective, efficient, and powerful tools we have to build effective teams.
Here are four ways that incorporating storytelling as a core practice can deepen engagement and increase effectiveness in teams:
There’s a crippling misconception floating out there in the world that tells us that the only good stories are based on Big, Dramatic Events. A major humanitarian crisis. Or a story of individual tragedy that, through heroic action, becomes a tale of almost superhuman triumph. While it’s true that those stories have power, sometimes the stories that resonate most strongly occur in small moments of reflection or realization.
What makes an event or moment story-worthy?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.