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I'm No Expert, Except At What I'm Feeling

I'm not an expert at anything. Except for being myself. And having my own experiences in the world, and the subsequent feelings I have about them. And, when I'm doing my best work, relating those feelings to others in service of creating connection that moves a mission forward.

The notion for this post came up to me, in part, because of this quote that I read yet again from the estimable Wendell Berry, in his 1981 essay Solving for Pattern:

Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. There is no theoretical or ideal practice. Practical advice or direction from people who have no practice may have some value, but its value is questionable and is limited.

The essay in which this quote appears is brilliant, as is the author, in my opinion. It talks about the natural state of interconnected systems - how the state of health of each part of a system inevitably affects the whole system. Lately I have been focusing on the most essential element that exists in every business, regardless of size or industry or geography: people.

Businesses are comprised of people. People have emotions. Businesses, therefore, are emotional places. Right? In my opinion, it's a subject that doesn't get nearly enough attention. Yet in so many cases, expression of most emotions is considered taboo in the workplace. Because of that, it is essential that leaders interact emotionally with others in their organizations "with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care", lest they (and others) "suffer the consequences of their mistakes".

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a workshop on the emotional side of change in businesses. In that workshop, a group of mostly strangers came together and opened themselves up to explore and show emotions. It was clear from the vibe in the room, as well as the post-event feedback, that the invitation to talk about emotion was welcome and powerful. There were consequences on the line.

In Solving for Pattern, Wendell Berry describes an agricultural pattern of health and sustainability. In brief (though, please read the essay - it's excellent), growing crops on a farm that are used to feed the livestock on the same farm, whose waste is used to fertilize the fields that grow those same crops. The pattern produces a natural, self-sustaining pattern for that farm, and is itself a small part of much larger ecological, economical, & agricultural patterns.

There is a pattern of leadership that I believe is an equivalent to that example. When leaders are willing to be open to emotions - to encourage their expression, even - the staff who run their business feel safer in being their true selves. As a result, those people feel seen. This allows staff to be more open in expressing their feelings and beliefs to management and leadership, who in turn gain valuable information from the people running the business.

A great model for this is Servant Leadership, a philosophy that calls for leaders to be servants first and foremost. This is different than a leader who seeks first to lead, in the sense of accumulating power and control. Robert K. Greenleaf wrote the following about that disparity, in his 1970 essay that introduced the concept of Servant Leadership:

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

If we, as leaders, are not taking care of the emotions of those who we serve, how can we expect them to grow into healthier and more autonomous people? Isn't that what we want - a group of strong, wise, autonomous, service-oriented people to help us achieve our mission? I know when I've found that in an organization that it's always one that is succeeding at keeping its customers happy, as well as growing its bottom line.

The pattern leaders need to solve for is one in which we open up emotional safety for our people. Research has shown that skillful vulnerability, e.g., appropriately sharing our feelings with others, creates trust and safety between people. I'm not saying it's easy, nor is it something a leader should rush into headlong without considering how to have the conversations in an emotionally intelligent manner.

It's hard work to achieve such a good solution as having emotional trust in your business. That brings me back to Mr. Berry's essay one more time, from his closing passage that speaks to human solutions that mimic natural patterns:

But we must not forget that those human solutions that we may call organic are not natural. We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy. Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: accurate memory, observation, insight, imagination, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity, restraint. Restraint – for us, now – above all: the ability to accept and live within limits; to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to “solve” problems by ignoring them, accepting them as “trade-offs,” or bequeathing them to posterity. A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.

I've added italicized emphasis to that last segment. There are no novel shortcuts. Ignoring people's emotional needs will not solve anything. We have to accept the "limits", if you will, that people cannot operate like unemotional robots at work because they are people with real feelings. So we must create harmony based on character, morals, and cultural values that will sustain.

If you want help with that journey, please let me know. I'd love to be of service for that cause.


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