Yearly Archives: 2009

Do You Have What it Takes to Lead?

 |  Leadership

Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.
Willa A. Foster

As we look at what is happening around the world in the public sector and the private, the challenges before us are significant and many. When we look to leaders, we have the right to ask, “Do they have what it takes to lead?” We can only hope that our leaders have the competence, will, and sense of hope that we can address our challenges. Leaders are called to develop the competence of their people. Competence is not just about aptitude; it is also about attitude. Competence is, like leadership itself, a combination of what we can do and how we go about doing it. We have to ask ourselves the same question, “Do I have what it takes to lead?” Since we lead by example, if we want to develop the competence of our people, we are the starting point. We must grow our own competence first.

In a previous posting, I wrote about Purpose. I suggested that having a sense of purpose is about finding the courage to imagine and pursue valued goals. Competence then is all about having the capacity to get the job done! We feel competent when we can freely imagine, start, and finish a task in a way that is deemed satisfactory by ourselves and by others. I would suggest that you are in the position you are because you have the competence to succeed. The challenge for each of us is remembering that and continually growing that capacity to succeed.

In the face of extreme challenges, it is possible for flashes of doubt to influence our behavior. When this happens, we experience inertia; we have energy but we remain stuck in neutral by our feelings of inferiority. We lack the capacity to focus our energy and think and act in an industrious and productive way. We do not feel competent. When we face extreme challenges – like those many are facing this year, we can forget what we are good at and we can stop focusing on growing ourselves. Leadership development is one of the first things jettisoned in a down economy. It is considered a luxury. Nothing could be further from the truth – and the most prudent path. Now is always the right time for some self-reflection and self-affirmation to remind ourselves that we have what we need to succeed! Great leaders are always open to and engaged in the personal and professional development. As the man says, “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”

What do you know you are good at? Where have you experienced your greatest successes? How do you maintain your skill level? These are a few of the questions you might ask yourself as you attend to who you are in regards to competence.

How might you respond to the following statements?

I have experienced success in one or more endeavors. YES NO
I got a lot from my education. YES NO
I am realistic and honest in my evaluation of myself. YES NO
I have a good number of friends and a satisfactory social life. YES NO
I can start and finish projects with self-imposed deadlines. YES NO
My colleagues know me as a likeable team player. YES NO
I like to learn new things. YES NO
I participated in many different activities as a child. YES NO
I work and play well with others. YES NO
I am always reading at least one book. YES NO
I am confident about my abilities. YES NO
I just can’t seem to get moving on anything. YES NO

These questions, and your answers to them, indicate your self-assessment regarding not only your aptitude, but your attitude as well. Both aptitude and attitude impact our level of competence. With your answers to these questions as a starting point, the key question is, “What’s Next?”

Where is there room for improvement as a leader? WHere is there room for improvement in your life? What would you like to be able to do better? Or do at all? Would you like to be a better leader? Would you like to swim better or sing better or speak in public better? Do you want to be a better coach or mentor? Do you want to pursue more education? Do you want to learn to paint, or sculpt, or cook? Connecting with your truest self means discovering what you value, moving in that direction, and working to develop your gifts so you can most completely and honestly express who and what you are.

Here’s an exercise I do with some of my coaching clients:

• List five things you would like to do better or learn to do. (Your answers suggest that these are activities you value and would like to incorporate your life.)
• To move increase your competence at these things, what might you do?
• What will you have to stop doing?
• What keeps you from reworking your calendar to reflect your decision to make time to incorporate these activities into your life.
• Develop a plan of action for each activity (How much time will it take? How often will you engage in this activity? Do you need assistance to learn or relearn how to do this activity? If so, go get it.).

You know what you want to do better and you know which of your gifts you want to connect with more fully; it’s now just a matter of prioritizing and scheduling. You have what it takes to lead – and, you can always get better.

Two Brothers – One Lesson in Living and Leading

 |  Leadership

Two Brothers

Yesterday was the anniversary of my father’s death 31 years ago. Today is the anniversary of my Uncle Billy’s death. I usually remember these two men on their birthdays rather than on these days, but when sitting to write today’s post, I could not help but think about these two brothers. They were both good fathers and husbands – and leaders. They were both very funny, though my uncle was funnier. They both felt a strong calling to be of service to the community. They were both involved in the church and our community. One played a more formal role; my father was a politician who worked inside the system to effect change. My uncle was an organizer; he brought people together to bring about change from outside the political system. His store (a great deli-luncheonette!) was a gathering point for conversations about how to improve local schools, how to support the youth of the town, how to make people feel a part of their community.

I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. As a boy, it seemed everyone knew my father and he knew all of them. He touched people. He was respected as a man of integrity, a stubbornly honest man. People knew that he cared for them. My father would go out of his way to help strangers. His circle of concern seemed to have to no outer edge; there was room for everyone. It is a characteristic that I will admire and try to emulate for as long as I live.

We moved from New Jersey to Arizona when I was 12. Four and 1/2 years later my father would be gone. What strikes me is that in a very short time in Arizona, he had built up the same reputation and circle as he had in New Jersey. It was his brand! At his funeral, the church in Arizona was standing room only. We’d only been there for four years! Where did all these people come from? There was a memorial service in New Jersey as well. Again, SRO. These people hadn’t seen my father in four years, yet there they were, coming out to remember a man who had touched their lives in a positive way.

My Uncle Billy was the youngest brother. I think he looked up to my father. I know that my father loved his youngest brother and saw him as a very good man. Like my father, my Uncle Billy knew everyone and everyone knew him. He was a character. He was funny and fun to be around. He was also a loving and caring man who took care of his family and his extended family. Like his brother, stubbornly honest, he was a leader in the community and when he passed, neither the town nor our family was ever the same.

When I was in my early 20s I got fired from my first job out of college (I recommend that everyone get fired at least once!). Not knowing what to do, I called Uncle Billy. Without hesitation, he invited me to come and stay with he and his family for “as long as it takes” to figure out what I would do next. (The fact that my Aunt Marge blessed this and welcomed me into her family will never be lost on me! He married well.) I spent six months with my aunt and uncle, living in their home and working in “the store.” Mostly, I got to spend time with him to listen and learn the life lessons that I needed to hear and didn’t get a chance to hear from my father. And as my father and uncle were so alike, it was like getting a two-fer!

I’m writing about these two brothers today because to me they are exemplars of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a leader. There are three things that I think are true about both of them – and true for great leaders. First, they were conscious. They knew who they were and they saw the world as it was and as it could be. They were life-long learners, eager to learn about themselves and how they fit in the world. Second, they were connected. They felt a connection to the community and the needs and wants of many others. This sense of connection had a sense of responsibility with it. And third, they were concerned. Seeing people facing challenges, they responded with concern and compassion, letting others into their circle of concern. These things – being conscious, connected, and concerned – are foundational to being great leaders and good men. These things, these two brothers had down – flat.

They say that we men live our lives comparing and contrasting ourselves with our fathers. Our decisions are born of our desire to be like them and to stand apart at the same time. They may be right. What I do know is that if I am half the man, half the father, half the leader that these two brothers were, I’m doing pretty damn well. Both left us way too soon; and both left big shoes! Thankfully, they left a blueprint for how to live and how to lead.

Two Questions – One Purpose

 |  Leadership

Life, willing to surpass itself, is the good life, and the good life is the courageous life. It is the life of the “powerful soul” and the “triumphant body” whose self-enjoyment is virtue.

In a couple previous posts, I have talked about hope and will. Today I’m thinking about purpose. Leaders must be able to engage others to move to fulfill a common purpose. There’s a great deal written about organization purpose and mission; but that’s not my focus today. Everyone would agree that, leaders must know the organizational purpose and be aligned with it. More importantly, a leader’s personal purpose should allow her to align with the corporate purpose. Only in that way, can she inspire others to alignment. The authentic and transformative leader will know and actively live out her purpose in life.

The quote at the top of this posting, written by existential theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich reflects succinctly and powerfully what purpose is all about. Purpose involves the courage to imagine and pursue a valued goal. A sense of purpose grows out of an ability to show initiative, to explore our world and to seek out new experiences. It is a courageous and heroic act to intentionally seek to deepen and expand one’s human experience. Nietzsche called this “will to power.” A sense of purpose grows out of a strong will which is formed on a foundation built of hope and trust, two “hero traits” I’ve already explored.

Purpose is derived from initiative. When we are able and encouraged to assume more personal responsibility, we develop initiative. Even though we may experience failures, it is important to show initiative and accept the challenge the world presents and develop purposeful behavior so that we may cope with life’s challenges. The strength of will to show initiative and to risk begins to form in early childhood.

As leaders and as human beings it all boils down to two questions:

Who am I?

What is my work (purpose)?

Answering these questions and living the answers honestly and completely is all that really matters. It is a journey that takes and makes a lifetime.

When I coach leaders, we jump into the question of personal mission or purpose sooner rather than later. I think it’s important to take stock and explore questions like, “How purposeful are you? How willing are you to show initiative? Are you a risk taker? When and where are you most inhibited?”

How might you answer these questions:

I shy away from new things. YES NO
I am known as a risk taker. YES NO
I learned how to take care of myself early in life. YES NO
I am naturally inquisitive. YES NO
My parents encouraged me to explore my world and take chances. YES NO
I set goals and make them happen. YES NO
Life is a journey of ongoing discovery. YES NO
I tried many different activities as a child. YES NO
I am generally self-assertive. YES NO
I just go along with the flow in life. YES NO
I know what I want and will do what it takes to get it. YES NO
I have much regret about missed opportunities. YES NO

These questions explore our capacity to show initiative, take risks, and overcome inhibitions that may keep us from having the experience we want in life and getting the results we desire. The more ‘yes’ answers you record the more likely it is that you have a sense of purpose or at least have the capacity to discover it and pursue it.

Strengthening your sense of purpose starts with engaging your imagination. Project your life forward five years. Imagine what a day in your life five years forward looks like. Where are you living? Who are your significant others? What do you do for a living? What is the source of your happiness? What do you value?

Create a vision of a compelling future that draws you toward it. Once connected with a vision of your best possible future, you have a purpose – to make that future a reality.

Innovating Leadership Development

 |  Leadership, Resources

The “new normal” is a business environment typified by continual and fast-paced change. Success in this dynamic business environment requires a highly adaptable workforce. That means constantly building capacity by upgrading and acquiring new skills and knowledge, developing new attitudes, and changing behaviors. Adaptable leaders and organizations will be the ones to survive and thrive.

The Situation

Cisco has a tradition of hiring, developing, and retaining the best people in the high technology industry in order to drive successful business transformation. Vital to that process is the capacity to assess and develop talent, enabling employees to maximize their contribution to the organization. To support the important work of Talent Management, Cisco introduced the C-LEAD Leadership Framework, a matrix of five competencies that characterize what is referred to as “Cisco 3.0 Leadership.” These competencies are being incorporated into several processes, including training, coaching, performance management, and succession planning.

Ecstasis Response

Ecstasis has worked with Employee Development to build a comprehensive leadership assessment and development program for leaders in the Customer Advocacy organization. The design incorporates the C-LEAD framework into all aspects of the program. The Intensive Leadership Program, as it is called internally, was designed with these objectives in mind:

  • Generate self-awareness of current leadership ability and create the desire to learn
  • Understand the roles and functions of leadership – globally and cross-functionally
  • Increase awareness of personal development areas and support ability to align career development to personal strengths
  • Encourage C-LEAD Mindset, Skill Set, and Tool Set

In place since 2002, this program is aimed at experienced, high-potential managers and directors. In 2009, Cisco asked for a redesign to reduce travel costs while keeping the high-touch experience that is so important to leadership development work. Ecstasis developed a six-month leadership development program employing a blended learning approach that consists of:

  • One week in residence capped with a one-day assessment center experience with group exercises and role-plays with actors
  • Eight synchronous, virtual learning modules using Web 2.0 tools
  • Field work to support immediate application to driving business transformation and people development
  • 1:1 coaching over six months for each cohort member
  • Group project work aligned to corporate initiatives culminating in presentations to senior executives

All learning modules are based on leadership first principles and leading edge thinking on innovation, change management, and organizational development. These highly interactive virtual learning sessions are designed to provide 80% small group discussion and practice and 20% lecture, covering relevant topics:

  • Transformative leadership
  • Human behavior and emotional intelligence
  • Innovation
  • Coaching
  • Systems thinking
  • Change management

Ecstasis used existing materials and conducted research as needed to generate program resources incorporating the Cisco brand.

The Results

Results from an internal survey conducted by Cisco indicate an overall rating for the programs run in FY2009 of 4.26 on a 5 point scale. Results from an external, anonymous on-line survey conducted six weeks post-program yielded an overall score of 4.86 on a 5 point scale. The redesigned program reduced expenses by 35% (not inclusive of additional saved travel expense) from the previous fiscal year.  Projects also generated ideas, that, when implemented, will result in additional revenue.

On average, 93.5% of leaders report that the program increased their capacity to drive the business forward. 87% of leaders report that the program enabled them to better develop their people. 88.4% of leaders would recommend the program to colleagues seeking personal and team development.

Here are comments from two recent cohort members:

“If you’re ready to stretch and grow, this program and environment will position you to ratchet it up a level or two. Excellent opportunity to meet and interface with not only Cisco execs, but also talented cohort team members. However good you are – you’ll get better.”

“I am an advocate of this experience and I recommend it to many colleagues. It forced me to take a pause and spend quality time reflecting on people around me including myself and better understand them and myself. Intensive program is a fantastic way to look into the mirror and help you identify things you are doing good and things you need to enhance…and it shows you how you can get better and from there on it is up to you!”

Conclusions

Cisco has made great strides in developing its leadership capacity and leveraging its talent. The Intensive Leadership Program continues to be an effective component of their talent management strategy. Ginger Crowne, Program Manager, CA Employee Development: “This program is unlike any other high-potential leadership development program at Cisco. Most of our distinguished alumni continue to serve as leaders across CA and Cisco.”

Overall the Intensive Leadership Program is having a positive impact on the organization. They recognize a growing capacity for dispersed leadership, collaboration, and innovation in a fast-paced, and stress-inducing business environment. Their commitment to a serious, innovative talent management strategy, including leadership development is a key differentiator that increases Cisco’s competitive advantage in recruiting and hiring new leadership talent.

To read the Case Study, click on the Resources link above.

Response to Otto’s Question

 |  Leadership

In his recent blog entry, Otto Scharmer writes, ”

i am just returning from a three day cabinet workshop in a country in Africa. the purpose was on reconnecting the political leadership with the real needs of the communities. in preparing the workshop, the Prime Minister talked about “poverty” in the context of the MDGs (Millenium Development Goals) and about the “poverty of ideas” in the context of development strategies, that is, in the context of development economics. it was really special being together with this community of leaders that all share the same background: the liberation struggle of taking their country from dependence to independence. the years of the liberation struggle stood out to a level 4 change experience for all of them. now, after independence, and after moving into government, of course it is much more difficult reconnect with that level 4 experience on a collective level. the leadership challenge that most of them face is a double split: a horizontal split (silos among and within ministries) and a vertical gap (separating the political leadership from civil servants and the real needs of the communities on the ground). so the question for them is this: how can we, in our everyday leadership work, cross these two gaps?

any ideas on that?

Here is my response to Otto:

Hi Otto: Your question, “how can we, in our everyday leadership work, cross these two gaps?” is a good one in that it reminds us of the reality that macro-systemic change is interdependent with micro-systemic change (the individual leader). In our work with leaders, teams, and organizations we constantly remind the individual and the collective of the need to seek the edge and the next opportunity for change. We give them the visual of an infinity loop to remind them of the scope of their work: driving organizational change (in this case a government or ministry) on one side of the loop, and on the other side of the loop facilitating the development of the people with whom they collaborate to bring about change.

To live and lead in this leadership loop, the individual, the team, and the organization want to be living and leading within a U as well. So the question becomes, how do you provoke and evoke the continual reflection and dialogue necessary to enable positive transformation at every level so as to ‘mind the gap’ and minimize the negative impact of these naturally-occurring splits in the larger system.

There are three questions I would continuously pose to the leaders in this (or any system attempting to manage large scale change): What do we need to do? What do we need to stop doing? How do we need to show up (as individuals and collectively) in order to achieve our objectives? That would be a fun conversation to convene!

The Will to Lead

 |  Leadership

The roots of true achievement lie in the will to become the best that you can become. - Harold Taylor 

A recent conversation with a leader I coach focused on the amount of time she spends fixing things for her direct reports. She had become stuck in an all too familiar pattern. She’d become ‘the problem-solver.’ As leaders, we can end up spending a great deal of time solving other people’s problems for them. In fact, many just like my coachee report that this takes up the majority of their time. How do we break the cycle?

Leadership is about empowering others to solve their own problems. It is about encouraging those around us to believe in their own ability to think a situation through, choose the proper course of action, and act boldly with autonomy. We want to inspire those around us to be ‘will-full.’ We want them to feel in control of their lives and their work. Only this will break down the culture of dependency that permeates our organizations. Only this will encourage thought and action that enables creativity and innovation. However, when it comes to a strong will, the age old question remains, “Can we give what we don’t have?”

We can succinctly define Will as:  A determination to exercise free choice and self-control. The capacity for self-determination grows out of a process of self-reflection, self-discovery, and self-awareness. This self-determination can be understood as will. The leader’s journey leads to a stronger will.

Where does will come from? It develops as a result of our developing a sense of autonomy. As we move out into the world we seek autonomy or independence. Think of toddlers racing around the house proclaiming everything as “mine!”  These wild claims happen because the toddler is developing greater independence and autonomy. The toddler is developing a sense of self as distinct and empowered. “I can get dressed by myself. I can go potty by myself. I can feed myself.” And so on. The point is that this sense of autonomy builds a trait within us that is will. Will is feeling in control of one’s life.

Exploring your own will can be extremely challenging. If you have doubts about your strength of will, let’s begin by affirming that your will is indeed stronger than you think. The very fact that you are taking this hero’s journey into greater self-awareness and self-determination suggests that you know that you are in control of your life. This indicates a strong personal will. What may be discovered here is that there is room and time for growth. Remember, to have more than you’ve got, you’ve got to become more than you are.

How might you answer these questions:

1.     Respond “yes” or “no” to the following statements.

I complain alot.     YES    NO

I always obey the rules.     YES    NO

I avoid some activities because I don’t think I’m good enough.     YES    NO

I am in the career of my own choosing.     YES    NO

Other people have gotten in the way of my getting what I want.     YES    NO

I have a great deal of self-confidence.     YES    NO

I am decisive.     YES    NO

I have no doubts about what I can accomplish.     YES    NO

I like to be in charge.     YES    NO

I spend a lot of time thinking about the past.     YES    NO

I feel out of control sometimes.     YES    NO

I prefer to let others make decisions for me.     YES    NO

I am autonomous.     YES    NO

The more ‘yes’ answers you record the more likely it is that you are a ‘will-full’ person. The more ‘no’ answers you record the more likely that personal will may be an issue for you. Self-awareness gives you the opportunity to “kick it up a notch.” If you want to overcome invasive feelings of self-doubt and act with greater ‘will’, then you will need to take a step. When it comes to strengthening your will, Nike’s slogan is the best advise, “Just do it.” If you want to “just do it”, and become more autonomous and more independent, if you want to exercise your will more forcefully, then you need to be decisive and organized.

Any successful endeavor begins with a plan. Step one in strengthening your will is establishing a plan of action. A personal strategic plan enables you to move through and beyond the distractions or unhelpful habits or comforts that keep you from being as autonomous and independent as you wish to be. You are operating according to a plan right now; perhaps it is an accidental plan. The question is whether or not your plan is working for you. Are you getting what you want, living the way you want, continuing as you are? Does your plan unconsciously involve too many distractions? Does your accidental plan keep you from the accessing the personal power that goes along with will?

Henry David Thoreau writes, “ I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? … I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies, and so a man.”

Break the cycle. See where you want to go. Believe in your vision and your capacity to make it real. Design the way forward; and step into the best possible future, a future of your own making. It’s what’s best for you and your team. What are you waiting for? Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The Power of “The Sentence”

 |  Leadership

Peggy Noonan’s column this morning struck me. She writes about “The Sentence.” Noonan writes,

“The Sentence comes from a story Clare Booth Luce told about a conversation she had in 1962 in the White House with her old friend John F. Kennedy. She told him, she said, that “a great man is one sentence.”  His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. “He preserved the union and freed the slaves,” or, “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.” You didn’t have to be told “Lincoln” or “FDR.” She wondered what Kennedy’s sentence would be. She was telling him to concentrate, to know the great themes and demands of his time and focus on them.” (Peggy Noonan, WSJ, June 27, 2009)

We all leave a legacy. For many, legacies are created by default. They happen without much attention or intention over time as we go through work and life on autopilot. We can be very tactical in how we move through our days. There are some who build their legacy by design. The words and actions of their lives flow from a higher purpose, a mission to build something lasting, to have an impact that outlasts them. There is a sense of vision and strategy about what they do and why they do it. I would venture a guess that these people could sum up their work and their legacy in one sentence, even before the work is finished and the legacy complete. They know what they want to do and they set out to make it a reality.

As our economy is in flux and our businesses are recalibrating to survive and thrive in a new reality, great leaders will ‘know the great themes and demands of our time and focus on them.’ I believe that great leaders know their ‘one sentence’ and work to make it real. I believe that knowing our ‘one sentence’ is empowering. It brings clarity to decision making and focus to our actions. It motivates us to grow our capacity to realize the vision our ‘one sentence’ calls us to and leads us to engage others in our important work.

I’m working on my one sentence. I encourage you to work on yours. 

A Call to Leadership and Action

 |  Leadership

It’s that time of year when we find commencement speeches in our email inboxes. I received Paul Hawken’s commencement speech to the class of 2009 at the University of Portland today. I decided to pass it on here. Why? Because the message is a good one for us in business. I read this message and hear a call to profound and powerful leadership. He may be speaking to college graduates, but it is a message for all of us.

Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author. He has dedicated his life to sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment. His practice has included starting and running ecological businesses, writing and teaching about the impact of commerce on living systems, and consulting with governments and corporations on economic development, industrial ecology, and environmental policy.

Mr. Hawken is speaking to all of us. Let’s listen and act.

“Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer- reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades. This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.

Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food, but all that is changing. There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planetsaving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done. When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.

Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refugee camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums. You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisher folk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental organizations, of companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history. The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart.

We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the only species on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe.

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television. This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever be quested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.”

 

The poem he referenced by Mary Oliver is entitled, “The Journey”, and can be found in her collection, Dream Work.