A Precious Whisper In A Windstorm (A Book Review)

I just finished reading Leadership and the Art of Struggle by Steven Snyder.

In Leadership and the Art of Struggle, Steven Snyder combines examples of leadership struggles faced by leaders in many walks of life (big business, non-profit, politics) with exercises any of us can do to help clarify our path to reaching our own leadership aspirations. Woven throughout the combination of examples and exercises is a reminder of the beautiful utility of mindfulness, enabling anyone to “step off the treadmill of time.”

snyder bookI have to say, in all honesty, that there was an inherent struggle for me in reading this book, because I am personally grappling with whether or not I fit the definition of “leader” right now. I no longer supervise anyone, and I can’t think of a single individual featured in this book who did not have supervisory responsibilities. But do I lead by being my organization’s primary liaison with our health and dental plans? Do I lead by having a social media presence that I use for good in addition to the occasional tweet or status about which star should be allowed to remain on Dancing With The Stars? Do I lead by waking up every morning knowing a 16 year old and a 13 year old are still taking notes for the life they will live once they are beyond my threshold?

The above paragraph, about my current internal questions, is to some extent encapsulated in a story Steven Snyder told about a time in his life when he had made life decisions based on what seemed best for his interests and aspirations. The job he ended up in as a result of these decisions evaporated less than a year into the venture. This was not good. Steven Snyder talks about the self-pity he felt at the time: “I imagine that my reflective mind was calling out to me, trying to help, but hearing it in the midst of my panic would have been like trying to listen to a whisper in a windstorm.”

Steven Snyder explains the difference between the “automatic mind,” which “reaches judgements … quickly but often prematurely” and the “reflective mind,” which “challenges assumptions, generates multiple alternatives and evaluates them systematically” on the premise that strengthening the reflective mind can be a key to becoming a stronger leader who in turn helps other leaders grow.

When I was reading this book, I wondered if Steven Snyder had stopped by my office (or had a balcony seat to my mental goings-on!). He tells a fascinating story of Dr. David Abelson, who through a surprising twist of events moved from practicing medicine to being CEO of his large health-care delivery system. In discussing his eventual embrace of the position, Abelson said, “At some point I just heard an internal voice saying that being CEO would be my way of bringing value. It was almost a sense of reverence.”

I have had a copy of a piece of Hugh MacLeod’s artwork on my door at work for years. It says:

Credit: www.gapingvoidart.com

Credit: www.gapingvoidart.com

Dr. Abelson and I agree: reverence has to be part of the equation.

I also saw an echo of my own thought process in Steven Snyder’s discussion of Frank Russomanno, who was overlooked the first time he applied to be CEO of his organization, Imation (he was asked to stay with the organization as COO instead). He says, “I didn’t think they saw all the good things I’d done for the company.”

My personal struggles currently aren’t about feeling like good things I’ve done haven’t been seen — it’s a different twist — it’s feeling like leadership does not recognize how much I love the organization.

And for me that’s the struggle. I also believe that an organization should be performance-measures based (as much as possible). And I’m not sure where or how loving an organization factors into that. Is it better for a leader to have reports who meet every deliverable but are wishy-washy about purpose, or someone who is on fire for the purpose but not fulfilling performance metrics?

I am going to leave the struggle/loving the organization/metrics thread unresolved because I want to mention one other concept of Steven Snyder’s that resonated so deeply with me: celebrating what’s precious.

You don’t hear the word “precious” thrown around a lot in the corporate world.  But I know it’s there for each one of us. I have seen the children’s pictures tacked on to the hundreds of cubicles I have seen in visiting various contact centers in  several states. I know it’s where many people’s minds go when a meeting wanders into a counterproductive spiral — to the things, ideas, goals that are precious to them.  The precious things are the passions, actions, and choices that energize us mentally, spiritually, and physically.

I know that for me, there is a windstorm blowing and that hearing that whisper, the one that helps me follow my reflective mind which is trying to tell me where to go, is going to take commitment and, yes, some struggle.

Steven Snyder recounted a conversation in which the eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi Zusya’s teachings were paraphrased:

At the end of your life, God will not ask you why you were not more like Moses. God will ask you why you were not more like Steven.

Yes, it is a struggle to hear that whisper through the wind, to figure out how to be “more like Paula”.  But a precious calm awaits.


Steven Snyder will be participating in a Twitter Chat on Monday, March 11, from 8 p.m. – 9 p.m. This would be a great time to hear more about his thinking (and his book)! Just tweet with the hashtag #booklaunchchat. If you can’t make the chat, you can visit his website at www.snyderleadership.com.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.

Elephants, Flowers, and the BFA Class of 2011

I have been involved with the Florida State University Film School for about five years. Prior to November 2008, I had been an extra several times, and my son had been in a BFA thesis film, but I had not been in a non-extra role. When Leelund Kim contacted me in November 2009 to perform a speaking role in Shane Spiegel’s, Water Wings, I had my first experience of being in someone’s “F1,” which is a student’s first film.

Being part of that F1, which I wrote about in Disheveled, gave me an opportunity to meet the five-student crew at the very start of their Film School journey. Between Fall 2009 and this summer, I worked with them and almost all of their classmates as an extra or volunteer many times. These students graduate next Saturday, and their thesis films will be screened. I won’t be able to be at their screenings because Tenley is dancing in “Christmas in Narnia” with her ballet company.

Since I won’t be able to say “goodbye” in person, here are some parting thoughts.

For Shane Spiegel, who wrote and directed Water Wings, I still shake my head at my good fortune to be involved in that production, but whatever stars aligned to put me on that set on a November Sunday afternoon, I am glad.

For Leelund Kim, who produced Water Wings, I have never admitted reading this in your Facebook notes because it felt a little stalker-ish, but I agree that “extras need to be directed.” Having “extra’d” a lot now, I have come to appreciate a director who takes the time to help us understand where we fit in and how we can help the production be the best it can be.

For Briana Frapart, thank you for your positivity, for your many kindnesses, and for, um, the challenge (which we met of course!!!) of finding light-up Christmas deer at a time of year that was more “Fourth of July” than “25th of December.”

For Carissa Dorson, thank you for explaining the term “Director of Photography” to me (yep, I did have to ask). Thank you too for allowing me to extra on Parental Ties, which was the last time I worked with Jarrod Heierman, and for being behind the camera that first time I gave a monologue.

For Justin Reager, you’re the only college student with whom I have ever waxed rhapsodic about Lunchables. You really helped me relax that day and made me laugh.

The rest of this post is more general, for all of you in the BFA Class of 2011. In the text that Hugh McLeod uses to explain this drawing, which is part of his Flowers vs. Elephants post:

Image Credit: Hugh McLeod, Gaping Void

He ends with this statement: 

…..success is a very delicate flower. It doesn’t take a very heavy elephant in order to trample it to the ground.

So one has to work twice as hard, keeping those pesky elephants out of the yard.

The trouble arises when you get SO BUSY battling the elephants, you forget all about the flower. We’ve seen it happen, many times before.
During the time that you have been refining your craft, I have been battling with a lot of things that come along with being closer to 50 than 25. There are some paths in life that are now closed to me, and I have to make peace with that. There are (hopefully) many new adventures awaiting. Sometimes it was hard to look forward to the adventures because of the resignation that comes along with letting go of what won’t be. 
Each of you, in one way or another, helped me stop battling the elephants long enough to remember the flowers.

Thank you all.

1,000 Marbles, A Year Late

There are so many things floating around in my head tonight that I want to write about. Here is the one that has percolated to the top. It is a message I should have shared with seven people a year ago.


In October 2009, a day or two after being given a nice “Boss’s Day” card from my staff, I was informed that I was being transferred from my position as Director of Customer Service at Healthy Kids to Director of Health Plan Services and Contract Management. One thing the change meant was leaving behind seven people who had reported to me; in my new position I do not directly supervise anyone. 
I had a “plan” for closure. I wanted to take them all to lunch, give them a little jar of marbles, and give them a copy of A Thousand Marbles, and, in so doing, create a moment of transition, a time in which I could say goodbye and share some time with them as this reporting relationship ended. I never did that. As personal expenses mounted, I couldn’t afford to take everyone to lunch (or so I thought). One thing led to another and before I knew it, a full year had passed and I had never formally done anything. It comes up in my mind as I pass them in the hall every day, and when they pass me on their way to talk to their new supervisor. 
I do want to point out that one thing that has struck me the most about this transition is the mixture of complete relief at the freedom that comes from not being responsible for seven other people’s professional environment and, conversely, utter loss at the void that comes from not having a leadership role in seven other people’s professional journeys. As much as I struggled with the intense demands of coordinating so many moving parts in our organization, I also felt a very deep desire to help these people move toward finding their professional and personal “bliss”. 

To those people, here is a taste of what has gone unsaid:

I love this place and this cause. I have loved it since I first got “in the loop” of this concept way back in 1991, before the first child was ever enrolled. I have not been the kind of supervisor I wanted to be – I wanted to be the kind of supervisor I look up to the most – one who understands enough of the details about what we do that they can converse intelligently about it but also one who has the management skills to help people want to be the best they can be and not operate out of a position of fear. I believe in being proactive rather than reactive. I believe that people respond to many different types of incentives, not just financial. I believe that people need to understand how their responsibilities fit in to the big picture. I believe that every employee of Healthy Kids and its contractors does a better job if they have met one of our beneficiaries or have somehow “walked in those shoes.”  It made me proud when employees said how much they enjoyed and took pride in working through the challenging process of developing custody procedures. I felt hopeful about the dialogue we were having as I was sharing the results of my 360 evaluation and the feedback you were giving me about how I could be a more effective leader. I loved sharing various pieces of writing and videos I had run across that I thought may help you like what you did better. 

To summarize, I think there were things I did well as a supervisor and things that I did abysmally. I hope you know that I hold a deep respect for each of you as individuals and want the best for you. 

One of my favorite statements about work, by Hugh MacLeod, is contained on a Gaping Void cartoon that I have taped to my door: 

You don’t have to get a job with a famous company or hot-shot industry in order to have a spectacular career. You just have to do what you do with reverence.
I believe that loving what you do enough that you approach it with reverence is half of the equation for a happy life. I wish each of you this happiness and thank you for the privilege of having been your supervisor.