Synchronicity

[A talk given at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois on October 29, 2017]

Early one morning back in August I was sitting in my office when I received a text from my friend and your fellow parishioner Tina Harlan. She asked me if I’d be interested in speaking to a group at her church some Sunday on the subject of “thin places,” which she told me was the theme for the coming year’s adult forum talks.

I was stunned when I received this invitation, but not for any reasons you might imagine.

The night before I’d been reading a book by the journalist Krista Tippett entitled Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. In her book, Tippett describes a sabbatical she’d taken to Ireland to complete a writing project she’d been working on. She notes that the rocky seacoast of western Ireland, where she’d settled in to work, is a part of the country that the ancient Celts had believed was teeming with “thin places,” or locations where the veil between the divine and the human becomes completely transparent. I’d never come across this phrase “thin places” before, so you can imagine how surprised I was to receive this invitation.

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After receiving Tina’s text  the next morning, I called her to share this remarkable coincidence. I told her I’d be happy to speak, but after we ended our call I realized that I had no idea what I would speak about. Then I understood. I’d talk about synchronicity – which is, after all, how this whole thing got started in the first place.

Synchronistic events, or “meaningful coincidences” like the one I’ve just described, really are wonderful examples of “thin places.” Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the synchronistic events I’ve experienced represent a source of deep spiritual wisdom, wisdom that time and again has provided me with invaluable insight into how to handle some of my most perplexing personal challenges.

I’d like to start out this morning by offering a brief definition and history of “synchronicity.” Then, I’ll provide a couple more examples of synchronistic events I’ve experienced in my own life, and I’ll suggest some ways we can make events like these more accessible and intelligible. Finally, I’d  love to know if any of you have experienced synchronicity and, if so, how you made sense of these encounters.

My aim this morning is not to try to convince you that synchronicity really exists. Some people argue that it doesn’t, that it’s just an illusion created by what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” or the human tendency to pay attention only to those data that confirm our personal view of the world.

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I’m an empiricist – I believe that everything I need to know in life I can learn through my own experience, even if I can’t always understand or explain my experience logically. Similarly, I believe that only you can decide for yourselves whether synchronistic events are real and whether they have anything of value to offer.

two seaguls synchronicity

The word “synchronicity” literally means “together in time.” One dictionary defines synchronicity as “simultaneous events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.” The term was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in the 1930s to describe certain extraordinary experiences he had had while analyzing patients in his Zurich clinic.

Carl Jung in his house's garden sitting and smoking pipe in Knusnacht, Switzerland, 1949 (1)

Jung wrote at least two articles on the subject of synchronicity, which he considered to be an extremely important dimension of human experience. The first, which appeared in 1949, was a foreword to a new English translation of the ancient Chinese oracle The I Ching, or Book of Changes. The second, published in 1952, is an article entitled  “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle.” I’m going to return to the I Ching in a few minutes.

Here’s one way I like to think about synchronicity. I’ve come to believe that our shared human experience is essentially a comedy – a divine comedy, to borrow a title from Dante – and that living our lives with or without the benefit of synchronicity is a little like the difference between performing stand-up comedy and improv comedy.

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Most of the time we live our lives as though we’re performing stand-up. We tell ourselves stories that lead to punchlines that we hope will make us laugh and feel better about ourselves. We imagine a clear line of cause and effect that transports us (we hope) from where we are now to a future where everything will be wonderful and we’ll finally find the peace and contentment we so desperately desire. We’re all about the future, always thinking about getting some place that’s better than where we are now.

Unfortunately, though, the stories we tell ourselves don’t always pan out – the inexorable laws of cause and effect seem to fail us. Things oftentimes don’t go the way we’d hoped, and we end up bitter and resentful because when we get to the end of our story, it turns out that our punchline’s not as funny as we’d hoped it would be.

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This is when we sometimes decide to make an important change in our lives. We decide to begin living our lives as though we were performing improv rather than stand-up.
We stop fantasizing about some ideal future where everything will be perfect, and we begin to appreciate what we have right here, right now, responding on the spot to whatever circumstances present themselves.

At first this transition from stand-up to improv can leave us feeling disoriented and somewhat adrift. Because we’ve left our stories behind and are no longer attached to any particular outcome, it feels like we have nothing left to hold on to. It feels like we have no ground under our feet.

Fortunately, this initial disorientation never lasts very long.  A friend of mine who works in the improv business once told me that she considers every line her stage partner hands her to be a “gift,” an act of grace. And she told me that because she considers every line to be an act of grace, no line can ever be wrong or mistaken.

Gift box in woman's hands on green grass

For those of us who decide to live improvisationally, this is how we begin to think about whatever happens next in our lives. We recognize that what comes next is an act of grace that can never be wrong, regardless of the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about how our lives were supposed to be.

I’ve come to believe that an appreciation for synchronicity is an indispensable part of living improvisationally. Just as there are no mistakes in improv, there are no mistakes in synchronicity.

A synchronistic coincidence, like a great improv line, exhibits a kind of inevitability. As we like to say after the fact, “it was meant to be.” A great improv line perfectly captures the spirit of the moment in which it is spoken –  the mood of the audience, the “gift” our stage partner hands us, even our own intuitive sense of where our skit is headed. Likewise, a synchronistic coincidence perfectly expresses the unique quality of the particular moment in which it occurs. It’s an exponent of all of our worries, fears, hopes and dreams. It’s also a reflection of the all of the conditions that, at this particular moment in time, define the world in which we live – a world that, if we stop to think about it, is really nothing more than our own projection of these same worries, fears, hopes and dreams.

I’d like to share with you a couple more examples of meaningful coincidences I’ve experienced over the years.

The first occurred in 1984, when I was living in Atlanta. I remember the year because it was my first encounter with synchronicity, or at least the first I can remember. I’d decided to buy a house – my first house, to be exact – and I was worried about spending too much money. Buying a house was for me a long, frustrating process — every house I liked I couldn’t afford, and every house I could afford I didn’t much like. This went on for over two months. One night I was venting to a friend, and he suggested – half-jokingly – that we consult his copy of the I Ching about my situation.

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I was somewhat familiar with this Chinese oracle – I’d read excerpts in a college class on Asian literature – but I’d largely written if off as a curiosity of pre-scientific civilization. Still, just for fun, we threw the coins. (Just for reference, one consults the I Ching by throwing three coins six times, and the particular combination of heads and tails that turns up directs you to one of 64 hexagrams in the book. Each hexagram describes, in general terms, a different set of circumstances, pronounces judgment on the significance of these circumstances, and offers advice on the best way to work through them.) My six throws directed me to Hexagram #60, which is entitled “Limitation.”

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I won’t read the whole hexagram, but I do want to read a couple of sentences that appear near the beginning of the narrative. Here’s what they had to say about my situation at the time:

“The Chinese word for limitation really denotes the joints that divide a bamboo stalk. In relation to ordinary life, it means the thrift that sets fixed limits upon expenditures.”

Now, this warning about the importance of not spending beyond one’s means was coincidence enough, given my search for a house to buy, but what happened the following Sunday was nothing short of astonishing.

I was looking at houses with a realtor, and we came to the last house on our list for the day. It was a small, well-preserved 1920s bungalow, and while it needed some minor work, it was within my budget. Here’s a photograph of the house.

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After walking through the various rooms of the house, we ended up on an outside deck that overlooked a spacious back yard and – to my utter disbelief – a long row of tall, mature, bamboo trees – the first bamboo trees I’d seen in Atlanta, even after living in the city for nearly two years.

The second coincidence I’ll share with you occurred nearly 20 years later, in 2002. I was driving my family from Chicago to Cleveland for my father’s funeral. We were all in the car, my wife and two young children, with my dad’s ashes in a burial urn packed carefully in the trunk.

It had been a challenging week for me, and nothing I did made it any easier for my family. Hovering just overhead were some unpleasant circumstances with estranged family members who were threatening to challenge the legality of my father’s final documents – and I wanted the whole thing to be done with. Not surprisingly, I got pulled over for speeding on the turnpike just east of Toledo by an Ohio state trooper.

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I tried to explain to the trooper why I was in such a hurry, but he was unimpressed. As he handed me a ticket for a $150 fine – I’d been driving considerably over the speed limit – he gave me a long look heavy with consequence and said, slowly and deliberately, “Son, you need to slow down.”

Now I thought that warning was odd – it sounded jarring to me, given that I was at least ten years older than the state trooper. After we arrived in Cleveland and had checked into our hotel,  I sat down to read through the instructions on the ticket. I noticed the trooper’s signature. His first name was Edmund, which also happened to have been my father’s first name.

The three examples of meaningful coincidences I’ve shared with you this morning were all significant events that would be hard for anyone to miss. Many synchronistic events, though, are less consequential –  a friend you’ve just been thinking about, whom you haven’t seen in years, steps out of a storefront and nearly runs into you on the sidewalk. Or an old song from high school that’s been playing and replaying itself in your head for the last hour or so suddenly comes on the radio.

And then, of course, there are all the meaningful coincidences we never even notice because we’re not paying attention to what’s happening around us. We’re so caught up in our stories, so distracted by all the internal conversations we have with ourselves, that we miss what’s right in front of us.

young woman reflection in rear view mirror

How many of us, for example, have driven home from work, or from a friend’s house or the store, and as we pulled into our garage realized that we had no recollection whatsoever of our drive home?

This begs the question of what, if anything, we can do to become more aware of these kinds of events when they occur in our lives—what we can do to take greater advantage of this wonderful source of unsolicited wisdom.

I don’t believe we can go out and search for synchronicity the same way we might go out and search for the perfect living room rug. In fact, I suspect the opposite is true: the harder we try to find meaning in events around us, the less successful we’ll be. Synchronicity has to find us. Probably the most we can to do is to cultivate the conditions favorable for synchronicity to show its hand. We have to learn how to become attentive and receptive to an entirely new source of wisdom in our lives.

So what can we do to increase the likelihood that synchronicity will speak to us? I have a couple of suggestions.

First, I think it’s important to become and remain aware of whatever pressing questions animate our lives…questions that rise to the surface and beg for our attention in moments of solitude and silence.

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Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with quantum mechanics, once wrote that “there are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another truth.” I think the same holds true for questions – there are small questions and great questions. An appropriate response to a small question is typically an answer. An appropriate response to a great question is often times another great question.

The question I posed to the I Ching when I was house hunting in Atlanta was a small question. To be clear about what I wanted to know, I wrote it out on a piece of paper. “How should I go about buying a house?” Small questions tend to be of the moment and usually involve concerns that accumulate on the surface of our lives. Great questions, on the other hand, are profound and hint at concerns that percolate up from the very core of our being.

One of my favorite examples of a great question comes from the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, who expressed it this way: “How do we live a life we can’t hold on to? How do we live with the fact that the moment we’re born we move closer to death; when we fall in love we sign up for grief? How do we reconcile that gain always ends in loss; gathering, in separation?”

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I think it’s telling that we’ve become conditioned in our culture to value answers over questions. For the sake of efficiency, we’ve come to view questions as obstacles to our progress, as problems to be solved as quickly as possible. We might be better served to think of questions – at least great questions – as mysteries to be explored, savored, and lived. One step we can take to become more aware of synchronicity is to pay more attention to asking ourselves the right great questions. Because when everything is said and done, the right answer to the wrong question is not very useful at all.

A second suggestion I’ll make is that we strive to live these great questions – our great questions – in a spirit of what the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls “contemplative inquiry.”

Pray with Folded Hands

“Contemplative inquiry” is a way of finding our way through the world that honors the value of both our conditioned need to answer questions quickly and our deep, abiding human desire for spiritual consolation and growth.

As a species we’ve become quite accomplished at the inquiry part of “contemplative inquiry.”  We’re really good at focusing our logical minds on answering whatever questions we encounter in life. At this point in our evolution, though, we might want to devote more time to strengthening our contemplative muscle, to becoming more sensitive to the quality of our inner and outer experience.

To make the most of what synchronicity has to offer us, I think it’s helpful to develop a disciplined, contemplative practice of some kind – prayer, meditation, yoga, or simply walking mindfully in the woods – any activity that expands our capacity to see new things, or to see old things in a new way. Nature walkI’m talking here about cultivating that illusive quality of mind we call “presence.” We’re often reminded that we must be present to win, and I think that’s more true than we’ve ever really imagined.

Shunryu Suzuki, the late founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, described the contemplative mind as a “beginner’s mind.” In his famous book on meditation titled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki writes that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” Let’s not forget that this is how we learned about the world when we were children. A child doesn’t know what’s possible or impossible and so is entirely open to exploration, experimentation, and discovery.

Montessori Pupil Working At Desk With Wooden Shapes

Now that we’re adults – now that we’ve become experts at life – I fear we’ve become less imaginative about how to seek new knowledge. I think the most important lesson synchronicity can teach us is that our greatest insights often come from where and whom we least expect to find them – the homeless woman sitting on the park bench, the plumber fixing our clogged kitchen drain, or even our surly, next door neighbor who’s never satisfied with the way we cut our grass.

If we can find time to sit in silence for a few minutes each day with a contemplative mind, paying close attention to the world around us and within us, it’s likely we’ll hear a great question calling our name.

Calm man drinking coffee in the morning

“Is it possible that for the last 10 years, I’ve been working in a job that no longer inspires me?” “How well do I really listen to my kids when I get home from work, and what is it that keeps me from truly hearing what they want to tell me?” “What habits in my life might be keeping me from becoming the person I want to become, or perhaps more importantly, from appreciating the person I already am?” Our aim in contemplative inquiry is not so much to find answers to our questions as to allow the answers to find us. This is one way synchronicity can be very helpful.

So these are my two suggestions for how to make synchronicity a greater part our lives. Identify and live the great questions that challenge us to discover a deeper truth. And develop a contemplative practice that helps us cultivate a “beginner’s mind” so that we can see the world with new eyes, in a spirit of childlike curiosity.

But I’m guessing that many of you already know this, so at this point I’ll stop talking. I’m interested in hearing about your own encounters with synchronicity. What did these encounters feel like, and what, if anything, did you learn from from them?

Thank you.

What’s the value of expertise?

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Watching the Rio Olympics these last several weeks has gotten me thinking about expertise. Everyone agrees that it’s good to be great at something — traversing the balance beam, speaking a foreign language fluently, or baking a soufflé. What’s less clear is how we become great at something in the first place and why we’re willing to work so hard to do so.

There are two schools of thought about how we acquire expertise. Researchers and brothers Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus contend that when learning a new skill, we pass through five stages of competence, from novice to expert. The novice learns initially through rigid adherence to rules, but over time acquires sufficient skill and judgement to become an expert who responds intuitively to unanticipated challenges that present themselves. The more accomplished we become, the more rules limit the additional learning required to achieve exceptional performance. Understanding context and responding reflexively become key.

In contrast, Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson dismisses altogether the importance of intuition in becoming an expert. Ericsson, patron saint of piano teachers and personal trainers, insists that the only way to develop expertise is through sustained periods of “deliberate practice” during which one hammers away at improving a desired skill until mastery is achieved. (It is Ericsson’s theory of deliberate practice that led Malcolm Gladwell to attribute to Ericsson — incorrectly, it appears — the “10,000 hours” of practice requirement for becoming an expert.) Ericsson considers expertise based on intuition a form of “arrested development” that encourages complacency, discourages continued learning, and as such represents the greatest single obstacle to becoming an expert.

Regardless of which theory of expertise you subscribe to, it’s clear that becoming accomplished at something involves a lot of work. But what’s the point of it all? What’s the value of expertise?

Becoming an expert at something is, not surprisingly, a great way to make money. Economist Robert Frank, in his recent New York Times op-ed “The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love,” describes research that shows that experts in any line of work capture a disproportionate share of the domain’s total income, since demand for highly-developed skills almost always exceeds supply. We appreciate quality work, whether it’s the fit and finish of a master carpenter’s millwork or the inspired performance of concert violinist, and we’re willing to pay top dollar to enjoy it.

Learning some skill or talent also increases our personal sense of agency, our belief that we can control the chaotic forces at play in what appears to be an increasingly unpredictable world. This perception of being in control of events — illusory though it might be — allows us to feel safe as we navigate through the unexpected challenges life tosses our way. This results, I suspect, from the resilience and hard work required to master any craft and the belief that if we can finish a marathon, we can endure any trial we might encounter.

Finally, becoming an expert at something satisfies a primal desire to grow, to progress, to become stronger or smarter than anyone else and, as a result, survive to tell the story. Striving to do something better than others is a powerful human instinct that in its most basic expression propels the evolution of our species — a species that loves nothing more than winning and keeping score. I offer Michael Phelps as a case in point.

Clearly there are significant economic, psychological, and biological benefits associated with learning and developing expertise. But is there ever a time when expertise becomes a disadvantage, when we’re better off not knowing everything we know? I’ll explore this question in my next post.

Training or Education?

College Campus

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” William Bruce Cameron

As technology comes to play an increasing role in education and as online courses proliferate, we run the risk of confusing training with education. This distinction becomes even more important as demand grows, from both the public and private sectors, for measuring the value of higher education.

What’s the difference between these two learning activities? Barry Schwartz, psychology professor at Swarthmore College, provides one answer I especially like. As we try to determine whether an activity is training or education, Schwartz suggests we ask ourselves whether the work we are doing addresses any of these four questions:

What is worth knowing?
What is worth doing?
What makes for a good human life?
What are my responsibilities to other people?

If our work asks us to read, write, or think about any of these four questions, we’re engaged in education. Unlike training, the effectiveness of which is easily measured through standardized testing, the most valuable outcomes of education can’t be easily weighed except, perhaps, by the quality of the life one leads. What scale should we use to measure passion, inspiration, intellectual curiosity, and a commitment to the welfare of others? “A whole life well-lived” is how Aristotle described a life infused with these qualities, the kind of life he also described as a life of “virtue” — a declaration that resurrects from the distant past a word that for many of us today has lost both meaning and relevance.

Training is to education as answers are to questions. Training aims to transfer existing knowledge useful in solving known problems, while education aims to stimulate provocative questions designed to discover unknown truths. Training lives in a world of certainty and values stability and consistency of application, whereas education lives in a world of ambiguity and values growth, impermanence, and change. Training seeks to preserve, while education seeks to transform. Both modes of learning are important, but neither should be confused with the other.

Empathy and the Liberal Arts

graduates throwing graduation hats in the air.

Several weeks ago, on a sun-drenched afternoon not far from the shores of Lake Michigan, the dean of Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Adrian Randolph, welcomed graduates, family, and friends to the Convocation ceremony for the Class of 2016. During his remarks Randolph touched on a number of topics, but for me the most thought-provoking point he had to make concerned the relationship between empathy and a liberal arts education.

While acknowledging that students in the College graduate having specialized, or majored, in one or two academic subjects, Randolph suggested that the real value of the education they had received might reside “in the interstices, the spaces in between your courses, and the notional connections you will now continue to forge as you develop.” He told our graduates that he hoped “you will recall the joys and frustrations of having to study things that were way out of your comfort zones” because “this intellectual stretching is at the core of our educational mode in a college of arts and sciences.”

The adaptability that develops from these kinds of intellectual challenges, Randolph observed, is important for one’s personal and professional life, in large part because it cultivates a “deep empathy.” “Through viewing the world through many lenses,” he noted, “one ideally learns how to empathize with others, to grasp the world from many different perspectives.”

This is a message every college senior should hear before leaving campus after graduation.

If I may borrow a concept from our economics department, empathy is a commodity for which demand far exceeds supply. Watching the evening news has become a painful experience as political discourse in the United States and the European democracies becomes increasingly vitriolic, divisive, and vulgar. Empathy, or the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, no longer appears to be a worthy aspiration for many politicians — or for many of us, either, judging by the boorish behavior demonstrated by some attendees at recent political rallies. The notion that we might make an effort to understand a point-of-view different from our own appears, like the British pound sterling in recent days, to have lost much of its value.

Similar to taking on an academic subject we know little about, living empathetically takes us out of our comfort zones. Empathy does not come naturally to many of us, which is why we need to learn how to do it, much as we need to learn how to write a formal thank-you note or offer a firm handshake. Empathy is above all about establishing and sustaining connection with others; it transports us from a narrow field of awareness constrained by self-reference to a more expansive view of the world, one informed by a commitment to mutual understanding and the exploration of shared values. Most challenging of all, empathy requires us to admit on occasion that we, too, might be part of the problem we are struggling to solve — a reality even the most responsible among us find difficult to acknowledge, especially when we are battling each other in the heat of a high-stakes political campaign.

I suspect there is a relationship between the growing incivility of our political culture and the increasingly frequent (and vocal) challenges to the value of a liberal arts education that surface, now, almost weekly in the media. Politicians who know better — in some cases because they, too, are beneficiaries of the very kind of education they now publicly scorn — argue that a liberal arts education is at best an irrelevant luxury affordable to only a privileged few and at worst an unconscionable waste of taxpayers’ money. And in an era of stagnant economic growth, critics charge that a liberal arts education does little to prepare college graduates for work in the “real world” — by which, I assume, they mean the hard-nosed world of business. This last charge has been thoroughly discredited in recent years by CEOs and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs alike who identify those with liberal arts degrees as among the most creative, collaborative, and promotable associates in their organizations.

It’s become clear that a liberal arts education has never been more valuable for college graduates who will require agility, adaptability, and resilience as they progress through what some project will be five to ten different careers over the course of their working lives.

But I would go further and argue that such an education has now become indispensable for the very survival of our democratic institutions, which depend for their vitality and relevance largely on the arts of communication, innovation, and cooperation — all hallmarks of an interdisciplinary arts and sciences education that “seeks to view the world through many lenses.” Let’s not forget that the “liberal arts,” as the name implies, denotes a particular kind of curriculum aimed at being of particular benefit to free citizens living in a democratic society.

Just as much of the value of a liberal arts education is to be found in the “interstices” between courses taken and majors earned, it should be self-evident that the real value of political debate lies in finding the truth concealed somewhere between the monocular, polarizing arguments of Republican versus Democrat or “Leave” versus “Remain.” This certainly was the prevailing view in the not too distant past, when a politician’s reputation rested largely on his or her ability to compromise and work productively with others across the aisle, with the aim of reaching mutually agreeable and beneficial solutions.

Today, however, we stare in utter disbelief as politicians scream and hurl obscene insults at each other, while their supporters slug it out in a nightmarish Hobbesian world in which, the Leviathan’s author writes, “the condition of man…is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

Searching for common ground and shared concerns in times of political, economic and social disruption is difficult and often thankless work, but it’s work that more often than not leads to the discovery of new knowledge, new truths, and new solutions to seemingly intractable problems. We can be sure that in a world without empathy, without some fundamental understanding of and concern for how other people think and live, finding such solutions will be next to impossible. If this is the only benefit a liberal arts education has to offer — and of course there are many others as well — such an education will be well worth the investment, for our own sake as well as for the sake of our children.

The Language of Leadership

 

Word cloud about leadershipOne evening several years ago I found myself sitting across a home office desk from Tess, a Taiwanese-born manager for a mid-size company in the merchandising and display industry. Tess had hired me to coach r on developing her leadership skills, in particular her oral and written communication skills. As we exchanged small talk before the start of our session, I thought to myself that this was a woman with real potential. She was bright, confident and self-aware, with an engaging personality and a knack for quickly boiling down complex matters to their essentials. She had just been promoted to run one of her company’s larger departments, but she was worried her limited writing skills might keep her from receiving future promotions. I told her I thought I could help, and for several weeks we’d been editing and rewriting e-mails, job descriptions, and management reports she had written with the goal of making her writing clearer and more compelling.

This particular evening we were discussing a description she had written of the way work flows through her department. I highlighted one short sentence she had written because I wanted to explain why good writers avoid the passive voice whenever possible. I rewrote her sentence and asked about her reaction to the two different versions.

“The P.O. is sent from sales to purchasing.”

“Sales sends the P.O. to purchasing.”

“The first one’s confusing,” she answered. “It feels soft. I feel like it’s not completely clear what’s going on.”

I pressed for more. “What specifically do you find confusing about the first version?” I asked.

“I don’t know who’s doing what” she responded after some thought. “There’s a subject in the first version, but the subject isn’t doing anything. The second version has more impact. It’s more direct.”

I told her that that’s exactly why good writers prefer active to passive voice. She nodded, put her pencil down, and looked across her desk at me.

“When I was growing up in Taiwan, my father insisted that all of us — my two brothers, my sister and I — always take responsibility for whatever we did, no matter how badly things turned out. I think that’s what bothers me about the first version of this sentence. No one’s responsible for anything – much like when politicians tell us that ‘mistakes were made’ without telling us who made them.”

I saw an opportunity to open this discussion up a bit, so Tess and I spent the rest of the session talking about personal accountability. We discussed how much individual managers can or should be held responsible for the success of their companies. We debated whether those who accept responsibility for their actions progress more quickly in their careers than those who avoid it.
Finally, we talked about how individuals feel when they see their managers taking the heat for things gone wrong – how such courage builds trust between team members and their leader, strengthens team members’ commitment to their own work, and even enriches personal relationships. In the end we agreed that personal accountability, especially when demonstrated by those in charge, can be a powerful motivator for individuals as well as entire organizations.

How leaders communicate with others – whether through their writing or in conversation – reveals much about how they think about themselves, those with whom they work, and the values they believe should guide the way people behave in their organizations. Language is the organizational currency of leadership, and effective leaders are acutely aware of the impact their communication has on the people they lead.

As an executive coach, I’ve learned several important lessons about how effective leaders, through the language they use and the way they use it, inspire and motivate others to do their best work. One thing I’ve learned is that, as Kim Krisco points out in his valuable book Leadership and the Art of Conversation, effective leaders spend more time talking about the present and the future than the past. Many of us prefer talking about the past because it’s over and done with. Talking about what’s already happened helps us feel more secure, because what’s already happened can’t surprise us. The future, on the other hand, is always a risky proposition. It’s perilously uncertain and rife with the potential for nasty, unexpected developments we often can’t control.

A leader’s responsibility is to guide us to some new place, to dislocate us – sometimes abruptly – from our comfortable though often dysfunctional present to some future state that offers better prospects for growth. Aware of this responsibility, effective leaders become skilled at redirecting dead-end conversations about what didn’t work in the past to conversations about what might work in the future, away from theorizing about what went wrong and why toward more actionable discussion about what might be accomplished and how. A leader’s obsession with rehashing past failures can literally immobilize an organization. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell cautioned that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Obsessively harping on past mistakes contributes to an organizational culture of despair and inertia that lacks the resilience to adapt quickly to new competitive realities or shifting market demands.

One challenge every leader faces is to find his or her own voice, a voice that conveys with sincerity, confidence, and enthusiasm the essence of the future they envision for their organizations. Another client, an executive running the food and beverage division of a major hospitality company, asked me one day to look over a speech he had written for an upcoming department meeting. The speech was well written but dealt almost entirely with certain service delivery failures his department had experienced over the past several years. I wondered aloud whether his team members might become more energized by his challenge to change the way they work if, in addition to recalling past failures, he also offered them a compelling vision of an exciting path forward. He agreed and rewrote his speech to include a detailed scenario of how a customer might experience his department’s operation a year down the road were his team to implement the changes he was proposing. His speech was well received, and a few weeks later he mentioned to me that he was surprised at how enthusiastically his people had responded to his suggestions for change.

A compelling vision of the future can motivate people, but only to the extent that they believe they have a real chance to help make it happen. Another lesson I’ve learned about how effective leaders use language is that they master the art of dialogue, the kind of communication that taps deeply into and activates the innate creativity and intelligence of those with whom they work.

Increasingly, organizations succeed to the extent that they leverage the collective knowledge and creativity of all their employees into products and services their customers will want to buy. Thinking and acting must be integrated at all levels, across all disciplines, throughout the entire organization.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that much of the effort we put into talking with others is devoted to persuading them that our view of the world is preferable to theirs. Almost unconsciously, we try to persuade people we talk with to see things the way we do. (If you doubt this, notice how we habitually pepper our conversation with pleas for validation such as “Don’t you think?”, “Right?”, or “Am I wrong about this?”)

A more productive approach to conversation is one in which we offer up our point of view as an hypothesis to be tested rather than as a truth to be confirmed. Such dialogue requires candor, intellectual honesty, and above all the courage to surrender our monopoly on understanding how things are. Conversation can become truly creative and can generate new insight only when we realize that always having the right answer is not a requirement for effective leadership, and that asking the right question can be just as important – perhaps even more important – than coming up with the right answer. As Ronald Heifetz writes in the final sentence of his influential book Leadership without Easy Answers, “one may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.”

Finally, as I work with clients I’m continually reminded that effective leaders never lose sight of the fact that to perform beyond expectations, individuals must be fully engaged—with their hearts as well as their heads—with the work they do. We often forget this critical fact amidst the frenzy of our day-to-day routines, especially as we come to rely increasingly on electronic media and other forms of technology to communicate with our colleagues. E-mail, instant messaging, and the many collaboration software platforms that have surfaced in recent years have greatly increased the ease and frequency with which we can communicate with one another. Certain messages, however, are still best delivered in person, face to face, with a minimum of mediating technology.

I once worked with a division president of a Fortune 500 technology company who was committed to providing periodic performance and strategy updates to his employees. He was well-intentioned, but he always used PowerPoint to present this information to his division at large, all-employee meetings, with multiple charts and bullet points shoe-horned onto each slide. When presenting his updates he read through his slides quickly, with an air of self-confidence that he apparently believed conveyed his optimism about the company’s future to his audience.

Many employees who attended his updates, however, confided that they had trouble connecting personally with him because of what they perceived as his lack of empathy for their own anxieties about the company’s future. As we were discussing the group’s reluctance to engage in Q & A following his quarterly updates, I asked him whether he could think of any way to encourage more dialogue about the company’s direction. He responded that after presenting his update to the division employees en masse, he could schedule a series of informal brown-bag lunches with groups of ten or fifteen employees as a follow up to the larger meeting. Such a setting, he pointed out, would allow him to speak more from the heart about the company’s goals and, more importantly, to hear his colleagues’ fears and concerns first hand and address them directly. Unfortunately, he never acted on this idea, probably because of his busy schedule. To this day I believe that he lost a valuable opportunity to foster the kind of emotional commitment that inspires individuals to perform at levels even they themselves did not believe possible.

Writing and speaking dynamically, with an active, focused energy that models personal accountability; redirecting conversations away from past failures toward future possibilities; and engaging in collaborative dialogue that seeks to increase knowledge and uncover new insight are not the only qualifications required for effective leadership. But if one prerequisite for leading  successfully is the trust created between those who aspire to lead and those who volunteer to follow, communicating in a way that builds such trust and inspires confidence in a collective future is a valuable skill leaders neglect at their peril.