SUSTAINING OURSELVES

I struggled to motivate myself to go to the YMCA yesterday and exercise. I moaned and groaned about going and told myself to just push forward and do it. I knew that once I started that I probably would get into the groove.

As I unenthusiastically sat down at the first weight machine, something caught my eye.   It was an older gentleman with a smile on his face getting up from a machine nearby.   It wasn’t his smile as much as the curvature of his spine that grabbed my attention. His neck was bent so far forward that his primary view was the floor. He reached back to grab a walker and I thought, “Oh, he needs to use it to get around.” I was wrong.

He pulled the walker forward and rolled it over to another machine where an even older man stood up. To my surprise this gentleman was bent forward from his waist   – his body posture was in the shape of a right angle!

You can imagine that my moaning and groaning quickly stopped, as I watched both of these men move from machine to machine. I marveled at their willingness to overcome disabilities that could have stopped them in their tracks. As I watched them the word, sustain, kept surfacing in my mind.

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I thought to myself, “That is an interesting word to use to describe their actions. I wonder why I keep thinking about it.” So, I came home and looked up the definition and found the word was most appropriate.

Sustain is defined as to strengthen or support physically or mentally. In the 14th century it was used as a sense of enduring without failing or yielding (Online Etymology Dictionary). This was exactly what the two men were doing. Even though they had a disability, they were strengthening themselves physically and mentally without yielding.

This was one of those “aha moment” experiences.  It reminded me that often when we deal with difficult times it is easy to fall into a “poor me” attitude, rather than moving forward to sustain ourselves. What a fine example that the two men set – pushing forward without yielding.

A CHANGE IN PERSPECTIVE

As human beings it is so easy for us to lose perspective by focusing on the negatives of life, instead of all of our blessings. Dwelling on the negative not only increases our stress levels, it also can have an adverse effect on how we react when dealing with others. I have had many reminders of this over the last couple of weeks.

A friend was telling me about an office he frequents where he received poor service and often encounters employees with negative attitudes.  We talked about the stressors associated with working in that particular office, and I asked what the office manager was like. He said he didn’t know but come to think about it, they had just replaced the office manager and things seemed to be improving. Obviously, I don’t know if the office manager was the reason for the problems, but it does sounds like a change of perspective may be helping.

Another friend, who is in higher-level management, and I have been discussing how frustrated she has been at work. We talked about her refocusing on the reason that she had taken the position, and the importance of her continuing to do well so she can successfully serve those who are looking to her for leadership. She just told me that things were going much better, emphasizing that it was because she had changed her attitude. Her change in attitude doesn’t surprise me because she is a professional who cares about the people with whom she works. But it does go to show how a person’s perspective can improve an outlook on life.

I have also been thinking about the perspective of thankfulness as opposed to grumbling about the long, cold winter that doesn’t want to leave. This was made apparent to me this week after corresponding with my Liberian friends, who are dealing with the spread of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever from Guinea into Liberia.

For the last five years I have gone back and forth from the U.S. to teach at a university in Liberia, which is only one mile from the Guinea border (to close for comfort) and 20 miles from the epicenter where 63 people have died. I know that that the Ebola virus could have easily erupted while I was there and I am thankful it did not, on the other hand I am very concerned about the wonderful staff and students who work and live at the university.

 

A few of my wonderful students.

A few of my wonderful students.

I am dismayed because there is no treatment for Ebola, which is particularly scary because you have a 90% chance of death if you contract the fever. The reality is even if there was a treatment most Liberians would not have access to it. The limited amount of hospitals and doctors scattered throughout the country makes it difficult to deal with such a threatening challenge.

Their situation certainly has changed my perspective. It seems a little wimpy to be moaning about the long winter when a deadly epidemic could occur in the midst of people for whom I care. It also reminds me to be thankful for access to hospitals that have infectious disease protocol, for transportation to make it to a hospital, and for the resources to help stem an epidemic.  I am reminded that so many places around the world have little or no access to quality health care.

Are you like me and find that you often need to step back and have a change in perspective? Do you need to do what most of our mothers have always taught us – to count your blessings? Realizing our blessings is often the first step in changing our perspectives.

P.S. Will you join me in prayers for the people facing a possible Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

THE POWER OF GRACE

A few weeks ago I read an interesting article about grace.  Surprisingly, it was in an online business publication.  Unfortunately I didn’t bookmark the article and was unable to re-read it, so I decided to blog about it myself.

The idea of grace means a lot to me because it is the foundational belief of my Christian faith.  I know that not everyone reading this post is a person of faith, and I respect that, however I would suggest that the practice of grace should be an important part of all of our lives.

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In my world grace means “unmerited favor.”  It is shown when a person is treated in a kind and generous manner even though s/he may not be deserving of it.

Why Does Grace Matter from A Leadership Perspective? 

When a leader shows grace it lets others know that you care about them and want them to succeed.  A grace-filled leader comes along side people who make mistakes to help them rectify their problems and move forward.    It releases people from constantly having to carry the burden of their mistakes and instead gives them the power and motivation to change.

My Own Personal Experiences

Two personal experiences came to mind when I was thinking about grace.  The first was when I was a teenager.   I was at a high school pep rally, which I was helping to coordinate.  For a second time in a row, just when the pep rally was getting ready to start, the principal came in and cancelled it (of course as a teenager I viewed this as a real tragedy).  In front of the rest of the students I told the principal how unfair I thought he was and proceeded to challenge him.  I now look back and see how naïve I was.

The principal showed me grace.   In front of everyone he could have rightfully corrected me and called me to task for being disrespectful, but he did not.  Later he pulled me aside and talked to me about my actions and told me why they were inappropriate.   He never brought it up again nor did he treat me any differently.    I learned an important lesson that day about the power of grace.

The second was early on in my academic career.    A college student’s parent called and asked for information about her son.  I gave it to her.  This is a big no-no because if a college student is 18-years or older you first have to have permission from the student to release any information.  This is correct; we can’t release information to parents even if they are paying for their child’s education.

Little did I know that there was a family feud going on between the student’s divorced parents.   The father of the student called my dean complaining that I had given out the information.   He was in the right and I was in the wrong.

Instead of reaming me out like she could have, my dean placated the father assuring him that I would not do it again.  She called me into her office and had a conversation with me about what I had done.   She didn’t yell at me, she didn’t make me feel like I was stupid; instead I left the office on a positive note – learning from my mistake.

Both my principal and dean had showed me the power of grace.  In both cases I could have been in big trouble, but they used it as a learning experience to help me become a better person.

An Important Attribute of A Leader

Grace is such an important attribute whether we are leading at home, in the workplace or in the community, because it has the potential to help people become better.  Why?  Because when grace is shown it:

  • Frees our emotion so that we are not focused on trying to survive after our mistake but on taking positive steps to correct the mistake and make better choices next time.
  • Makes us want do a good job for the person who demonstrated it.
  • Teaches us of how we can pay grace forward to others.  Imagine working in a place or living in a home where a sense of grace abounds.
  • Frees us to be more productive and creative, because the brain does not have to react out of fear, but can focus on doing quality work.
  • Reduces everyone’s stress.

The power of grace does not mean that there are no consequences for our mistakes.  I was fortunate in both of my examples that there were little negative ramifications.  However in either case, if it had happened again I am sure there would have been repercussions.

The demonstrations of grace in my own life helped me learn valuable lessons and taught me the importance of showing it to others.

OFFENDED

As I view media, read the newspaper, and listen to the national conversation there seems to be a new American pastime – being offended.

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I have been thinking about what it means to be offended since the AACC conference last summer.   One of the plenary speakers, Gabe Lyons stated that instead of being “offended we need to be provoked.”  This came to mind again the other day when I heard George Will make the comment that being offended is the “new American entitlement.”  I found myself nodding my head in agreement.

Insulted, annoyed, resentful are just a few of the descriptive words used to define offended.  These descriptors pack a great deal of emotion that can increase our stress level, anxiety and hostility, especially when we constantly feel offended by something or choose to hold on to an offense.

I have been monitoring my own offense level and have noticed how easy it is for me to be offended.  I am trying to break the habit.

So how do we turn down our “offense meter”?  First monitor how often you feel offended by someone, and ask yourself why.

When you feel offended take a different approach by trying to see the offender’s viewpoint.  This doesn’t mean that you have to agree; it just helps you put things in perspective. (Have you ever noticed that some of the things that offend you the most are your own bad habits that you see in others?)

Ask yourself if you have developed the habit of liking to be offended, because it adds some type of emotional satisfaction to your life.  If the answer is yes, I would suggest that this could backfire by making your life less meaningful and more stressful.

As Lyons suggested start practicing being provoked rather than being offended.

What is the difference?  As I have thought about this, I think being offended is a position of stagnation where a person holds tightly on to the negative emotions of the offense, rehashing it, and emotionally stewing in the offense.

On the other hand when provoked the person has similar feelings, but looks at the situation from different perspectives and then takes action to deal with the offense.   The person may deal with the offense by acknowledging that s/he does not agree with what happened, then chooses not to react to it and to let it go.   Or, the person may decide that something needs to be done about the offense and takes constructive action to resolve it.

Because we live in the real world, we all are going to be offended or give offense.  How we handle either may be a true testament to our character, leadership, and our stress level.  So let’s join together to give up the new American pastime of constantly feeling offended.

Photo credit: Truthout.org / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

SPINNING IN PLACE

Have you ever been stuck, trying to move but instead you just keep spinning in place?

I couldn’t help but think of this the other day when we were creeping along I 75 in Atlanta, GA’s early morning rush hour.   I reflected on what happened here in January when commuters had tried to make it home during the “two inch snow storm.”

As I looked out the window, I thought about an earlier conversation I had had with a couple of the locals.  I told them as a Michigander I was still trying to figure out why two inches of snow caused such a problem.  One man explained that as the snow started to fall, which people from Atlanta experience about every four years, commuters started leaving work at the same time to get home before the conditions got worse.   The continuous flood of heavy traffic packed down the falling snow on the roads – at the same time the temperature plummeted turning slush on the road to ice.  No one could move but just kept spinning in place.

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Atlanta traffic as people tried to get home during the storm

During the conversation, an older gentleman looked at me with a wry smile on his face and said the real problem was that “Southern people live in the South.”  My interpretation of his comment was because you are from Michigan you know how to drive on snow and ice.   However we are from the South and Southern folk have had little experience with this type of weather and we over reacted.

As I thought about this I couldn’t help but think how the Atlanta situation parallels life; we too often take a relatively small problem and turn it in to a major mishap, especially if we have not had prior experience in dealing with the situation.  Instead of stepping back and calmly assessing the situation, we quickly react and make things worse.  Which means that we end up spinning in place rather than getting the problem resolved.

So perhaps a word of caution for all of us, whether we are from the North or South, is that the next time we find ourselves addressing a problem we need to:

  • Stop and take a few deep breaths.  The deep breaths help to slow us down psychologically as well as physiologically.
  • Understand that sometimes the best action is a “slow reaction.”  This gives us time and space to think about the short and long term consequences of what we do.
  • Ask ourselves what is the underling reason(s) we are feeling stressed (frustration, anxiety, panic, anger…)?  Are these emotions based on reality or irrational feelings?
  • Observe how other people are reacting and why; their reaction may rightfully or wrongfully influence your decision.
  • Ask others about their experience and the best way to deal with the situation.
  • After gathering the actual facts make the decision and move forward with a back-up plan in mind.

As I write this blog an even bigger ice storm has hit Atlanta.  It looks like their  recent experience helped them navigate the storm  instead of “spinning in place.”

One last thought.   If you are a bystander, like I was, watching someone else go through a stressful situation be supportive rather than judgmental.   More than likely at one time you too had to learn how to navigate a similar circumstance where you were “spinning in place.”  Show them grace and give them a helping hand.

Photo credit: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/01/29/the-souths-disastrous-response-to-the-winter-storm-in-16-pictures/

THE QUESTION: WHAT ARE MY VALUES?

One of the foundational characteristics of a good leader is integrity, whether you are leading at home, in the workplace or the community.  To be a person of integrity you first have to ask the question, what are my values?

Values are things that are important to you.  They are the principles and standard for how you behave and what you judge as important.    How do you know what someone’s values are?  Watch the way that s/he is living.

We all have heard a leader proclaim how much she values employees, yet her actions and words show no evidence of this.   Or perhaps you know a person who continually expresses how important his family is; yet most of his week is spent working with limited family interaction.

What are my values

The bottom line is that our actions usually demonstrate our true values.  Look at someone’s calendar or checkbook (debit card) and you will soon figure out what is valued.  When we say one thing but live another way it not only cast aspersion on our integrity, it also increases our stress level.

Harry Kraemer Jr., professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, wrote at Forbes.com:

As I tell my students, becoming the best kind of leader isn’t about emulating a role model or a historic figure. Rather, your leadership must be rooted in who you are and what matters most to you. When you truly know yourself and what you stand for, it is much easier to know what to do in any situation. It always comes down to doing the right thing and doing the best you can.

Kraemer lists four principles that help us live out our values.

  1. Identify and practice self-reflection to determine what you stand for and what matters the most.
  2. Understand that others may have different values so their perspectives may be different.  To be a good leader you have to be able to look at a situation from other viewpoints.
  3. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses, continue to try to improve, but be confident in who you are.
  4. Practice humility and value others.

I encourage you to take some time to ask the question, what are my values and are they displayed in my life?  Another way to frame this question is would others be able to determine my values by watching the way I live?

I have been thinking a lot about this question, and I have thought about it in regards to my postings on this blog.

I have asked myself would readers know what I value based on what they have read on my blog?

My response was somewhat, but readers probably would not understand the foundational principles on which my values are built – a Christian worldview.

Hmmm, as I thought about my response I determined I was doing the very opposite of what I was telling others to do.  I was intentionally keeping my worldview from permeating this blog in order to be respectful of others.  Actually I was doing just the opposite, I was not respecting that I have intelligent readers who can read someone else’s viewpoint and then choose to agree or disagree.

This was an important reflective exercise for me because it helped me decide to be true to myself when I am blogging.   I am not planning on being “preachy,” but neither will I shy away from my foundational beliefs.    As Kraemer points out, I need to be self-confident in my own beliefs while respecting that others may have different values than I do.

COLLAPSED OR RESOLVED

Dear God,  My prayer for 2014 is a fat bank account and a thin body.  Please don’t mix these up like you did last year.

Is this the way that your New Year’s resolutions generally end up – completely upside down – in collapse rather than  being resolved?

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The beginning of the year is a good time to reflect on what you want to change or accomplish.  But are you setting a New Year’s resolution that is bound to be fulfilled or one that is bound to fail?  Here are a few suggestions to decrease your stress by making  your resolution  less likely to collapse and more likely to be resolved:

  1. Set a resolution that you really are committed to accomplishing.  Don’t state, “I will try,” because you are basically saying that you are not committed.  Instead write your resolution down with an “I will” statement and be specific about what you want to accomplish.
  2. Start out with one New Year resolution; focus on the power of one thing.  When you accomplish it then move on to another.
  3. Set goals and make a plan; do the footwork about what you need to know and do to accomplish your resolution.
  4. Break your resolution down into small steps.  Take a step and evaluate it.  If it is collapsing rather than moving toward being resolved tweak it and move forward.  Don’t expect overnight success and be sure and celebrate small victories as you move toward accomplishing your resolution.
  5. Find a person, explain your plan and ask him or her to hold you accountable.
  6. To keep it from collapsing build a strong foundation by practicing your resolution until it becomes a habit.  A habit is when you do something  without thinking, like brushing your teeth every morning.
  7. Once you reach your resolution, congratulate yourself and celebrate your accomplishment.

Cheers to you and your New Year resolve!!!

Photo credit: marsmet546 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

HO, HO, HO or HO-HUM, H0-HUM – HOLIDAY DE-STRESSOR #5

As much as holidays are about being with family, there can be family interactions that raise your stress level.    And, whether we like it or not we cannot always avoid them.   Maybe it is the sister-in-law that is always complaining, Uncle Harry that drinks too much and ends up being obnoxious, or the niece or nephew with little oversight who is constantly running wild and  whining.  All you want to do is avoid the chaos but off to the family gathering you go.

The most important thing to remember is that the only person that you can control is yourself, though as a parent you do have parental responsibility for your children’s actions.   What can you control…

  • Your reaction to someone else’s behavior.  When you get stressed out about another’s behavior, it has a negative psychological and physiological effect on you.  Ask yourself if the negative consequence of you being stressed out about something you can’t control is worth it – usually it is not.
  • Not bringing up the subject that always gets everyone going.   If the subject is brought up and friction starts to increase try to change the topic or get others involved in a non-threatening activity.
  • The amount of alcohol being served, including the amount you are drinking.  There is greater chance of misunderstandings and negative family interactions when too much alcohol is served.  Be sure and take the keys away from someone drinking too much and don’t let them drive.
  • Whether you stay at the event or not.  If you find yourself in a very inappropriate situation that can have negative consequences for you or your family then remove yourself.

Even though it might be hard, look for the good in the family member(s) with whom you have a hard time dealing.  You might be surprised and find something that you appreciate about them.  That would be a nice holiday gift for them and you.

HO, HO, HO or HO-HUM, H0-HUM – HOLIDAY DE-STRESSOR #4

Holiday stress can begin at the workplace.  At this time of year, people are feeling rushed and overloaded as they try to meet end-of-the-year deadlines, while at the same time fufilling personal holiday obligations.

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What to do?  I go back to the old mantra of being aware and being intentional so that you can make wise choices.  For example:

Watch taking on extra work.  You might think making extra money will help pay those holiday bills, but that extra time spent working also can increase your holiday stress level.    In the end you may have more money in hand, but you may feel worn-out with little energy to enjoy the holidays.

Prioritize the work that you really need to get done before January 1 building in some time to socialize with fellow employees.  Office celebrations and taking time to interact with your peers are important ways to build office relationships, which helps to minimize stress.

Don’t give up your breaks and lunchtime.  This time away from focusing on your work actually helps you be more efficient when you do work.   During your breaks get up and move, do a few stretches, or go stand outside for a few minutes.  Be creative at lunch; go for a walk with fellow employees or bring someone in to lead you and others  in 30 minutes of yoga or relaxation a couple of times a week.  Maybe you even have a yoga guru in your midst.

If you find that you are more depressed during the holidays don’t be surprised, this is not unusual.  Take advantage of the Employee Assistance Program and seek help to find out why the holidays make you feel this way.

With a little forethought and planning, you can destress your workplace and the holidays.

P.S.  For those of you who stay at home full-time, your home is your workplace.  The same principles apply to you.  Think before you take on extra holiday work, don’t forget spending time with your friends, and take breaks through out the day to exercise and relax.

Photo credit: koalazymonkey / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

HO, HO, HO or HO-HUM, H0-HUM – HOLIDAY DE-STRESSOR #3

In an earlier blog I referred to building “margin times” into your holiday calendar.  “Margin times” are periods of leisure that allow your body and brain to relax and recover.  It can be as simple as taking short intervals of downtime or a whole evening of doing a quiet activity that reenergizes your batteries. five-till-midnight-or-almost-time-for-lunch_l

Below are ten suggestions that you could do alone, with family, or friends.  Feel free to post a comment with something that you have tried and works.

  1. Light candles and listen to soft, soothing music.
  2. Make time for your faith by praying or meditating.
  3. Go for a winter walk with a friend or family.
  4. Over dinner share holiday stories with your kids about your favorite childhood memories.  Or ask everyone a question that pertains to the holiday and see what you learn from one another.
  5. Have a PJ night and watch a movie and eat popcorn.
  6. Have an indoor picnic and play board games.
  7. Write out an individual or family bucket list and pick-one that you are going to do in 2014.
  8. Handwrite a letter to a friend or a family member that you have not talked to in awhile.
  9. Make a fort with your kids and play and laugh with them.
  10. Bake some cookies or a holiday treat; eat a few and share the rest with someone else.

Ahhhhh, you already feeling less stress!

Photo credit: bitzcelt / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND