All posts by Steven J. Lawrence

Peace for Self, Not The Only Path

Recently I’ve been reading spiritual posts and commentary in various online social media groups.  In these kinds of threads, I am frequently reminded of the conflict between “man of the world” and “man of the spirit” and find myself puzzled about how to integrate the two. Many people who consider themselves to be on the spiritual path will suggest that we learn to allow space for violence, cruelty, social unrest, systems of inequality and preventable suffering. The idea goes that individuals must become enlightened  to the true nature of Existence if they are to have any genuine impact.

Three years ago, I was in dialogue on a social media site about the issue of police brutality (which at the time was an issue I was strongly interested in). The commenter I was speaking with suggested that people stop reading the media stories about police brutality and learn to be peaceful within themselves, instead of getting too preoccupied with injustice. The commenter when on to state that withdrawal and meditation was the way towards peace and “raising the collective consciousness of humanity.”

The idea that personal peace and enlightenment must be reached before we seek any meaningful change in society is an old and stubborn one. Looking within and not getting involved in the outer world is said to be compassionate because it can be transformative for the individual. I can appreciate this view and to some degree I think it’s useful to become aware of our patterns and not to react automatically to outer circumstances or events. Even more, I appreciate the healing and insight that comes from meditation and learning to be open-heartedly present to our immediate experience.

But, I think the form of “transcendental stewardship” where we disengage from the world’s problems and go deeper into the impersonal, spiritual realms of consciousness is only one of the ways in which we can contribute to healing, wholeness and the relief of suffering. Without recognizing, addressing, and alleviating the traumatic conditions we have the power to influence, it seems to me that we abandon fellow sentient beings to conditions that are not favorable to the “awakening” of consciousness or spirit. Traumatizing events can hold people back from the luxury of even considering the possibility of a benevolent underlying spiritual force. This is especially true for people who experience the ongoing traumatization of being held in captivity in abusive situations such as tyrannical governments, relationships with violent intimate partners, and the slow inner death of working in a toxic workplace environment.

Trauma in all its forms keeps people far away from the spiritual aspect of things. Being peaceful, watching one’s thoughts, and merging with the lovely one-ness of it all is a far-away fantasy for victims of violence and cruelty, and it’s fair to keep that in perspective when we want to remind people of the ultimate and fundamental goodness of reality and the illusion of the life of ego.

I think if we are serious about the project of raising the “collective consciousness”, we would want to do our part to relieve the traumatizing circumstances experienced by other people, so that they might be able to sit down and be with themselves and allow their minds to let go into the present moment. We would want to participate in changing systems that systematically cause harm to people. We would want to at the very least acknowledge the circumstances people are in and hold back from criticizing people for not being spiritual enough.

A question arises. Should we expect ourselves to not have emotional reactions to external phenomena? Is that somehow an indicator of the level of a person’s enlightenment? If I can watch the graphic depiction of police brutality in the video below with non-reactive awareness, I can imagine that my actions in the real world will be more proportionate, efficient and unclouded by messy emotions. Perhaps, my actions might be objective and not volatile.  Then again, there may be a place in within transcendental awareness for experiencing -and not rejecting or judging- outrage, anger, anguish, grief, and interpersonal empathy when darkness and violence arises in our experience.

Not to participate in necessary change may be the right choice for spiritually enlightened individuals who have come to transcend human worldly concerns, having come to identify completely with Spirit, or Consciousness, etc. But, for those of us still hanging on at the sides of the mountain, the choice to participate in alleviating the dark circumstances of other sentient beings is a choice that is as right as rain.

Warning: The video below depicts NYPD officers throwing a pregnant woman onto her belly and shoving another woman hard enough to hurl her across the concrete, breaking her arm. As an exercise, I watched the video, breathed calmly and took note of emotional reactions as they arise in different parts of my body.

The Postmodern Fallacy of Dominance

I wrote this on a social media thread, and chose to use ALL CAPS as a metaphor for the theme of domination and power that I was exploring. I have been influenced to use ALL CAPS in a non-angry way by another writer whose writing on philosophy and spirituality is superb. Somehow his capitalized expressions do not come across as yelling but as emphasizing (as if italicized).

So, this philosopher Derrida is very popular with the young activist crowd (and some old ones, too). He’s the guy who made an IDEA extremely popular… the idea that all systems, relationships and momentary exchanges are hierarchical in nature and are rooted entirely in POWER dynamics and the drive to DOMINATE.

Derrida went on to exhort us all to FLIP the hierarchy at every possible turn. In other words, we are called to reverse the power dynamics at all times… moment by moment… individuals and systems.

With this premise, it’s perfectly understandable why entire frameworks are created with a straight-out-of-the-gate adversarial stance against “the other” and the feverish drive to “dismantle” all things created and to win back the power that was stolen.

But, a question arises.

What if the original premise is incorrect? What if some -or perhaps many- people simply interacted with us out of the desire to connect? What if some -or perhaps many- people recognized differences in wealth, fortune and status between them and us and desired to share at least part of what they have with us? What if some -or perhaps many- people are simply not AWARE of these differences or how they fail to SEE us or our suffering and oppression?

What if the central premise of POWER and domination being at the root of all systems and relationships is not entirely accurate? What if this premise is just an INVENTED position based from painful personal experience and not a DISCOVERED pattern based on objective observations over time?

I ask this, because I have seen so many other premises (or operating PRINCIPLES) driving the behaviors and creations of individuals, communities and even entire systems…. lust, desire, longing, existential despair, desire for comfort, winning, striving for excellence, creating beauty, new discoveries, the seeking of justice, intentional ignorance of unpleasant realities, fear of death…. turning away from abuses…. and so forth.

Then there is the wondrous delight of building, innovating and creating….. and the ancient, universal and natural patterns of loving, belonging and nurturing…. so, so, so, so, SO much more to all of this than the Game of Thrones.

At least that has been my experience.

In recent years, I’ve seen relatives killed with bullets by law enforcement, dear friends lost forever to addiction, abuse and cruelty, students stabbed to death and shot outside their homes, liars getting away with lies, and the emergence of a culture of ridicule that demands that we diminish the all too real suffering of those whom we stand against.

And, yet I still cannot get behind the idea that life is all about domination, oppression and control. I believe in the goodness of people, even now.

What if re-designing and re-purposing lazily and selfishly designed systems for the betterment of all involved at least some degree of kinship with “them”… if only in the secret chambers of our minds?

What if a person who writes out ideas and questions like these doesn’t have any answers or solutions at all?

What if the answers we find in writers and thinkers lead us further away from ourselves and from one another?

What if this is all just an addiction to “the fight” to escape ourselves?

Human Rights: Allies and the Practice of Human Dignity

I have a friend who is a little older than I. He has been involved in activism for marginalized communities for decades now, and I consider him a mentor, as he is always on top with the most up-to-date trends and learnings within the larger human rights universe.

Just a year ago, my friend turned me onto this essay, which is one of the best and most authentic pieces I have ever read on the subject of building alliances towards the goal of attaining a society based on equality and rights for all. I would like to see this article become a required text for young people learning about human rights, race, gender, LGBTQ+ issues and equality. It would go a long way in softening the unnecessary adversarial stance against majority identity groups and reducing the dehumanization and stereotyping of “the enemy”, those who belong to groups we have deemed to be privileged.

 Activist leaders and progressive educators exercise immense power and influence over young, impressionable people searching for purpose and belonging, and it seems important to be responsible with that influence by teaching compassion alongside outrage.
Treating allies with dignity is not coddling or kowtowing to power, entitlement, or privilege. It is the call to practice the principles we wish to promote in the world. As this essay tells us, authentic activism that  embodies its vision is a disciplined political commitment to work steadily towards the building of coalitions and lasting relationships that will help us arrive at the place we want to go.

Because in the end, as the author reminds us…. love is thicker than blood.

In Praise of Allies: Wherever we’re going, we’ll only get there together

More Thoughts on the Servant Leadership Model

I’ve been thinking a lot about the current political discourse on the national level, and the proliferation of the ego-centered leadership style across the spectrum of political, professional, and social subcultures. This has always been an important issue, because when we look around us, there are more leaders than we sometimes realize.

When we consider, for example, a popular, well-connected artist in a local arts scene or an outstanding small business owner who has a following and a golden tongue, we can say that the artist and business leader both have influence (power) and thus can be seen as leaders, if only in the informal sense. We can also say that a family member is a leader if that family member has formal authority as a parent, or as the oldest child of an elderly parent who has Alzheimers. While they may not be national heroes or infamous villains, a well-connected local artist, a small business owner, and the head of a family all have a profound impact on the spiritual lives of the people in their communities.

This is an important point that bears repeating. A leader on any scale has a profound impact on the spiritual life and well-being of an entire community. It is for this reason that we must never take for granted a leader’s motivations, actions or words. And, considering the universal presence of leadership in all aspects of human life, we must continually revisit the question of what constitutes quality leadership, and the potential consequences of promoting narcissists into leadership positions (or elevating them to the heights of power in any setting, from family settings to social movements). We also need to re-visit the devastating impact of enabling narcissistic power moves and maintaining our silence in the presence of the abuse of power. As many have come to realize in recent years, there is a growing trend of selfishness (even cruelty) and short-sightedness in leadership and decision-making on all levels of society. The frightening thing is, we have come not only to expect these qualities in our leaders, but to admire them. Selfish narcissism has become king, and we’re more okay with it than ever.

One important response to this trend is to promote its opposite. With this in mind, I often find myself promoting the practice of Robert Greenleaf’s model of Servant Leadership in writing and in conversation. This leadership framework has gained traction in recent years and has earned respect among organizational psychologists, leadership scholars, political theorists and business management experts.

According to Greenleaf, Servant Leadership begins with the idea that leaders must see themselves as servants first, and leaders second, if they hope to make a difference or to build a sustainable enterprise. For these leaders, leadership is not a status or station. It is an electrical current that moves simultaneously with directionality and permeability. In directionality, we see continuous movement oriented towards a goal. In permeability, we see the ongoing reality of intersubjectivity, in which the leader is both influencer and influenced. In this state of affairs, a genuine leader’s confidence and humility are fused together in a dynamic balance.

Put in a less philosophic way: Servant Leaders believe that when they find themselves in a position of power on any level, it’s up to them to set a standard of decency and thoughtfulness, to establish a mission that others can get behind, and to continually check in with their people to remind them that they matter and to inspire them to proceed.

A Servant Leader’s explicit aim is to serve others by generating what can be called “spiritual capital.” A capitalist in the true sense of the word is a person who generates capital, invests that capital, spends that capital meaningfully and re-invests that capital responsibly. Imagine if the substance of that capital was the human spirit. How much better would our world be?

For Servant Leaders, successful leadership on any scale -whether building a city or constructing a fence relies chiefly on the willingness to engage people’s humanity and intelligence, and their preternatural desire to be safe, happy and respected.

These leaders do not lie, do not complain, and do not ask those with less power in a situation to look up to them or to feel sorry for them for taking on the burden of leadership. They listen to concerns, and they do not shame or disappear people who raise them. Instead, they thank people for raising concerns, they address those concerns, and they act upon the wisdom derived from addressing those concerns.

The question of how a person arrives at this moral level of leadership, I’ll have to leave to others, at least for now. But, there is no question about the healing, productive qualities of humility, vulnerability, and the strength and personal power that comes from treating others with dignity and working with them to build a benevolent world.


Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need

*I’m re-posting this essay in its entirety. It was first published in 2014.

In early October, I was walking with a friend.  We were discussing the topic of compassion, and he said something striking.

“Compassion is not boundless.  To be effective, it needs to be channeled into a specific locality or sphere in which you have the influence to make at least a part of the world a better place.”

This quote is a good starting place for introducing the concept of Servant Leadership, because the sphere of influence and the compassionate vision of a Servant Leader are broad indeed.

Robert K. Greenleaf, who founded the “Center for Applied Ethics” in 1964, coined the term Servant leadership.  After he died in 1990, the name of his organization was changed to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.  At the present time, the Servant Leadership movement representing the ideas of Robert Greenleaf is under the stewardship of Larry Spears.

What is Servant Leadership?

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture.  Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

In the Essay that started it all, Servant as Leader, Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second.  Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, and boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large.  They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

Before I elaborate on the conceptual framework and human values around Servant Leadership, I want to say a few words about the title I chose for this section.  The wording of the title was borrowed from an article by legal scholar David Yamada, the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill.  His title is “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary need.”  This article is worth a read, as are all of David’s writings that I have been introduced to.

Though I did not know David personally when I first drafted the original version of this essay, I was fortunate to meet him at a healthy workplace brainstorming conference he recently organized at Suffolk Law University. For this gathering in the fall of 2015, David invited six professionals from various fields to present works-in-progress for feedback from the other presenters and from others who attended the conference. As one of the presenters, my contribution included the importance of promoting positive models for organizational leadership and strategies for neutralizing covert aggression in the workplace.

Interestingly, David Yamada has been recognized in recent months as one of the 30th most influential organizational/industrial psychologists alive in the world. The only thing surprising about this is the fact that David -a legal scholar and professor at Suffolk Law University- is not, in fact, a formal organizational psychologist. Yet, the honor so bestowed is apt indeed. A lifetime of study, investigation, and development of insights in the recognition of the patterns of organizational behavior that adversely impact the micro and macro levels of society is worthy not only of recognition but of a movement.

At the present time, David Yamada is one of my favorite authors in the areas of human dignity, workplace ethics and social responsibility. It is with his encouragement that I have been putting out more writings on Servant Leadership.

Why We Will Always Need Leadership

The world has always been in extraordinary need, and that’s not going to change.  We live on a planet with natural laws, including weather patterns, ecosystems, and the presence of a large variety of organisms all competing with one another for survival.  The common reality faced by all organisms is the inevitability of death and the desire to continue on with living until that inevitable event happens.

For individual human beings, survival includes the need to be safe, accepted, nourished and happy as defined by each individual.  A significant portion of our survival is addressed by the development of society, which includes the development of local, national and international laws and armed services which protect us, physical infrastructures that transport and house us, agricultural systems that feed us, medical services that heal us, and institutions that organize, educate and serve us.

So, we can’t get away from the fact that human beings need organizations, both small and large to take care of our world.   We are continually organizing resources, building/managing institutions that curate and distribute those resources, and placing people in leadership positions to provide direction in the management of those resources. Leadership is also needed to facilitate the ongoing development and management of abstract resources like scientific knowledge, political and economic theory, moral frameworks and religious/spiritual systems.

Like it or not, we will always need organizations, which means that we will always need leaders.

Put in the plainest possible terms, human beings are called upon to be stewards of our world, and this means we are sometimes called upon to take initiative and to step out in front of others to influence the direction of that stewardship.  In the best possible scenario, those of us who choose to step out possess the fundamental asset that best qualifies us to ask others to place their trust in us: empathy.

In optimal circumstances, people in leadership positions care about people and act in good faith to actively serve them.   But, even a cursory glance at the leadership landscape reveals to us that many leaders operate out of narcissism, ego-centric agendas, and short-term gains at the expense of others, and frequently act with a destructive, even sadistic need to triumph over people.

The world is burning, because we fail to recognize the traits of narcissistic leadership and continue to promote narcissistic leaders into positions of power throughout the entire maze of society’s institutions.  We need to learn how to spot these people before elevating them.  But, more importantly, we need to learn how to spot those we can trust to take responsible stewardship of our resources.

It’s time for us to identify the traits we can expect from genuinely caring leaders, and we need to promote the understanding of those traits far and wide, if we hope to adequately attend to the extraordinary needs of the world we share.

We can start by examining the characteristics and behaviors of Servant Leaders.

A Servant Leader’s Worldview

I want to repeat the quote from my friend to illuminate an important aspect of a Servant Leader’s worldview.

“Compassion is not boundless.  To be effective, it needs to be channeled into a specific locality or sphere in which you have the influence to make at least a part of the world a better place.”

I believe he meant to say that compassionate action is not boundless.  Maturity informs us that no single individual, ideology or group is going to “save the world”, and experience has proven the disastrous results for those who have tried.  An imperial attitude of domination -however well meaning- will always meet with fierce resistance, and when greatness succumbs to grandiosity, a hero always burns.

But empathy and compassion can indeed be boundless.  The modern-day adage “Think globally, Act Locally” sums this up pretty well.  Our actions have an impact on the vast web of inter-related relationships and systems throughout the world, and those of us who understand and act in accordance with this understanding naturally develop over time a sense of kinship and empathy with people -and even animals- that we don’t know personally.  And, when people with this worldview act, it is always with the understanding of the impact of that action on the world.  They act locally with a vast global attitude.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into how a person comes to the fulcrum of development in which she genuinely empathizes with literally billions of others.  It also needs to be pointed out that the paradigm of perfect, altruistic enlightenment in a single individual can be harmful because it’s an impossible ideal.

Servant Leaders are not and can never be perfect, altruistic flawless human beings.  But, they can, and often do practice the principles that inform their greatest moments of clarity and good will.  In those moments, the servant who has chosen to lead recognizes with crystal clarity the responsibility he has to take care of the present.  He recognizes that taking care of the present can help to take care of the future for people he will never even meet.

This is most certainly a boundlessly compassionate worldview, and it matters a great deal in a world of extraordinary need.

But, Servant Leadership should not be viewed as a station of completed development or evolution.  Rather, it should be viewed as a cultivated attitude and as a practice.  Part of that practice includes the commitment to humility, listening to others, and to remain open to new knowledge and learning. Although the framework for Servant Leadership is relatively simple, Greenleaf identified a number of observable qualities in servants who choose to lead.

Ten Principles of Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf developed a list of ten principles that guide the Servant Leader.  The principles I have outlined below are drawn from the literature, but the descriptions are in my own words.  For a more in-depth look at the Ten Principles, I recommend the writings of Larry S. Spears, who currently leads the Robert Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Listening – A servant leader truly listens to people, not just to understand but to address needs as they arise and are communicated.  Surprisingly, humility is not listed as one of the top characteristics of Servant Leadership, but can be included here as the close cousin to listening.  Without humility, the servant leader can never learn and certainly has no reason to listen.


Empathy – Compassionate leaders care about people they are working with, the people served by the enterprise they are leading, and the community in which their organization operates, including the larger world community.

Healing – A leader who cares about people is committed to wholeness and healing.  If she recognizes a deficiency or need in a person, she works to find ways for that person to heal and to become more complete.  This is not an annoying distraction from the organizational mission or business bottom line, but an important part of building and sustaining a team of mutually trusting partners.

Awareness – A person who has formal authority in any situation, including a workplace, group project or national organization has enormous power to make a difference.  This is why it’s key to elevate people to leadership positions who have a sophisticated awareness about many things.  Awareness of the impact of their work, the patterns of behavior on their team, and the importance of gathering information from multiple sources to ensure the best way forward.

Persuasion – Leaders who care about people do not cause harm.  They recognize that forcing others to act or to take a position is a harmful action, and thus, seek to persuade people with reasoned argument and an appeal to the mission.  They are not coercive.

Conceptualization – Like Transformational Leaders, Servant Leaders provide a compelling framework for the work they are doing in concert with others.  They take care to build concepts that appeal to the hearts and minds of people and that promote values that directly relate to the mission.

Foresight – Socially responsible leaders look ahead to potential fallout and beneficial outcomes of their actions and the actions of the enterprises they lead.  They contemplate not only the ways in which their organization might benefit from specific actions but how decisions and actions impact their people and the community around them.  In other words, they take the long view.

Stewardship – The word stewardship has become a popular piece of jargon, but the principle is profound and important.  Too many stories are coming out that tell the tale of a CEO who comes on board at the eleventh hour of a business and runs it into the ground before walking away with millions of dollars and a large workforce unemployed and destitute.  A Servant Leader comes on board to rescue the business or to work with people to find ways to close the business that can benefit the largest amount of people as possible.  She takes seriously her responsibility to steward the enterprise in a way that helps the micro-community of the business or organization and the macro-community in which the enterprise operates.

Commitment to the Growth of People –  This is a big one.  Regardless of the original mission or reason that people come together, a leader who wishes to serve the common good is first and foremost committed to growing as a person, allowing others to help her grow as a person, and helping other people to grow.  Whether coming together to record a music album, making a full-length feature film, running a public school, or building a legal case, the people with formal authority to set the tone for the community of people always have their eye on the common good as the greater, over-arching purpose.  In this category, stewardship takes on a broader meaning.  What is ultimately and always stewarded is the building of a better world because people have the chance to grow.

Building Community – All of the above principles act in concert to build a positive community.  Because of the principles of listening, awareness, persuasion, stewardship, healing, awareness and empathy, there is little room for a “cult of personality.”  Furthermore, if the conceptualization of the community’s mission is clear and includes foresight, there will be a built-in understanding of the ways in which authoritarianism and “cultishness” can be avoided.  This is partly related to a commitment to the growth of people.  People can only grow if a community isn’t all about the “leader” and if there’s room for feedback and development of the leader himself.  Ultimately, this kind of community is made up of Servant Leaders, all of whom take turns to step into the role of stewarding the community’s process at one time or another.

Criticism of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership can also be called socially responsible leadershipcaring leadership, or even steward leadership.  Boiled down to its essence, this is a leadership philosophy that makes caring about people the most important thing.

It would be difficult to argue that leaders should not care about people.  But, while most critics would agree that caring leaders are needed in the world, some have argued that this leadership style subtly and deceptively contains a gender bias, a patriarchal stance, and a strong representation of the myths and moralities in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Some have even referred to it not as a leadership philosophy but a leadership theology pointing out what they consider a strong religiosity and the occasional reference to the word “spiritual” in some of the literature.

Although Servant Leadership in recent years has steadily gained recognition as a viable model for positive, ethical and efficient leadership among leadership experts and social scientists such as Margaret Wheatley and Peter Senge from the MIT Sloane School of Management, it is by no means a universally accepted paradigm.

The main criticism is that this model of leadership is paradoxically both ambiguous and over-prescriptive, as this framework a) doesn’t catalogue empirically observable behaviors and b) doesn’t take into account the diverse perspectives and insights that arise within a community, instead relying on a predetermined ideology.  This, according to critics, is counterintuitive to the post-modern age of facilitative approaches to decision-making in which all stakeholders participate and retain their own autonomy culturally and ideologically.

I can appreciate some of these criticisms, and the fact that Robert Greenleaf was a white, male Christian easily opens this model up to being discredited.  At some point, I hope to write a response to an essay criticizing Servant Leadership from a feminist perspective. In that piece, I will respond to the microanalysis and socio-cultural deconstruction of the assumptions, aims, language and contradictions inherent in this leadership philosophy.

For now, I just want to make one point.

Stewardship is an attitude of wanting to take care of our world.  A person who has an attitude of wanting to help (be of service) will identify problems and work to find ways to solve those problems.  If that person winds up in a position of formal authority, he is likely to want to develop people on his team or in his organization.  This means he will be able to notice frustration in those who feel they lack a voice.  He will most likely want to remove that frustration or help to neutralize it by adopting a participative approach in which that person will have a voice.  And the organization will be all the better for it, because the information gleaned from the participative process will most likely lead to more informed decisions.  This will help the enterprise and help sustain long-term relationships within the community, team or organization.

So, the assumption that Servant Leadership necessarily precludes an egalitarian approach to decisions is just that.  An assumption.  And, an unexamined one, at that.

The key is empathy.  When a person of formal authority genuinely cares about people and has a compassionate attitude, he will use whatever leadership models and strategies available to him that can get the best results and maximize the benefits for the largest amount of people.  Sometimes, this will be participative, and sometimes it might be transformational.  Leaders who serve (or servants who lead) are the ultimate situational leaders because they are aware and emotionally intelligent enough to understand the full potential of these models and strategies.

We can go around in circles, critically analyzing and making sure never to allow any one theory, individual, group or position to dominate (a major preoccupation that postmodernists/deconstructionists have), or we can be honest about the fact that leaders will always be around and that we need to promote at the very least the fundamental value of having a heart.

Heart matters in a world of extraordinary need.

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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

I want to review a very useful book today. It’s called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work. To my great fortune, I was turned onto the works of author Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D about five years ago by a close friend. This is one of Elgin’s greatest works, and should be included among the greatest  contributions to the healthy workplace movement.

Elgin, a linguist, goes into great detail about the ways in which language can be strategically employed to both undermine and enhance the mission and culture of the workplace. She begins by examining the power of language and the importance of “cleaning up” the “language environment” in our workplaces, and goes on to explore the concepts of semantic features (the unique impact on different individuals of specific word choices) and recognizing and responding to what she calls Verbal Attack Patterns (VATs).

The most powerful chapter in the book is titled “Malpractice of the Mouth.” In this chapter, we are introduced to the importance of recognizing “verbal violence” and the responsibility we have to recognize and neutralize verbal violence whenever it surfaces in the workplace, especially if we find ourselves the target. The overarching goal in verbal self defense is to navigate the hostile mode of workplace aggressors towards the mode of “Leveling”. In Elgin’s description, Levelers are people who are straightforward and sincere, even if this sometimes involves a critique of the performance or views of a colleague.

The mode of Leveling does not involve aggression -especially covert aggression- and is the preferred communication mode for those who wish to make the workplace more productive and harmonious. Covert aggression, on the other hand, is the preferred mode of those who wish to “get under the skin” and undermine the confidence of their colleagues. In situations involving covertly aggressive verbal attacks, Elgin offers a way out. First, she instructs the reader in how to recognize the tactic of hiding “buried presuppositions” in verbal attacks. A crass example of this can be seen in the following sentence:

“When did you stop starving your parakeets?”

Three “facts” are presupposed in the previous sentence. 1. You have parakeets. 2. You began starving those parakeets at one point in time; 3. You ended the practice of starving the parakeets at another point in time.

If in fact you own parakeets (but have never starved them in the first place), according to Elgin’s strategies for verbal self defense, you will need to respond to the most important presupposition (that you began starving your parakeets) in order to neutralize the attack. She offers several strategies for accomplishing this task in ways that preserve the dignity of both the “verbal attacker” and the target.

I will be presenting hypothetical scenarios in future posts, in which I will explore the various strategies for handling covert aggression in workplaces, social communities, and group projects.

I want to end the post with a final thought.

It only takes a one or two individuals to compromise the mission of an entire organization, and this compromise is almost always built upon the consistent use of covertly aggressive tactics. Most of us care about the work we do, and it would be wise for us to hold these individuals in check. Whether we name the tactics workplace bullying, covert aggression, manipulation, or verbal violence, we need to learn to recognize them and de-fang them if we hope to do great work in a mission-driven atmosphere.

This excellent book will go a long way in that endeavor.

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work


Stewardship Across Domains

Below is an adaptation of a passage from the essay “All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision”.

A simple definition of stewardship is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted in one’s care.” In the context of organizational or project leadership, stewardship involves the commitment to the creative, professional and personal development of the people themselves.

Responsible stewardship of a culture has an enormous impact on a group or organization’s  mission. This is why stewardship has become so popular in recent years in the fields of organizational learning and in academic circles.  In fact stewardship has become a trend across multiple domains, including religious ones. Although the framework is markedly different, the principles of stewardship appear to be very much the same in all of them.

Christian theology, for example, has embraced the principles of stewardship over the past few decades and goes by a number of names, including Christian Stewardship, Biblical Stewardship, and Co-management with God. In the essay, “Four Principles of Biblical Stewardship”, Christian writer Hugh Whelchel presents a framework elucidating the four principles of ownershipresponsibilityaccountability and reward, all of which form the foundation for stewardship in the Christian faith. The fourth principle is explicitly Biblical in the sense that the reward for carefully and thoughtfully attending to what is needed in our sphere of influence is rewarded in the Afterlife. The overall message of Whelchel’s conception of stewardship is the expansiveness of this worldview, the sense that we have responsibility for the world we’ve inherited.

But, this expansive take on stewardship can be seen in Mahayana Buddhism as well. In that tradition, the Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) forestalls complete enlightenment until all other sentient beings are saved (or are liberated from the wheel of rebirth). From the standpoint of a cosmology which includes billions of lifetimes for each seed of consciousness, the Ultimate Steward is one who vows to return to the world of suffering to offer healing and compassion to those who continue to traverse the lower rungs of karmic life (animals, insects, and human beings born to misfortune or “lower births”).

A number of Mahayana traditions forgo the entire cosmology and define the Bodhisattva’s commitment to include putting other’s first and doing all that one can to take care of the world . As the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, “instead of holding our own individual territory and defending it tooth and nail, we become open to the world that we are living in. It means we are willing to take on greater responsibility, immense responsibility.”

Of course, religions and spiritual movements have not cornered the market on stewardship. For example, we have the secular strand from the Progressive movement in the form of Environmental Stewardship. This movement stands on the premise that we are called upon to take care of our world -literally, as the world in this instance means “the Earth.”

Regardless of the particular domain in which stewardship is sought to be employed, the overarching philosophy and practice is very much the same. But, there is one domain in which stewardship takes on a deeper dimension, and it’s impact cannot be overestimated: Interpersonal stewardship.

More on this at a later time.


Another Straw Man in the Torture Debate

This morning, I read an article with the title “Bryan Fischer: Torture Is A Christian Value.”  The title is certainly a grabber, but its level of deception doesn’t meet even minimal journalistic standards.

This man said no such thing.

If my post below became a sensational headline, it would read, “Lawrence states that Bryan Fischer’s Logic for Torture is Moral and Sound.”

Of course, that’s not at all what I mean in the six paragraphs below. But, in today’s age, we often score points by ignoring a main argument, selecting words with the most incendiary potential, and placing them in an altogether different context to discredit the speaker.

First, I want to say that my opposition to torture is strong and absolute. Torture is cruel, immoral and ineffective. But, I don’t like the title to this headline, because it’s nakedly misleading, setting up a straw man argument, missing the point Fischer is making about international law. In the next paragraph, I’ve amended Fischer’s statement to include an all-caps for the word “right’ (which is the word he stressed) and a bracketed phrase of my own words which helps to describe Fischer’s intended meaning.

BRYAN FISCHER: “They have absolutely no legal rights that they can claim anywhere. So whatever treatment we give them, if there is any mercy involved in it, they have no RIGHT to that [but if anyone does happen to show them mercy]; that is simply because we are a merciful people who are driven by Christian principles.”

After listening to Bryan Fischer’s voice and re-reading his statement, it’s clear that he is not saying torture is a Christian value. HIs logic begins with the fact that terrorists operate outside the boundaries of state and international relations. According to Fischer, as terrorists do not represent a sovereign state that previously participated in the Geneva conventions, they are not technically bound or protected by the rules of engagement -including internationally illegal torture. While those in uniform representing their countries are protected, in Fischer’s view, terrorists are not.

Fischer is also saying that if a terrorist is not an American citizen, s(he) cannot claim any protection under the Constitution, which is an American governmental contract between and among American citizens and their government.

So, in this clip, Fischer is indeed making a logical argument -one, which negates any and all conventional legal protections for terrorists while asserting that any mercy involved in their treatment can only come from the mercy informed by Christian principles. Fischer is clearly stating that mercy is not a “right” under national or international law, but an unofficial privilege. Agree or disagree, but this is what he is saying.

I feel compelled to weigh in here because Fischer’s ACTUAL argument is the right place to engage in real debate. Any argument that uses the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, or any national/international policy or law to deny human rights or justify immoral acts deserves to be thoroughly vetted. The false claim that Fischer justified torture as “a Christian value” is a distraction, and as long as we remain distracted by something that wasn’t even there, the real (and dangerous) legal argument sneaks by un-noticed.

We need the debate. Are terrorists (those whose combat tactics operate outside the boundaries of state) to be denied the legal protections and human rights afforded to combatants who operate within the confines of an actual state or country? I say no. A government should always act from the highest level of state morality, and this means to treat all with dignity.

No to torture. And no to straw men.

Bryan Fischer argues that terrorists are not afforded human rights and protections enjoyed by conventional combatants.


The Fuse that Drives the Flower

* This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision


Dylan Thomas wrote a famous poem in 1934 called “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”  I don’t quite understand this poem, but the metaphor of a force behind the green fuse that nourishes a flower is a compelling one.

I want to carry this metaphor into the realms of leadership, teamwork, empathy and the drive for excellence.  In a slight departure from this metaphor, I will focus on the green fuse and leave aside the “force”.  I’ll just say that the force could be what the Buddhists call “True Nature”, the Christians call “agape” or “grace” and the non-theistic humanitarian, transpersonal theorist or existentialist philosopher might call “Being”, the natural state of calm beingness that makes it easier to express one’s authentic self.

If the flower of this revised metaphor is a healthy and productive community of whatever scale, then the green fuse that drives that flower is the intentional attitude of maintaining an atmosphere characterized by humility (openness to new learning), respect for others (the ability to “look again” instead of reducing people or their ideas to stale objects), and the willingness to “stay in the conversation”, whether that conversation involves negotiating personal/professional boundaries and relationships or sticking with a complex problem, which is temporarily holding things up.  This is far removed from the usual oppressive, hierarchical and egocentric approach to getting things done, and is ultimately more effective.

This is because, in the absence of an oppressive, frustrating or even traumatizing environment, people are free to be themselves as they are.  They are free to simply “be” without the need to exhaust their energies in reaction to perceived threats or to build hardened defensive shells to shut out negativity, the experience of being shut out or silenced or other dehumanizing external factors.  This kind of atmosphere is an ideal circumstance because it enables discovery, creativity, collaboration and self-expression.

Of course, this scenario does require some direction and guidance.  A laissez-faire, totally-hands-off approach could easily squander the opportunities, so there has to be some leadership, direction or guidance.

A group project, institution or business has the best chance of succeeding if the chief stewards are wise and mature enough to build a culture of architects, a culture in which the potential of others is sought and accessed, or at the very least not stifled.  I would even say that the chief stewards may not need to be wise and mature per se, but brave enough to encourage this kind of culture.  Why brave?  Because it’s brave to let others’ brilliance shine.  It’s brave to allow others to be right.  It’s brave to be called out for something you’re not doing so great.  It’s brave to relinquish control.

It’s brave because it involves some pain.  It’s painful to give up control, to be open to critique, or to not have the answers.  Who doesn’t want to be the most brilliant or to be the one most beyond reproach?  Who doesn’t want things to go her own way without the need to time-consumingly consult others? Being open to this kind of pain is not an easy task, but it’s necessary, because in my view, it’s more reality based. We are not always right, and, by default as human beings, we only have a partial, limited or sometimes even distorted perspective.  Whether due to our conditioning, our personality type, our worldview, or unresolved trauma, we need other people’s perspectives and expertise if we hope to grow as people and to be effective in the work we have set out to do.

The green fuse that drives the flowering of any enterprise is ultimately built on ensuring excellence by respecting and caring about people. It is both efficient and evolutionary.

The Green Fuse
The green fuse that drives the flowering of any enterprise is ultimately built on respecting and caring about people. It is both efficient and evolutionary.