Privilege in a Shared World

I am a person of privilege.

My family weren’t people of privilege while I was growing up, but I am. I felt this powerfully when I was sitting in the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles listening to the Electric Light Orchestra—something that’s been on my bucket list and Andrea’s, too. She spent half the evening telling anybody who would listen in the rows around us that she was from Birmingham, the same city that Jeff Lynne, the Electric Light Orchestra’s iconic leader, is from. I swear I heard her say to one American who was trying to listen to “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” that they used to have Sunday dinner together.

Privilege brings wonderful opportunity to do great things, even fly to L.A. to check something off a bucket list.

It also brings the opportunity to talk in ways that hurt others. Just because you have the opportunity doesn’t mean you have to take it.

In political conversations, privilege often is a mean word, one that separates groups of people. One person speaks out of a culture of social or economic privilege and another retorts that privilege amounts to self-serving blinders. It’s worth a conversation.

Op-Ed columnist and author David Brooks talks about two sets of virtues—the resume virtues, and the eulogy virtues. The difference is plain. One is what you want people to see in you in the marketplace. The other is what you hope people would say at your funeral. For many of us, there is not much overlap. Brooks goes on to talk about a moral bucket list—the experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life. You can read his moral bucket list here, but I’d also like to challenge you to think about your own.

So many of us use what privilege we might have, small or great, to enhance our resume virtues for a better job or a position of power.

The flipside is to ponder how we might use what privilege we might have, small or great, to do good in a struggling world.

Privilege brings choices, the ability to exercise agency in the way we construct our lives, to see movement toward what we’d like our lives to be like. People with less privilege than I’ve experienced—people like my parents—certainly can teach us to be decent human beings whatever our circumstances. My parents, who were never well off, [link to post about painting the doors?] inculcated in me the values of love and compassion. I do my best to carry these traits into situations where I do have some privilege, especially as a leader.

  • What choices can we make that will help us find our own capacity for deep love even as leaders?
  • What choices matter not so much in how many people we manage or the size of our budget, but in whether we have truly led well?
  • What choices are the defining moments that mean not that we’ve simply stopped something but that we created something?

What’s on your moral bucket list for bringing about good in the world we share?

 

 

Go Cubs Go!

“You were wearing a Dodgers cap while presenting yourself to me as a Cubs fan? I’m not sure I can keep being your friend.”

Can you guess that my friend is a diehard Cubs fan? I had been to LA recently and bought a cap that said “LA” without realizing that the letters were actually a logo for the Dodgers, who battled the Cubs in the playoffs. I’ve done the same thing with B for Boston and NY for New York. It turns out I have begun a collection of caps for baseball teams and didn’t know it.

How about those Cubs! (Pardon me if you are a Cleveland fan.)

I am new to this baseball stuff. What strikes me most is that baseball players often have impressive beards and that I wouldn’t want to be in a spitting contest with any of them. I am trying hard to be a dutiful Cubs fan. So far I have learned that we really like to beat the Cardinals, and that we haven’t forgiven the Mets for 1969 or the Padres for 1984. Maybe some of that will ease up now that the Cubs had the best record in baseball and won the World Series for the first time since 1908. Another kind of history was made as well: When Dexter Fowler stood at the plate in the first inning of the first game, he was the first African American player to be in a Cubs uniform in the World Series.

Sports fans are persistent and deeply vested in their teams. For me, it’s Manchester United football (read: soccer, if you must) match-ups and 60 years of hurt since England has won the World Cup. It seems like we keep going to tournaments to get beaten by the Germans on penalties. I have some sympathy for the long drought in the Cubs’ history.

In my office I have a Manchester United scarf. For years it’s gone with me wherever I go. I brought it all the way from England. It’s a constant thing that I can look at and feel a connection to all the other rabid Manchester fans.

I sometimes say I came to America to get away from Chelsea fans. Wouldn’t you know it, my new friend Bill is a Chelsea fan. He stole my Manchester scarf and put the Chelsea scarf in its place. I thought maybe he would hold it for ransom and exact a hefty payment from me. Instead the two scarves are held in place by drawers to show how they rank against each other. Chelsea is at the top, to my consternation, and Manchester at the bottom. The theory is that if Manchester United wins, it goes up a little. The reality is that my team is settling into the bottom drawer.

As I watched some of the World Series games, it struck me that I could have been watching any sport—even the European football championship—as the cameras panned the spectators. The anguish in some faces, everybody on their feet at tense moments, the loud cheering, the ecstasy of a genius strategy at just the right moment, the agony when things go wrong.

Fans are loyal! Players can come from anywhere, but as soon as they put on the team jersey, they belong to the team. We all know there is a business underbelly to sports—professional sports are big money, and a lot of decisions come down to making money on a large scale. But still, we do like our teams.

In the middle of the series, my Cubs fan friend said, “All my life I’ve wanted them to play in the World Series. Now that it’s happening, it’s incredibly nerve wracking.”

Anything that’s important comes with that double-edged sword of great excitement and great anxiety.

The vast majority of teams don’t win, but we keep on cheering. It can’t be for the glory, which is so elusive. I think it’s to feel part of something, and to experience hope, a flicker of what might be. Cubs Nation has taught us that much.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

That’s true whether we’re bantering about sports, debating politics, or just having reasonable conversations with people at home or at work.

The Cubs have done a great thing with a five-year plan that got them where they wanted to be. Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could harness that kind of team dedication, planning, hard work and fan frenzy around some of the social issues we face together? If we could pull together for real change, hope, and a flicker of what might be?

Maybe we could have a World Series of Health Care. I’ll bring the scarves and caps. I’m bound to have something for everyone.

The Wrong Side of the Road

I was trying to get a good deal on my auto insurance a few weeks ago. It was incredibly frustrating!

I know everybody who drives goes through this process, but most people don’t have the problem I had. No matter who I spoke to, I kept running up against the same issue.

The fact that I’ve been driving for decades didn’t matter. Because I was driving in another country—and on the “wrong” side of the road—my experience didn’t matter. I only get credit for three years, the amount of time we have been living and driving in the US. Apparently if I had been born in Germany or France or any other country that drives on the right side of the road, then I would have had a better chance of getting credit for thirty years of driving.

I said I’d driven on mainland Europe many times. On vacation. On business trips. To see family. To buy cheap French wine. I’ve even driven a double-decker bus.

Nope. No credit.

I tried to convince people I was a great driver. (I left out the bit about how Andrea has to keep a constant eye on me because I fiddle with the radio or look out the window or listen to what the girls are saying in the back of the car.)

Nothing. Both my history and my context was denied. The computer says No! I listen to the constant debate in this country about lives that matter. Three words, Black Lives Matter, can stir up such dissension. My experience of having my history and context count for nothing makes me think about all the people who have their racial history and context dismissed. Whatever their experience, they haven’t been driving on the right side of the road.

I’ve gotten past the fact that I have to shell out for the rates of an inexperienced teenage driver, but I still feel indignant about somebody not recognizing what I bring to the steering wheel. Thirty years!

In the debate about whose lives matter, we do the same thing as the insurance agents. It’s too easy to dismiss history and context because we’ve already decided it’s not relevant.

Obviously, everybody matters.

But in the discourse around Black Lives Matter, we miss the history and context of a century ago or thirty years ago or last week in neighborhoods across America. Every day, we too easily dismiss the stories and journeys and experiences of people who are different in some way that we are. As far as we’re concerned, everybody else has been driving on the wrong side of the road.

Well, maybe I have been driving on the left for most of my life. I don’t have the identical experience as someone else. But I do have a capacity for empathy, and I like to think everyone around me does as well.

The joy, the excitement, the connection we can feel through empathy is astounding.

I don’t claim to be a paragon of virtue. I certainly have my non-empathetic moments. But on issues as big as whose lives matter, we ought to be empathetic. In doing so, we will free ourselves from comparisons of anger and rage and the need to out-shout each other.

Ultimately we’ll all drive on the same side of the street—or better yet, right down the center of a street named Empathy.

Our Friend Gail

Gail became a great friend to us when she and I both worked in government, me in the UK and Gail in the US. She’s a thoughtful, intelligent consultant in the area of behavioral health for all sorts of organizations.

As we came to America, she offered us so much very practical help, including sound advice and somewhere we always felt welcome. Her home is one of those places where were feel genuinely relaxed. It’s a safe space. At every encounter I am astounded at the way she cares for us.

Part of Gail’s manner of hospitality is that she loves to create a platter of food, one large colorful, fragrant abundance of food. Now we create platters at our house. When we create a platter we are especially proud of, we send a photo to Gail, and she sends us her offerings as well. (And it saves on the washing up.)

During a visit at the beginning of the summer, we were talking about a salad. Gail asked us if it was all right, which of course it was. More than all right. Utterly delicious.

“Salads never taste as good when you make them for yourself,” she said.

That’s true! If you cook for yourself, it’s just never as good as when someone else cooks for you. Sometimes when I am chatting with a friend on Skype, my wife brings me a cup of tea. Now mind you, it’s not that I’m not a modern man. I’m an Englishman. I can make proper tea. But it’s so lovely and tastes so much better when Andrea does it.

This is true for so many experiences.

But I can think of one where the principle does not apply—making an apology. No one else can put together the ingredients of an apology that feels authentic for you. The one thing we have to do for ourselves is say, “I’m sorry.”

Yet if we can swallow the truth that we may not be the only person in the room with an answer, or that our words came too fast and too fierce, or that a choice trivialized other valid perspectives—well, being sorry can be so liberating.

As a leader I’ve learned that a heartfelt apology can be another transition point both in my growth as a leader and in the potential of a team or an organization. An authentic apology is the kind of salad only I can create, and it nourishes both me as I offer it and those who receive it.

Daddy to Dude to Sir Outalot

“Dude!”

Honestly, I don’t know what came after that, because the word came out of my daughter’s mouth. I was “Daddy.” Calling me “Dude” had the shocking effect of a swear word spoken by my sweet daughter, and I completely lost traction with the conversation.

Dude is one of those words invented by a genius—or at least popularized by a genius in the last couple of decades—because it can mean virtually anything you want it to mean.

If you do something really cool, even accidentally, those around you might say, “Dude!” and pat you on the back.

If you win an award? “Dude! Congratulations!”

But if you’ve just embarrassed yourself and tanked the project, it might be

“Duuude! What were you thinking?”

If you’re the only one in the room who didn’t get the joke? “Dude.” Inflection and body language mean more than the urban dictionary entry. In my case at home, Ellie was also rolling her eyes while saying, “Dude,” a

combination which even I realize has meaning all its own. Maybe I don’t want to know. I can’t even ask what she meant because she just rolls her eyes all over again.

Ellie just turned ten and is growing up so fast. Relationships change as you grow up, of course. We all test the limits and boundaries. I’m used to my adult son constantly jibing me, but I am not used to Ellie calling me Dude. But even established relationships continue to develop new dimensions as we enter new seasons.

At work, in a new role I took on only a few months ago, I’m going through a similar process of sorting out nuances of relationships. What exactly does “Dude!” mean in this situation?

Most new jobs have a honeymoon period, during which people extend us grace as we get to know them, understand their work, appreciate their contributions. And they’re figuring out the same things about this oddball British bloke who turned

up on the doorstep. What an enlightening time that has been.

I want to do well. I want to achieve something. The coherence around work I’m doing gets clearer day to day. I meet with colleagues who run hospitals, behavioral health service lines, and home health services. They have fascinating stories. Their visions are strong and powerful. It’s so energizing to listen to them. And what a fantastic reminder of the value of growing into relationships.

What we often do not have in work settings, and which I’ve been given in this unique position, is time. My responsibility is to piece together a program of work largely delivered and supported by others—not in the sense that I sit in a cushy office while the little people do all the work, but in the sense that many parts of the hospital system, and agencies in Memphis, are doing great work that can be leveraged to new levels of excellence by understanding and appreciating what we each bring to the table. Being influential often is associated with levels of knowledge or a title on the door, but this time I think it has to do with how well we listen to one another.

At work, if anyone calls me “Dude,” I hope it’s in the vein of “Dude! Genius!” But I’m not holding my breath. If I see the Ellie eye-roll going on, I’ll know it’s something else.

So they don’t call me “Dude,” at least not to my face. But a good friend and leader of strategic change here where I work has named me “Sir Outalot.” And to me it feels as if I’ve been knighted by the queen herself. If I’m out of the office a lot, it’s because I’m out in the community listening. And if I can use my new stature to ennoble my colleagues and make them Lords and Ladies of Listening, then all the better.

Right? Dude.

Camp Whatchamericana

What is this obsession with camps in America?

When I was a kid, the sports teacher at my school. He was a great guy—unless he made you run cross country in the rain. (I used to run with the smokers. I could count on them to stop for a cigarette, and honestly, I needed the break even if I didn’t inhale.)

At the end of the school year, he’d go off to a summer job in America. People would ask him what he did in America in the summers and he’d say, “I’m a camp counselor.”

I didn’t have a clue what that was, having never been to camp anywhere, much less in America.

Now I do. My two little girls have had a summer full of camps. First they did Vacation Bible School together. Then separately one went to swim camp and the other to dance camp. Ava was the star, of course, the best of the two dozen girls on stage. You can trust me on that. I am telling you the truth. You know I wouldn’t exaggerate on such a matter.

Later Ava went to Frozen camp. Just when I got those songs out of my mind, she made sure they were wound up for another round, turning our house into a constant karaoke zone. Meanwhile Ellie was doing mud camp. You read that right. Mud camp. Who knew? Every day’s outdoor activity ended in a pool of mud—and various lost articles of clothing. People pay money to send their kids to camp to get filthy, and apparently I am one of those people.

The camps are popular, and they help kids learn all sorts of skills. In addition to the variety of camps, I’m taken with everything else Memphis has to offer. The library has all sorts of free summer activities. So many organizations have so much going on. It’s great, really.

I had none of that as a child. So what did I do in the summer? I played the World Cup in a little alley next to our house. It was narrow enough for me to play on my own. I could kick the ball up against a house on either side of the alley, representing the competing teams. Because I was England, I would always get knocked out early from the World Cup. But then there was Brazil and their star player Pele. While I was Pele, I was also the crowd chanting, “Pe-le! Pe-le!”

Because my dad was ill, he was home a lot during that season of my life. My most shameful moment happened in that alley. My dad was outside watching me for a few minutes, and a boy came down the street and said, “What are you doing?”

My dad said, “Oh, he’s playing football again and he’s Brazil.”

Then he went in the house, and the boy said, “Who was that?”

“My granddad,” I said.

I was only eight or nine, but as a consequence of being ill, my father looked old enough to be my grandfather.

I don’t know why I said that. I don’t torture myself over it, but the fact that I denied my father in that way still echoes in my mind more than forty years later.

Although no one else has known, until the first person to read this post, I feel the shame of it. I have had a hard and fast rule since that day that I would never deny someone like that again.

I saw Pele play once. He came to England for an exhibition game, and my older brother took me. I could hardly see, but there he was, dressed in gleaming white and looking stellar. Everybody wanted the Brazilians to get a free kick outside the penalty area to see what Pele would do. He did get a free kick—and missed. Harry Potter hadn’t come along yet at the time, but if it happened now, the crowd would be hoping for a Harry Potter style of moving the ball back to the net when obviously even Pele had missed the target.

We all miss the target. It’s part of our human condition. But what do we learn from it? How do even our failures help shape us into the people we would like to be? Whether in summer camps or playing the World Cup singlehandedly, we make slips during childhood, and we must learn our lessons. My swimming, dancing, singing, muddy daughters are both in the general age range I was that day in the alley. I’m sure they made some slips, and not just in the mud, but I hope they also had insights at camp this summer that they will carry with them as they grow into the amazing women I know they will be.

Why Do I Watch This Stuff?

I am addicted to the political discourse that will take us to November 8 and the election of the next president of the United States. (POTUS is a very cool nickname, don’t you think?)

November 8 is also my daughter Ava’s birthday. She will be seven, and by that point we will have been in America for the best part of six years. Ava knows only America as her home and Barack Obama as her president. The truth is Ava wonders why he has to go.

If I’m honest, I’ve had a fixation about politics for quite a while. It’s just that at the moment it’s virtually insatiable. This latest round has been fueled by Brexit in my homeland and of course the nominating conventions here in the US. I watched both the Republican and Democratic conventions almost fanatically. Speeches and strategies and platforms and promises. Some of it was lofty, and some of it was … not.

On the one hand, I chide myself. What is the attraction of watching all this? I’m not a US citizen and I can’t vote. I don’t actually have a citizen’s obligation to reach a conclusion and show up on November 8. On the other hand, it frustrates me that I have a sense of what is right, but I cannot participate in the process of bringing it to be. I feel blessed and happy to be in this country, and I’m eager to contribute. My girls could not help but encounter some of the conventions because they were on all the time. Both girls began to ask, “What happened today?” as if it were the latest reality television craze. Of course, they can’t vote either.

I talk about my girls a fair bit here on the blog, so I felt an affinity to Michelle Obama’s compelling speech and her focus on her children. (FLOTUS is also a cool nickname.) I appreciate the historical context of the last seven and a half years of an African American woman living with her black daughters in the White House, a national structure that slaves were required to help build even though they could no more vote than I or my girls can now. The Khans were incredibly moving in the presentation about what being an American meant to the son they lost to war. My mother’s loss of a son helped me connect to the Khans.

Despite glowing moments, however, I would have to be living under a rock not to shudder at the divisive language that—ugly as it has been—is only beginning as we head into 90 days of intense campaigning. “You can’t be a true person of faith if you vote for this candidate.” “You have no moral center if you vote for that candidate.” “The choice is between evil and more evil.” “I will never vote for a candidate who (fill in the blank).” #NeverTrump. #NeverHillary.

Can we even hear each other over our polarizing statements?

My thoughts keep returning to the word convention. The term points to the kind of gatherings we have just witnessed with nonstop television coverage, a large meeting with some sort of common purpose. But another definition is the way things are usually done with regard to a particular activity. (And I suppose the political conventions have their own conventions about how they do things.) A third definition is an agreement that represents a mutually beneficial way of moving forward on matters that are genuinely important. For instance, the Geneva Conventions are a body of international law that provide minimum standards of humane treatment to individuals who become victims of armed conflict. The conventions—agreements—establish the way of acting that will be widely accepted and followed. The Geneva Conventions address war, a dirty, horrid, awful thing, and say that even in extreme circumstances, we can still express our humanity.

Perhaps in this post-nomination, pre-election season, we would do well to set aside the meaning of the word convention as a large gathering where neither side has to listen to the other. Instead we could focus on the meaning that suggests ways we can agree to conduct ourselves for mutual benefit.

What would it take for all of us to hear—and offer—less anger and more respect? What would be some conventions that would carry us into the future we will share no matter who is elected? Even when things get down and dirty, how will we express our humanity toward one another?

Now that would make some good television.