The following excerpt from my book, What Matters at Work, seems timely for us to review this week… I hope it helps as we consider how to express leadership in these uncertain times. – Harry

A lovely little book, The Art of Possibility, by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander (2000) always inspires me. Among the gems included is the idea of “leading from every chair,” where Benjamin Zander recounts stories from the youth orchestra he conducted for many years and relates them to his philosophy of leadership. The lesson for us all is a simple one: Consider your position to be one with boundless potential to provide leadership in service to the greater aspirations and challenges before your group, wherever you may sit on the hierarchy and perceived power structure. 

The practical questions are, “How do we offer Leadership in a way that is sustainable, healthy for us and nourishing of others, while also expending necessary energy towards the challenge before us?” And “How do we lead from everywhere in the organization, regardless of positional power or status?”

Exercise: Refocusing to Offer Leadership       

WHO: Solo/Pair      

WHY: The routine practice of centering techniques allows us to return to a place of rest and focus again on those core Intentions whenever they are needed. This activity helps us remain focused on What Matters, to be sure. But it also relieves stress, allows positivity to engage our minds, and physically enables us to access resources in our brains that can ultimately be applied to solving the pressing challenges we face. Finally, it allows us to be prepared to listen empathically and non-judgmentally to those with whom we need to engage, from which we may discover the key ideas and feelings that we must understand and negotiate through our workdays. 


Step 1: In his book, ACT Made Simple (2009), Russ Harris offers a straight-forward format for constructing mindfulness exercises: 

  • Notice X. 
  • Let go of your thoughts.
  • Let your feelings be.    

Using this approach: 

  • Take a moment to notice your surroundings;
  • Focus on what you are noticing, and let go of other thoughts; and 
  • Feel whatever you are feeling, and be aware of these feelings in the moment.

With practice, this simple exercise can bring you back from distractions, whether they are worries, feelings of apprehension, or feelings of being overwhelmed in the moment. Once achieved, you may return to the task at hand, or otherwise reframe your problem-solving efforts.

Step 2: In a quiet place (though perhaps with some background sounds to muffle outside noises): 

  • Focus on your Intention. Get grounded physically so you are relaxed and open to sensing what is important to perceive at this time, with distractions reduced as much as possible; 
  • Recall two or three key Values that guide you. As you notice them, remember that you are a capable individual who offers your skills and talents in service to others and consistent with these Values. 
  • Take 2-3 minutes to calmly breathe, relax, and focus in this manner. Then: Notice the question we posed above, “How do we offer Leadership in a way that is sustainable, healthy for us and nourishing of others, while also expending necessary energy towards the challenge before us?” Take several minutes to contemplate this question in an open and non-judgmental manner.
  • Journal your emerging responses to the question. This may be your conclusion for now, or you may now proceed to the next step. 

Step 3: Meet with a trusted colleague, preferably someone who has already been a partner on this Journey with you before. Discuss what is now emerging for you. Identify specific action steps and resources available for you to offer these responses in a constructive, healthy, and sustainable manner. 

On a personal level, to “lead from everywhere” has become one of my most important challenges in this work. It has taught me that whenever I feel stuck, overwhelmed, or powerless to create the change I seek in the world, I can rediscover my focus. I am reminded of those things that I am passionate about, reducing the “noise” that distracts me inside my head or the toxic relationships that may undermine my resolve. If I regularly engage in this activity, it becomes so normal to me that I scarcely have to summon any special energy to do it. And because I am engaging in this effort in partnership with others, I find that it not only energizes me, but contagiously engages others to rededicate their efforts to follow their Intentions and Values in service to their Core Story.


(These are complex times — not merely complicated — and they also have many chaotic features as we wrestle with how best to respond to the challenges of the coronavirus and its sudden impacts on the world. This excerpt from my book, What Matters at Work, seems appropriate… I hope you find it helpful.)

When addressing challenges we face, we need to distinguish among the types of problems are being addressed. Michael Quinn Patton (Developmental Evaluation, 2010, and other writings) has created an excellent taxonomy of issues that serves us here: 

Simple problems

Some issues can be addressed by a recipe that can be easily replicated. There is high reliability that if you follow the recipe, you will achieve the same result each time. Examples of simple problems are fast food recipes (you expect a Big Mac, for example, to be prepared in the same way with the same result at any McDonald’s franchise in the world), warehouse storage strategies, usual payroll practices, room setup processes, and many maintenance problems. In order to solve a Simple problem reliably, you train towards sameness: if we teach employees how to serve food on the lunch line, for example, they can repeat that skill in settings and deliver predictable results. Simple problems are often accompanied by “best practices,” tried and true approaches that are readily shared and available across the organization and, in many cases, across the industry (see ISO 9000 standards, for example). 

Complicated problems

There are other issues that are characterized by a larger number of variables, which sometimes can be disaggregated to become a chain of simple problems. A large mathematical formula is such a complicated problem, and by following the order of operations, you can solve it. Sending a spaceship to the moon is solved this way, following the laws of math and physics, with 99.99% reliability. But there is another important element of most complicated problems: There are several ways to go about solving them, resulting in natural social and technical tensions among members of a problem solving team. Some prefer to work more independently, while others like to communicate regularly. Some are deductive, others are inductive. Some can call upon past experiences from similar problems, while others can draw upon vastly different experiences. These tensions often result in conflicts over how best to solve the problem, especially as members get entrenched in their own preferred approaches and communication breaks down. There are truly several “better practices” in most Complicated problems, and each practice has its unique social and technical benefits and costs. Much of the work in scientific laboratory research, surgical team procedures, strategic planning processes, and menu planning for catering operations all are truly Complicated problems.

Complex problems

Finally, there are complex problems (sometimes called, “Wicked problems”), and they are characterized by uncertainty, dynamism, and powers of emergence.  They lack the predictability of either Simple or Complicated problems, and often exhibit disproportionate impacts of variables as a result. While large amounts of data can be helpful, it is still a quality of Complexity that there will be significant uncertainty. In life, examples abound: raising a child, experiencing romance, reacting to surprise. There is little predictability involved in assessing strategies and responses to such problems. In the workplace, many of the issues we have been discussing are Complex problems: relationships among work teams, strategic planning in the midst of vast change, reinventing an established organization or starting one in a totally new market space. Complex problems are not approached by just throwing up our hands and praying for insight, but are well navigated through practices that are learned through group intelligence that is cultivated over time. As such, we call these approaches “emergent practices,” in contrast to the “best practices” more appropriate to Simple problems or the “better practices” of Complicated problems. 

Chaotic problems

One additional category is worth mentioning at this time: Chaotic problems are those for which we cannot discern a pattern, or for which the “rules of engagement” have yet to be defined, negotiated, and agreed upon by relevant parties. There are certain issues that naturally qualify within our corporate lives…46 

For example, a new crisis has emerged in the organization related to larger, unpredicted political crises in the world. Our communication and decision-making channels and resources are otherwise committed, people are already busy with routine issues that align with our mission and strategic plan, etc. Suddenly, a crisis on the other side of the world disrupts our supply chain and deliver infrastructure. 

Upon further analysis, we find that we have practiced similar scenarios and have answered some of these challenges before. We can generally sort the Chaotic issues into sub-issues that fit the other categories, and then respond appropriately. This requires a nimble, flexible, and committed leadership and staff, but if we have practiced our Core Values and Intentions, we can be successful in such situations. 

Assessment of Simple, Complicated, and Complex Problems in Practice

The assessment approaches we need to use should vary with the types of problems we are facing: 

For Simple problems, the outcomes are readily measured and generally follow recognizable criteria – did the recipe taste good? Did it look appealing? Were ingredients used in proper proportion? Did the recipe stay on budget? These types of assessment questions make sense for Simple problems. Even in IT and Project Management, much of “requirements gathering” can use this approach and make sense: What does the customer need from the system? Is the solution addressing that need in a cost-effective way? Is the project following an understood timeline that accounts for input of all variables? 

For Complicated problems, use of Logic Models can be extremely helpful in assessment, as they surface for the team’s consideration all relevant variables and how they are best utilized and sequenced to achieve preferred outcomes. If we are clear about the goal we seek to achieve, a process that uses formative and summative evaluation and assessment tools makes sense; Complicated problems fit this model beautifully. 

But for Complex problems, another approach is required:  We need to engage in frequent “pulse checks,” sensing where the situation is now constructed and reformulating itself. This requires ongoing assessment, not only regarding anticipated outcomes, but also with sensitivity to new outcomes that are occurring. 

For example, we might implement a new peer mentoring program at our company, hoping it will result in improved performance for those who are mentored. If we are open to diverse metrics, we might discover (a) social impacts on mentors from being in a helping relationship, (b) shifts in work roles for mentors, now joining leadership of new projects, (c) higher engagement and retention rates for mentees, as their learning outcomes improve and they “catch on” and feel greater overall confidence in their work skills and connectedness to colleagues, or (d) that mentees return as mentors with future employees, seeking to “pay it forward” in gratitude. 

It isn’t that these results will occur, but that they may occur and get noticed so there can be a more complete evaluation and understanding of the impacts of the program. 

Complex problems benefit from “utilization-focused evaluation,” an approach championed by Michael Quinn Patton (Essentials of Utilization-Focused Evaluation, 2011). This approach expressly allows us to treat innovation as an emergent process, one that respects its complexity, dynamism, and uncertainty. As such, we can pursue those strategies that become most promising (rather than having high certainty of them before starting the process), remaining flexible to notice new factors in the ever-changing currents of Complex challenges. 

In “Alice in Wonderland,” the Cheshire Cat told Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there!” To succeed with any significant change, people often need to know where they are headed and whether they are achieving desired results. I get that: Otherwise, they have no ability to discern whether their change efforts are progressing or adding any value. But in some situations, the goals are less discernible, the “roads” to traverse may be dusty paths, and trails are less traveled. By understanding whether we are dealing with Simple, Complicated, or Complex issues, we will gain necessary insights regarding how best to approach such change efforts, and have a far more interesting journey along the way.

Reconsider “Time”

“The moment is simply structured that way.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

We live in a special moment in time. Our lives are disrupted, our work transformed. This excerpt from my book, What Matters at Work, seems especially ‘timely’ for all of us.

An element that distracts us from Intention is the fragmentation of the modern organization and the activities that support it: One meeting flows into another, each having limited relevance to the next, and the tasks that relate to each conversation get obscured by the urgency of recent calls to action. We are stressed by the mountain of unresolved conversations, often accompanied by vast amounts of time-wasting and sense-numbing mountains of data. We underutilize our talents and devolve into problem-solving approaches that often fail to produce viable solutions. And because bureaucracy channels our efforts in ways that make true connection across perspectives less likely, we often engage in “managing up/down” behaviors that are politically risk-averse, further hindering quality communication from occurring.

The poet David Whyte, who specializes in helping us make sense of corporate life and work through artistic reflection, has offered many writings on the subject of Time. This excerpt seems appropriate here:

Time is a Season 
by David Whyte 

Most traditional human cultures have seen the hours of the days in the same way as they have encountered the seasons of the year: not as clear lines drawn across our experience, but as an advancing quality, a presence, a visitation, and an emergence of something growing inside us as much as it is growing in the outer world. A season or an hour of the day is a visitation whose return is not always assured. Every spring following a long winter feels as miraculous as if we are seeing it for the first time. Out of the dead garden rises abundance beyond a winter eye’s comprehension.The hours and the seasons are sometimes a flowering, sometimes a disappearance, and often an indistinguishable transience between the two, but all the hours of the day and the seasons of the year enunciate some quality in the world that has its own time and place. To make friends with the hours is to come to know all the hidden correspondences inside our own bodies that match the richness and movement of life we see around us. The tragedy of constant scheduling in our work is its mechanical effect on the hours, and subsequently on our bodies, reducing the spectrum of our individual character and color to a gray sameness. Every hour left to itself has its mood and difference, a quality that should change us and re-create us according to its effect upon us.

Exercise: Time for Intentions                     

WHO: Solo       

WHY: How do we approach Time so it flows in a manner consistent with our Intentions? Here is an exercise that helps us gain greater clarity:


Step 1: Recall a specific time when you were a member of a group that “flowed…” Time passed in a way that was scarcely noticeable, as you and others so cherished the work you were doing and the time you spent together that you gladly worked beyond normal time frames until exhausted but satisfied, you finally adjourned. 

Step 2: Journal this experience. Notice:

  • What made this experience so memorable for you? 
  • How did you feel at the time? 
  • Are there any aspects of that experience that you seek to replicate today in your work? 
  • How do these insights inform your interest in focusing on What Matters consistent with your Intentions?

Revisiting Core Values and Intentions During This Unique Time

One of the central lessons of What Matters at Work is that we must pay close attention to our Core Values and Intentions. When our worlds are “turned upside down” by major disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic, this focus is even more crucial: There are the opportunities to be distracted by the never-ending news cycle, we can be paralyzed by fear for ourselves and our loved ones, and we may be overwhelmed by our new work circumstances with family members and housemates working from home… Thus, we may easily stray from What Matters. 

Yet there are opportunities in the midst of this way of Being and Doing that offer new pathways towards discerning What Matters, if we take the time to notice them: 

  • Revisit your Core Values and Intentions — Are they remaining ‘top of mind’ these days? Have they been displaced by work with new urgency? Before setting aside these ideas, make sure they are explored for the opportunities they offer. 

For example, our business may have shifted its priorities to “all COVID-19, all the time” and set aside any other projects. My intention is to Think Strategically, so I am not only reacting to the crisis just ahead. There is urgency to the current focus, to be sure, and there is also value in keeping some attention on those priorities that will sustain us when we need to shift focus in a few months. For some, this may not be possible right now, but for others there is energy to offer such attention.

We often feel our own resources are in short supply at times of crisis, especially if we have had work reduced or our jobs have disappeared (which is a reality for at least ⅓ of us). But if my value is to be Generous, how might I live into that value?  Perhaps I can connect with people I care about, to be sure they have what they need, or find ways to help out while being “sheltered in place” while being mindful of my need to find new work and income. 

Consider ways of being true to your values that are possible because of the threats to our well-being, noticing new ways to invest in yourself and your community that wouldn’t have been noticed had we not been in crisis (for example, some are seeing the importance of gaps in the health care system that were being set aside previously). These interests are not in conflict with one another – We may even find new synergies through such thinking. 

  • Motivation and focus can ebb at times during the day, leading to self-critical comments about dedication and commitment. Allow yourself to experience these shifts, then create “transition structures” that facilitate new ways of getting energized. Start small, by doing relevant, energizing tasks and then committing to 20m, then 40m spurts of focused energy on less-appealing, necessary tasks. Set aside those things that can truly wait, and shift modes regularly in ways that allow you to manage sitting, screen time. Many of the suggestions made about the Desired Calendar Activity are relevant.
  • Meetings may become less structured, offering chances to “check in” that are valued in working relationships. We are usually so hurried and task-driven, racing from one meeting to another (I realize that can happen in strings of Zoom meetings, as well). If we take a few minutes to “check in” at the start of the meeting, it can be a valued “safe space” to hear ideas and feelings derived from some aspects of this new way of working. It is also a chance to express the ambivalence towards some of our work tasks and projects that we are feeling. It’s all there, it’s all real. 

My only caution is not to let the meeting goal and purpose be so distracted from such discussion that we never get to our work purpose, or that one person’s angst overwhelms the group. We can manage our time to focus on the things that matter in our work while also regarding the special circumstances we are experiencing. 

  • Journal Your Experiences of this Moment: We have little idea how the COVID-19  experience will play out, or how long we will be “sheltered in place” in our communities. As such, taking stock of how we are working at this time may be especially valuable. We can notice how our Core Story is informing our actions and we can sense how our Core Values and Intentions are being tested. We can begin identifying new ways of working that we may take forward with us when we move into the next phase, after the crest of the pandemic recedes. It is becoming clear that the economic and societal impacts will linger for months or years, so being aware of our priorities will be useful for a considerable period of time. 
  • Communities of Practice are more essential than ever: Use virtual platforms to continue or initiate peer-led learning opportunities. There may be ways to engage members who haven’t been able to participate in some time, either because geography has prevented their personal attendance or because schedules have new flexibility. CoP’s are great sources of ideas to address pressing project needs, as well as ways to build connections as we think about new work opportunities. 

There are ways of noticing such opportunities in our personal lives, as well: 

  • Through preparing meals with ingredients that we now have available, we discover new tastes to relish together. From this discovery, we may engage our kids in new ways or hear stories of our parents and grandparents that lay dormant, opening up new channels of communication within our family regarding those things we value; 
  • In our isolation, we are reminded of friends we haven’t seen in many years, and connect through email or video chat. We have previously discussed the importance of connecting with others during this time… it also allows us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

For example, one friend from my youth recently found herself scanning old photos, sent me a few where I was present, and we had a really nice way to catch up a little. In turn, it offered me a way to connect with my family about a phase of my life far removed from our experiences together; 

  • Reframing and redefining our social groups allows for creativity and new contributions from members. It also lets us reach out and support those who are needing it, whether due to job loss, illness, or other stressors that influence our ways of being a group together. Personally, I have missed some important gatherings and fear many more will be canceled. But this allows me to discover new ways of connecting that can have great value to all of us. 

By revisiting our core values and intentions, old pathways get reinvigorated and restored while new ones open for us to discover. If we stay true to What Matters during such a unique time, it can pay meaningful dividends for us and for our organizations in the future. 

Stay Well,


Dealing with Conflict Under Stress — Keep It Simple

Much of my work over the years has been in helping address workplace conflicts. When we are all now trying to do our part to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 on our society, we also must adjust to new ways of working under stress. Different businesses are experiencing different stress factors: Some are working from home, balancing work and family responsibilities in a new light. Others are in warehouses, hospitals, grocery stores, and factories, working side-by-side with others to deliver essential goods and services while knowing their own risks are greater because they do so. And then there are many who are laid off, or whose work has been otherwise cancelled, so even their definitions of “workplace” are in flux.

The reality for many of us these days is that we are even more highly stressed than usual, fearful of the health and financial effects of this pandemic. And if you are working in certain environments, you are also increasingly exhausted. These factors combine to test our abilities to deal effectively with one another, so it only makes sense that conflicts will arise. Here are some basic steps you can take to address them, whether over the phone or across a “physically appropriate” distance: 

  1. Prepare Yourself to Engage in the Conversation: Paradoxically, this may be an opportunity offered by lack of proximity. 
    • Take a deep breath and get centered before you attempt to speak with the other person. Prepare yourself to listen fully
    • Notice 1 or 2 “most important things” you want the other person to understand. It won’t help to overwhelm them, and we may not have energy for long discussions. 
    • You might also remind yourself what might happen if an agreement isn’t negotiated. Sometimes we stay ‘at the table’ to talk because the alternatives don’t work well.
  1. Seek to Fully Understand and to be Understood: This is all about having a conversation, where we really try to understand one another’s concerns, perspectives, and experiences with the issues at hand.
    • Patiently demonstrate to the other person that you are ready to listen, and ask for that same commitment in return (establishing “Ground rules” can be helpful, as well, such as “one person will speak at a time, without interruption”). 
    • Take time to Clarify, Restate, and Summarize what you each hear from one another – it takes a little longer at first, but establishes a good rhythm for listening and talking. If you take the lead, the other person will likely follow – minimally, you may ask for it in return.
  1. Identify the Core Issues – What is Really Needed?: A key to negotiating effective agreements is to focus on the key underlying needs, interests and concerns of those involved.
    • What did the previous discussion reveal? What are a couple of core issues that should be addressed today?
    • If all involved can agree on mutual concerns, as well as something that may also matter to one person more than the other, an Agenda can be established that reflects what is really needed. 
  1. Patiently Discuss Each Issue, Generating Options and Possible Solutions: Use your skills here to “work the problem.” 
    • Start with an issue you both agree is important. If discussing a few issues, start with one more likely to be addressed quickly.
    • Take turns offering possible solutions without judgment, and then review the list and see what might work. Taking each issue in turn, build an agreement. 
    • If you get stuck, either return to Step 3 or move on for now.
  1. Review the Agreement, Agree to “Check in” Again: Review the Agreement that is emerging, and clarify ‘action steps’ now needed to implement it. 
    • Be clear regarding who is responsible for various actions, including any communication with others not part of this conversation. 
    • Clarify expectations regarding the time required to take these steps, as well. Be realistic, given the way we are now living and working.
    • Finally, identify a time to “check in” together to see how things are going. 

Sorry I don’t have a cool acronym to remember, but I think these steps are pretty clear. With some practice, you can follow them and coach others on your staff to do the same. If you are facilitating a conversation involving two staff members or an upset team, just follow these same steps with them. 

We can do this! We don’t need to put off dealing with those workplace and community conflicts that were boiling over before we shifted into life during COVID-19, but we can simplify our approaches given social distancing and virtual communication realities. We may not be able to get all of the visual and physical cues that are present in a face-to-face conversation where we are at the same table together, but by being really intentional about our approaches, we can have some meaningful and worthwhile conversations that make this new workplace reality a bit more tolerable. 

How is work going for you in these new circumstances? What other suggestions do you have that work well for such conversations over the phone or over video conference? How are conversations at work happening among co-workers who are maintaining ‘social distance’ to get the work done safely… and what is happening when people feel that just isn’t possible? 

Stay well,