here is what will happen ( involving a man, a motorcycle, and a bridge over the Missouri river)

Image

There will be a motorcyclist.

Passing you on the I-70 bridge, headed downhill over the Missouri river, he will gun his engine.

You will approve of the helmet on his head.

You will appreciate the distinctive, wide blue of his ride.

And as he disappears (from view, or just from your awareness?) you will return to Important Thoughts.

It’s good that I found the on-ramp.

I’m not sure I like the church I just visited.

I’m glad I’m meeting my family for dinner.

I have a headache.

You won’t remember coming around the corner.

You won’t understand that the mannequin-the man-whyishebleeding–is the same person you just saw.

Your mind will refuse to process, consciously, that this is a person at all, even as you act, without understanding, not to hit him to stop to get out to go to him, OhmyGod.

You will not understand, then, or later, or probably ever, how the motorcycle came to rest, alone, a quarter mile down the highway. You will be astonished, eventually, that you have left your own car running.

And now, at this moment, amid blood and broken pieces and things out of place, you will struggle to understand anything at all.

It will be surprisingly quiet.

There will not be a sign that flashes THIS IS WHAT AN EMERGENCY LOOKS LIKE. There will not be background music from ER or Law & Order. There will not be someone to give you instructions.

And so, you will wing it.

You will make an unlikely partner of the man, and he is a man, not a mannequin, not a body, as he follows you with his eyes, saying nothing. You will think, later, of a trout gasping on a riverbank.

This riverbank is made of concrete and set 60 feet in the air, strewn with debris, and no shoulder (no shoulder!?), no buffer–just two lanes and a white line and a wall.

And you. The trout’s cheerleader.

You will ask how he’s doing. You will ask if he can move. And when it’s clear to both of you that he can’t, you will still think that you are a team, you and him.

Your job in this team is to stand in front, to wave frantically as traffic comes around the corner, to jump up and down, and to yell at the 911 people who must determine, before helping you, if your square of the bridge is in Kansas or Missouri.

Your job is to plan quickly. Your job is to pray.

The man’s job is not to die.

You will say inane things like “stay with me” and “you’re gonna make it” and you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok.” You will know while you’re saying them that it’s not enough. Then you will say them again, jumping up and down and waving your arms for emphasis, furious with the cars, the drivers, the bridge, the minutes.

Shall I tell you that the center I reached in a state sounding a bit like “misery” first shared, via recording, that they were “too busy” to take my call?
Yes, I think I shall tell you.

 

The first responders, the real ones, the ones not standing outside of their bodies and waiting for a script and hoping not to die, those people will take forever to reach you.

Truly, it will seem like it. Three forevers.

One of sheer disoriented panic.

Two in which you try, both of you, to survive, and you wonder, as if about someone else, what the woman on the bridge is going to do about the first driver to come around the curve who is not paying enough attention to see.

And three in which you no longer have to go it alone. Three is the best. You still might all die, but now there is someone else to yell at the dispatchers, to wave to the fire trucks circling below (on the BRIDGE, my people, the bridge), and to enact, from farther back, vigilante traffic control.

DO NOT STOP THERE, you will roar at the man whose car is causing traffic to come around the corner even more ferociously than before.

I’VE GOT YOU COVERED, he will yell back—I’M GONNA SLOW THEM DOWN.

So you will trust him. And he does.

Three forevers, as best you can tell from your phone, its outgoing call log now a record of this improbable evening, takes exactly eleven minutes.

And then they come: ambulance, fire truck, police cars, SUV. They will do their actual work, and because you did not hit the man or his motorcycle, yours is done.

Cheerleading is neither recordable nor reportable.

And so, you will shake your head, say a prayer for this man, and stand to leave.

You will wonder, later, how there came to be blood on both sides of both arms, none of it your own. You will marvel, in contrast, at the cleanness of your clothing. The relative order of your hair.

But first, you will hug two strangers and high-five a third. It will feel like not-enough, not for this team, but you look into each other’s eyes, and you know. You offer each other blessings. You’ll walk away, back to your still-on, highly air-conditioned car.

And there, in flashing lights and a slump of relief, you will notice that your hands are shaking, and you will call who you call in situations like these.

You’ll pick someone good.

And she will answer. She will help.

And then, you will drive away down the ghostly highway before it reopens, before the ambulance is ready to go, before it takes the man somewhere else. Later, you will realize that you know his name, his wife’s name, his boots, his t-shirt, his blood, but you will not know what happens to him.

It will be many hours later when, at home and in the arms of the safest person you know, you can cry.

But you will. And this will help, too.

And the next day you will find, again, the shirt that you got for your older son. The one you initially thought better of—words on shirts have to be good, and these are also neon yellow. But it was two dollars, and has long sleeves, and is the right size to grow into.

Your husband keeps hanging it in your closet. You keep taking it back out and reminding him to put it with the size-up clothes.

But today you will think maybe it’s yours. Or that, for one evening on a bridge in a borderland that no one quite wants to lay claim to, it could have been.

Image

 

And, amid the everything-else that you are still trying to sort out, you will feel proud.

j

leading failure (a tutorial)

Imagine . . . You’re heading up a team or task force, and one of your members keeps dropping the ball.

She just doesn’t get it. She shows up late. She’s unprepared. Or maybe she volunteers to do things but never completes them.

Or, you’re a paid part of an organization, and you hire someone to do a job that seems like a great fit. He’s excited. You’re excited. And yet, he spins his wheels at first, and then, month after month, performs below the curve. He’s not delivering results, and that seems unlikely to change.

In either case, you shake your head as you wonder why the people who at first seemed so promising, in other contexts, are not able to perform as expected. Something must be wrong with the selection process. Or the applicant pool. Or with today’s volunteers or church members or college graduates.

Sound frustrating? Sound . . . familiar?

 

Whether as lay leaders, as ministers, or in our lives beyond the church walls, effective leadership is a critical skill for those who aim to truly transform lives. And like it or not, leadership means providing critical feedback in a way that fosters learning and change.

Scary? It is.

And the options we’re most familiar with—ignore the person, “fire” them, suggest politely that this might not be a great fit, express frustration to uninvolved third parties, or cross our fingers and hope—no, pray—that next time we are able to select a better team—those don’t seem to be working well.

And so, I’m suggesting an alternative, one that keeps the locus of control on ourselves:

WE as leaders must become experts at “caring confrontation.”

Red pawn figure against united yellow, isolation, confrontation,

This, in short, is our own courageous willingness to call each other, and ourselves, out when we miss the bar. Caring confrontation requires an eye on long-term results and an understanding that failure is a necessary (but intermediate) part of the learning process. Most of all, it requires us to think like educators.

In designing learning experiences, setting goals, and providing feedback, we become teachers—and we gain the opportunity to celebrate successes broader and deeper than we previously imagined.

If this sounds utopian, it may be because the more common approach—the one we perhaps learned by watching our own supervisors—is to avoid confrontation of any sort, all the while noting failures and storing up frustrations.

When we don’t know how to speak directly and honestly with one another about failure, we wait, instead, for a sanctioned opportunity: our chance to really lay it on the line. That chance is often an annual review or a final evaluation—and there, finally, we feel entitled to point out failure, and we do it by laying out our case. See here. And here. And here. You failed. I’ve been waiting to tell you, and I hoped that in the interim, you’d get it together. But you didn’t. How unfortunate.

Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (the One-Minute Managers) call this the “Gotcha Approach.” Everything rides on one meeting or summative document, and one never knows what it will say, as if the elements of fear and surprise are somehow integral to the learning process. Pro tip: they are not.

Ideally, those we supervise should be able to self-report, from moment to moment, their strengths and weaknesses. They know what the goal is, are personally invested in meeting it, and have the necessary tools to gauge their own performance.

This awareness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however—effective feedback lies at the very heart of the caring confrontation model. It’s just that feedback should not be delivered annually and in a summative way, unless it literally is a summary of what both parties already know. (You’ll know if this is the case because the summative document will feel boring to both of you.)

True feedback is ongoing and support-focused.

That feedback works as follows: first, we openly acknowledge failure when and where we find it. This is brief, private, and non-punitive. Then we point, again, to the bar that the learner is expected to clear, and we strategize together about the steps needed to clear it.

True feedback engages the learner—she’s making predictions, taking action, observing what happens, and then, with support, pausing to reflect. Then the cycle begins again. Think, here, of the teaching strategy of scaffolding—what the learner already knows provides the supportive framework, and we are encouraging her, always, to reach up in planning her next action.

With feedback, the learner can also make mid-course corrections—in fact, she’s expected to. And the organization, while spending more time in the training and supervision process, is also more likely to benefit from that investment because job satisfaction is higher and frustration and hopelessness are lower.

So what does caring confrontation require? It asks, in short, that we each become teachers.

 

Before you argue that you didn’t become a teacher for a reason, consider what you stand to gain by adding “educator” to your supervisor persona.

Leading like a teacher provides tools to break the gridlock and frustration of supervisees who “just don’t get it”—and it also provides organizational motivation to do things differently. As any good educator will tell you, the failure to learn lies first with the teacher.

This may initially sound unpalatable, but in responsibility lies freedom: because we have the power to change ourselves!

How does this work, in the caring confrontation model?

1. Teacher-leaders must approach any task—the “bar” that the learner must clear—as a set of key skills, in sequence. Have you visited a preschool or kindergarten classroom lately? Did you stop to wash your hands? If so, you may have seen a diagram like this.

task analysis, handwashing. Created with Boardmaker.

This is obviously very simple, but there was a time when it applied to you, too. You had to learn, part by part, what to do to clean your hands, and in which order—and to make it easier to learn, someone broke the task down for you.

In teaching, we are always asking, “What’s the next step?” Competence is the goal, but to get there, we must outline the path.

What is Rosie trying to accomplish? Think of the end goal as the top of a mountain, and imagine a long, winding trail leading up to the summit. Along the way are a series of huts—places to rest and take stock. The first step on Rosie’s path will be close to where she is now. The second will move the bar just a bit closer to the goal.   (Is this disappointingly un-magical? The path to results often is.)

This gets tricky when we are teaching someone a skill that feels like second nature to us. Perhaps it came so easily that even the steps to learning were masked—we mastered them internally. Unfortunately, it is in these areas—where we have no memory of struggling to learn—that we may instead struggle to teach. Fortunately, step 2 can help.

2. Teacher-leaders must know the learner’s skills and weaknesses, and meet her where she is.

Each step on the path needs to be achievable with the tools available, plus effort. Imagine that what you’re actually teaching is tightrope walking: falls are ok; injuries are not.

This analogy might seem overly dramatic, but keep in mind that the learner who fears doing actual damage to herself or others will spend energy on worry and hypervigilance, be less willing to take needed risks, and will struggle in a feedback process that feels fraught rather than encouraging and curious. It is therefore critical to be sure that skills are firmly in place before the stakes are high.

Let's try it once without the parachute

Suicide prevention counselors practice their skills in dozens of hours of roleplays before they ever touch an actual crisis call. Medical students practice on cadavers for a reason. Danger and praxis coexist effectively only under extremely close supervision, and with a very carefully vetted admissions process. Actual danger is not often the case in congregational life—but tell that to the person ascending the pulpit for the very first time, comforting the newly bereaved, or chairing a contentious meeting, but who doesn’t feel prepared for the task.

To assess what kind of net your learner needs, you’ll have to evaluate where they are.  This is where that step-by-step task breakdown is helpful: when you put those steps into a document and assign a number to each one, you’ve created a rubric.  You and the learner can now work together to determine current skill levels–and make a plan to reach up.

woman's hand climbing ladder drawn on green board

3. Teacher-leaders know that their primary contribution to the learning process is their time.

Skill development takes time. Supervision and feedback also take time. This investment is key—and unfortunately, it’s often given short shrift in busy schedules. We want to see results, and we want those we supervise to deliver them. That’s a reasonable expectation . . . the part we hate to hear about is the hefty amount of work required up front.

No one needs a micromanager, but inattention has its limits as a growth strategy. If you need team members to go farther and do more, prepare to evaluate, strategize . . .and teach. From the point of view of your schedule, that means some planning and research time up front while you figure out how to break the task into manageable learning segments and what skills need to be isolated (Public speaking? Database management? Tools for leading meetings?) It means being available to have a conversation early on if things aren’t on the right track.  Finally, it means time for shared planning around goals.

These tasks are more or less time-consuming depending on the nature of the work and your supervisory relationship—but the time required will never be “zero.” The learning process is collaborative, not independently-managing.

Teacher and students in computer class

And finally: 4. Teacher-leaders view learning roles as flexible and fluid

The best teachers know what it’s like to be in a learner’s shoes because they engage in continuous learning themselves. The openness and humility needed to keep our “learner” hats on even as we supervise others encourages further growth in us, in our students, and in our movement. Better still, this outlook reflects reality—we are all learning, all the time, regardless of our titles and assigned roles.

Ideally, even our supervisory relationships model “power with” rather than “power over”—a profoundly countercultural message that is right in line with our Unitarian Universalist theology of worth, dignity, and deep interconnectedness.  Some are mentors; some are supervisors–but we are learners, together.

We can embrace failure as an intermediate outcome . . . and then, acting as educators, we can use it as a growth tool.

Really excellent mentors, bosses, and leaders: They are, above all, those who can teach.

Image

of love and failure

Truth: The routines of my daily life depend on good juggling, but sometimes I mess up.

Good showmanship requires that I grab that dropped ball, work it into my routine and never stop smiling, but that doesn’t always happen as smoothly as I’d like. And occasionally, it’s worse–it’s not just one ball that gets dropped.

Image

j

A few weeks ago, life caught up with me in a large and multicolored explosion. I was late here and half-arsed there, and in a stunning coup-de-grace to my face-saving efforts, I managed to no-show to a meeting full of people gathered to hear me speak.

jYep. That happened.

jAnd because God is twisted– or because this is simply a ridiculously busy time of year for those of us who set watches by church or academic calendars,* I was also on the receiving end of some major ball-dropping.

It was kind of a mess, friends.

In some places, it still is.

And so, waiting for the dust to settle, I have been thinking about failure. And my first question is, why do we let it happen? And wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t?

Smiling young woman having an idea with light bulb over her head

As your dutiful enneagram Type 1, my goal when it comes to mistakes is to avoid them entirely. Failing that—and somehow, I often do fail—I simply strive not to repeat them. EVER.

Thus, I’ve been considering a menu of meltdown-prevention plans. And I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: the opportunity to screw up is accorded unequally.

In fact, it is often awarded not necessarily to the most competent individuals, but to those people we love.

That’s right: I am persuaded that when we love others, we give them room to FAIL.

And so, considering weeks like these past ones, I offer this suggestion: we shouldn’t. We simply should not trust one another this much—not if our goal is to avoid disappointment.

Trust means we expect good things, focus less on the bad outcomes that might happen, and thus end up with less of a safety net.

We are putting ourselves at risk, friends.

And so, an alternative: I’ll just do everything.

Scratch that, you do everything. Or maybe I can do what I’m good at, and you’ll do what you’re good at, and nobody should do the things that are hard or risky.

Yeah, right.

We trust, of course, because we have to.  As a people deeply dependent on one another simply to live, the truth is, we have no other choice. Disturbing though this is for my failure-management initiative, it’s actually great news for the missional church. We must trust one another a bit just to get through the days, but as it turns out, we trust even more than we have to when we love one another.

Why? Because it is messy, and risky, and sometimes even a bit miserable when we allow people room to grow. It’s challenging. Our baby birds, or grown-up employees, get into difficult situations, and they bring us with them. And as anyone who has ever been responsible for a toddler (or, I’m told, a teenager) knows—it is really hard to give people the space they need to become something else, because they are going to make a mess. And we have to be willing to hang in there through the entire process, sometimes cringing and gritting our teeth throughout, if we want to see results we can be proud of.

Image

Who is willing to do that but someone who can continuously hold in their hearts a guiding image of what we might grow to be—even as they step in our spilled milk, or stumble across the holes we dug spinning our wheels?

Our toddlers and teens don’t wait for us to create opportunities for their explorations—whether we’re ready or not, they must grow, and they will seize the attention and resources they need, one way or another. Adults, however, can function in a state of stasis, and this less-risky way of being is highly incentivized in most areas of our lives. And thus, how many of us encounter opportunities in our professional lives to truly grow? To become? To live into potential?


This kind of encouragement requires resources. It takes vision.

There are a few companies famous for devoting time to truly developing their talent pool, but most organizations—and many of us as bosses and leaders—are simply living in the now, feeling relieved just to match present skills with immediate job requirements. “Maintenance” focus is deeply ingrained in short-to-medium-term planning, and it feels much less risky than the alternative.

It is thus counter-cultural to invest this time and care in another—to let him fail so he can grow. A room-to-fail approach requires missional thinking with long-term results in mind. Alternatively, it takes love.

Know a place powered by both?

I do. It’s the thriving church in your community.

Image

It takes courage to stand as witnesses to potential, but encouragement to grow is exactly what the best lay leadership programs provide.

From finance to teaching to project management to public speaking, we stand ready to challenge and encourage you . . . even when we have to dust you off a few times or bite our nails for awhile while you find a steady foothold.

In working collaboratively with you around your talents and interests, we become part of the forces that call you into your best self. Your next self, shared with us all.

And, inevitably, we open ourselves to disappointment. To hurt, even. You will fall short of the mark sometimes, and we must not only pick up the pieces, but celebrate the progress: when we give you room to fail, we give you room to grow.

Outside of formal leadership training programs, we don’t talk about this much in the adult world.  However, the fail-to-grow (the complete opposite of “failure to grow”) concept is well-known to educators. The Zone of Proximal Development is the range just beyond a person’s current abilities, and the place into which, if properly challenged, they will stretch themselves. The process of providing that challenge is known as “scaffolding”—we are building the supportive framework for what comes next, simply by encouraging the learner to reach up a bit rather than staying where she is comfortable.

Image

But he might fail: he’s climbing a tree that’s growing even as he climbs, trusting branches to appear, and making the reach on the promise that they will. It’s an uneven and imperfect process. Sometimes things won’t line up. Sometimes growth will slow, other objectives will distract, he’ll need to climb back down for a bit. Sometimes he will even fall.

In the zone of proximal development, some failure is guaranteed. But the zone is where all the growth happens. And we need to be brave enough, missional enough—loving enough—to be willing to go there with one another, again and again and again.

Because as we each grow, our faith communities do, too . . . and the transformation begins in earnest.

Which I’m going to try to remember, myself.  The show must go on.  (And in the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring part II with you–what happens after we fail: the role of caring confrontation in leadership development.)

Blessings, my people!

j

*Potentially life-saving advice: those of us who do both—the seminarians in your lives, for example—are not to be trifled with in August, December, and April. You have been warned.