A Southerner in Exile

The South's a very strange place. As we settle into our lives here in Lowell, we're often asked to describe our last home, Beaufort. We're more than just the token Southerners, to be sure, but we're still a bit of a cultural oddity. But, even with a lifetime spent in the South, I find it difficult to explain where I come from with clarity and accuracy. Living in the South, whether born there like I was, or being a recent addition, is a complicated and difficult experience.

On one hand, the South is home to some of the most striking natural beauty. Anyone who has hiked through the Blue Ridge, or watched the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean knows what I mean. But the beauty of the South is deeper than that. There is something almost supernatural about the salt marshes that wrap around the Lowcountry, delighting locals and visitors both with the sweeping green fields of marsh grass and the brown contrast of the pluff mud. Watching the same patch of spartina grass fade from lush green in the summer, to dull brown as winter sets in, only to be reinvigorated when the spring rains again nourish the dormant roots is nothing short of a miracle.

Living in the South, one becomes more in-tune with the natural ebbs and flows of the world around you. Being so close to the ocean, as we were in Beaufort, you start to understand the nature of life more deeply, and begin to see that there truly is a season for everything.  You begin to appreciate nature's cycles. As the spring starts to give way to summer, the shrimp season opens. Tables, both at home and in restaurants are covered in shrimp, a sure sign of the bounty of the earth and sea. As the regular season draws to a close, shrimp baiting season opens, giving inhabitants of the Lowcountry one last chance to fill their freezers with enough shrimp to last the winter. Just as with the shrimp, so too are the tomatoes, and the okra, and the corn, and every other manner of wonderful fruit and vegetable that you can imagine. They are served fresh, straight from the farm or garden, but also cut, boiled, frozen, or pickled to keep enough a family well stocked through the short winters.

The South isn't just a place of natural beauty, however. Spending just a little time there, you'll find personal beauty that exceeds even the beauty of the salt marshes. That Southerners are hospitable is well known and doesn't need further exploration. But their beauty doesn't come from just their willingness to open their homes to strangers. No, the real beauty is in their stories and histories. The stories of families who have lived on the same land for generations makes you long for a similar connection to your own piece of the world. Stories of slavery and oppression, of ownership of other humans, of discrimination and segregation abound. These stories and histories flavor every interaction between local and tourist, between White and Black, and between "binyah" and "comyah", Gullah words for people who have been here and people who have come here, respectively.

The South in general, and South Carolina in particular, are strange places. I was born in South Carolina, grew up and went to college and grad school there, and thought I left for good in 2005. I soon returned, settling in Beaufort with my wife, Heather, for seven years. Now, freshly moved into our new home in Massachusetts, I find it difficult to express how I feel about the South and the South Carolina Lowcountry. I certainly miss many aspects of our lives there, the friendships we built over the years, the temperate winters, and the Spanish Moss that draped the trees in our yard. However, I'm happy to not be a South Carolina resident after the recent presidential primary. I guess that's the nature of the place, or any place; you have to accept those things you don't love so you can love the things you do.

As we settle in here in Lowell, I find myself more interested in the connections I have to the Lowcountry and to South Carolina. We've long enjoyed A Chef's Life, but being away from the culture of the South, we find ourselves enjoying the show even more. Just the other day, we enjoyed a presentation at my alma mater, The Citadel, on rice and rice culture, Requiem for Rice. Maybe distance does make the heart grow fonder, or maybe we're just influenced by the cold weather and are missing the mild winter. I'm excited about our new adventure and our new home in Massachusetts, but it's nice to find time to connect with the culture and places that we've left. There's nothing quite like a -12 degree day to make you fell like a Southerner in Exile...  

What type of listening do you practice?

Yesterday, I mentioned the importance of asking the right questions, especially with regard to managing change and preparing for a commitment to change. Today, I want to talk about the other side of that equation: listening. Otto Scharmer, in Theory U, suggests four levels of questions that reveal your commitment to change. Scharmer describes the first level of listening as "downloading" (Scharmer, 2009, p.11). At this stage, the listener is only marginally listening. Instead of engaging with the speaker, the listener that is "downloading" only hears the things that reinforce their existing assumptions. Do you think the project will fail? Then you'll only hear the risks. Convinced that the change will be a huge success and everyone will accept the process? You'll only hear the benefits and ignore the risks. If you find yourself in a conversation and you only hear things that confirm or reinforce your existing feelings, then you're just downloading. If you can move past downloading, you'll find yourself engaging in "factual listening" (Scharmer, 2009, p.12). This is the first stage of truly listening: you're no longer looking for confirmation or reinforcement of your beliefs, you're looking for the ideas and data that differs from your beliefs. Maybe you think this new project could be successful, but you know you don't have the full picture. Then you engage in factual listening. This type of listening is the first step of learning. Before you can learn, you must understand that there are things you do not know, or that are incorrect as you understand them. "Factual listening" is how we listen when we're interested in challenging ourselves to grow. As you grow beyond wanting to learn by listening, you transition into "empathetic listening" (Scharmer, 2009, p.12). Here, you're no longer solely concerned with learning. If you find yourself here, you want to engage in dialogue with others. The first two stages are types of self-centric listening. You are either listening to confirm your feelings, or to learn more about a situation for yourself. As you progress into "empathetic listening" you will find a desire to learn about others. This is where, Scharmer says, "we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world unfolds through someone elses eyes" (Scharmer, 2009, p.12). Finally, Scharmer's highest level of listening is "generative listening", or "listening from the emerging field of the future" (Scharmer, 2009, p.13). These are the transformational listening experiences. No longer do you listen for yourself, or even to hear the soul of another. Listening in this stage causes profound realignment, or even rebirth, of you. You question who you were, or maybe you become clear that you are no longer who you were before listening. Some could compare this stage to becoming a parent; you instantly know that you will never be the same person. For me, this kind of transformation has happened when I was trying to download information, as in Stage 1, and realized that I was completely wrong. When I slowed down and actually listened to the other person, I heard much more. More than just the facts I wanted confirmed. More than facts that I did not know. More, even, than the ability to connect with this other person. Instead, I heard, or maybe felt is a better word, a seismic shift in my world. This has happened professionally and personally. I can't explain it exactly, but it felt like working a key in an old lock. There's tension, a little wiggling, but then...things line up perfectly and you can turn the key. That is generative listening. That is where you really get to the bottom of who you are and what drives you. So, what kind of listening do you use?  

Are you asking the right questions to lead change?

During my three year journey at Gonzaga, one of the enduring lessons I learned was that no organization is exactly where it wants to be; that is, every organization should be thinking about, planning, or currently engaged in transforming itself into the organization it needs to be. Organizations, however, are much more static and immobile than we hope. They are slow to receive feedback and even slower to integrate that learning into their processes and structures. Most organizations view change as a thing we do, something that requires a committee, or even worse, a task force, to initiate. Change comes in the form of a report, neatly bound and breathlessly delivered. If you've been in the corporate or nonprofit world for long, you already know where these reports end up: neatly lining a shelf, collecting dust, while the organization continues on its original course. We live in a chaotic world, one that requires organizations to be nimble and ready to respond to ever-changing situations. Margaret Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, posited that we need to fundamentally change our  worldview, that the very eyes that we use to view the world are not the right tools for today's challenges. Otto Scharmer would argue that the future is a challenging thing to prepare for, because it is still emerging from the present. This is a truth that many people can only arrive at after deep exploration of organizational systems, and not everyone is ready to process a future that is being created even as you live it. Too much quantum theory crossing over into organizational practice. In reading Wheatley and Scharmer, you will discover that change is not a thing, not a project for a committee, but a process. Outcomes are less important than the approach you use to explore. But we live in a very demanding, unyielding world that demands accountability, efficiency, and expects instant resolutions. How many of you have become spoiled by Amazon Prime and cannot believe that it takes more than two days to receive anything you order online? Me too. So, how do we start to slow down and be present where change happens? How do we begin to change our attitudes and our expectations so that we can, as Wheatley advocates, change our worldview? One answer arrives from Peter Block, an author and consultant best known for his guidebook Flawless Consulting. Block, in The Answer to How is Yes, explores how people and organizations can focus on what matters and push away from questions, processes, and approaches that do not have purpose. Maybe it's because I'm engaged in a long term consulting process with a large nonprofit organization, but one question stuck in my mind, a question I've poured over for hours. Block argues that instead of asking "How long will it take?", we should instead ask "What commitment am I willing to make?" Asking how long a process takes implies that you have better things to do with your time, that you do not believe in the outcome enough to invest your time. In short, it says you don't care. So, instead of asking the first question, challenge yourself to ask the second. Instead of trying to find ways to speed up a process, look deeply into yourself and ask what you are willing to give to make change happen. If you are looking for the most expedient solution, then you're really just trying to check something off your list. Change requires commitment. Commitment of money, of time, of resources, of people, of yourself. So, as a leader, ask yourself if you are committed to investing yourself in being part of the change, not how much time the process might take.  

Leadership and Diversity: Gonzaga’s ORGL 506

Leadership and Diversity was my first academic experience focused on exploring the role of race, class, and gender. Through this course, I began to identify the influence of these roles on my life and my leadership experience. This course began with an exploration of my own worldview and my identity, and then moved into exploring the influence of gender and race stereotypes on our lives. At this point, Leadership and Diversity was the most challenging course in the program, one that forced me to genuinely reflect on my life and my own biases. This course was the first to deeply challenge my approaches to leadership, largely through the work of Allen and Hooks. Both books laid out an alternative history of the world, a history that was unavailable to me as a white, middle-income male. Most challenging to me was the work of bell hooks (2000) and her discussion of the role of class. Our nation has become more comfortable discussing race and gender, though we still have a long way to go, but class is a subject that we frequently avoid. Over the past generation, our nation has seen a stagnation of income for the middle class and an increasing concentration of wealth in the upper levels of our society. What challenges us here is that many people who are in middle to lower-income situations aspire to be more wealthy, so they are cautious to actively discuss the oppression that exists in our society, because they, ultimately, aspire to reach that higher level. We, as a society and as individuals, ignore the systemic oppression that exists across class lines. We work to ascribe this difference to variations in work ethic or offer platitudes about how everyone can be whatever they want to be if they work for their success. But this approach ignores the cultural and societal limitations that we have created that keep people in their places and deny true equality to all. If you desire to be truly challenged, in what you perceive and what you believe about race, then this course, and these texts, provide all the fodder you need to be uncomfortable.

The Future

I have been a student for much of my life. I have often wondered if my attraction to being a student was a sign that I did not know what direction I wanted in life. Finishing college with a B.A. in History, I did not move immediately into a career. Instead, I took a job in a restaurant that gave me the flexibility to search for my next step in life. I explored a number of career options, including a life in politics, before responding to a call to further education. A chance lunch meeting with a former professor turned into an invitation to attend Clemson University and complete my M.A., also in History. Upon completion of my M.A. in History, considered continuing my education in a Ph.D. program, but when I was not accepted to my top choice program, I decided that I needed some “real-world” experience. I joined an academic publishing company where I excelled. Though I was not enrolled in an academic program, I continued to learn. I learned more about myself, about how to lead coworkers, how to manage projects, and how to thrive in the publishing world. In 2010, I heard again my call to education, though this time as a teacher, not a learner. I began teaching as an adjunct at the local college. As before, I discovered that teaching provided an opportunity for me to continue my own education. I learned how to effectively lead a class, I improved my public speaking and lesson planning skills, and found pleasure in motivating students in their personal quests for knowledge. As I approached my seventh year in publishing, I again responded to my sense of call to education, returning to a Masters program at Gonzaga. For the past three years, I have balanced my own education with my career requirements and have grown as a learner and as a teacher. So, as I leave this program, I do so knowing that I will not turn my back on education. My time at Gonzaga has been full of learning experiences, but I do not believe that these experiences are an end to themselves. Instead, at every turn, I have found my new knowledge to be a catalyst for further learning. As I learned more about servant leadership, or adaptive change, or diversity, I have responded by wanting to learn more, to experience higher and higher levels of leadership in my own life. I know that the technical completion of this part of my leadership journey will not signal an end to my personal growth. As I leave Gonzaga, I know that there are many aspects of my leadership journey that continue to need work. My time here has given me the theoretical knowledge I need to move into the next phase of my journey. I am now familiar with the concepts of servant and authentic leadership, two leadership approaches that I want to practice in my own life. I have started integrating these concepts into my own practice, but I still struggle to cast off my comfort with traditional, transactional leadership. I strive to be a servant leader, but I frequently slide back into my comfort zone. As I emerge from my phase of learning, I look forward to the increased practice of servant and authentic values. My Gonzaga experience also revealed parts of my life that are not congruent with the life I hope to live as a leader. I continue to struggle with the ideas and practice of embracing diversity. I welcome diverse people into my life and my leadership practice, but I do not always welcome diverse viewpoints. I struggle with forgiveness. I hear, clearly, the call to live a life of forgiveness. I try to practice the forgiveness that I desire from others, but I fall short. As I move out into the world, equipped by my experiences and my learning at Gonzaga, I know I will find asking for, receiving, and granting forgiveness challenging. However, I believe that forgiveness is an essential component of serving others and being an authentic leader. I know this requires continued growth. As I enter the next phase of my life, one without a structured educational environment, I know that education will never be far from my heart. Just as I needed space to explore my next steps before returning to Clemson and just as I needed experience in the “real-world” before returning to Gonzaga, I anticipate the next phase of my journey will include a great deal of practice. The Jesuit education requires the learner to take action and I am ready to do that. I have been uniquely equipped by my experience and my knowledge to go into the world and practice what I have learned. However, in practicing, I will keep learning. I will keep improving on the aspects of leadership that challenge me. And I know that my education is not complete just because I do not attend class regularly. I look forward to the new challenges I will face and am thankful for the opportunity and experience that will guide me into my next phase of learning.