Why You Should Re-pot Yourself

As many of you know, the Callahan clan moved from California to Connecticut earlier this year. I wrote about that transition here on my blog, The Intentional, and posted it to the appropriate social media channels. Amongst the chorus of wisdom and encouraging words, there was no comment more apt than my friend Michael reminding me that: “Qui transtulit sustinet.”

“Qui transtulit sustinet” or “He who transplanted sustains” is the state motto of Connecticut. I recalled the motto from the first time I transplanted myself to this state — from my hometown of Port Huron to college in New Haven. And here it was, cropping up again as I moved to Connecticut a second time.

There are a couple of meanings of the motto: The first implies that he who transplanted you will sustain you, indicating that God (who brought the settlers to America) would support them (in the new land). I prefer a second interpretation of the motto, however — the one that makes it more personal: He who transplants himself, sustains.

The idea of transplanting oneself resonates with the advice that “You have to repot yourself every once in a while.” The philosophy of repotting people is the same as repotting plants. When our growth slows or stops, it’s time to move. We pull ourselves up by the roots, shake off the dirt, and settle into a new pot with fresh soil. The pot should be a bit bigger than the old but not overly big; we need space to grow without being overwhelmed.

While the goal of repotting is growth, when plants are first moved, they often enter a period of shock. Instead of thriving, we appear wilted and thirsty as we adjust to our new circumstances. Change, as everyone knows, is hard. That said, over time, the new pot, with more space and refreshed nutrients, enables the new growth and, eventually, new bloom.

While repotting sounds wise, it is often painful and unpleasant. Your pot may be so homey that you could stayed there forever. And yet, if we’re committed to growth, we must repot ourselves instead of waiting for some cosmic gardener to change our circumstances. As John Gardner wrote in Self-Renewal, only by intentionally repotting can we grow into our fullness as humans:

“Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives never called them forth. Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life-not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by the potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.”

-John Gardner, Self-Renewal

When we made the decision to move across the country, it was not pleasant. We didn’t happily repot; instead, we felt our roots holding onto the California soil with all our might. When the opportunity called to investigate our new potentialities — to see what new growth might be possible — we took it. And so find find ourselves here, repotted in Connecticut. We are certainly still adjusting from the initial shock, but we hope that the family who transplanted will not only sustain, but grow in an even bigger way.

Wishing you plenty of uncomfortable growth and self-renewal,
Meredith

Leading With Meaning

There are many responsibilities we ask our leaders to take on:  setting the vision, making decisions, managing stakeholder relationships, and igniting our own motivation.  Often underappreciated, however, is the role leaders can and should play in interpreting and understanding the world, particularly when faced with change.  Is that 3% increase in revenues good or bad?  Are we threatened or energized by our rival’s new product launch?  Should we feel concerned that digital is changing the landscape of our industry or confident that we’re out ahead of the challenge?

Accurately interpreting changes and challenges to our organizations is more important now than it’s ever been.  Since the 1990s, we have recognized that the world is increasingly “VUCA.”  VUCA is a military acronym which describes our current situation as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.  It reminds us that not only is the world changing, it is changing quickly, unexpectedly, and along many dimensions.  This increasing rate of change demands that leaders interpret – and reinterpret – the company’s situation far more frequently than was previously the case.  Particularly in changing situations, effective leaders pair the ability to continuously create and deepen meaning with the ability to push towards right action.  As a result, we see both the situation and ourselves more clearly and are more likely to take appropriate, committed action towards our collective goals.

How is meaning created
There are four broad steps in the process of meaning-making within leadership.  We begin with the facts of the situation, layer on an interpretation of those facts, understand the implications for us individually and collectively, and then emerge to take action based on this deeper understanding.

Alternative approach - With the realm of meaning

A framework for meaning-making in leadership


Situation 
When faced with change, we first ask:  “What’s happening?”  The answer may seem straight-forward:  margins expanded two points, we are about to start a cost-cutting exercise, or the headcount reduction will affect 5% of the workforce.  Of all aspects of meaning-making, the situation is most closely grounded in facts.  That said, the situation often only reflects a selection of relevant facts, rather than everything which is true in the organization.

Interpretation  Moving down the U to interpretation, we start to question “What does it mean?”  This generally begins with a broad assessment of the overall ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the situation.  Should we be happy or upset about this change?  Great leaders give a more nuanced interpretation of the situation, including the valence of the emotion (e.g., ‘very good’, ‘somewhat bad’) and the details behind it.  While we often consider our interpretations to be objectively true in the world, leaders know that interpretation is malleable.  Revenues up 3% can be exceptional and beyond expectations, deeply disappointing and requiring serious action, or innumerable other options given the context and ambitions of an organization.  Effective leaders guide followers through this interpretation, helping them to understand the right way to think about the new information.

Implication  A clear view of the situation and interpretation brings us to the question of implications.  The fundamental question of implication is “Who are we?”  This piece of the U is often tied up in deep questions of identity.  Followers ask:  “If our performance is not good enough, what does that say about us?  And what does that say about me?”  This is where an individual’s stake in the situation enters the conversation as followers consider both “Who are we collectively?” and “Who am I in this situation?”  Frequent answers come in the form of “We’re the type of company that. . .” or “I’m the type of person who. . .”  These questions draw on the cornerstones of individual and corporate identity for their answers:  What do we value?  What are our beliefs?  And what are our fears?  Leaders know that elegantly taking the conversation to this level has the potential to connect listeners with the purpose, mission, vision, and values which fire right action and increase individual commitment to the collective.

Action  Finally, we emerge to ask “What’s next?”  Note that the action here can result in either a state of being (“here’s how we want to be in the midst of this”) or an act of doing (“here’s what I want you do to next”).  Either way, it’s a call to action for the followers.  A good leader will ensure that this action builds off everything that comes before – the situation, its interpretation, and its implications.  Beyond this, a great leader will also relate this particular set of actions to a continuous thread, articulating how the answer to ‘what’s next’ ties to ‘what we were doing before’ and ‘where we’re headed.’  The situation – and any change required in reaction to it – is seen in the broader narrative of the organization.

 

How this is different 
In a quickly changing world, we have become accustomed to move quickly between the situation and our resultant action.  When faced with a situation, our instinct is often to fix it or change it.  We skip from “What’s going on?” to “What’s next?,” focusing on movement at the expense of meaning.  Unfortunately, confining ourselves to the realm of movement is increasingly limiting.  Moving from the situation directly to action misses the opportunity – and necessity – to create resonance with stakeholders.  It ignores the emotional and existential questions that emerge within an organization, preferring to keep things at the level of ‘all business.’  While this may seem ‘cleaner’ in some ways, it demonstrates either an ignorance of or willful ignoring of truth.  Followers will – and indeed they must – find interpretations and implications for events, whether guided by leaders or found independently.  Leaders who are willing to go there with their followers, instead of leaving them to take this journey alone, build commitment and resonance in the organization.  By moving thoughtfully into the realm of meaning, they choose grounded action instead of immediate reaction.

Old approach - The realm of movement

Our conditioned way of moving forward from situations – all within the realm of movement

How to apply this approach
As with all frameworks, there are some things this approach helps us see and some things it obscures.  It is not right to apply this framework in all situations; indeed, it is not always appropriate or necessary.  Instead, what is important is that leaders are ‘at choice’ with their approach.  Is the situation complex, uncertain, or particularly important?  Does it call for a connection to meaning?  Straight-forward or routine situations are not helped – and indeed may be hindered – by this level of processing.  But the more ambiguous the situation or the more sizable the impact, the more important it is to lead one’s colleagues through this process of adjusting their understanding of the world.  The goal is that we, as leaders, choose our communication style in each case.

Doing this well takes great capability in a leader.  It is hard and sometimes uncomfortable work.  First, it requires immense self-knowledge and maturity on the part of the leader to walk through the U process independently.  She must understand the breadth of interpretations and the depth of implications before communicating these to others.  As such, this work cannot be done by communications specialists or speechwriters; to be authentic and effective, the leader must walk the path herself.  Second, meaning-making requires a capacity to communicate this same journey to others and to hold the space for the organization to follow through the realms of meaning and out the other side.

When practiced iteratively in response to various situations, effective meaning-making co-creates the story of an organization in response to the challenges it faces along the way.  The leader weaves the story of not only what we’re doing and where we’re going, but also the story of who we are and why this work is important.  By reinterpreting and renegotiating our identity as protagonists in the organization’s story, the followers also see more clearly their role in the hero’s journey and their contribution to the success of the organization’s mission.

Meredith

Questions for reflection

  • When do you take time to create meaning?  When are you inclined to move straight to action?
  • Where are you uncertain about your own situation?  Where are you in need of deeper connection to meaning?
  • Where might your followers or teammates benefit from clearer interpretation and understanding the personal implications of a situation?

Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two) here.

In Part One I talked about how 80% of Gandhi’s autobiography is about “Very Normal Things”, including eating, getting dressed, and moving around.  Here’s what else he spends most of his autobiography talking about:

Very Normal Thing #4:  Housework
Counter to the outsourcing trends of his milieu, Gandhi spends time hand-milling his own grain, starching and ironing his own clothes, and cutting his own hair.  He learns how to repair shoes and helps figure out how to spin thread and work the handloom.  Gandhi is big on cleanliness; not only does he clean his own latrines, he volunteers to inspect other peoples’ latrines to make sure they’re up to snuff (and sweeps them out if found lacking).  And Gandhi even spends a lot of time on interior decoration:  first on making his pad swank and deserving of the status of a barrister, later on disposing of all that junk.  By the time I got to the end of his story, I was convinced that Gandhi was very handy around the house.

Very Normal Thing #5:  Getting Sick and Getting Better
Gandhi variously contracts and recovers from ringworm, dysentery, constipation, headaches, and pleurisy.  He is constantly nursing others, within his family, when the black plague hits town, and as a wartime medic (Boer War, WWI).  He learns how to become a compounding pharmacist and volunteers at the local hospital.  He also becomes a bit of a quack doctor (as he admits) when he gets into earth treatments (apparently applying a poultice of dirt under a bandage?) and hydropathy (some sort of obscure water treatment?).  At one point Gandhi even calls in an “Ice Doctor” who cures him of dysentery by packing him in ice.  Like his obsession with food, there are many tales of sickness, health, and his related philosophies.

Very Normal Thing #6:  Annoying Administrative Work
In every group he’s a part of, Gandhi volunteers for many of the annoying tasks most of us would avoid doing – and then describes them in extensive detail.  He translates correspondence from one language to another, answers other peoples’ mail, collects dues, raises money, hand-cranks the printing press, leases buildings, folds newspapers, passes around petitions, serves as secretary, scribes documents when he can’t get them copied, you get the picture.  Even Gandhi tires of administrivia though; at one point, he bribes children to help him fold pamphlets with used postage stamps.  Score.

The most interesting point, however, is that in the midst of these “Very Normal Things,” you see the greatness of the Mahatma emerging.  He approaches the most annoying administrative work with a sense of servanthood.  He strives for simplicity in his clothes, his surroundings, and his speech.  He pursues brahmacharya (self-restraint) by limiting his consumption and swearing off sex.  He seeks purity in keeping his surroundings clean and instructing others to do so.   He practices ahimsa (non-violence) through his staunch vegetarianism.  He advocates for Hindustani identity when he refuses to remove his turban, translates papers into accessible Indian languages, and insists upon wearing his khadi dhoti.  Every “experiment with truth” he runs is enacted in the petri dish of his life.  And the way he approaches the mundane realities of everyday – from food to clothes, from housework to administrative work – reinforces or undermines some ‘lived value’ he holds.  Ultimately, in Gandhi’s case, those lived values – the ahimsa, brahmacharya, servanthood, identity, purity that he cultivated – became the same strengths which he brought to bear later in his toughest political trials.

There are a couple of moments when you can see the grand trajectory of the political movement in something small.  For example, when Gandhi starts a vegetarian kitchen at his ashram and engages the students to cook in it, it becomes an object-lesson in self-sufficiency.  When a friend comments:  “The experiment contains the key to Swaraj” the links between the most mundane (e.g., schoolboys cooking daal) and the most ambitious (e.g., India achieving political independence) start to come into focus.

Gandhi teaches me that “Very Normal Things” and “Very Big Things” are ultimate one and the same.  But I struggle with this.  I love thinking and writing about the big, the grand, the ambitious, the intellectual – the “Very Big Things.”  There’s some part of me that thinks that I will do my part in solving all the world’s problems by coming up with deep insights and articulating them in a compelling way.  And yet, when I focus on the “Very Big Things,” I don’t necessarily see the change I seek.

Given this, I’m trying to focus on the “Very Normal Things.”  Great things are the result of small, everyday actions, lived with intentionality, improved upon by reflection, and accumulated over time.  Even the most inspirational leaders live their lives day-by-day.  So I am building faith that if I do my “Very Normal Things” well, they’ll build into something weightier over time.  That feels happily accessible, but also a bit daunting.  It makes me realize that I’m indeed doing “Very Big Things” with every small action.

The small contains the key to the big. 

Off to do “Very Normal Things” with my Sunday,
Meredith

One final fun fact:  Gandhi also just took away my excuse for not going to the gym:  “. . . I believe even now, that, no matter what amount of work one has, one should always find some time for exercise, just as one does for one’s meals.  It is my humble opinion that, far from taking away from one’s capacity for work, it adds to it.”

Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two)

When I travel, I often select my reading material based on something appropriate to my destination.  Headed to Johannesburg in May, I read Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories, a collection of vivid vignettes of South African life after apartheid.  Headed to Seoul in September, I picked up Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom to get a view into everyday Korean life.  And over the last thirteen days in India, I read Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography – or, as he titles it The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

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Gandhi was one of the most effective and influential advocates for Swaraj (Indian home-rule) and his accompanying tactic of ahimsa (non-violence).  His name is known the world over.  As I loaded him onto my Kindle I expected to read about the story behind the “Very Big Things” he accomplished:  Articulations of high-minded ideals.  The narrative of an epic political movement.  Sweeping insights into leadership.

Do you know what I found?

Instead of hearing about Gandhi’s “Very Big Things” I was struck by the mundane, the minute, and the everyday.  Gandhi spends his life doing what most of us would recognize as the same “Very Normal Things” we ourselves do, but with a heightened sense of morals and meaning.  Here’s 80% of what Gandhi talks about in his autobiography:

Very Normal Thing #1:  Eating
If Gandhi has one lifelong obsession, it’s food.  In his teenage years, Gandhi starts running with the ‘bad boy’ crowd and sneaks away to eat meat.  He later repents of his rebellious ways and becomes a relentless advocate for vegetarianism.  Over time, he pushes this even further, swearing off salt, lentils, and dairy.  At one point, while sick, he drinks some goat’s milk at a doctor’s recommendation and then beats himself up for the rest of his life about it.  He ends up as a fruitarian who eats five or fewer types of food each day and finishes dinner by sundown.

Very Normal Thing #2:  Getting Dressed
Gandhi talks extensively about his Anglicized clothes in London.  He buys a chimney-pot hat for nineteen shillings and an evening suit for ten pounds.  When he moves to South Africa, he’s still consciously distinct from other Indians in his attire, in his hybrid frock-coat and turban.  In fact, there’s an entire turban-wearing fiasco when he joins the courts.  Over time, however, Gandhi dresses more simply.  He moves to a shirt, coat, and dhoti combo and later resolves to wear only khadi (locally produced hand-woven cloth) – a highly politicized fashion statement in keeping with the Swadeshi movement.

Very Normal Thing #3:  Moving Around
In the years he travels between India, England, and South Africa, there are long recounts of boat trips.  We learn what he ate on the boat (fruits and nuts), what he did on the boat (played chess, learned Tamil and Urdu, accidentally visited a hooker in Zanzibar), and who he hung out with on the boat (the Captain, a couple of English guys, a Puritan).   Later in life, Gandhi takes a lot of trains, particularly in third-class.  There is plenty of drama about train ticket cancellations, whether he gets bedding or not, how dirty and crowded the trains are, and the difficulty of getting on the train when people block the doors (it’s true; it’s happened to me as well).

In short, Gandhi’s autobiography is filled with extensive descriptions of “Very Normal Things.”

With that, I’ll pause this post given the length and continue with Part Two.  Look forward to “Very Normal Things” #4 through #6 as well as how it all comes together.  Continue in Part Two of Two here.

Also, if you have not yet done so, hit the ‘subscribe’ button on the right of the page to ensure you get other upcoming posts.  (It makes me really happy.  Seriously.  Like macaroni-and-cheese-happy.)

Glad to be home,
Meredith

Fun facts about Gandhi:

  • Gandhi thinks the Eiffel Tower is ridiculous.
  • Gandhi ends up in a brothel a couple of times, but always by accident (oops!).
  • Gandhi was all about home-schooling for his kids.
  • While living in England, Gandhi took dance lessons.
  • Gandhi was a married as a child at the age of only thirteen.