What does it mean to be fully accountable, taking responsibility for one’s actions as well as for one’s legacy?
The business world approaches accountability as a virtue, a buzz word that’s synonymous with good performance as in, “Yep, I got it, I’ll do it right away” or “Yes, it was my mistake, and I’ll fix it,” or “You can count on me.”
That’s fine. But given the magnitude of the issues facing us today, wouldn’t it be great if we could all do a little more than our share?
Like, take some accountability for global warming or poverty or the stuff you didn’t directly create?
Not that it’s easy. Personally, I find it hard to take full responsibility for my messes without taking on my role in global warming!
As a child, I HATED being accused of anything that wasn’t directly my fault as in, “You must have done something to provoke your sister to hit you.” My retort was usually, “No, No, it was HER fault, SHE hit ME! ” It was too hard to acknowledge that I might have had some responsibility, however small, for the situation.
As adults, we can choose to acknowledge our responsibility, even when we aren’t “at fault.” I learned a lot this week from two women who took on “more than their fair share” of accountability, picking up burdens from the legacies of their families.
Owning the deeds of a father
Hilde Schramm, the daughter of Nazi strategist and Hitler confident Albert Speers, will never undo what her father did. Despite her good works, people will hear her name and think of the evil caused by the father she loved, even though, as a young child, she was never involved.
Still, she understands that carrying her name demands something of her. The foundation she created “supports women of Jewish background or Jewish faith who live in Germany and are creatively active in scholarship and in the arts.” In stating their purpose, the foundation acknowledges that they work “in recognition of the willful destruction of the livelihoods of Jewish people during the National Socialist era.”
Her work has been awarded, yet, more than that, it shows how one woman has understood the burden of her legacy and taken responsibility for improving the world as a result.
Owning the deeds of a son
In the above video, a TEDMED talk by Sue Klebold: “My Son was a Columbine Shooter: This is my story,” you’ll witness a profound and poignant example of what it looks like to take responsibility for the hurt done by a family member. I felt chills watching her speak with such heartfelt, unvarnished vulnerability.
She expresses a level of accountability beyond anything I could imagine.
She dressed simply for her talk, standing before us in running shoes and a drapey gray top. Her white hair glows, and her dark eyes gleam with intensity as she introduces herself as the mother of Dylan Kiebold, the shooter who, with a friend, killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School. They ended their murderous assault by killing themselves.
The Columbine shooting occurred twenty years ago and changed Sue’s life forever.
Her son caused unimaginable suffering. Sue knows that nothing she can say or do will take away the pain experienced by friends, family, the Colorado community and beyond.
She understands that many watching her on stage may judge her negatively as a parent for not recognizing how sick her son was and intervening in his life before it was too late. She carries her own self-judgment.
“Afterwards people asked, ‘How could you not know? What kind of a mother were you?’ I still ask myself those same questions…
Before the shootings, I thought of myself as a good mom. Helping my children become caring, healthy, responsible adults was the most important role of my life. But the tragedy convinced me that I failed as a parent, and it’s partially this sense of failure that brings me here today.”
Ouch, Even though she, too, experienced heartbreak, she does not compare her suffering to that of others. She offers, instead, a raw apology.
“When I walk into a room like this, I never know if someone there has experienced loss because of what my son did. I feel a need to acknowledge the suffering caused by a member of my family who isn’t here to do it for himself. So first, with all of my heart, I’m sorry if my son has caused you pain.”
Two years after the shootings, she developed cancer. Two years later, she experienced acute panic attacks that caused her to seek treatment for her own mental health challenges.
She asks for no pity.
She has spent twenty years trying to understand mental illness and the forces that can lead to suicide, suicide-homicide, and violence. Now she is writing and speaking out, hoping that her information and questions may prevent another tragedy.
She doesn’t claim that her good deeds and commitments will “make-up” for what happened. She neither claims redemption nor asks for forgiveness.
On the TED stage, she shines like a heroine in an ancient Greek tragedy, doomed by the fates, yet willing to take responsibility for her life.
Most of the comments written on-line in response to her TEDMED talk were positive, but one, in particular, stood out, written from someone who was at Columbine High School on the day of the shooting.
“I was in the library during the Columbine shooting. I cried as you told your story, and my heart really just ached over this whole situation. I admire your courage to stand up and speak about this, and found healing in your words.”
Because Sue risked walking into the fire of judgment, she was able to help one person. I suspect she has helped many more.
She helped me see the possibility of fully owning what life has brought you, whether you wanted it or not–with courage, vulnerability, and rugged strength.
She showed my scared-to-be-accused-of-doing-anything-wrong self that it is possible to bear a tragic burden and still stand tall.
We’ve just closed out 2018. I, for one, wasn’t sad to see it go. During much of the year, the world seemed off balance, with political craziness, environmental disasters, and expressions of cruelty and greed. I also faced a few personal challenges.
1968, fifty years earlier, was also a crazy year. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April; Robert Kennedy in June. Race riots erupted in the US and French students rioted in Paris. The Cold War raged and the US escalated action in Vietnam.
Russian invaded Czechoslovakia. While spending the summer in Brussel with a favorite uncle, I surprised him by joining a protest march with European students. He learned about this when he saw me on Belgian TV, climbing up a monument with a banner in the center of town.
Besides invigorating me, that summer in Europe changed my life. Except for Canada, I’d never been out of the United States. In Belgium, I was able to look back at the United States, and discover that the world was much bigger than the country I called home.
In December of 1968, many of us were able to experience the planet as bigger than our countries or continents, courtesy of the Apollo 8 space mission.
The Apollo 8 team of James Lovell, William Anders, and Commander Frank Borman launched into space on a tight and risky mission: to circle the moon and return alive. They became the first humans to leave low-Earth orbit and orbit another celestial body, and they shared that experience with the world.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, one billion people across the globe listened while the astronauts broadcast live from space. Then they circled the back side of the moon.
Their mission had been fueled by our nationalist concern that Russia might win the “space race,” and our desire to put a man on the moon. The Apollo 8 team hoped to photograph the backside of the moon, in anticipation of a future landing. Bill Anders used a Hasselblad 80 mm camera to shoot a series of black and white photographs of the moon’s craters, whose surfaces were like charcoal pumice stones.
Nobody thought about photographing the earth. Anders later said, “There was essentially zero interest in images of the earth from space. Nobody told me to take a picture of the earth.”
Nevertheless, as the spacecraft emerge from the dark backside of the moon, the team was stunned by an electrifying view out of one window: a small blue ball in the distance, the earth beginning to rise.
Anders said, “We were awestruck by the beauty of the earth, it’s color, against the blackness of space.”
He had only moments to capture this view. Photographing the earth was a deviation from NASA’s tightly controlled mission. and Borman told him, “Don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.” But Anders shouted to his teammates, “Hand me a roll of color film, quick!” as the seconds ticked away. Lovell found a roll and threw it to Anders who rapidly reloaded the camera in their small, gravity-free cabin. But it was too late. The earth had disappeared. Then, seconds later it reappeared through the hatch window. Ander was able to shoot three photos, one of which becomes “Earthrise,” which will become the iconic symbol of the mission itself.
The astronauts were deeply moved by this view of their planetary home from space. Lovell later said, “Everything we held dear…was back on that blue planet. How in the world could this little ball exist in this vast universe of nothing?”
Nationalism had fueled the space wars; what the astronauts brought was a view of a small planet, without national boundaries or divides.
A captivating new film Earthrise by director Emmanuel Vaughn Lee, documents how the experience of seeing the earth from space transformed the three men.
They had gone into space as scientists. They returned with the eyes of poets and philosophers.
Fifty years after Apollo 8 and “Earthrise,” you can hear the awe that still lives in their voices as they speak of their experiences.
As Bormon said, “We all exist on one small globe…These boundaries we have are really artificial ones…”
Lovell said, “I realized how insignificant we all are,” and described the earth as “A vast oasis in the vastness of space.”
“You don’t understand what you have here until you leave it… “
Fifty years ago, I left a country in chaos and was able to see my homeland from the perspective of another continent. Fifty years ago, the astronauts left the earth’s orbit during turbulent times, and saw the planet from the perspective of space.
Today, despite all the photographs that have been taken of the earth from space, ‘Earthrise’ still haunts.
The poet Archibald McLeish captured some of the feeling of “Earthrise” on Christmas day, 1968, when he wrote :
“To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”
Maybe 2019 can be the year when we move beyond our individual orbits and find ways to experience the world with wonder, appreciating what we have and what we share.
Maybe 2019 will be the year we realize that we’re all in this together.
I remember many years ago going out for a morning run around Central Park in New York City. It was a crisp, blue-sky day, I had a lot of energy, the run was going well. Then a tall, male runner came blasting past me and shouted, “Don’t run on your toes!”
I spent the rest of the run fuming. How dare he! He didn’t know my body or how I needed to move. (Turns out, toe running isn’t such a terrible thing.) What gave him the right?
And who asked for his advice?
My husband and I have a friend, a great, multi-talented guy, who works extremely hard. He’s helped us a lot. But his habits of coffee, cigarettes, and energy drinks didn’t seem very health-friendly, at least from our not-particularly-humble perspective. We debated whether we should say something.
We wondered again when we found out that he’d had a small heart attack last weekend.
Trouble is, unsolicited advice rarely works.
Five Reasons Advice Doesn’t Work
It hasn’t been requested, When someone is not open or curious to receive new information, your great suggestions aren’t going to make a difference. What’s worse they can turn people defensive.
We don’t fully understand the context. Lives are complex. Understanding context requires understanding:
someone else’s background and experiences;
the emotional context–how someone is feeling today (nothing worse than a fresh piece of advice on a bad hair day);
external variables affecting them such as family, finances, and commitments.
You might be wrong. (It happens from time to time.) Advice often assumes you know more than they do. It’s so tempting to talk from a place of superior insight. What happened to humility?
Advice aborts questions. Advice, too firmly given, keeps us from digging deeper into questions. Often, we need to ask “why?” before we ask (or advise) “how.”
Advice rarely touches the heart–the real power center for change. The person you are talking to needs to feel the imperative of change in their bones. They need to be able to envision the change, hear the change, taste the change…and feel the pain of not changing, before they may be willing to act.
When you can give advice
In certain circumstances, you can give advice.
When someone sincerely asks for it and is open and receptive. (Or signs up for advice.)
When you can treat them as a peer who will consider whether your advice is right for them. You are offering advice, not prophecy!
When they plan to take action. (If they don’t, why bother?)
When the timing is right (Not when there’s a crisis, the soup’s about to boil over, or they’ve just listened to the State of the Union.)
Of course, there’s one more scenario in which you can offer advice.
When your husband really needs to make a change. (I couldn’t resist–although he tried to edit this out!)
Fortunately for our friend, his heart attack apparently hasn’t caused permanent damage, but It did give him all the advice he needed to make a change.
Isn’t it time to get a little bolder, to speak up for the truths you hold in your heart, challenging the inequities you see around you? You don’t need to be on the streets, or on the frontlines of the revolution to have your own potent message. The stand I’m referring to isn’t about regurgitating political positions or philosophical doctrines, but sharing the truth of your own embodied experience, the wisdom you have gained through living.
Speaking up doesn’t require a megaphone or even an audience. You can hold a subtle message in your heart and when the time comes speak out. Your voice may be gentle, or you may roar like a lion. There are many ways to take a stand.
I believe that standing for what you believe in is one of the keys to a long life.
If you want to see a beautiful example of standing for something, watch Oprah Winfrey’s speech to the 2018 Golden Globes. It’s getting a lot of press so you may have seen it. I could watch it again and again, just to soak in some of her prowess and power.
For those who study and teach presentation skills, as I do, Oprah’s remarks demonstrate what a great speech looks like. She starts with a story; acknowledges her audience; uses her powerful, resonate voice in varied ways; weaves emotion throughout; and moves us on an emotional arc that ends with a relevant and poignant story. She closes with a compelling call to action.
All of that represents fantastic technique. But the greatness of the speech came from how she shared her heart, rather than the technique she used. She won me with three special factors:
She owned who she was. There was no apology, no thinking small. She knows the power she wields. Oprah is Oprah–and she stood tall on that stage.
She embodied what she was saying. There wasn’t a gratuitous or abstract word in her presentation.You knew that she had lived or witnessed what she spoke about. She held the truths she knew in her heart, in her body, as well as in her head. Listening to her voice, you felt a credibility that extended way beyond her celebrityhood.
She took a stand and inspired us to do the same.
The issue of the hour (or the year) at Hollywood’s Golden Globes was #MeToo, a hashtag that became a movement, emerging from the brave testimonies of women who dared to reveal how they had been sexually maltreated over the years by men in power. Oprah spoke right to the issue and acknowledged the courage of women, in media and throughout the culture, who dared to speak out. She addressed the courage of celebrities and also of the laborers, the forgotten, and the poor, black women whose histories haven’t been publicized, but who have endured atrocities. She made it clear that she stood for social justice, the empowerment of women and the end of sexual misconduct.
Oprah is undoubtedly the most powerful woman in America. Unlike some of her male peers who rival her in wealth and influence, yet do not speak out, Unlike some of her male peers who rival her in wealth and influence, yet do not speak out, Oprah knows how to use her influence and fame to shed light on issues, to offer support to those who have been denied a voice, and to encourage us all to take action.
I hope many of us, women and men, will be inspired by Oprah to stand up for what matters most to us. This is key to staying vital–at any age. There’s so much that needs to be addressed in our culture; all of our voices are needed.
It’s time to let your words be heard. Take a stand on the issues you care about.
When it comes to changing the world, in your particular way, it’s time to say,“Me, too.”
There are mornings, here in the Pacific Northwest,when the fog covers the fields in a sheet of gray, and I can only see a few feet ahead as I walk out to feed the horses,
Then there are mornings when a mental fog descends, and the path that seemed so clear the day before is nowhere to be found.
When I’m lost in the fog and can’t find the trail, I need markers placed a few feet ahead of me more than big goals or strategic objectives.
Traditional planning focuses on goals, objectives, and indicators–and these all have their place. But when I’m walking the trail of transformation in uncharted territory, I want signs that reassure me to, “Keep going.” I once meandered onto a goat path while hiking up a mountain and ended up completely lost as the sun was going down.Now, when I’m hiking, I keep my eyes peeled for little orange tapes wrapped around branches to reassure me that I’m on track.
Because a mental fog can roll in without notice, I want to be prepared. One day, I’ll be on fire writing my book. The next, I’m ready to throw my hands up and cry, “Uncle.” When I can’t see more than ten feet ahead, I need a marker at nine feet. When I’m lost in a morning funk and finding writing a book too overwhelming, (yes, it is!), identifying one small step to take can be a lifesaver.
Maybe to find that step I’ll choose to sit quietly or have a brief chat with the muse, that compassionate voice I call upon in just these situations. She’s very good at coming up with three to five very specific, small, no-nonsense steps: “Read a little Elizabeth Gilbert to motivate you.” “Write 800 words even if you hate your words.” “Pick up your closet floor.” “Breathe.” When I follow her suggestions and take one or two steps, I will often find my groove and be on my way again.
I reserve long-range planning for clear, blue-sky days, with no fog interference. Then I can stand at my whiteboard and plot my best-guess trail map for my project over the next three to six months.
How markers can help
If you’re starting a business: What’s the one small, but necessary thing you could do right now to support your key direction for the week?
If you’re designing a course: What small portion of the design could you develop?
If you’re painting: What’s the smallest step or gesture you could take that would allow you to feel like you are advancing–as simple as selecting brushes or setting up your easel?
If you’re needing exercise: What’s the smallest thing you could do today to move forward on your program?
But when the fog comes in, I say that markers are what’s going to keep you on the trail.
Brené Brown did the world a great service when she shared, from her research and experience, about the importance of being willing to be vulnerable. But just because her TEDx talk went wildly viral and has been applauded by millions around the planet doesn’t make it any easier to stand, exposed, before others.
I know, because I teach. Not the kind of stand-behind-a-podium-reading-notes-you-developed-years-ago teaching, but teaching where you know you have to always be a learner, that each group you teach will be different, and that what matters most is always their engagement, not your glorious words. Teaching, facilitating. and sharing stories are areas of my work where I challenge myself to stand in front of others in the vulnerable void, a place where I’m willing to let go and not know.
Where do you practice working from that place of vulnerability?
I wrote this on the eve of launching a new course. (Not surprisingly, it feels vulnerable to share it!)
I love it I hate it
It is my audience, my stage
Where I come out to the world
It is my place to design
my excuse to spend hours reading
tied to my computer, mapping the timing,
dreaming of guests
I’m anxious to meet.
It is my prison
Where I have to wake at ungodly hours
to alarm clocks designed to crush the muse.
They call it training; I don’t like the word
I train my dog and horses.
Educare, to lead forward, is the verb I follow.
Not pretending that I see a world
you haven’t imagined.
It is where,
after eight hours of communion
evaluation forms are passed around.
On a ten point scale how did I do?
Tell me, did I change the life you have yet to live?