Monday, May 08, 2006

Don’t Stop Believing

For all the talk and awe surrounding our creative, fast-moving, constantly connected, ever-innovative world, there are some dangerous challenges. The most pernicious problem may be the belittling and marginalization of belief. The postmodern world trains rising students not to believe that an organization will provide a career. “You will change jobs 7-15 times!” we tell them. We train consumers not to trust press releases, advertisements, and the basic claims of our businesses—just check out the well known Cluetrain Manifesto for some of the most profound and startling claims surrounding this perspective. From parishioners to the body politic, we are disillusioning the masses en masse.

The academic in me says there is real value in belief bashing. The Eric Hoffer’s of the world have shown the terror of True Believers. The extremes of belief are dangerous to be sure—particularly in promoting the loss of self. Still, there is something divisive and destructive happening as we are today pushed to the other extreme; because, at our core, we are desperate to believe. Just look at how the US population turned to faith after 9/11, how family reconnect during the terminal illness of a parent, or how quickly we rush to the banner of a new politician that holds even the sliver of a promise of being real. While we need to be personally fulfilled, we remain a believing bunch.

If you want to make a difference in a student’s life, drive a movement, transform your business, or change the world in this turbulent time, here’s a thought: don’t stop believing. As leaders in our schools, colleges, corporations, or counties, we can thoughtfully embrace belief without cynicism and achieve amazing results. We really are Better Together. And we owe it to ourselves, and those who join us in working toward a collective mission, to at least try.

Here are four pillars to consider for harnessing the power of belief:

1. Be worthy of it. Don’t even think about going after what’s possible with belief if you’re not willing to be authentic and real. Remember the classic line from King Arthur, “you are the land, and the land is you.” When you’re in a healthy, authentic place, there is transference to your organization. Don’t think this is trivial. In my experience, it is the root challenge in most organizations.

2. Encourage it. You may find that there are so many caustic, cynical people in most modern organizations that it feels more hip to be flip, to deride those who dare to care about making a difference. Have the courage to fight this feeling. As long as you authentically believe, encourage others to as well. The result will be more than worthwhile for you and for the people in your organization starving for something worthy of their extra effort.

3. Create a safe place for it. The minute you and others begin believing, the attacks will start. Be careful. Often, the people who come at you are folks who’ve been burned by belief in the past; and they will play out their psycho-drama on you and others with vitriol you cannot imagine. Verbal aggression, cultural bullying, and much, much more may come your way. Confront it; stand up for those who are going the extra mile without fail. In particular, protect the absent in meetings and side conversations—this is where much of the cultural belief bashing takes place.

4. Be real with it. Don’t skimp on this one. If you’re not a tough-minded realist about what’s working and what’s not, belief will backfire. The cynics will have a field day. Unfortunately, some people think that just because they care, because they believe, because they try hard, what they are doing is valuable. Nope. If you really believe in making a difference, check—and check often—if your strategies are working. Whether your desired outcome is learning, profit, or efficiency, make sure you are tireless is testing your assumptions. In addition, do not hesitate to take action, confront negative behavior, separate poor performers and cultural-poison spreaders from the love of the institution, and follow through on your promises, or else. Your credibility is everything.

These are just a few thoughts for fellow architects—leaders—who dare to care enough. Let me know if you have other “pillars” I need to add to this building.


Steve Gilbert TLT Group said...

I think you'll find the work (and this book) of Art CHickering and colleagues very consistent with your comments. See Encouraging Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education
Arthur W. Chickering, Jon C. Dalton, Liesa Stamm
ISBN: 0-7879-7443-9
384 pages
October 2005


Imagine said...

Hey, Mark,
It’s always good to see academics move from the concrete to the abstract; the intellectual to the metaphysical. All of life work begins with a vision, the deliberate act of ideating. As a young girl, I so vividly recall Martin Luther King’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. My heart still warms when I hear the words, “I have a dream” and have tried to imagine how many times King (in his minds eye) saw his words as reality.
Although your list is pretty good, I’d like to add a couple more.
The first would be to understand timing. The best ideas executed at the wrong time are destined to fail. Understanding the rhythm of people, life, organizations, is crucial to success and I so often see great leaders fail to understand that choosing the right time can have serious impact on the success of their efforts for change. It takes a great deal of strength and patience to harness a great idea and release it at its most fruitful time.
Second, would be coalition building. A change force is so much more powerful if we have the momentum of others. Fact is, we never act in isolation and belief sharing helps us to keep our own thoughts in check. I firmly believe that most great change comes through evolution and not revolution--a grass roots approach, taking a single message or conversation (which is why I think your site is brilliant) and letting it spread.
Although I am pretty secular in nature, I’ll leave you with the words of another Mark…9:23…
“If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”