Thus and So…

Wakes and ripples continue to emit from the New York Times article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, and some of those ripples came my way, rocking me this way and that, pondering thus and so.

I began my career with, what was then called, a “Big 8” public accounting firm. It was 1989 and the “old boy’s club” manners were dying out and new hires were trying to decide for themselves which side of history they wanted to be on, as they determined how loud to laugh when a legendary, grey-haired partner told an off-color joke about women or whether to join a lunch time meeting with a long standing client at the local strip club.

As I gained experience and times changed, I have been lulled into thinking more progress has been made than might be so. Perhaps each generation can only go through the process of finding a place to match their ambitions, challenge their intellect, and decide for themselves how much they are willing to bargain for, in order to, hopefully, figure out what they seemingly want.

I began in an era where there were still leaders who sent me for coffee because I was the only woman on the team. I also remember the feeling of shock at being asked to leave a board meeting, even after I had been invited by the CFO. (I admired that CFO for his truth telling after this incident, admitting the reasons were both because of my sex and age.)  I am thankful I was on the right side of this history, and as young leaders began to rise and old leaders felt their time had come or their missteps caused too much risk, I began to have experiences where my knowledge, skills and abilities, as they say, were championed and promoted.

After letting the article ruminate a bit, the emotions that stayed with me were primarily ones of sadness and guilt. Sadness for the slow pace of change at a highly respected, top performing company and guilt for the connivance of my consumer ways that seem to be driving the culture and choices of those building our new world.

While it’s great to see that women are hired for their unique talents at Amazon, it felt as though they were being invited aboard the cruise ship “success-at-all-costs” which doesn’t allow for the mere mention of families, illnesses, or any expression of female strengths, i.e. nurturing, collaboration, rendering women, or men who express feminine characteristics, to be data driven back to port.

As I sit here today, raising a born-digital daughter, I was saddened to see there was much I recognized in the workplace the article described: 80 hour work weeks- check, relentless culling of employees – check, belittling new ideas – check, albeit, there seems to have been progress made since the belittling is now happening without disguise.

Now, while I’m proud to call myself a feminist and I “leaned in” at the tables I was invited to, the children’s story that resonated the loudest in support of my thoughts is a story about beauty, attention, love and marriage.   I hope you’ll allow me a bit of latitude to use this gorgeous story, written and illustrated by Evaline Ness, as my way of making sense.

Evaline Ness, an American artist who illustrated over 30 children’s books, passed away in 1986, around the same time I entered the workforce. Her 1970 book titled, “The Girl and the Goatherd Or This and That and Thus and So” came to mind as I thought about today’s workplace and wondered…

ThusandSo

The story opens with a girl. A very ugly girl. A girl who could think of nought else except to be beautiful. Now, before getting into the story too far, I’d like to assign the part of “the girl” to Amazon. For, with their values worn so unabashedly and proudly, they could think of nought else except to be great.

Now, even though the girl got uglier as she got older, one man, a goatherd, looked at her and asked her for her hand. The part of “the goatherd” I will assign to “a leader”.

As the girl sat a-moping a witch appeared. The witch makes a bargain, “I’ll make you the most beautiful of all if you do as I bid.” The girl asks, “Ooooooo?” “Yes,” said the witch. The witch then gives her an impossible demand, to roof her house with oak saplings, by dawn.

Now, there is one last part to assign, the witch.   I shall assign the part of “the witch” to be “a customer”.  Yes, me.  Dare I say, us?  Aren’t we the ones with these demands? – Find me an Elsa doll, even though not one vendor in all of New York City can do it, Amazon, you must! “Do you want to be great, Amazon?” I ask in my consumer witch form, “I will make you great, but these are my demands!”

Back to the story…Well now, the only place to find the oak saplings was on top of the highest hill. The girl went up and down, up and down, until she floundered and come midnight, she still didn’t have enough saplings, so she stood and boo-hooed. The NYT article similarly mentioned a lot of boo-hooing at Amazon in order to meet consumer demands, and by dawn!

Then, along came the goatherd. The goatherd liked the girl’s looks the way they be, telling her, “don’t fret yourself, I’ll help you.”  For you see, there is much to like about the girl (Amazon), even if she seeks beauty without paying mind to those helping her get there. For once she accomplished the witch’s (consumer’s) demands, with the help of the goatherd (a leader), she was all smiles and hardly a thank-you.

Now, you can ask yourself, would a leader help the girl? Why would a leader help someone achieve an unhealthy vision?  Upon first glance, the goatherd can be seen as a simpleton, an enabler solely focused on his own goal, marriage, but my experience tells me leadership is not so simple, not so black and white.  While he has his own goals, he decides to help the girl, without asking for anything in return, for now.

Well, as you might guess, the witch made her better to look at than before, but beautiful she was still not. You see, customer demands are never fully met, each iteration will bring about a new demand, stating we need this and that, done thus and so…

The witch goes on to demand a hundred yards of cobwebs for curtains so the girl will realize more beauty, and then steal a thousand birds’ eggs, and only then, will she be the most beautiful girl of all.   Each time, with a moment of boo-hooing and then help from the goatherd, who liked her the way she be, all of the witch’s demands were met.

As the girl “hummed and fluttered and twittered and wiggled, she was that a-gog to be the most beautiful of all.” And, sure enough, Amazon has gotten its wish, to be the greatest retailer of all! How glorious to achieve what one wishes, to have set your sights on something so grand. To have followed your 14 leadership principals to greatness!

Most grand of all most grand of all most grand of all most grant of all most grand of all most grand of all most grand of all

The news of their greatness flew around the land and they were showered with gems and treasures in the form of rising stock prices and knights and lords and princes and kings came from far and wide in the form of the best and the brightest workers, lining up at their doors.   But not one spoke to her or touched her or even smiled on her. They thought, you know, she was more gold than girl. Ness creates this amazing two-page spread of the beautiful girl being looked upon by all of her admirers, just the way Amazon must feel.

And this is where my Amazon comparison ends, for we do not know what the very next thing will be for Amazon as we do for the girl. For she began to snuffle and sigh once again, even more so than before, realizing, “To be the most beautiful of all’s not the first and last to be happy. I’d sooner be ugly.”

Then the goatherd, once again, agreed to help the girl, but this time only if she would stop her nattering and marry him.  The girl agreed, and with this and that and thus and so, betwixt them together they worked the night through.

Leaders, at all levels, know there is much to like about Amazon, but would you continue to want their hand or would you search elsewhere after giving so much?  For now I wonder whether Amazon, in light of all the gawking at their greatness, will realize they are more gold than girl and decide to stop meeting the demands of consumers at all costs, and listen to their goatherds, to those who have helped them, to those who are kind and have worked hard, and to realize seeking ones goals at all costs is not the first and last to be happy. The article spoke of many a goatherd, who simply got tired of helping, tired of hostile language, tired of not being thanked and went away, to find another, not worrying about being the first or the last.

The leaders I have admired over the years, some of which I’m afraid don’t get much attention or thanks in our culture, are the ones who quietly take action, persevere, listen, act, compromise and ultimately know when and for what to ask, both of themselves and of those around them.

For now, I wonder whether I can change my witch ways, reigning in my own demands for timely products and services, thinking twice about whether I really need another Eveline Ness book by tomorrow morning. Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t. With this and that and thus and so, only time will tell how much we change.

Beekle and Me

I’d like to introduce you to my new, powerful, marshmallow-y muse, Beekle. The first time I read “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend” (Beekle) by Dan Santat I knew I was being introduced to so much more than a children’s picture book about friendship. Sure I was dumbstruck by the beauty, color, and space within the illustrations, but it was more than that, Beekle, it turns out, is a guide of sorts. An internal guide for helping you stay connected to ways of being that speak to the heart. Since that first reading, Beekle has helped me strengthen my resolve, guided me in difficult times, and bolstered me against nay-sayers and doomsdayers. In essence, this new muse Mr. Santat has created has helped me see clearly in times of self-doubt.

Now, I know self-doubt can be the fuel leaders need in order to ask tough questions and create long lasting changes in the world, but it is not always a comfortable state of being.  It can often help to reach for answers or parables to guide oneself. However, instead of reaching for a leadership tomb about how to best harness those questions for positive change, I found myself reaching for Beekle!

It wasn’t long until I was suggesting others do the same. A friend mentioned he was searching for a more impactful way to inspire others, to which I responded by saying, “I know just the book you need! Read “Beekle” closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship – it’s a story that will remind you to honor your creative vision and if you do, others will follow.” Then another leader mentioned she was finding it hard to be as engaged in the mission she worked for, to which I said, “I know just the book you need! Read “Beekle” closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship – it’s a story that will remind you of the importance of finding and naming your passion so that you will better understand the depth and bounds of your willingness for being a leader.” After recommending this book multiple times, here is why I think “Beekle” belongs next to the other great leadership books on your shelf.

At the start of the book, there is an imaginary being, living on a beautiful  island where imaginary beings are created. The being is waiting and waiting to be imagined by a real child.   He watches as he sees other beings beamed up out of imagination-land to be with the friend who imagined them. As you turn the page you are met with a two-page spread of yellow sand.  In one corner stands a tiny one-eyed hermit crab with a shovel, and in the other stands the marshmallow-y being next to some sand castles with the words, “But his turn never came.”  The scene is a bit jarring at first because there is so much empty space. The illustration conveys, with such poignancy, a feeling of disconnectedness and loneliness, perhaps a natural state for a hermit crab, but not for the being.   The shear amount of open space elicited a sense of stillness, a wonderful feeling when you can eliminate distraction and see clearly, but the yellow color filled me with a sense of anxiousness, knowing that a choice was around the corner.   A choice filled with risk and possibility, a proverbial crossroads.

On the next page the being imagines all the amazing things that are keeping his friend from imagining him. Awards being won, books being read, music lessons, juggling, baking, essentially, life happening. When I thought about what sort of imaginary beings adults create within themselves as guides, I realized this squishy, friendly, marshmallow-y guy could be seen as the embodiment of my own internal passion or purpose. I identified with the feelings of the being and those times when I don’t see my own passion clearly.  We all experience life happening and what it feels like when we don’t have time to dedicate to a passion.  But the depiction of this little being on this page filled me with a sense of hope. Hope that, even as I continue experiencing life fully, my own internal passion or sense of purpose will come looking for me.

The being gets tired of waiting at this crossroads, so he musters courage, by thinking about his potential friend, to do the unimaginable: sailing through scary waters and unknown things into the real world.

When he reaches the real world, it is a grey place where adults eat cake without joy, music streams past without notice and adults seem to need a nap.  The adults are all doing things that children easily see as joyful: eating cake, playing or listening to music, riding a train. But all the adults in the illustrations show no joy as they do these things, which is very puzzling to the being.

At this stage in my life I have had the pleasure of knowing the difference between when I am with adults who are leading with joy or openness and those who are perhaps only motivated by the goal or mission, but doing so without joy or openness.  I’m reminded that in order for my passion to find me, I must honor that many experiences, both successes and failures, are reflected in determining what passion or pursuit will speak to my heart. In other words, I must be open.  Open to experiences, open to ideas, open to voices different from my own.  The being knows none of the grey adults are the friend he is looking for because there is no joy, no openness, no color.  I’m not sure which comes first, joy or openness, but for me, they are closely related, one often eliciting the other.

Then the being sees something familiar and follows it. The being enters into a colorful land of play and make-believe but everyone seems to already be playing with friends and the path he takes does not lead him to his own friend. At times of disconnectedness I have found myself looking around at others who are deeply engaged, caring for others, purposefully seeking knowledge in order to grow, or creating objects to improve the world, and I’m reminded we are all passionate beings wanting or waiting for a sense of purpose to find us. He then climbs to the top of a star-leaf tree where children are playing. As the sun sets and the kids run home, no one came for him and “he thought about how far he’d come and how long he’d waited, and felt very sad.”

Then he heard a noise say, “Hello!” from down below. A little girl was pointing to a piece of paper that was stuck in the tree. He reached over and brought the picture down to the girl. The handing over of the picture is illustrated across two pages, no words, with the being at the bottom of the tree trunk, holding out the picture, and the girl at the base of the tree, reaching to accept it. This is the moment of connection we are looking for within ourselves. On the next page the girl opens the picture she was drawing, and it is of that exact moment. A meta-moment, reminding us that this moment can be difficult to spot and hold onto, but when you spot it,  just as the being noticed, it will seem friendly and familiar and feel just right.

Then the imaginary being gets to know the girl. At first they didn’t know what to do, neither of them had made a friend before. The illustrations show them trying to shake hands, but using the wrong hands, then the girl opens up her arms for a hug, but the being tried shaking, then the being opened up his arms to hug, and the girl offers her hand. When I think about my passion or purpose finding me I sometimes am not sure what to do next.   This moment of awkward meeting reminds me to trust my passion and keep trying to find the best ways to know it and bring it forth.

The being and the girl were both a little frustrated, but then started to giggle. Another ingredient often neglected in finding purpose – humor. The girl then shares her name, Alice. But the imaginary being doesn’t know his name and his face blushes because he doesn’t have an answer. Alice then reaches her hand out and names him Beekle. The being says, “I’m Beekle!” with his arms thrown wide. Alice throws her arms wide and says, “Hi Beekle!” and they hug one another. This is one of the most powerful passages in the book, reminding me to take notice of my passion and name it. Beekle and Alice have many adventures together, they share snacks, tell jokes others don’t understand, and lay together day dreaming and drawing when, “The world began to feel a little less strange.”

I liken the feeling when Alice names Beekle and the world begins to feel a “little less strange” to that inner light great leaders let shine when they move through the world. The phrase touched me deeply because that is how it feels when my passion is guiding my actions and I’m working toward creating meaningful change. Once Alice is connected to Beekle, she then focuses her talents and gives attention to drawing with joy, drawing with humor, drawing with passion. She is guided by her inner passion, her inner-Beekle. When we can stay focused on our own passion, by whatever means possible, i.e. building, creating, making, the imaginary can help us transform the world before us.

Then, a boy and his imaginary friend walk up to Alice and Beekle. Alice sits on the ground surrounded by the pictures she has been drawing. The boy looks hesitant, but smiles and holds up a hand in greeting while Beekle and the boy’s imaginary being begin to play with one another. The line on the next page reads, “And together they did the unimaginable.” The illustration shows Alice and Beekle at the helm of a sailing ship, with the boy and his imaginary friend aboard, along with three other children, as an imaginary whale carries them away and other imaginary beings wave and smile. Together they voyage into unchartered lands.

I know when I’m guided by passion and purpose, others will appear, even if they cannot see a clear vision.  Many leaders connect ideas very quickly. But a visionary leader knows how to bring others aboard, to inspire others to act, even when others don’t yet see. Beekle reminds me to honor my passion, stay guided by it, and others, with similar visions and purpose, will be drawn toward me and together we can set sail in “unimaginary” ways.

I was simply giddy when I read this book, not only for the joy children would feel, but I also knew it was a powerful story. A reminder to be open and have hope while experiencing the world in order to allow your passion to find you, to trust your passion when your heart feels it, to name it, and stay connected with joy and humor, allowing it to come into the world, honoring it with attention and action, ultimately drawing other like-minded friends aboard, so that together, the unimaginable can become real.

Hope, Passion, Courage, Openness, Joy, Humor, Connectedness, Trust, Attention, Togetherness – a great list of leadership traits, if there ever was one. Not surprisingly, it is the well-deserved 2015 Caldecott Award winner. Read “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend” by Dan Santat closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship, it’s a story about leadership.