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Storytelling Legacies of Leaders

In the mid-1930s India, a spritely old man wrapped up in loincloth spoke of freedom, compassion, and peace.  Mahatma Gandhi carried a big stick, marched across the nation to pick up a fistful of salt by the ocean, and eventually liberated the country. He spoke to his people through painted visions and he touched hearts through parables of possibilities, “Change,” he said “must come from the inside. We must become that change.”

Connect, Engage and Influence your World Creatively!

A few decades later in America, another visionary stepped on the podium and shortly after, set aside the text of his prepared remarks to improvise.   Addressing a crowd of many thousands, he declared his dream—people from all corners of the country, from all walks of life, children of all races living together as one “to turn the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” He announced his vision to the world to change a nation.

In the early 1980s in the Philippines, a journalist-turned-statesman chose to stand up against tyranny.  Amid the toughest of odds, he flew home, stepped off the plane, and walked into the waiting jaws of death.  This act of courage gave life to a story that inspired millions to act.  Fired by his example and call of, “The Filipino is worth dying for!” the first ever people power revolution produced a peaceful transfer of leadership and changed the country’s future. People power became a global model for bringing about change at the country level.

In comparison to the last 20 years, the rate of progress and the proliferation of information and technology have been exponential and show no signs of plateauing.  How people will regulate and sustain life stories in the future is unimaginable.  The stories of today are flourished in diverse formats. They are told and retold to sound and music, in dance, in art, in words, in moving images, all in bytes and pixels.  Stories travel, morph and multiply at the speed of light with a cursory glance and the touch of a fingertip.

Will this explosion of knowledge and ideas through technology ever change the concept and the heart of telling stories? The answer is a flat out no!

Here’s why:

  • Wherever they may sit, leaders enhance their credibility and authenticity through storytelling to spark the change they seek. Storytelling does much, merely by advocating and counter-advocating propositional debate, which leads to increased discussions.
  • Storytelling is focused on the future. It is not just an extrapolation of the present. It swirls emergent, new phenomena and nourishes it by downplaying the doubts and misconceptions of yesterday.
  • Stories are about human empowerment and real transformations in organizations. Stories are about humanity. Stories are about us transforming into a better us. Stories are about us wanting to know who we are and about us wanting to reach for the stars.

A story is like mist that develops on the outside, but the wisdom emerges from the inside. When a story touches our hearts, it takes hold of us forever and silently sets us free. This is a never ending journey.  It is also a never ending symphony. As long as this quest exists, stories will always fuel and fire us. And, since this is a never ending quest, we will always be leading ourselves and others happily into the ever after through stories.

That is the HeART of stories.

Drawn from the book, the HeART of STORY on Amazon.

 

Ego and the Appreciative Self

Among the many theories and recommended global best practices in leadership, none stands out more than the universal consensus builder and conversation starter that goes:  “self-knowledge and self-management is foremost before anything else.” Of the numerous descriptions of leadership, let’s talk about that which describes leadership as being a catalyst for creating positive and progressive change.

Tales and Techniques to a Creatively Funnier you at Work and at Home.

Let’s then narrow down our focus to what a leader needs to do in order to be able to create, catalyze and champion change.  It would go without saying that to create change a leader must know (1) where he stands and (2) where he wants to go, bringing others along others with him.

How does a leader know where she stands?  She needs to have clear knowledge, deep understanding, and calm acceptance of exactly who she is, what she wants, and what she intends to accomplish in her sphere of influence in the world.

The tricky thing about intentions though is the fact that they are intricately tied to self-perception and ideas of who we are. This narrow, intertwined niche is where the probability exists for our assumptions to go wrong. Here, in this sliver of creative space, is where who we really are clashes with our overblown assumptions of who we think we are. Let’s consider this anomaly of true self versus overblown perception of self from the Eastern philosophical perspectives. Side stepping a bit from Sigmund Freud’s theory of the ID and the Superego, let’s simply refer to it as Ego or our own distorted view of ourselves.

In the course of leading, driving change, and living up to our fullest potential, this misrepresentation or Ego does get in the way not only of what we intend to create in the long-term but also in our interactions in day-to-day living. It can stonewall us just as Walt Kelly’s hero, Pogo, once claimed, “I have found the enemy and they are us!” It can side-track us just as a wise old man once said, “If not for me, there I go!”

Thus, hurdles to progress and innovation constantly appear and surface within the change initiatives of an organization or an individual. They arise mostly from a false, distorted perception of the self.

In the early-to-mid-1980s I had traveled around the world to sell and promote Philippine-made apparels and textiles.  On my first few sales trips to the Americas and the Middle East, I failed to bring back any sales not just once but three times. Each trip had taken months of preparation, weeks of travel, and thousands of dollars.  After every trip during that period, I’d come back empty handed and unsuccessful. The effect on my self-esteem was devastating. The organization I worked for knew the reason and I too, gradually learned the reason. It had very little to do with the products, the business knowledge, or the market conditions then. It had all to do with me.

Several months of humbling reflection and pondering made me realize that what seemed like external challenges were really my own internal shenanigans.  I was playing with my own mind and myself. It was all about how I perceived and positioned myself in the world and to the world. My self-image was inflated and unreal. It needed work; lots of work!

Months after that deadly year of professional failures, disappointments, and humiliation, I remember a moment sitting by my mother’s feet and sharing my most recent, eventually successful trip across the world. Her hand rested on my head as she gently asked, “What was different this time, son?” I recall taking a very long pause while fighting back my tears, I responded, “It was me, Mom. It was my own over-inflated perception of myself that got in the way of my dealings with others and my attempts at creating value. It was my ego, Mom. ” She patted my head gently and tears that I was fighting with began to roll down from hers.

Our egos, or misrepresentations to ourselves and to the world, create majority, if not all, of our work-life challenges. No sure-fire way exists of eliminating or curing this chronic ailment that occurs and recurs in every one of us persistently and maliciously. But since that emotional realization of my malady in the presence of my mother, I had set out on a quest to find a remedy– a solution–to benignly manage or tone down the excessiveness of my own ego-driven, exaggerated perceptions of self. That was over two decades ago.

Nearly a decade ago I have found a balm in a new way of life inspired by the philosophy and practice of Appreciative Inquiry, originated by Dr. David Cooperrider of Case Western University, USA.

Three of the many guiding principles of this way of life are most relevant to us in evoking a true perception of self and in nurturing the possibilities and potential brought forth by such a benign and beautiful awareness.

Principle 1: Trusting that every Human System and every Human ( a system too) has innate and untapped potential.

Of paramount importance is the fact that this belief is innate and exists in all of us. It can also be very easily be unleashed with care and compassion. The quality, quantity, and comparative value of this hidden potential is priceless.

This perspective allows me to look at the external world as a world of abundance and opportunities. It allows me to leap onto unchartered waters, take risks and to be open to all that this dynamic life has to offer.  With this belief, I can live with confidence, courage, and optimism. It allows me to declare to myself that regardless of my size, shape, or skin color I am part of an unfolding universe and I need not protect myself any sort of pretensions and machinations.

Principle 2: Acknowledging and adapting to Diverse and Constantly Changing Perspectives.

By recognizing that people and organizations are different; by accepting that these individuals and organizations are in a state of flux and change allows one to hold back from being judgmental. With this principle, self-awareness takes on a systemic swing and allows one to view and regard people and institutions that are different, in a compassionate and holistic way. It helps us mingle with all others with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm.

For me, this approach sparks off an attitude of adaptability and strengthens the muscles for seeking synergistic possibilities. From “I know,” I can move to “I am interested in knowing, learning and adapting.” In this way the sense of my true and authentic self takes the lead and gently dissolves my ego.

Principle 3: Asking Questions instead of Telling and Opinionating.

This principle and practice of learning, leading, and guiding resets a dramatic pathway into uncovering and unleashing untapped potential in oneself and in others.

A few years ago, I had conceptualized and hosted a TV Talk Show called ExPat InSights. My core intention for the program was to highlight similarities between cultures and therefore, enhance the bond between the Philippines and the scores of foreigners living and working in the country. Diplomats of different nations, business leaders, NGO heads, members of academe, and any individual who represented anything different were invited to share their passions about their business or advocacies.

Two seasons into the program, and after close to 300 interviews, I had covered Cambodia, Afghanistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Canada, among other countries. One day, my program assistant (whom I had given carte blanche to invite guests based on the above criteria) announced that the Ambassador of Pakistan had accepted the invitation to be on ExPat InSights. I nodded acknowledgement and smilingly showed my approval.

A couple of weeks before the set program date, I sat down to plan for the interview and my questions. And that’s when it hit me!  Pakistan? Wait! Isn’t that the country that borders India? Isn’t that the country that once used to be India? I realized that I’d lived too long away from my birth country and had forgotten that Indians and Pakistanis live across a blood-drenched border drawn 65 years ago.

Neither the Pakistanis nor the Indians have forgotten the pain, the trauma, and the bloody events from that past. They have had several wars and have continued until present day to deploy men armed and ready to kill anyone who crosses the barb-wired border.  These two groups go to war even when they play cricket or compete at the Olympics!

How in heaven’s name was I going to appreciate a representative of that country? How was I going to find and highlight the good? I realized that I was in an extremely difficult situation. My trust and adopted belief in the appreciative way of life had locked horns with a terrible past and with my own, unconscious fears.  Even if I did manage to be proper and professional as a host, I’d be ostracized and hated by a billion Indian people. I was faced with a fierce conflict of values within myself.

During the next few days I began to check for any loopholes in the invitation that had been sent  to the Ambassador.  Maybe the date was wrong? Maybe it was another show? Maybe the weather would announce a holiday for one of those infamous Philippine typhoons. Anything that would let me chicken out of my dilemma!

Meanwhile, the Ambassador had gone ahead and sent me his picture, his profile, current updates, and news about Pakistan-Philippine relations. I was getting deeper into the muck.  I began to have nightmares.  In those dreams, all Indian people from across the world were throwing sticks and stones at me and calling me unmentionable names. The eggs and tomatoes flew right at me through the TV screens. The Indian government had gone declared me a traitor.

A night before the interview date, I called up my mentor, Dean Rose Fuentes, who embodied the appreciative way of life.

“I don’t know what to do. This is a real mess, I’ve gotten myself into!” I screamed through the phone.

“Yes, I agree, this is a mess and I appreciate you calling me. Now, how is it that you want me to help you?” I realized that she’d appreciated my action and asked me a question right back. This late at night, she was setting a good example of walking the talk of appreciative inquiry.

“Do you, Dean, have any suggestion on how to sit across a person whose fore fathers might have killed some of my forefathers and be nice to him?”

“Wait,” she said, “Let me switch off my favorite episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants and let me think.”

I waited.

After what seemed an eternity of moving chairs, clicking switches and grunting noises, she came back on the phone and said, “There’s this wonderful little book called Dynamic Relationships by Jacqueline Stavros, and I think you ought to read it before you on live.”

I was a day away from dying in front of the cameras and she was asking me to go buy a book. I gently bid her good night and let her go back to Sponge Bob Square Pants.

I then called up another friend of mine; a wise old soul of Indian origin but Burmese by birth. He was in his 70s and I was sure he’d be able to give some practical advice. Not only was mature and smart but he also was a diplomat’s son. He knew tact and diplomacy.

“Tell the Ambassador that you are sick,” he suggested.

“But, I don’t want to lie, and especially not about illness,” I replied.

“Then tell him that the TV station does not approve of your program content,” he offered.

“I can’t do that! I created the show and I own full autonomy over programming. The station has nothing to say about the content and I’d still be lying,” I wailed.

“Hey look, you asked me for advice and given the fact that I need to be jumping into bed, here’s a last idea.”

“Ughh, okay, tell me please,” I begged.

“Say no, the Asian way,” he chuckled.

“And, what is the Asian way?” I asked.

“Tell him, that the show needs to be postponed and that you will call him … and then don’tever call him again,” he ended.

It struck me at that time that no matter what I do, it will be out of fear, out of a warped sense of reality. It would also amount to being a total cheat. I did not want to do that. The war of values inside me had ended. I trusted living the authentic and appreciative way.

The next day, there I was happily chatting with the Ambassador of Pakistan in front of three cameras. Our interview would soon be broadcast nationwide and across the world through the internet. I had swept my mind and heart clean of all biases; of all negative assumptions. I framed my questions such that each question appeared to lighten up the face of the Ambassador and he opened up his heart to me. He shared stories of struggle, success, and synergistic wisdom.

I even managed to ask him about why and how Osama Bin Laden had made Pakistan his hideout in his last days.  He answered every question politely and warmly. He expressed optimism and shared his insights about possibilities and hopes for a peaceful world. Not for a moment during the interview did I feel any enmity or friction. The interview, which is still up for anyone to view over the internet, is proof of the power and beauty of Appreciative Inquiry.

Yes, the process of gentle inquiry, of warmly exploring memories and stories of strength, success, and synergistic action works massively towards empowering others and driving change. The amazing thing about the process of inquiry is that it also works exceedingly well with conversations with our selves.

No, let’s not label it self-talk. Rather, let’s claim the use of appreciation and inquisitiveness as the backdrop for healthy, life-giving debate between our true selves and our inflated perceptions of self, our ego.

You have to understand though that the ego can never be totally eliminated. It can, though, be tamed with conscious efforts at aligning with an appreciative and an inquisitive way of life.  You also have to know that eliminating the ego totally is NOT necessary.   All we need is to keep it in check and maintain a healthy sense of self.

This belief and approach has become a way of living for me. This way of life is the air that fuels the fires of engagement, innovation and excellent execution towards growth and success at work. It is the belief system that strengthens my ties with family, friends, and the community at large. In every other aspect of existence, I depend on this life-giving oxygen to learn and innovate; to consult and facilitate; to coach and train.  Appreciative Inquiry constantly equips me to build bridges from where I am to where I want to go. It makes me humble and strong enough to have an impact on my own destiny.

Coaching Is the Air I Breathe

When coaching, I lean in heavily on the values in words like appreciation, congruence and positive intention.

Let me explain: Our minds, the minds of others and the world we live in are a constant state of flux. One second we hold a thought, an idea or an image and the in the next second it is gone. It’s like we are frenetically sifting through thousands of images, audios and feelings.

To drive change, to achieve progress our intellect needs to take charge, stay in charge while respecting and acknowledging the needs of our frenzied minds.

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Laughing, Talking Sunshine!

“Grandma, why is there no sunshine in your room? Why is it so musty and always dark in here, Grandma?” asked li’l Teresita of her grandmother.

“Well, it’s because the room has no windows, child,” replied the kindly old woman.

“I am going to go and ask Daddy to install some windows right away,” she responded and ran down the spindly stairs towards the living room of their house.

The house they lived in was wedged between several other tall, scrawny structures and the back of the house hung on for dear life to the rocky hills of their little town in the province of Quezon, Philippines.

Her father was sitting on the dining table sifting through bills to pay that kept piling up from month to month. Her mother’s back was towards her and her father. She was busy stirring up some food on that, slightly chilly November morning in the Philippines.

“Daddy, Daddy I want us to place some windows in Grandma’s room upstairs in the attic. It’s too dark and musty there when we play,” she said in an excited and eager voice. Her father did not respond but continued to arrange and re-arrange the papers on the table. Teresita hopped up a chair and held his arm and shook it, “Dad, the room is so dark that we can barely see little shells we use for the Soonka* game we play. Please, Daddy!”

He dropped the papers and the pen he was holding, leaned back into the chair and sucked in some cold air. “Tess, our home is cramped in between other homes and has a rock-face behind, we can’t place a window anywhere in that room.”

“But Daddy, the room is so dark, so musty. Please Daddy place in a window. Grandma will be happy. We’ll be able to play,” she said in a raised voice. Her mother let go of the spatula she was stirring the food with, turned around and a lump formed up in her throat. She knew her mother who’d been their dependent for years now was getting old and they were living through some hard times. Her husband worked hard but he was still unable to bring in enough. “Don’t be such a pest child! Our home faces south. We have no money. There is no way we can place a window in Grandma’s room!” he snapped at his daughter. Teresita’s mother saw her little girl’s face shrink and her eyes water as she got off the chair and ran out of the house sobbing.

Out on the street, the sun was about to set and the country breeze quickly dried up the tears that had run down Teresita’s face. Within moments she got engrossed with the birds, the bees and the flowers that abound in the provinces of the Philippines. The evening sun was kind on her face and as the sun-rays fell on her arms, she smiled warmly, “Why don’t I,” she thought to herself “catch some sunshine and then bring it up to Grandma’s room in the attic?”

Quickly she held up the edges off her long, frilly skirt and faced the sun so the rays fell right into the open, carved out apron front. She held her breath as the apron-front of her skirt filled up with sunshine. She quickly scooped it up, brought the ends together, captured the sunshine in her skirt and ran up to Grandma’s room. “Grandma, Grandma, I brought you something. I brought you sunshine,” she yelled and let drop the apron-front. Nothing happened. She was shocked. “I brought you sunshine Grandma. I really did. I don’t know where it went,” she said as her lips pursed up in pain. “Oh, not to worry,” said her Grandma “come let me tell you a Christmas story.” She grabbed, scooped up the child in her arms and began to tell her a story.Teresita-230x300

The next morning, Teresita was out again playing in the yard. The sun was brighter and richer upon her as she played in the yard. “This time” she said to her-self “I will not fail. I will not spill the sunshine as I run up to Grandma’s room.” She held out the front of her skirt for a longer time. When she felt the heat gather, she wrapped it very tightly and then sprinted into her house and up the shanty stairs to her Grandma’s room and announced, “I brought sunshine. I did. I did!” Yet, when she let drop the apron-front of her skirt there was nothing. Again the grandmother scooped her up in her arms and began to hum her a little love song.

On another day Teresita resolved to win against the disappearing sunshine from her trap. She glued a large piece of a black, plastic sheet to her skirt’s apron-front. She grabbed a few clothe-spins and set out onto the front yard. With her jaws tightened and her lips narrowed, she faced the sun with squinted eyes and held up the plastic-coated, apron-front of her dress for a long while. With a large swing of her hands, she mightily closed and captured the sunshine. Stuck in a few clothespins on the little openings in the wrap and bolted up to her grandmother’s room. Again, when she opened up her huge gift-package for Grandma there was nothing in it. Nothing! Nada!

Tears the size of tennis balls rolled down her cheeks, her shoulders slumped and her knees were about to buckle when the kindly, old Grandmother quickly caught her and sat her on her lap at the bed. “Why can’t I bring you any sunshine, Grandma?” she cried. “Why can’t I make your room a happier and a brighter place, Grandma?”

“Child, sweet child” cried out her grandmother with tears forming up in her old eyes too, “every time you come up here and spend time with me, I become happy. Your sounds, your smiles and your sheer presence, here in my life, make my whole world brilliant. You are my laughing, talking and living sunshine. Yes, you are li’l Teresita. In your presence my spirits light up as if it were Christmas all the time.”

From that day on, the sounds of Teresita and her Grandmother’s happy laughter echo through the little, rolling hills of the Philippines.

 

Story inspired by the book, the HeART of STORY.

Appreciative Inquiry, Way of Life

Though this has impacted me several times and through multiple avenues, I can’t seem to be impressed any lesser every time it happens again…the fact that assessing any situation through a proactive stance and doing something concrete about challenges and hopes most often than not generates happy and constructive outcomes.

Recently, I spent three months working with a bunch of senior executives of a global corporation. In the last quarter of last year their sales were down, they were developing lesser new products and people in several of their departments were low on energy and low on engagement. Upon probing deeper and conversing with people at multiple levels we sensed a drop in trust levels among the senior management. Though this was barely visible in their behavior and internal communications, it seems that production, sales and even marketing had read between the lines and gotten a whiff of the underlying tremors. The infliction had spread and was slowing down progress and even routine work.

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Coaching & Neuro-semantics

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Though the term neuro-semantics had been on my mental white-board for a while, it re-surfaced during a conversation with Professor Juno Parungao and Engineer Claude Sta Clara, of Mind Pool Inc, Philippines, and a few months ago. I have also, over the years, been professing the finer effects of language and words on human minds using Appreciative Inquiry‘s, “Our Words create our Worlds.”

The study of the words we choose, how we morph our sentences, what assumptions we  unconsciously embed in our questions, and what kind of impact will they have on the people across me has become a living passion for me.  It is powerful and meaningful because, yes, it does really create my world and re-design my future.

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I hate brocolli!

I hate brocolli! I hate the sight of it. I hate it’s name. “Brocolli?” What is that? It sounds like some tropical disease. Like, “He’s got brocolli between his toes. She’s got brocolli in her armpits.  But then again, we do know its good for us. Its green and healthy for our insides and for our cancer fighting cells. And, some claim, it adds and multiplies brain cells.

Similarly, in my work-life there are things that I know that there are things we must do which will be good for us. Like learning to and keeping proper accounts. Learning to and keeping proper records and files of projects and programs. And, for professionals and small business owners like me, learning to build an active website and sustaining, nurturing it over time.

I hate brocolli!

I hate brocolli!

I knew this. I was told this, many a times, years ago by colleagues and friends in the industry and yet I kept thinking _assigning this to a professional or a professional team would be the smart thing to do. And, boy was I ever wrong! Nearly every other year, I’d look for to outsource this work and they’d come back and pick my brain, have me do the thinking, the brainstorming and making the website work for me and my business. ” At first I was doling out money in spades and getting aesthetically impressive returns. Then I tightened my fist and began to get function but no charm and no ease. All through, in the back of my head, I kept thinking…”I wish I was computer savvy. I wish I understood the internet as well as they do. I wish I were Generation X or Y or Z. I wish I weren’t a late-bloomimg baby boomer baby! Grrr!

Website building, maintenance and the world of internet marketing loomed over me like a huge clump of rotting brocolli.

Yet, a small voice kept telling me, “Go ahead, take a bite and start chewing. Go ahead, roll up and your sleeves, tie a nappy around your neck and dig in!

So, two week ago, I rolled up my sleeves, put a nappy around my neck, put on my reading glasses, plugged in the earphones and hauled my lap top closer to me and began clicking, punching, rewinding, undoing, doing, highlighting, reading, taking a power nap in between, and clicking, punching, rewinding, undoing, doing, highlighting, reading, listening until it began to make sense, until it began to take shape.

What you are browsing through right now is a still a rough draft, a skeleton of what is yet to come and grow. In essence, not only am I learning to eat my brocolli but I am also learning to plant, grow and make it flourish organically. That’s the way to go when it comes to learning and succeeding at something you consider hard and something that you figure you can set aside and a let divine intervention resolve it for you. No sirree! It doesn’t happen that way.

Can this same principle be applied for accounting, book-keeping and or maintaining records. Yes!
Nothing is more empowering and liberating than tackling any and all kinds of huge, ugly brocolli clouds that loom over you and slow you down. Hate that brocolli? Eat it first! It’s good for your soul;)

Inner Sun

An Unbalanced Life.

Most everyone is focused on living a balanced life. What exactly is a balanced life? Twenty fours divided equally between work, play, family, personal needs and service to the world? Or, is it stress at work, peace at home?