Category Archives: Developing yourself

On saying what you mean

Gender-based violence. Those words are powerful. Say those words to someone and they mean something, even if they have never heard the term before. Female genital mutilation. These words conjure up images of brutality, of violence, of pain, of discrimination and sexism. Even sexually transmitted disease, maybe something you’re more used to hearing in its abbreviated form STD, is more powerful when spelled out.

If you work in global health or international development you’ve probably called gender-based violence “GBV” and female genital mutilation “FGM”.  You’ve probably written PMTCT, short for prevention of mother-to-child transmission (of HIV), and heard SAM (severe acute malnutrition), SRH (sexual reproductive health), FP (family planning), MCH (maternal child health), NTDs (neglected tropical diseases), NCDs (non-communicable diseases), OVC (orphans and vulnerable children), DALY (disability-adjusted life-years), my newest one is EVDS (Ebola virus disease survivors)…the list goes on and on. This alphabet soup is endemic amongst institutions working in social impact, government, and policy, so even if you aren’t familiar with these specific to global health, I’m sure if you work in this space you can come up with laundry list specific to your field.

There’s the obvious argument that using these abbreviations alienate people who aren’t in the aid, development, human rights or health fields and don’t know the wonky lingo and so by its nature acronyms are elitist and pretentious, and I would agree with that. But there’s something even more important – we dilute the meaning of these words and phrases by bunching them up into comfortable little packages of letters. We start to forget what they really stand for. This shorthand stands for words that articulate inequity, describe human rights violations, elucidate real issues that need to be described with real words. These letters represent circumstances that describe the trials of being a human being in the face of injustice and the work being done to try to solve some of these pressing issues. This isn’t LOL and BRB and IDK.

As a leader, it is so important to say what you mean. Language is essential, not only because it is the vehicle for people to understand what you mean but also because the words that you choose communicate your values. And while I’ll talk more about communication in another post, the first part of communication is being intentional with your words.

So, while I might vaguely understand people’s desire to shorten things up, I would advocate that it’s important to take the extra few letters, take the extra breath and say the actual words. They mean something. And isn’t it so much more powerful to call things out by their names?

This post was modified from it’s original post “Alphabet Soup” in January 2014 on my other blog 


Intention Setting – The new New Years resolution for the modern leader

Starting off the new year, many people make their resolutions – go to the gym, eat healthier, write more, read more – the list goes on. But most of those resolutions don’t live on in people’s hearts and minds past a week or two into the new year. Are we so uncommitted to accomplishing the things we want to do for ourselves?

I would say, no. The problem with New Years resolutions, or resolutions in general, is that they are focusing on the wrong things – the what and the how – when instead they should be focusing on the values behind it, or the why. Our why is the heart of who we are, it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, what gives us reason and meaning, and yet we rarely contemplate or verbalize it in an intentional way. When you list off a bunch of arbitrary things that you want to do, with no underlying reason as to why, you can see how easy it would be to allow them to drop to the bottom of your priority list. And so I propose a new type of ritual for the new year, or for any important milestone moment in life – a new job, a new relationship, a new day – that rather than focusing on resolutions, focus on personal intention setting. Nietzsche wrote “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” and so understanding and being mindful not only about what you want to accomplish, but why you want to accomplish it, is core to being a values-driven leader, especially because it recognizes that there are many hows to getting there.

The practice of intention setting gives you the space when you are about to start something new to ask yourself – “Why do I want to do this?” “Why is it important to me?” “What are the deeper, values-based lessons that I want to learn?” “What do I want to get out of this or achieve?” “What is the impact that I want to have?” “Why do I want to have that impact?” The why is your North Star, while the whats and the hows are the different roads you could take to follow it. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, if you haven’t drawn yourself a bigger picture to be your guide, you may find yourself wandering blind. It’s also worth checking out Simon Sinek’s TED talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” by leading with their why.

Writing out your reasoning is the best way to live intentionally. Setting this out from the start doesn’t mean that you need to be inflexible or that you have an agenda, your intentions can and should be fluid and grow and change as you learn and discover. What intention setting does do is give you the insight to experience your life and your work in a proactive and present way.

And so for this new year, I challenge you to practice intention setting, and to revisit it time to time to help yourself stay on track.

As for my intention setting for this site in the new year – I believe that if everyone spent time working on their own personal leadership and building up the qualities needed to be a modern leader, the world would look very different than it does today. Because I enjoy thinking about leadership and what those qualities are, I want to continue to contribute to people’s leadership identity and thought process by pushing them to consider some of my interpretations of leadership through the pieces that I write on this site. As I go through my experiences in life, it is my intention to capture them in writing and share them with anyone willing to read. And I sincerely thank all of you who do.

Happy New Year!



Yes and Yes, And

In previous posts I’ve discussed curiosity as one of the fundamental pillars of being a great leader. The only way to continue to learn is by constantly seeking out novel experiences that expose you to different perspectives and ideas, and cultivating boundless curiosity is a great way to do that. The easiest way to fuel and feed curiosity is by saying “yes” to everything.

The great thing about saying yes is that it often triggers a chain reaction. You say yes to go to a conference or a party or an event. There, you say yes to meeting new people. They, in turn, invite you to other events, or ask you to collaborate on something, and you say yes, which turns into something else. And on it goes. For each yes, you get countless more opportunities to say yes. You should particularly jump at the chance to say yes to things you normally wouldn’t, perhaps to attend something you don’t know anything about, or meet with people who don’t necessarily share the same opinions as you, or go to something alone where you don’t already know anyone there. This doesn’t only allow you to grow your network and experiences, it will also lead you to places to push you out of your comfort zone and into new territory you haven’t yet explored. Staying insular and only orbiting around the same groups of people who validate your world view constrains your ability to see the larger picture and striving to be well-rounded will allow you to be a leader who has the context to represent and take into account all people.
Saying yes is also a motivating tool to be more proactive. When you see an opportunity to write an article, or volunterring yourself to speak at a conference, going after those things is another way of saying “yes” by putting yourself forward, even if you’re not directly being asked. Don’t only wait for opportunities to say yes to come to you, seek them out for yourself.

 The first rule of performing improv is that you always have to say “yes, and?” The philosophy behind this is that when you negate your improv partner and say no, instead of yes, you kill the forward momentum. Instead, you need to accept whatever reality is put forth by your partner, no matter how crazy, and then build upon it. Most of us have had the frustrating experience of having a boss who loves to say “no.” Think about the stifling feeling that no creates and how it affected your motivation to bring new ideas in the future. Like saying yes to everything, adding the “and?” allows you to also grow that idea and see where it goes. This isn’t only great for you, it’s also great for the people you are working with because it gives their ideas room to be heard and explored.

Approaching things in the positive instead of the negative can often feel like a risk. It’s much easier and safer to say no, since when you say no, generally that means nothing needs to change, it maintains the comfortable status quo. But think about where “no” leads you – nowhere.

Hopefully this goes without saying, but it’s important to state regardless, that there are obvious times where it is important to say no – especially around your safety or at the expense of your self-care. Every person has a different threshold, so use your common sense and gut check, and say no in those situations. 

But on the whole, err on the side of “yes!” and see where it takes you. Why not?


On Meeting the World Where It’s At

I’ve always loved the practice of harm reduction in public health work. The concept is, rather than ask or expect people to change, we recognize that they are going to do the things that they are going to do, and so we put practices in place that at the very least will help people to not do more harm to themselves than necessary. To illustrate an example, drug users are a common group in which the harm reduction model is used, where organizations not only offer resources to help people stop using drugs, they also recognize that while people are using, it’s important to provide things like clean needles and safe spaces to reduce any further harm.

I find that I have been generally dogmatic in my opinions around what I expect the world and people to be. I believe that people should be more discerning, caring, human-centered, insert myriad other words to describe conscious and compassionate living practices. I believe that companies should be more responsible to their employees, in their supply chains, and to the environment. I believe that government’s predominant purpose should be to set a level playing field for all of its citizens so that every person has the opportunity to achieve greatness without systemic and institutional obstacles in their way.

But what purpose does rose-colored glasses of idealism really serve? The world isn’t going to change overnight, and many will even argue that it shouldn’t. So all you are left with is judgment and disappointment that soon slips into cynicism and jadedness. To be a great leader, you must meet the world where it is at. Like the practice of harm reduction, recognizing the steps, however small, and however long they take, even if it means just keeping the status quo in order to avoid any further harm, is an important part of the change process. It’s not holding people to your sometimes righteous and unreasonably high standards, even if those standards come from the genuinely good place of wanting the world to be better than it is. It is understanding why things function the way they do, and however frustrating and sometimes painful, it is pandering to those ways, even if you disagree with them, so that you will be able to start to move the needle.

Practicing radical incrementalism is a helpful way to navigate and strive for your idea of what should be while also being rooted in reality. Radical incrementalism is exactly what it sounds like, making radical, strategically mapped out, micro-shifts that don’t completely disrupt the existing paradigm at once, but slowly and methodically over time. Instead of taking the revolutionary approach of wanting to tear everything down and start over, employing a tactic of radical incrementalism may get you much closer to the just and equitable world that you want to see.

As a caveat and a confession, as practical as this all sounds, writing this was hard for me, because I feel that so much does need to change now and that not making those changes immediately has profound and deleterious effects on people’s lives and wellbeing, and the revolutionary in me sometimes feels like all of this is just a fancy excuse for conceding or giving up. But in marrying the fantasy with the practical, I realize that to be a successful leader in these complex times, we need to be well versed in reality, recognizing there are many players with many stakes, that at many times are at odds with one another, and to be productive and effective we need work within it’s confines, rather than without, to successfully make the change we want to see.

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The gratitude/entitlement shift

You did it. You got the job, or the promotion, won the election, got the raise. You worked hard, you put in the hours, the blood, the sweat, the tears. And now you’re there. Where you’ve been wanting to be.

When does the shift from being so grateful that we were able to achieve our dreams devolve into our belief that we somehow deserve to have achieved them? When does our gratitude – the awe, the appreciation that you made it, turn into entitlement?

Great leadership rests in continuing to cultivate gratitude that you are where you are. And this doesn’t only apply to the people at the top. Every time we get to the next rung of the ladder, we react with a certain sense of disbelief that we did it, but fast forward a few months or years, not only do we take for granted we are there, we also don’t understand how we are not on the next rung already. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be ambitious or have lofty goals or even be satisfied, but rather to remind yourself that there was a time when where you are now is the place you were dreaming to be.

How do you sustain this outlook as novelty and excitement wear off and forward-looking begins? Part of it is recognizing that your success does not exist in a vacuum, but was built on the legacy of those who came before you, those who taught you, those who believed in you, and the fact that the world is the way that it is at this moment in time. And then acting on that recognition by lifting up the people around you and making sure you are contributing to a world in which others can be lifted up too.

It is also remembering your “why?”. So rarely are we challenged with truly answering the question of “why?”. Why do you do what you do? Why do you believe what you believe? Why do you care about this issue? Why did you end up here? The “why” reminds us of our raison d’être. The why is not position specific, it is the greater cause or calling that reminds us of what outside ourselves moved us to act. Your why is the path on the journey. When you challenge yourself to articulate your “why,” every step along the way is significant in and of itself.

But it is so easy to get swept up in the day to day that reminding ourselves not to take it all for granted, and then want more, can be easy to forget to do. So find daily cues around you that will help you be intentional in humbly practicing the art of everyday gratitude.


On Love and Leadership

Fall in love with everyone. That’s probably not the type of advice you get every day, especially not when you’re talking about leadership.

I don’t mean fall in love in a romantic way, but rather, in a human way.

What does falling in love mean on a deeply human level? Love is a completely selfless investment in someone else. It binds you to them because giving someone love means that you genuinely accept them, value them, and care for them. It means seeing the greatness and potential in someone and having an eager willingness and excitement to be a companion on their quest to achieving it. It means trusting them. It means being genuinely committed to their happiness and wellbeing. And it means being grateful that they are in your life.

I’ve often been accused of falling in love with everyone I meet. I used to think that it was a flaw, a vulnerability, to be so open to everyone. And, in complete disclosure, sometimes it’s come back to bite me. But overall, I have come to realize that love is the most powerful of the leadership tools. It makes every interaction, small or large, genuine and real.

One of the worst types of human experiences is feeling like you are unseen and unheard. That feeling of invisibility is disenfranchising and ultimately leaves people feeling resentful and even worse, powerless. When you practice everyday leadership that is motivated by love, you allow people to be seen and heard, and even if you can’t necessarily do anything more for them at that moment, holding people in that space and giving them that recognition is one of the most powerful things that you can do.

The love you give doesn’t necessarily need to be an everlasting love, or even reciprocated love. It can range from the love that you give the waiter who is serving your food or the IT person on the phone to your management style with your colleagues to the way you interact with your friends. But recognizing and being mindful of the way that people experience you is one of the most important lessons in emotional intelligence.

Giving love also means giving people the benefit of the doubt, recognizing that we are all just trying to get by, and when someone fails or falters, rather than chastising them, you can use a love approach to try and understand why and help lift them up instead of kick them when they are already down.

I could write about all of the studied and proven financial incentives to incorporate love into leadership – it encourages productivity, makes people more effective and committed to the cause, makes them feel believed in and invested in and therefore motivated to work hard, creates equality even in hierarchy. All of this is true, and if you need an economic argument, there’s a lot to back it up, but right now I am coming at this from a values and human-centered approach.

I want you to close your eyes and imagine how it would feel if you gave love to everyone in your life. And imagine if you felt loved by everyone who you worked with an interacted with in return. How would that change your human experience? How would it change theirs? And ultimately, what affect would instilling this type of universal sentiment have on the world? I know I am saying this at the risk of sounding idealistic at best and cheesy at worst, but everyone is looking for an authentic connection, and in this alienating age of money and technology where we have become increasingly engrossed with our bottom lines and smart phones instead of our present reality, don’t forget the value in saying “I see you, I hear you, I value you, I love you.” And fall in love with everyone!

Practicing leadership motivated by love: Let your guard down. Approach every person with excitement about their potential. See and believe in their greatness, even before they have had a chance to prove it to you. Recognize if you are being skeptical or making assumptions and put them out of your mind. Give them your attention and your heart during the time that you are with them, and focus on being present with them.

If going to a place of love seems abstract or inaccessible to you at the moment, think about approaching everyone with openness, curiosity, inclusiveness, gratitude and an investment in their success.

A Human-Centered Approach to Leadership

You may have heard of Human-Centered Design, an idea made popular by the design firm IDEO, among others, and beginning to gain mainstream traction, especially in the innovation space. The idea is that you put the human at the center of whatever it is you are designing, because after all, they are the users and ones you are supposedly designing for. In order to succeed in truly human-centered thinking, you need to take an ethnographic, anthropological approach, spending time getting to understand the needs of the people you are designing for, and developing something that is useful and makes practical sense based on your investigation and observation.

Being a human-centered thinker is at the core of modern leadership. This might seem obvious, or that it should be intuitive, but often times, the humans being served are the last to be thought about.

To help illustrate exactly what human-centered thinking is, let’s start with a design example – how many times have you used a product or tried to navigate a building and thought to yourself, “who did they design this for?” Maybe it’s a package that is insanely difficult to open, or a shelf that was installed too high for any normal-sized person to actually reach. This particular design story is about the mop. Yes, your good ol’ household cleaning mop. Think about the terrible impracticality of a mop – you need to lug around a bucket of water in order for the mop to be useful, which quickly becomes dirty water that you end up spreading all over the floor. If you are putting the user at the center of the mop experience, the mop is an irritating, at best, cleaning appliance – it is cumbersome, messy, frustrating and inefficient.

Continuum, a design firm, had consultants spend time watching mop users in their homes. They stood in corners and observed as people lugged around soppy mops and spilling water buckets. They thought about what they could design that would serve the same purpose but be more efficient and make the users life easier. And after hundreds of hours of observing and iterating, the Swiffer was born.

You might be thinking that this approach makes sense when designing products, but how does that translate into anything outside user experience? IDEO and Marie Stopes International teamed up to take design thinking and apply it to educating young women on sexual and reproductive health. They realized that instead of trying to do outreach on their terms – teaching classes in schools or in health clinics, where they were normally done – they needed to understand what would be most accessible to the youth they were trying to reach. They created pop-up nail salons and teen speak-easies that were fun and unthreatening, training college-aged women on how to be sexual and reproductive health teachers and advocates to the teens who came to these facilities.

So how do you translate this into a human-centered approach to leadership? The above are tangible examples of taking a human-centered approach, but hopefully they illustrate what the concept means as we begin to move into the more abstract – human-centered thinking as a day-to-day skill and quality of the modern leader.

Taking a human-centered approach requires engaging a toolkit of soft leadership skills, including deep listening, empathy, curiosity, and openness. It is about recognizing the potential of every person that you interact with and engaging with them as a thought partner who has intrinsic value.  When you are thinking about developing your leadership philosophy and practice – think about the people who you touch, who are around you – how do you interact with them? Are they at the core of your decision making?

By using a human-centered approach as the core of your leadership philosophy, you are developing yourself as a leader who is accessible, who celebrates diversity in people and thoughts, who welcomes opposing viewpoints and is flexible and open to change, and who respects and values every person who you interact with. It is leaders who engage in this type of thinking who will be able to shape the emerging future.

Practice a human-centered approach: Clear your mind, open your heart, and be intentionally and mindfully present with each person you interact with today. When you catch yourself making judgments, dismissing people, or going through your regular motions, remind yourself that you are practicing your human-centeredness today.