07.28.15

Tangerine

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:19 pm by Administrator

on saturday morning, i came to the Lord looking for an answer. i wandered into a shop looking for Him; i sat at a table on the sidewalk and amidst the sounds of a couple’s chatter and a truck’s lumbering sojourn down the block, i listened for His voice. and the conversation started in the still of a city morning, as still as it can get on a sleepy hot weekend morning in the city, when i asked Him to help me find it again. my first love.

i wonder if my heart has not hardened to that critical, brittling point where it can no longer be bent without being broken all the way through. all of it—the sweating in small rooms, the moments huddled away with hostile people, angry people—has affected me over the years in ways that i cannot count anymore. sometimes, i think it has made me hate people. their sicknesses and their pain are spiritual sicknesses now. their words, their smell, and the looks on their faces carry a contagion that is inescapably infectious. that illness pervades the spaces where the clock ticks away on my life; that malady clings to me, where i look upon disaster with gaping eyes, sunken (i imagine) with disbelief now turned to rancor, to carved out hollows, to death of a kind.

thinking of myself as one of those men turned away or forgotten because of what life has done to him, i sat by the street in a place fit for ghosts and regrets alike, and i thought about love. first love. not love like the feeling i feast upon in a fit of passion, like curdled lust or the obscenity that inflames. not love like an appreciation of life’s simple pleasures. i’ve heard men preach about Revelations 3 and first love like it’s some enormously mundane thing, a life of ordinary service and devotions. the first love i was looking for was none of these things. it is that strange and wonderful thing that led David to take his stone and sling it against the giant, before his brothers and all of his people. it is that intoxicating passion that drove him to dancing, when the Ark of the Covenant came into the city of Jerusalem, to the glory of the people. it is that overwhelming sensation that bled from his life every last word of his supplications, every last of his pleas for salvation, every last profession of loyalty to the Lord of all Hosts.

i came to God looking for a first love, if there ever was a love like that which i might discover again.

and God said to me, have i not favored you? get on with it. your wife is calling you now. it is time for you to watch Tangerine.

Tangerine was described to me (from what i read on a website) as a funny and interesting movie about a girl and her friend searching L.A. for her cheating boyfriend. but when the movie came on, i quickly discovered that this story was going to be about my worst nightmare: the lives of transgender prostitutes. every scene made me think about my patients, my clinic, and those close, terrible spaces where i die everyday. i actually felt nausea, that’s how strong my reaction was, and at one point i even thought to myself “i’ve got to get out of here”.

the pacing and aesthetic of the film made it even worse for me. the movie is shot entirely by an iPhone, with choppy short sequences filmed in moving cars or while walking on L.A. sidewalks, and the jagged transitions and breaks are glued together with injections of livid, even obnoxious music. for an hour at least, i felt positively jarred and thrown off-kilter, as the story progressed from the bizarre to the frankly grotesque, as i followed these characters into cars and motel rooms and was forced to witness the sordid things that people do to survive. and through it all, the constant disbelief. i can’t get away from it. i can’t get away from the ugliness.

and then the strangest thing happened. the movie ended, and i found myself feeling oddly very vulnerable in my seat. my wife said to me, “wow, that was sad…” and then we walked out of the theater trying to find the words to describe what we had just seen, and both of us began to cry. somewhere between the middle and the end of the movie, this had stopped being a story about transgender sex workers. it had strangely and surprisingly become for us a story about loneliness—about how people on the fringe need other people on the fringe in order to survive.

for all the griefs and troubles i have endured with my trans patients over the years, i’ve found this one odd thing to be true: after i walk with them for long enough, i begin to see them the way they want to be seen. once upon a time, they were men trying to be a different version of themselves. now, they are women to me; i have forgotten what i once thought of them. to me, they were once bizarre or mentally ill. they were self-hating or deeply dysfunctional. but now, they are to me the people that they present themselves to be: gendered, whole, and at peace with what they are. regardless of whatever things they continue to struggle with, regardless of the things that i’m forced to struggle with on their account, what i don’t struggle with any longer is the basic question of their identity. after a while, a transgender identity stops being the reason for everything lost or broken in their lives; it just becomes the lens through which their struggle—a basic human struggle—is expressed.

to take that strange journey in Tangerine, through the bizarre and grotesque into the basic brokenness of being human, is to learn again about the basic nature of love. love isn’t that sublime thing that captures our best and minimizes our worst; it isn’t that thing that transcends the dirty stuff of life—sexuality, sin, and struggle—in the interests of capturing the pristine. love is that thing that forces one to find himself in the imperfect soul of another; it is that thing that forces reconciliation, by eroding any arbitrary sense of what dignifies one at the expense of the other. in its final scene, Tangerine renders a powerful and yet exceedingly simple image of what that love looks like. it reminded me that the lives and experiences of those on the margin are not our burden; they are a gift. they are a gift because they show us a truth about ourselves—a beautiful and transforming truth—that we would be unable to discover otherwise or anywhere else in our world.

first love, i realize, is when one broken person sees another as beautiful, even at her ugliest. first love is when one lost person takes the hand of another lost person and says “even if no one will find us, we will be lost together”. first love, i’m thinking, is when you convince me, oh Lord, to let go of what i was and to forget about what troubled me. see them truly, you say to me. see them for how precious they are to me, and be new

07.23.15

sleep, death, discontinuity

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:59 pm by Administrator

for basically my whole life, i’ve had a hard time understanding sleep. and my studies in medicine and science haven’t made sleep any less of a mystery to me. i know that rats that are deprived sleep die prematurely. i know that humans that are temporarily deprived of sleep will suffer dysfunction above and beyond what is predicted by muscle fatigue alone. and i know that if i don’t get my seven hours of sleep, most everyone around me will know that something is very very wrong. but beyond these basic truths, i know very little about why we must spend a third of our lives unconscious—and what actually gets accomplished by sleep.

i think it’s common knowledge though that unexpected insights or solutions often become apparent only after we have a chance to “sleep on it”. we can’t see a problem in a new way unless we’re able to consciously detach ourselves from it; and in the process of reengaging that problem, we can potentially apply a shifted (or completely new) perspective. we can forget certain details; we can focus on new details; we can change the way we see something. for these reasons, i think that sleep is the reason that people can recover from trauma, be creative and innovative, and experience genuine reconciliation with themselves and with others.

the bible talks about death as a form of “sleep”, and i think that this makes sense if we view death, like sleep, as a transformative experience. just as we’d be unable to transcend our basic sensations and struggles without sleep, i think that we’d be unable to transcend the terrible constraints of mortal existence—with all its inherent tendencies, structures, and rules of engagement—without the detachment and fundamental reorientation that figurative sleep provides. without death, we’d be unable to graduate to a fundamentally different level of consciousness. death and sleep interject cognitive discontinuity; out of the incremental changes that accrue during our waking moments, they effect transformations in consciousness radical enough to shift our identities.

sleep and death aren’t the only ways to experience the cognitive discontinuities essential to innovation and reinvention. meditation can accomplish the same, though to a lesser degree. new experiences or retreats from “reality” can serve analogous purposes. i’m always trying to find new ways to experience discontinuity for the purpose of renewal. prayer, for example. i’ve found that i can lose myself in prayer, though it has to be prayer of a certain kind. focused mental dialogue isn’t the kind of prayer that captures this experience; rather, it’s the “self-abnegating” prayer—the prayer that abolishes self in the contemplation of the mystical other—that carries the striking power to alter self-perception. this isn’t to imply that i “use” prayer as a New Age mystic would. it’s just a simple observation that when i experience ecstacy in the religious sense, what i’m experiencing is a temporary loss of self. it is a loss of self that enables me to gain life. and it makes me wonder if this, in a small sense, is what Paul describes as Heaven

07.15.15

Hitting people

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:18 pm by Administrator

it’s been a while since i’ve followed the UFC, but i couldn’t help but be intrigued by some of the things people were saying about conor mcgregor after his victory over chad mendes. i ended up watching some clips of mcgregor’s highlights (including his notorious press conferences) and found myself genuinely fascinated by the man. though he is notable for his skill, his rigorous training, and his ability to subject his body to extreme pain and deprivation, his most striking quality is his poise in the ring. he isn’t merely relaxed in the face of a threat; his keen focus and seeming fearlessness make him appear more naturally himself inside the ring than outside of it.

i’ve always been drawn to the fight. i still remember watching ray mancini fight duk-koo kim on live television with my dad, and i won’t forget my dad’s intensity (and his terse round-by-round commentary) as the fight unfolded. of course, i won’t forget his shock (and mine) when kim was knocked unconscious, due to the head blow that later led to his death. i was 6 years old when i saw a man killed on television.

my fascination with watching other people fight has contrasted with my own ambivalence and anxiety about fighting others. for five years of my childhood, i was forced to go to taekwondo class, and i hated every minute of it. i feared being called into the sparring circle at the end of class. i cried the moment i was hit; i shrank from contact. i made up excuses to not go, and eventually my parents permitted me to quit, against the vigorous objections of the studio owner. even now, i still remember the moments when i got my head rung. i remember what it felt like to get my ears boxed, to be kicked in the nose, to be punched in the stomach. i remember what it felt like to be inadvertently struck in the balls. and i remember what it felt like to hit someone else—to kick someone in the face, to see the stunned look in his eyes. there was no thrill in it for me, only surprise. nevertheless, these were moments that i never forgot. even now, they are among my most vivid memories from childhood.

it’s funny that now, many years later, i think that i’d have a much different attitude toward a martial arts class. the nerves, the contact, the pain—to some degree, i think i might actually enjoy those things now. there is a part of me that has come to embrace aggression. my guess is that i have been socialized to crave violence of some kind. but it is possible that the thrill of dominating my enemy through physical force has always been in my DNA, and it was simply an instinct that was late to bloom.

a couple of years ago, i took my son to a jiu jitsu class, hoping that he’d like it and that perhaps we could engage in it together. though he seemed to have fun during the class, he told me afterwards that he had no interest in ever going again. there was a part of me that wanted to push him to try it one more time (or maybe two more times). i thought to myself that i don’t want my son to be afraid to take a hit; i want my son to overcome his fear and to feel confident in his ability to defend himself. but there was another and stronger part of me that voiced empathy. it was the part of me that remembered my dread as a child. for him at his age, fearing physical violence is not a sign of weakness; and perhaps it is best if he never discovers a passion for it, whatever our society preaches about masculinity and courage.

in any case, there is a quality that i see and connect with when i watch tape of mike tyson and conor mcgregor in the ring. to me, it’s not fearlessness, nor is it desperation or rage; none of these qualities are sufficient to sustain a man through round after round and fight after fight of punishing blows and the weeks of pain and recovery that follow. rather, it’s the utter and profound refusal to be dominated and the capacity to gamble that fuel the successful fighter. the first quality requires no explanation, i think. the second may seem somewhat non-intuitive. but every time a fighter steps in the ring, or into the street, or into any brawl for that matter, he has to know that he’s risking his life. no matter how strong a man is, if he walks into a head blow at a certain angle, he could die on the spot. what makes the fighter capable of taking that risk with every moment and every minute of every bout is the thrill (if not the bare necessity) of making that gamble every time. the payoff isn’t just the punishment of one’s enemy; it’s the experience of winning that gamble.

when a fighter has beaten down enough men, he recognizes that it’s not just luck anymore. and when he knows he can deal out more pain than he takes, it’s not an aimless gamble. it’s calculation. when i look in mike tyson’s eyes, and when i look into mcgregor’s, i see that calculation. it’s not conscious. it’s just a knowing. it transforms the man, and it transforms the fight into something that can be controlled. it’s the quality that can inspire people to believe that life itself, with all its struggles and battles, is something that can be won on one’s own terms

07.13.15

SCOTUS, and other news items that make me mad

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:43 pm by Administrator

i haven’t written anything about the supreme court ruling on gay marriage on june 26, which was certainly a historic and important moment in american history. i think i didn’t get around to the matter because while i found the story to be newsworthy, i did not find it personally noteworthy. the ship sailed on this issue a long time ago; and the people who remain intolerant of gay marriage have proven themselves not only behind the times but also increasingly irrelevant. in my opinion, there isn’t much left to discuss about gay marriage in terms of legality or about homosexuality in terms of morality. the main issue to discuss now, as it pertains to the church, is why we’ve chosen to frame these issues in a manner that has so thoroughly misrepresented the purposes of Christ. the issue is how and why the fundamentalists and Reformed among us were allowed to commandeer the hermaneutics around gay spirituality so thoroughly and to such devious ends. history will not forgive them for their error, and i don’t think i will either. their position on this issue was their doom; and a new religious tradition will soon emerge to replace them.

there are a variety of current news items that have aggravated me to no end, and i’m going to list them in no particular order for the sake of catharsis. first, a 2nd foot surgery for Joel Embiid. did i not say so? our #3 pick in the 2014 draft is sure to go down as the very worst mistake of sam hinkie’s brief and tragically misguided tenure as general manager of the 76ers. second, the escape of a certain cartel leader from a “maximum security” Mexican prison. how was this not predictable? his first escape was facilitated by cronies in the Mexican government; it was only logical that if he was not extradited or summarily executed, a second “escape” would be in the best interests of certain elements in power. QED.

i’ll admit that i’m mad about the negotiations in Iran. i know that obama wants to go out with a bang, reconciling with two regimes that boast a brilliant track record of brutality, oppression, and systematic injustice. no matter how bad the islamic state might seem by comparison, there’s no basis for detente with Iran while the Ayatollahs remain in power there. they occupied our embassy for a year; they’ve supported Assad, Hezbollah, and the destabilization of Lebanon for decades; and they continue to champion Shi’ite militarism, the real bane of Middle East politics. of all the things that might establish his legacy, obama chose the wrong thing.

and lastly, the 2016 presidential race. how is it that we’ve come to this, that time after time we are offered a political pageant of manifestly unattractive candidates? i’ll be voting for bernie sanders (or no one at all), but really, the political process appears to be irrelevant now. it’s a collective procession of people who insult our intelligence (ben carson and donald trump), evade accountability (hilary clinton and jeb bush), or flat-out frighten us (marco rubio and rand paul). it makes me sad, mad, and weary all at the same time

07.09.15

the heart of ezra

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:46 pm by Administrator

the church my wife and i attended during our years in baltimore remains very precious in my memory. it was a church in pen lucy made up mostly of white and black people, many of whom lived in that inner-city neighborhood. there weren’t many Asians that were active in the church at the time (perhaps 3 or 4 families), and so the pastors of the church were very interested in engaging us, in order to encourage diversity and attract more Asians to the community. one of the head pastors asked me to be a scripture reader in the Sunday services, and it was the first time i’d ever been recruited to a ministry role. despite my slight ambivalence about being approached primarily on account of my race and skin color, i accepted the responsibility; and that marked the very beginning of my life as a lay leader in the church.

in the rotation of scripture readers, i happened to be the one assigned to read on Sunday April 22, 2007. without any forethought really, i walked up to read the assigned passage of scripture, but when i turned to face the congregation, i saw myself through their eyes—and i was not the person that i thought i was. i was someone who resembled the young man that had shot thirty-two people to death at Virginia Tech just five days before. and so, instead of reading the scripture in front of me, i apologized to the people in that place. even though i had not known cho seung-hui, and even though he’d had nothing to do with me, i expressed my grief to the people in my church on behalf of the people of my parents’ homeland. it was a profoundly emotional moment that forever transformed me. and i’ll never forget what one of the assistant pastors told me afterwards. he said, it was like seeing the heart of Ezra.

i’ve written about this moment at least twice before. but i was reminded of it when i saw a video of jenny horne’s impassioned plea to other congressmen of the South Carolina legislature. jenny horne didn’t simply ask for the Confederate flag to be taken down from the premises. she made that plea as a confessed daughter of the Confederacy and a descendant of Jefferson Davis; and she made that plea as an advocate for her black American friends and as a voice of conscience for her people. her speech made me cry, it was that powerful. it was one of those rare moments when i lost myself in the experience, because it was a moment when i witnessed an individual become more than just a person fixed in time and place. her words summoned a timeless tradition of intercessory and spiritual leadership. indeed, she showed me that heart of Ezra—the heart that grieves the shame of the people and refuses to be satisfied.

there are so many examples nowadays of individuals who channel a sense of tribal identity in order to justify prejudice or even war. donald trump, for instance, on the subject of “illegal” immigration. whether they do this for good purposes or for bad, individuals who present themselves as representatives of their people take a great risk; they risk being discredited by their own people for being marginal, and they risk being rejected by others for being irrelevant. however considerable that risk may be, it’s a risk that God demands of His chosen leaders, because few things please God more than advocacy that extends even to penal substitution. Moses demonstrated it upon Sinai, when he declared to the Lord that he would not follow a god that destroyed his people. Christ demonstrated it upon the cross, when He declared to the Father that his fate and the fate of his people would be forever intertwined. when the spirit of God comes upon a man, he cannot see himself purely as an individual; he senses himself acutely and profoundly in relation to his people, as their representative, their advocate, and as their mouthpiece before God and man.

i am reminded today that the people of God are His great treasure and fascination. anyone who considers himself a friend of God can only prove this through an utter devotion to God’s people. apart from this, the practice of Christianity is only mysticism; it bears no resemblance to the religion of the prophets of old, who grieved for their people and hoped unceasingly in their redemption

07.08.15

the apocalypse, fakery, and a firm footing

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:47 pm by Administrator

i had a dream about four nights ago about the post-apocalypse. in my dream, it was late at night, and the world was rimmed in flames. it looked a lot like L.A. during the foothill fires about six years ago. in any case, i was trapped in a makeshift dormitory room with my mother-in-law, which just compounded the intensity of my depression in the dream. i remember thinking to myself, “suicide is an option”. i also remember thinking that i should have been better prepared for the apocalypse.

there is always a part of me that is anticipating (and fearing) the end… whether it’s my death, or whether it’s the end of society as we know it, it always seems imminent in a strange way, like the smell of a storm in the air. sometimes, when i get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, i feel the incredible fragility of my house, and i feel the floor bowing underneath my weight, like it might just collapse. and when i look out at our society, and then i consider the incredible poverty and instability of the societies all around us, i can’t help but believe that the veneer of prosperity and longevity that we maintain is just that: pure fakery. someday, someone will call our bluff, and the whole house of cards will simply fall apart. because everything about our way of life is fragile; it all hinges on our collective belief that there will always be food at the supermarket and that our banks will always give us money to buy that food. these beliefs are based in probabilities that hinge on other probabilities; but in the end, the only certainty is that the weather will affect the harvest, as it always has.

i sometimes wonder if our graduation from agrarian to industrial society has fundamentally changed the way that we relate to God. once upon a time, Yahweh was the great God of nature, that unpredictable and mysterious force that rained upon the land and blew enemies in their ships off course. now, gasoline flows from a pump in the ground less than a mile from where we live and sleep at night; clean and potable water magically flows from multiple spouts in our domains; and massive amounts of food can be bought for spare change almost as an afterthought. in a world of plenty, God is no longer mysterious, threatening, or powerful; rather, He is philosophical, remote, and full of ruminations. He is like a grandfather in his parlor chair, far removed from the business of our lives, content to tell us stories about the world as it once was.

and yet i feel upon my heart the distinct tug of the Spirit, urging me to feel (contrary to the culture of our times) that my daily survival still hinges so much upon the day to day mercies of an all-powerful God. and though my existence does not feel desperate, there is something deep within me which asserts that the comfort of my days is rooted in an illusion—a great illusion regarding the sustainability of our ways. in fact, our lives still hang upon those delicate threads that bridge the chasm of spiritual death; and to recognize my tenuousness is to be reminded of how incomplete and insincere has been my devotion to the living God. repentance is no mind game. it requires a rejection of all fakery—and the full embrace of the life that exists beyond our deceptions.

i’ve spent too much time fantasizing in the flesh, meditating on money, and planning on probabilities. my thoughts from day to day have broken along tangents, revolving around the world’s preoccupations, and never settling upon what is true. i need to return to a heart of utter repentance. i’ve got to find my way back to that corner, where i see my enemy in front of me, and where the Lord is at my back and at my fore, fighting for my life, showing me the way through death and into the glory beyond

07.06.15

the meaning of excellence

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:22 pm by Administrator

one thing that i’ve been meditating on more and more is the meaning of excellence. there’s a spiritual aspect to these ruminations… the older i get, the less i see excellence in many good things. and that differentiation between good things and excellent things is not simply an intuitive differentiation. whether it’s derived from my work in org excellence or in the church, there’s a very specific and structured idea of excellence that i’m coming to understand. if good things are good, then excellent things are great, on account of what they illuminate about God, what they evoke in individuals, and what they generate in the societies of man.

among all the resources on excellence that i’ve read and applied over the past five years, my two favorite points of reference have been 1) the Baldrige criteria and 2) Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”. and in my mind, the two approaches say the same essential thing: that organizational excellence can only be defined by activities and accomplishments that are experienced as excellence by an organization’s customers, stakeholders, and workforce. if an organization reaps “excellent” financial returns which do not translate to a positive impact on its customers, then the profit does not represent excellence. if an organization builds a beautiful new corporate headquarters that the majority of its employees will never step inside of, then that building does not necessarily represent excellence. if the Board of Trustees and the CEO help to navigate their company through a rugged time of transition, but their workforce pays for that transition by losing their earnings, their jobs, or their quality of life, then what the organization achieves might only be excellent in the eyes of a few; it is not that transcendent form of excellence that inspires and sustains the tribes, teams, and organizations of man.

the difference between good things and excellent things does not always reside in the nature of those things. sometimes, the difference resides in how those things are presented or perceived. for example, if a company wins a Baldrige award or a Michelin star and yet none of the front-line employees really understand what that award means, did the company really achieve something excellent? on the other hand, if the company wins the “award that proves that you and i are among the best at what we do”, then maybe it has accomplished something excellent. “integration” is the key, and it’s no accident that integration is one of the principal key words of the Baldrige criteria. in other words, excellence is only excellence if everyone involved in an enterprise experiences that excellence together.

these observations confirm two things for me: firstly, that there is no excellence without true mutuality of interests, and secondly, that there are very few things (if any) that are intrinsically excellent. the conclusion i draw from these core truths is that the achievement of excellence requires a continuous and meaningful negotiation among the stakeholders of any enterprise. if and when those stakeholders stop seeing eye to eye on something foundational, excellence becomes impossible. and i would argue that this impossibility of excellence is felt by everyone involved; whether it is imminent or far off in the future, failure ripples backwards in time, and it corrupts the activities of the present, in a manner that divides and isolates the members of a team.

a while ago, i suggested that the same truth very much applies to the idea of local church as well. i shared with a couple of my friends this idea that if and when a pastor stops speaking directly to the felt needs of his or her congregation, then integration and deep engagement within that community become impossible. the idea that a pastor ought to negotiate the content of his preaching with his flock struck my friends as heretical; it is a divine calling after all! to whom is the pastor accountable to? he ought to speak the truth as he discerns it, not the truth as his congregation might seek it or experience it.

i understood their protest, but even after months of deliberating over these conversations, i haven’t changed my mind. the role of the pastor, like the role of any organizational leader, is to identify what is mutually and corporately excellent—and to serve those most directly responsible for that excellence. both roles imply that the chief functions of the pastor are to listen to his people and to facilitate their work. least among the pastor’s functions are to teach, to indoctrinate, or to change people’s minds. and if a pastor finds that he is spending almost all of his time desperately trying to persuade others to his point of view, then either that community is doomed or he is the wrong leader for it. either way, his time and energy might be better devoted elsewhere.

the assumption here of course is that excellence, though negotiated and mutually understood among people, represents God’s kind of excellence. there are some who would argue that this is fundamentally errant, as the history of man provides much evidence for the fallacy of human thinking and the unreliability of human sensibilities. but i believe that it is not biblical to assert that the will of the assembled believers is necessarily sinful; and in fact, if we cannot trust that the church has been accorded His divine spirit for the renewal of our minds, then we cannot accept teaching delivered by any man. the story of Israel and of the early church is not the story of divine right imposed upon the ignorant masses. the story of the Gospel is very much a simple and straightforward story about integration, service, and excellence: that mercy and love are worthwhile because the experience of these things binds us together and to the Lord Himself. the purpose of the church and its leaders is not to reveal the mysteries of the profoundly complex scriptures but rather to remind us all, generation after generation, that God’s excellence, defined by His grace to us and His promise of everlasting life to those who believe, is worthy of our lives—and thus is excellence indeed.

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Part 2: What it looks like, for leaders

like i mentioned above, when everyone on a team is aligned around the Baldrige idea of excellence, leadership takes on a very particular role. rather than unilaterally defining excellence through goals or milestones, leadership’s role is identifying excellence as it is already experienced by customers and employees—and supporting those who are most directly responsible for those activities which are excellent. by definition, senior leaders are rarely directly responsible for those activities of excellence; and so leaders prove their worth to the organization by recognizing, rewarding, and serving those who are.

i’ll never forget my experience of visiting with John Heer at North Mississippi Medical System, a Baldrige winner in 2012. John said that his first and most important challenge to tackle when he started with NMHS was a lack of alignment among the senior leaders of the hospital system. he chose to handle that particular problem of culture by taking his twelve senior leaders through a monthly book review devoted to James Hunter’s “The Servant”. it’s an allegory that illuminates the principles of servant leadership. over a 12-month period, those book review sessions made it clear to John who deserved to stay and who needed to go. after replacing over half of that senior leadership group, John had a new cadre of people who were willing and able to model servant leadership. that group went on to lead the organization to two national Baldrige awards—an unprecedented achievement.

i got to meet with and listen to that group of senior leaders, and i would describe them as a thoughtful, disciplined, and humble group of people. when they were given opportunities to talk about their personal accomplishments, they spoke instead about their system and their teams. when they were praised for their approaches and learnings, they reinforced the importance of basic things: listening to people and following through with promises. their system was a Baldrige system that consistently entrained their focus on two things: the voice of the customer and the feedback of the workforce. at every meeting, whether at the strategic level or at the level of day-to-day operations, the expressed needs of customers and employees were prioritized for discussion; and all plans, initiatives, and improvement projects had to be linked directly to these needs.

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Part 3: Engagement

i think that the single most difficult concept inherent to the pursuit of excellence is engagement. both Jim Collins and the Baldrige criteria identify the profound importance of loyalty—heartfelt, enduring loyalty, made evident in personal actions that affirm the vision of the enterprise. engagement is not simply “being engaged”; it is an intentional expression of honor, intended to deepen interrelationship.

the experience of excellence will inspire engagement, but excellence is not consummated nor complete until engagement is fully realized. i think of it like the religious practices of the old Israel, when the forefathers offered their sacrifices of thanksgiving upon their altars. Noah offered a burnt sacrifice upon the altar after he and his family were rescued from the flood; the sacrifice consummated the covenant made between God and himself, and the smell of it pleased the Lord. similarly, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac became an eternal sign of his devotion to God, and while God’s covenant preceded that sign of faith, it was Abraham’s action that consummated their relationship. the consummation of mutual relationship, whether it is signified by personal sacrifice, public recognition, or simple obedience, enables the experience of excellence to endure. and any organization that does not permit its members to demonstrate meaningful engagement cannot sustain excellence for very long.

engagement will look different in every setting or structure, but regardless of its specific trappings, engagement always requires a few basic things of its context. engagement requires space: a dedicated place and a dedicated time. engagement requires personal expression, whether it be in an action, a word, or a commitment. and engagement must be public. it must connect the individual to his or her larger community, in a manner that is mutually affirming. engagement can be as simple as an employee posting a compliment to his company on a social media site. it can be as grand as making a multi-million dollar donation at an organizational fundraising event. whatever it looks like, engagement must be anticipated, planned for, and thoughtfully received. and though spontaneous engagement makes for occasionally spectacular or moving results, a good organization elicits and encourages expressions of engagement as a matter of regular, predictable, and recurring routine.