Something Worth Standing For

Something Worth Standing For

This week, conversations with clients have often veered into their views on the controversy surrounding NFL players “taking a knee” while the national anthem is being played.  I’m less concerned whether they think the players should or shouldn’t be doing it, or whether they think the President should or shouldn’t be telling the NFL what their players can do.  I’m mostly curious about what matters enough to each person I’m talking to that would make them consider taking a stand (or a knee) in their own life or work.

We each have moments in our lives where we get to (no, correct that, have to) decide who we are and what we stand for.  Then comes the bigger decision, whether to take a stand, or to bow before something else that we allow to take priority.  Every time, there is a choice to be made between doing what’s right in the moment, despite our fear and insecurities, including the possibility of public scorn, or following the crowd into the lukewarm waters of moral mediocrity and the false sensation of safety.  The truth is, each of these decisions becomes the brick and mortar of the rest of our lives – either creating a strong foundation upon which to build a passionate, meaning-filled life to be proud of – or not.

So, this week, I have been asking clients this question:

What do you stand for? What matters to you enough to consider being an outsider, 

to be willing to take a stand?

As is my custom, I’ve been challenging them to stand for SOMETHING WORTH STANDING FOR.

Stand for Compassion

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Don’t get me wrong, I know we all have good hearts and good intentions, but when push comes to shove, do you wait for someone else to take the lead or do you step up to the plate and do your part to make change?  Do you excuse away harm, protecting your self-interest, by saying “That’s just the way it’s done.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

I’ve been thinking about a recent conversation with a client, Jeremy.  One of his strengths is that he can find lots of ways to optimize costs in a transaction.  When we dug into that trait a little more, he shared with me how successful he had been over his career in finding ways to cut out waste and streamline operations, really optimizing the bottom line for the companies his firm invested in.  One of those particular optimization strategies he regularly turned to was cutting staff.  Ah.  It took me a couple of sessions with him before I was willing to gently ask how it felt to have been optimized out of his role with the company that had unceremoniously restructured his position out of existence a few weeks before.

Jeremy had come to me for help thinking differently about what he would do next.  I asked if, perhaps, in the next position he took, he might find a way to use this experience to bring more compassion to the way he optimized profits, also seeing the impact it had on people.  He scoffed and said, “Listen, I’ve got two kids and, not surprisingly, they like to eat – every day.”

I pushed back, reminding him that he was not in the class of employees who were actually worried about whether their children would be able to eat – we were talking more about the pleasantries of life like private vs public school, spring break trips to other countries, second homes.  I challenged him to look at the privilege he actually enjoyed and to surrender the false storyline that his children would starve unless he continued doing “business as usual” in this harsh way.  I asked him whether he stood for compassion.  Not that the companies couldn’t become a little more profitable.  But, how did he actually FEEL right now, being in the very same position as so many of the employees he had “optimized” out of their jobs.  Could he find a way to do his job in a way that also brought in compassion?

I saw this sign at REI on Sunday afternoon:

“Shared Values not simply Share Value”

Yes, money is important, profits are important – but is it the ONLY important thing?  And, before you cry that cutting those jobs saves other jobs, I ask you to consider whether the same sense of safety and security you are seeking in your work might also be important to the people who work in your companies?  Have you convinced yourself somehow that you are more deserving of compassion than they are?

In the film “Up in the Air” George Clooney plays a hired gun, flying in to fire employees for other companies.  As part of his own company’s cost cutting measures, they implement a system to fire employees remotely by teleconference to save the costs of sending Clooney to do it face to fact.  After the suicide of an employee who was fired, the company returned him to the job, realizing that, even in letting people go, there is a need for kindness and compassion.  Does it take something that drastic for you to bring compassion to the people you are optimizing out of their jobs?

Do YOU stand for compassion?  Do you actually know (or even wonder) where those people WILL find other work, instead of simply optimizing them out and convincing yourself they will land “somewhere”?  The department may be called Human Resources, but never forget the human part of the equation.

The reason I pressed this point with Jeremy and why I’m posing it here is because of the high likelihood that it will happen in your own industry.  It happened to Jeremy, he just hadn’t realized he was a victim of his own optimizing efficiencies until it was too late.

Don’t check your values at the door when you go to work.  They are a critical part of you and we need you to hold them dear.  Stand for compassion now, before you are in the position where you hope someone else will stand for you.

Stand for Honesty, Dignity and Self Respect

Does your ability to tell the truth change with the crowd, what you hope to gain, or your mood?  Are your standards of honesty more like a costume you wear when the occasion calls for it, then discarded when it feels inconvenient?

Another client, Mike, told me that he’s been struggling about whether he can trust the terms of an offer a firm has extended to him.  What he shared with me made his pervasive sense of mistrust come into sharp focus.  He’s grown accustomed to the half-truths and bald-faced lying that goes on in the industry as people try to gain advantage over each other.  Because he knows that he often withholds information and conceals facts he deems unhelpful for his opponent to know, he has begun to assume that everyone else is doing that all the time, too.

Worse yet, he’s begun doing it at home.  Because he knows his wife will be disappointed and angry if he tells her he will not fulfill a promise he’s made to her, he has begun to act cagey and hedges on making any commitments to her, assuming that by not making any clear plans he can avoid her anger or disappointment when he changes the plan.  He acknowledged that instead it has made him seem unreliable, perhaps even untrustworthy, and the constant uncertainty he is creating is impacting his relationship with his wife and his children.

It is difficult to respect ourselves when our core is as insubstantial as drift wood floating on the sea of societal norms and pop culture, or worse, of expediency.  It leaves us with nothing we can stand on.  Only if you’re anchored to something fixed and solid can you build something tall and magnificent.  So, anchor yourself to the truth.  There’s nothing more solid than that.

Tell the truth, even if you think others aren’t.  And, insist upon it from others.  Choose trustworthy partners and business associates and refuse to work with those who aren’t.  We actually CAN turn around this culture of deception, but only when we hold ourselves to our standards and take a stand for the truth.

Reclaim your dignity.  Resist becoming a doormat on which others wipe their feet.  Refuse to be the sole giver to a bottomless pit.  The boss wants you to work until midnight again because there is more work than you could possibly complete in a normal workday?  Read the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No by Henry Cloud.  It is not a badge of honor to surrender your self-respect and your quality of life for advancement.  You are abandoning yourself and, if you won’t stand for yourself, who do you think will?

Standing for something means centering yourself on principles.  It means committing to live by those principles.  It means leaving the crowd whenever they stray from those standards.  That bedrock of core principles will return a sense of self-respect to the image in the mirror as they are consistently applied over time.

Stand, Even When No One Else Will Stand With You – Be a Leader

Standing up to be counted is a daunting thing, but life cannot be lived well if we live it slouched.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Returning to the NFL players, you may recall that Colin Kaepernick first sat quietly during the playing of the national anthem.  He did that for three games without much controversy.  And, he was alone in his protest.  Then he chose to make a more public showing and “take a knee.”  In that, his fourth act of protest, he was joined by another team mate (Eric Reed) and eventually by others as they began to use their platform of visibility to open a conversation for those whose voices were not being heard.

Someone must go first, someone must be brave.

In the financial services sector, one woman, then another and another, came forward to tell of sexual harassment.  When enough came forward, firms began to take steps to address the issues, although many in those firms had stood silent as the harassment when on, not wanting to get involved or call attention to themselves by taking a stand.

Refuse to be the silence that sinks deep into the heart like a knife.  Develop an inner core that prevents indifference and apathy, one that holds you firmly to high standards and self-respect.

Whether you agree with the method each has chosen in this essay, can you find a place in your own life where you are willing to take a stand for what matters to you, even if no one else stands with you?

Decide what you stand for and stand for it!  Be a man or a woman who stands for people, for relationships, for those in need, for honesty, for something that matters.  Stand for something greater than your own self-interest.  Stand on principle and for truth and human decency whether others follow or run or condemn.

Be someone your children and friends can be proud to know.  What do you stand for?  I’d love to hear it and, better yet, to see you standing tall.