the becoming: January 16, 2023

Foundations, Accountability, and Discomfort

photo of The Visitors 360 music video at SFMOMA SFMOMA's 2023 Exhibition of The Visitors. Filmed at Rokeby, a very special place indeed.

January has arrived (and almost gone), and so has another edition of the becoming. I'm Andi, and this month I'm exploring foundations in living systems as a metaphor for how we can create daily practices that support our own flourishing.

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You are only as good as your basics. - Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong

The time between the Gregorian and Lunar New Year has always felt liminal; a spacious unknowing on a good day, a terrifying void on a bad one. The murkiness makes it hard to sense patterns and listen for what is emerging, but this year I can feel the soft, subtle murmurs of something wanting attention. It trickles underneath conversations, rustles through the trees on my morning walks, and weaves itself into my Tarot pulls. What is beckoning? The words make themselves known: foundations, roots, ground, seeds.

Halfway through 2022 I got it into my head that I was going to learn Tai Chi and instead wound up a student of Choy Li Fut Kung Fu. The school I enrolled in offers both and then some (Lion Dancing, Qi Gong, drumming) and when I saw the words ‘Kung Fu’ on their website a not-so-small voice inside of me said, “YES DO THAT.” And so I did. The school is wonderful - knowledgeable teachers, a clear lineage, a welcoming community - and it is an absolute delight to hit things.

Group classes have a wide range of students, from beginners like me to folks who are well beyond their first black belt. I found this confusing at first and noticed myself feeling profoundly apologetic whenever I was paired with an advanced student for a partner exercise. I also thought I was holding the class back by being so new because we would run through the same basic stances, punches, blocks, and kicks at the beginning of every class.

Slowly two things began to dawn on me: 1) I’m not that important and 2) what is important is a solid foundation. As our Grandmaster says, “you are only as good as your basics.” Day in and day out we drill the basics, whether it happens to be your first day of class or your 3000th.

I also started to realize that for most my life I’ve thought about foundations through the metaphor of buildings rather than living systems. In the built world you set a solid foundation, construct the framework on top, and that’s pretty much that. Which I’m sure is wildly ignorant of what actually takes place but I’m fairly certain that you don’t have to like, reinforce concrete slabs every day. Creating a solid foundation in living systems, on the other hand, requires a daily act of attention, energy, and effort.

A tree doesn’t put down roots and then stop growing. Energy, attention, and effort are funneled into nourishing the tree’s strong and expanding foundation. The breath, a foundational process of human aliveness, requires attention, energy, and effort to support the up/down regulation of our nervous system.

When I think of foundations through the lens of living systems, I feel a great sense relief. I can release myself from the pressure of needing to get things right “the first time” because in this new framing “the first time” doesn’t have any meaning. Strong foundations come from a daily practice of devotion and commitment, not from a single well-executed endeavor. And by attending to the basics, the foundations, the ground, the seeds of the future I am committed to living forward, everything else falls into place.

Some questions to reflect on your own foundations:

  • What are you committed to?
  • What are the foundations of your leadership practice? Your life?
  • What values keep you connected to who, why, and what you serve?
  • What is the work and life that rests on this foundation?
  • What are the basic practices that support this?
  • How can you commit (or re-commit) to a daily practice in service of your deeply held commitments?

A Few Words on Accountability

‘Accountability’ has to be one of the most frequently used and useless words in business. A common refrain from leaders is that they want their teams to be more accountable, but when pressed to describe what that looks like they come up short. I think the disconnect comes from the belief that accountability is something other people do, rather than accountability as something that happens in relationship.

Thankfully, Jonathan Raymond has taken the time to write about the phenomenon in his HBR article, Do You Understand What Accountability Really Means?. I liked the article enough that I actually picked up a copy of his book, Good Authority: How to Become the Leader Your Team is Waiting For, which might be a first for me when it comes to HBR.

Here’s why: Raymond isn’t offering quick fixes or generalized hot tips on how to solve the problem of accountability. He takes the time to demystify what accountability looks like, pursues a long term and humanistic perspective, points out the role leaders play in helping people be accountable, and susses out the nuances of early conversations that are critical for managers to have to help their team stay accountable way before the train goes off the tracks. I also really appreciate his distinction between micromanagement and accountability: micromanagement is focused on tasks, while accountability is focused on relationships.

For those of you in a rush, here are the three most important steps that most managers skip:

1) The mention. The first step is naming small but problematic behaviors in an informal way in real time. By pulling an employee aside to put words to what you’re noticing, instead of waiting for a crisis, you start to build a relationship of mutual respect. You show that you genuinely care about their growth by acknowledging that they’re overwhelmed instead of pretending you don’t see and by helping them find their contribution to a conflict instead of letting it fester.

2) The invitation. We’re great at seeing patterns in other people’s behavior; it’s harder to see those patterns in ourselves. The invitation is taking the time to help your employee connect the dots. For example, let’s say you saw typos in a team member’s client email on Monday, they seemed disengaged in a team meeting on Wednesday, and then there was a miscommunication with a teammate on Thursday. Ask them what those events might have in common, or point to a deeper theme.

3) The conversation. This is the place to go deeper, by asking questions that guide people to the “aha!” moment, when they discover for themselves how changing this pattern at work would have positive impacts at home. It might sound something like this: “We’ve been talking about you taking on too many projects and the impact that’s having on the quality of the most important ones. I’m not asking for you to share what you come up with here, but one question that helps me is, ‘Where does this pattern show up in my personal life, and what would be the benefit if I stopped?’”

Working With Discomfort

Last year I wrote an article, The Art of Receiving Feedback, where I talked about the difference between listening from “personality” and listening from “center”. The terms come from Wendy Palmer and Janet Crawford’s work in leadership embodiment, where “personality” refers to the automatic and unconscious subroutines we run in response to our environment - and “center” refers to our capacity to hold and be with what is happening without our automatic responses taking over. Somewhere along the way being centered became synonymous with being totally calm or detached, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. When someone left a comment looking for clarification, I realized it was probably worth a longer write-up. The tl;dr is that we center to feel more, to be with life in its fullness, not to feel less.

Worth Your Attention

A few things that resonated deeply over the past month.

  1. Those of you who are passingly familiar my writings or talks may know how much I love writing letters to my future or past self. The practice helps me to reflect, process, and integrate events, relationships, longings, and experiences. Craig Mod’s January newsletter is a beautiful meditation on what makes us who we are. The through line is the idea of archetypes, the visible mold of what is possible reflected through the people that surround us. For Craig, archetypes are a kind of foundation that can usher in a world of possibility from childhood onwards, “when a child is provided a foundation, a troop of positive archetypes, everyone they encounter is elevated.” But even if a kid doesn’t get access to a wide range of positive archetypes, we can configure our work and think about it in such a way as to set examples for younger versions of ourselves.

  2. Dan Harris (of 10% happier) gave a humorous and poignant TED talk, The Benefits of Not Being a jerk to Yourself covering his own journey to deeper self love. The storytelling is solid, but what I appreciate most is how accessible these ideas are in Dan’s hands. Well worth 13 minutes and 38 seconds of your time.

  3. I keep coming back to Tara Brach’s lecture on ‘Realizing Your Deepest Intention” because she is such a beautiful embodiment of wisdom and humor, and because I want to live life as a manifestation of my innate potential, fully embodied in each moment. Through stories, reflections, and short meditations, Tara guides listeners to connect with their deepest intention and be able to spot the three signs of a truly liberating intention.

  4. I cannot possibly do justice in summarizing this piece on calendar time by Anne Helen so I’ll just share a quote and the link: "Through the commitment to busyness and its organization, we inscribe and reinscribe a certain understanding of time onto our children, onto each other, onto ourselves. We discipline our messy, distracted, inquisitive, emotive selves into the most valuable possible forms of human capital possible. We suggest that sort of regimentation is not only possible (just organize harder!) but aspirational."

  5. Over the last few weeks Marlieke Kieboom has been posting a wonderful series on Public Systemic Design over on Medium. I hope this series reaches as many eyeballs as possible because this is the type of critical inquiry the design world desperately needs more of. Catch the current posts at Unbounded Affairs and sign up to be notified for future posts.