Abdul-Malik Muhammad On Affecting Organizational Change
As people look to make change – real change – in the world around them, they can start by learning from people like Dr. Abdul-Malik Muhammad. Dr. Muhammad is the founder of Akoben, an inspiring organization that provides training, consulting and keynotes with the goal of transforming individuals, organizations and communities and positively affecting change. Dr. Abdul-Malik Muhammad has served as a teacher, principal, campus president, and executive and state director of a multitude of national and international organizations. He has also been a grassroots organizer, activist and advocate for marginalized youth for nearly 25 years. In his second appearance on the Elevate Podcast, Dr. Muhammad joined host Robert Glazer on the Elevate Podcast to talk about how to make a positive change in organizations of any kind.
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Abdul-Malik Muhammad On Affecting Organizational Change
Abdul-Malik Muhammad, founder of Akoben, distinguished leader and organizational changemaker, joins host Robert Glazer on the Elevate Podcast.
Our quote is from Colleen Wilcox. She was like, “Teaching is the greatest form of optimism.” My guest, Dr. Abdul-Malik Muhammad, has been serving both youth and adults as an educator, transformational leader, entrepreneur, and author for a few decades. He’s the Founder and CEO of Akoben, a professional development company, and Transforming Lives Inc., a provider of alternative education services. In his career, he’s launched 18 schools and specialized programs, led a staff of 2,400 across eleven states, and spoken on leadership and community building on 4 different continents. Malik, welcome back to the show.
Thank you, Bob. I’m excited to be here.
You are on episode 5 of the show. We talked a lot about your personal background. I encourage people to read that. I like running these ones, but I was like, “We got to talk to Malik again. We stepped up the quality here.” It has been so long. I find it interesting to ask people questions like, what’s changed the most for you or not changed since this little global pandemic that we had?
It has not changed, but it’s evolved. It’s nuanced and gained complexity. It is this idea that we’re all trying to find a journey through our humanity. We’re trying to find a tribe and belonging. What the pandemic did for a lot of us was a break in some ways. We were forced to confront some things with ourselves and others. For others, it opened up the opportunity for us to clarify some things that make more sense. That did for me as well. What has changed is that I’ve stepped back a bit from doing more direct work to do more writing, thinking, and strategizing around what I want to do and contribute to and be in the world.
You mentioned that word that it’s interesting. There are a lot of these books popping up now. I read Sebastian Junger’s book. I haven’t read Tim Urban’s new book on the struggles we’re facing with tribalism. What is it about events like this that force us back into this? We have a lot of biological systems like fight or flight and things that we don’t need anymore but we still haven’t outgrown them.
When we start talking about the survival brain, what happens when our amygdala is activated or prefrontal cortex?
It’s supposed to be for a bear. I’m annoyed that my cleaning lady’s not here. I’m stressed.
Our brain can’t distinguish when we’re in survival brain between the bear and our cleaning lady. The most common one is fight, flight, or freeze. There’s also fawn. The one I like is flock. What we find is when that’s activated, we flock together. We see that constantly, whether it’s adults or children, people are often flocking together. Sometimes, we’re good. Sometimes, mob mentality, but that’s a biological response. It’s finding safety.
There’s a fear of being thrown out if you go against it.
The shame exists when you’re not in the right standing in the community. A lot of this work that we do in restorative practices is around shame. How do we navigate shame? Shame is a powerful thing. It’s not wholly and all-consuming bad. That is a common understanding of shame. We don’t want to live in a world without shame. What shame does is indicate that there’s a gap between expectations.
When we belong to a group, a political view, an identity, or a community, and we’re not in the right standing because we hold a different perspective, shame shows up. If we’re not able to reconcile that shame effectively in healthy ways in the community, we will be stigmatized, canceled, and thrown out, even if still there.
Are we afraid of that? If you were thrown out 1,000 years ago, you were dead. You developed some of these systems. Is it the shame of being thrown out? Do you think we’re running some of these biological processes of it like it’s dangerous to be exiled from the group, and dissenting with a group in any way is what could cause that?
It speaks to both ends of all of those things. It’s the concern or fear about being thrown out. It’s also true what John Braithwaite says. He wrote Crime, Shame, and Reintegration, where he talks about how stigmatizing shame creates outcasts. Those outcasts also continue to have this deep sense of belonging and need, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What happens? They find other outlets. When it’s socially unacceptable, it’s called a gang. When it’s not, it’s called the Rotary Club. That’s what we have.
What we have found is it is extremely difficult without punishment probably leading to oppression to hold groups that you have outcasts to social norms that you deem to be appropriate. Because they are isolated, they’re outcasts. The only way to bring people into socially normal behavior is they have to belong. They’ve got to be a part of the community.
This is true for any organization and team. How do you share values but have a wide range of opinions? These are our common threads, but outside of these threads, we’re going to be divergent. I had this discussion with someone. I read a lot about Gen Z talking about, “I want to work at a company where they agree with the things that I agree with and the things that are important to me.” Generally, that viewpoint is from someone with a little more of a progressive viewpoint.
I’m thinking, “That feels antithetical to inclusion. You want to share value, but how can everyone have the same opinion of you or the company on everything? Don’t you need a bunch of different opinions and stuff in the company?” We’re stuck in a lot of different groups in a chicken and egg game around this, where we want inclusion and diversity. You have to have some common thread about why those people are there, but how do you have a tolerance level within that? You could answer that. Everything would be good in the world.
I don’t want to pretend I’ve got that one answered. A missing ingredient that we often find when we start talking about values, this common vision of the world, understanding and outlook worldview orientation, is the commitment to remain in community with each other. How do we remain in a community when we disagree?
One of my best friends and colleague, Steve Korr, says, “The problems that show up between people are not the problem. That’s an inevitability when you’re in close contact proximity.” The problem is not the problem. It’s when we don’t have a process to work through the problems. What we need are mechanisms that when harm and disagreement show up, we can still remain in community with each other.
Otherwise, you have a false agreement, or people start giving up part of themselves for things they might not necessarily believe in because it’s safer.
In the whole myriad of things that make up the things that I believe in and love, there’s no one that’s going to be 100% aligned on that. We may share a worldview that bends towards progressive, but they may not like Star Wars. They may be a Trekee. We’re debating phases and lasers. I don’t like them for that. We will eventually click down to a place where we find disagreement. We may not hold that to be important. The more I have salt in my beard in seasoning in this life, I have found people I widely disagree with on what I have understood still hold to be fundamental truths. When we’ve spoken long enough, I found, and they might hopefully find humanity in each other.
Someone said that. I thought it was a great quote and thinking in the context of organizations. One of the dangers to me of trying to get involved with everything, which is not the hallmark of a great organization, is focus. There is a push for organizations to get involved with everything these days. This is where you’re seeing a lot of companies get into trouble. It is when they’re stepping outside of things that are tied to it. They said, “Even when we agree on problems, we might disagree on the solution.”
From a historical perspective, we see this every time there’s a revolution. What we have is this coalition of forces that agree on what they’re fighting against but not what they’re fighting for. As soon as they achieve state power, all hell breaks. We see that because Peter Block wrote a book called Community: The Structure of Belonging, which is one of my favorite books. What he says is, “If we can’t say no, our yes is meaningless.”
It ties a little bit to Lencioni’s work on false agreement in Texas.
Covey’s work of malicious obedience, where I’m saying yes with my mouth but not with my heart. As leaders, we feel compelled to say yes. Therefore, it loses meaning and power because we don’t say no.
We’re going to talk a little bit about change. This is fascinating. You went into the first episode in detail. I’m going to ask you to do a hard thing, but can you give us cliff notes of how you got to what you are doing, where you came from personally, how you started in education, and what that brought you to now? We’ll start to get into some of that. Setting the framework would be helpful.
Cliff note version is I was born from a womb of trauma. My mother was mourning the loss of my biological father when she was six months pregnant with me. I was born three months later into a poor family that was struggling and eking out a living for the world. My early background was largely unstable and rife with instability.
As this natural young person yearns for agency and independence, I was yearning for stability and control in a world that I didn’t feel like I had. A lot of folks were using language like potential. That was a community lift. When people ask, “Who was a mentor? Who was a role model for you?” There was no one person because I was too heavy a lift for 1, 2, or 3 people. I needed the community. They pulled together for me.
They began to brainwash me into thinking that I had some leadership potential. I saw that as a pathway by which I could get control and have sway over my own destiny. At an early age, I was an activist. I went to college. Beyond that, I found myself trying to lead my own life and being invited by other people into leadership positions. That started young for me. By college, I was already getting my 10,000 hours. I’m finding my voice. I found myself in education as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and running a bunch of schools. That became a pathway for me to use my voice and leadership to be instrumental in the world.
One of the reasons to have this discussion and a lot of your work has been in education, but having spent time with you and having you speak to our company, which was off the chart, is that all leaders have to enact change. You have worked with some of the most challenged and troubled students and youth who don’t want anyone’s advice or help.
Along the way, you have discovered some formulas that, if they work in those situations, can help anyone in a leadership situation where they have to evoke change and their different strategies for that. What you’ve done is much harder. Can you share it with everyone? I still haven’t found a lot of things better than your formula and change, but in all of this, work with the basic formula that you have found if you want to change. Can you share an example of one of those that seemed impossible who is a little maybe like you or a child?
The formula that we discovered along the way by looking back at post-mortem analysis and post-game analysis of what we were doing with people in the world was this powerful formula for change that goes like this, connection plus challenge equals change. It’s been several years since we articulated that, put it in the world, and have had the opportunity to stress and road-test it. We’ve yet to find a contrarian experience to the truth of that. It feels universal and natural, where connection and challenge are twin ingredients.
Connection is the first among equals. That’s important, but those two ingredients are critically important for transformational change, not superficial. There’s situation after situation where we’ve been able to think about this. I’ll give you an example, one that’s not related to young people because most of the work I’m doing now is with organizations and entrepreneurs.
We were doing some work with local law enforcement agencies and leaders there and following a conversation that I had in Minneapolis with Chief Arradondo, who was the police chief during the George Floyd situation. He and I were speaking about the formula. I came back, and we were doing some work with local law enforcement leaders. What law enforcement and the police represent is the challenge. It’s often command and control, come into a situation that’s out of control, and exert a level of clarity of control.
What they were having was a failed close rate when it came to solving crimes. What we were talking to them about was 1) How does it feel that you’ve got a 15% close rate on homicides? Eighty-five percent of all homicides that happen, you will not solve them. We unpacked that a little bit. That was a connection to talk about the emotion of that. What is their level of connection with the community itself? What they described was that the community is the number one decisive factor as to whether or not they’ll be able to close or not. They’ve got all the CSI techniques in the world, but the community itself.
It is the cooperation level.
Cooperation and the willingness to reach community connection ties of loyalty in order to help solve and bring those who cause pain to justice. We began to deepen some of their ability to connect and be human with those that they’re trying to serve. It is the serve part of it, not the protected part of it. We introduced some questions, things like, when you arrive on a scene of harm and ask those who have been harmed victims, what’s been the hardest thing for you? Who’s been impacted? Who else, and how they’ve been impacted?
What they’re doing is humanizing those who’ve been victimized and, therefore, allowing themselves to be seen as human in the process. That didn’t change things overnight, but what it did was begin to deepen their connection in the community in a seemingly impossible relationship to navigate. That work is still ongoing.
It’s an interesting chicken and egg conundrum in different situations with this formula. One of the things that I think about and have read a lot about is we’re several years into this experiment of a different style of parenting in the US. It’s not everyone, but in more affluent communities, which I would call permissive and overbearing at the same time, but permissive but not much challenge at all. There’s plenty of connection but not much challenge. We’re seeing a lot of poor outcomes and mental health stuff that’s tied to it.
Eric Kapitulik uses the quote, “We’ve moved from preparing the child for the path to preparing the path for the child.” What does it look like when we connect, but we don’t challenge, or we’re not willing to challenge? Do you agree? In some forms of education, we’ve fallen into this trap of not wanting to make it hard and get it wrong. The problem is it’s not like that in the real world.
It’s a violation of the formula. We’ll call it an error to the left.
We’ll go to the right after this. What happens when we go too far left?
It is not on the political spectrum. It’s an area to the left. It’s a deep sense of connection but in the absence of challenge. Some of that is a natural outgrowth of increasing our IQ around trauma and understanding of adverse childhood experiences. 2/3 of all folks have at least 1 ace on the adverse childhood experiences indicator. We have a long way to go there to deepen our understanding, but even once we acknowledge that trauma exists, what do we do with that? How do we best serve young people and adults because that stuff that happens reverberates into adulthood?
Some of the parenting styles lean towards the permissive as a way to save a child from the heartache, headache, and experiences that I experienced when I was younger as I interpret them. I’m going to take the pain away. In all of the movies and stories and everything that we read, we have a natural inclination and affinity towards those who have challenges.
Some of it is low stakes. There’s some traumatic stuff, but forgetting your cleats one day, and if someone keeps bringing your cleats for you when you forget them, you’re not going to suffer through that embarrassing practice where you didn’t have cleats.
Bring your cleats in your thirteen-year-old, bend down, and tie your shoes with you. What happens is it doesn’t allow the opportunity for challenge, which is a hallmark principle of this journey of life. You’re robbing someone of the hero’s journey that is theirs by taking them away. What happens is those muscles that are naturally designed to carry the weight don’t get to. There’s muscle atrophy.
There are some natural laws in the world. I always tell my kids, “Good or bad, there’s cause and effect of things that you do.” When someone messes with that equation, it throws it off for you, and you don’t understand how it works sometimes.
Eventually, you’ll learn. The problem is that you’ll learn when the stakes are a lot higher. My daughter, in the middle of college, transferred to San Diego State. She was 3,000 miles away from us at the time. I was trying to reach out and help in any way that I could. I recognized I wasn’t giving her the opportunity to eat bologna sandwiches and cereal for dinner. There are some things there that can make you. I was robbing her of that. She may tell that story differently, but that’s my version of it.
What does it look like for leaders who are supportive of their team but don’t talent them, push them, or create that discomfort? Is that almost needed? Everyone always thinks about the best coach they ever had. It was usually someone who was a little tough.
Tough, but had an element to them that allowed you to remain in community with them. They didn’t chase, beat, or kick you away. When we as leaders are showing up right with nothing but connection, it’s not the most fertile soil for our top performers who want to be challenged because I’m looking to my left and right. Everyone gets the same dose of praise and everything else. Therefore, how do I know that I’m making a difference?
I see that that nice person over there is constantly not meeting their goals and deadlines. There don’t seem to be any repercussions for that. Why should I do it?
We’re holding them in the community, but we’re not holding them up in the community to contribute. That’s what it is. What is the value of my contribution if my contribution doesn’t seem to mean anything? Every single leader who leans only in connection and not challenge gets burnt out. Even if in front of their people they don’t vent, they vent to everyone else inside groups with other entrepreneurs. They get fed up and feel taken advantage of.
It seems like anything that you put off when you finally boil over, you let it all go from the last. We’ve all done this in our relationships. You’re talking about the stuff from several months ago. When it boils over, it explodes.
Powerful leadership creates these regular intervals of pressure vows. You can release some of that so it doesn’t spew on folks because you’re being authentic and honest with where things stand, as well as the tough conversations around when you’re not hitting it. That’s the challenge.
That’s the left side. That’s easier. It’ll be a longer discussion. There’s no political alignment in these things. We’ve got a lot of yelling in the world, a lot of social media, and people who think, “Malik, you’re an idiot. Let me explain to you my perspective.” They don’t understand why this does not work. Take us through human biology and behavior.
There are a lot of practitioners, even you and I talked about this, who are not credentialed out there, ostensibly trying to bring people together in organizations. They are starting with things that are threatening. They are separating people. That goes against scientific and neurobiological, and all of these principles are doing more harm than good.
We know that when the temperature rises in the conversation, it’s our midbrain that’s being activated. Our prefrontal cortex is flipped. Therefore, no amount of logic is going to help me to emotionally regulate. You can’t logic me down from an emotional dysregulation situation. I need some other tools. That’s where mindfulness kicks in.
I completely agree. We also are locating truth inside of us. I struggle with the term my truth. This is my truth. It feels like truth is something that is not owned. It’s not the private property of us. My truth and your truth. That’s truth. 1 plus 1 is 4. You can fly. That’s your truth. That’s an understatement and not a correct and clear way to describe what some folks are trying to say, but my experience and perspective allow you to have some emotional distance from the truth that you don’t own. If I own it, I must be certain now that you are wrong. I’m right. Even I’m right about something that I can’t completely see, like the back of my head.
Feelings have a place. They’re not always accurate. Somebody is like, “I could say I feel threatened by you, but that is for all of the wrong reasons and a whole bunch of stereotypes.” The person is not threatening at all.
It’s subjective. Even notions of safety and bravery like the idea that we need to create safe spaces. While I agree that this is true and that’s a trauma-informed restorative perspective, safety is subjective. I was on an airplane to New Orleans with a young lady. We sat next to each other. She’s at LSU. We were talking about this notion of safety. What I shared with her was, “If you drop me in most major cities in the US, not abroad, I feel relatively comfortable. I can find my way around. I can navigate this.”
“Even in what would seem to be hostile environments, I can navigate it. There’s a level of safety that I feel, but not so much in the middle of the woods.” There’s a scene from a movie that Richard Pryor was in with Cicely Tyson. He is dropped in the middle of the woods, and something bad happens. That’s what I think of. For her, she said, “That’s quite the opposite.” Safety and bravery are twin sides there.
Objectively, you might be safer in the woods, but if you don’t feel that way, that’s something different.
Our biography comes in. Historically, some folks who look like me may not have been in that environment. We have the biography that comes in. That influences feelings, emotions, and understanding. When we’re having these conversations around important things, race, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and politics, when we’re having these equity conversations, it’s inherently challenging. The conversation doesn’t always have to be challenging, but it’s a challenge.
It’s important often. We’re talking about something that matters. It’s a challenge, but yet we’re engaging in this, and there are breaches of connection, or there’s no connection, to begin with. Violation of the formula, we have a challenge in the absence of connection. What we’ve learned along the way, and this was a couple of years ago, we were working with a school district in a rural area. They were having a lot of dysfunctional relationships around equity issues.
My team came in and trained the entire school district. It was, relatively speaking, a failure. It was not a flop but a fall and a fail. When we did a little bit of the post-mortem analysis, what we realized was that in most of those environments that we were coming into, we were bringing challenges. We were getting pushed back on the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. People are walking out and throwing down because of the conversations around privilege and bias.
There was a lack of community inside of the school and a sense of connection. We were pushing the lever of challenge and the absence of connection. People were not seeing or hearing each other. They were hearing the challenge. What we needed to do was back up, take a half step or a full step back, and build a level of connection. It felt hard because we have to tackle these issues. We’ve got to do it right now.
You didn’t have the standing to from a connection standpoint to do that.
It’s not just us but the community itself. We weren’t walking into an environment where the community had established a connection. It was either Trevor Noah or he paraphrased someone. He said, “Bias doesn’t hold up well to proximity.” Proximity is connection. We’ve got to figure out ways to see each other’s humanity and get into the good work of the challenge.
I’m taking it to a simpler. Let’s say you have someone on their team. They have divergent opinions, and they have been going at it. A leader needs to approach this person. How would you suggest that they begin that conversation?
It depends on how pressing and the harm is being caused, but it’s a low level. Eighty percent of our work is proactive. We’re dealing with that on the front end before it becomes a fire, and they’re chasing people out. That sandwich of strength, success, and challenge still holds true. Raising the issue in a way so that you can also explore with them. Unless people are completely oblivious, oftentimes, they’re recognizing something is going on here or that I’m not on the right stand. I’m not aligned or fitting right in with the collective.
Exploring that, like, “When this is happening, how are you feeling? What does that make you feel? What’s going on there? Those are questions that we had the police ask. What is hard for you here?” Here’s what’s hard for me as I’m hearing and understanding. Your views themselves are whatever they are. It is perhaps in the dynamic of how the communication that’s happening between you and others that is breaching connection.
Paradoxically, you would need to listen. We should launch the apple, and you think we should launch the orange. I am adamant about the orange. Rather than coming in and being like, “Malik, why don’t you get it that it should be the orange?” We know that you are about the apple. I’m on the orange. It’d be better to say, “I think we need to do the orange, but I know that you’re adamant about the apple. Help me understand why the apple.
That’s part one. Part two is you articulate what it means to me and the benefits of the other perspective. Some folks do that, but we need time to sit with it together with the understanding that we’re going to come back, not to find all the research to condemn why it shouldn’t be the other way but to honestly look at each other and say, “I’ve been chewing on this perspective to digest it the best that I can. Here’s what I know it means to you.” That’s what we do in the community with each other. That’s what we do with loved ones or folks that we value.
I understand that you believe the apple is right. It’s an interesting layer on this. There was a brilliant professor who spoke at something. I was at the London School of Economics. He said, “When we’re making an argument and listing out our facts, we tend to think they average out when they’re multiplicative.” He is like, “If you have 100 things, 90 and 50, you think your argument is 87, the 50 ruins everything else.”
What he was strongly advocating for in these things is to bring only your strongest points. If people refute your weakest points, they will refute your whole argument. He had some data behind this. I thought it was interesting because we tend to go into this long reasons 1 and 2. He was like, “If 1 and 2 are your best things, stop there.”
What it also does is it gives the other person an opportunity to know you’ve thought about it. We’re still relying here on logic. I’m going to convince you with a loud voice and some data that you are wrong. We know that we don’t have a good track record with that.
People, if you understand cognitive dissonance, which is, to me, the most important force in the world, if that person needs a way out, you need to give them a bridge out that saves face because we don’t like to do things that make us look bad.
Let’s pulse check. On a scale of 1 to 5 or 0 to 10, how convicted are you here with this particular thing? I can argue things that are a level two to me with fervor and passion, as though this stuff matters.
It’s because you get into the sport of it.
I’ve got this sphere and sword, and I have to use it. When someone looks at me and says, “Speak from your heart. How passionate are you about this?” I’m being honest, and I’m not. I can then begin to pull back a little bit. I’ve been reacting to this notion and this term of devil’s advocate. Folks who are close to me know that when they say, “I’m going to play the devil’s advocate,” I was like, “Why are you going to be Satan, the lawyer? Be you. Be honest.”
Is this for the sport of it?
Let’s take alternative perspectives. We can turn a thing and look at it differently, but let’s not engage for the sake of that.
It’s interesting how much does this matter to you. I joke with people all the time. I’m an entrepreneur. I have an opinion on everything. I’m like, “If you’re asking me like red versus black sweatshirts for the thing, don’t ask me because I’ll have a strong opinion, but it doesn’t matter.” There are some people who get into it. We’ve done a lot in our work. I hear your passion. Is this a lay-on-the-tracks thing for you? People can say, “It’s not like. I have strong opinions loosely held.”
That’s the way out. That question can only be answered honestly if there is a dynamic of vulnerability and safety there. Otherwise, I’m so far gone. I’m past the point of no return. I’ve got to stick to it. It feels like every conversation I get into is a level ten. If that’s true, it’s like Peter Block said, “If you can’t say no, you’re yes is meaningless if everything that you talk about is profoundly important.”
If you want to change someone’s mind, and you think someone’s important, this idea of they need a psychological. This is why the war in Ukraine scares everyone. Putin is not the type of person who’s going to admit defeat. He needs a graceful exit. What scares you with a lot of the opinions is there isn’t a graceful exit that saves face. Dictators don’t quit wars.
It reminds me of The Art of War by Sun Tzu. It alludes to this notion of creating a path of mercy for your enemy or destroying his capacity and willingness to fight.
That’s not a good outcome for people that you want to be working with versus competing against or otherwise.
Also, make babies with. I can’t imagine anything getting more in the way than an unwillingness.
Someone said to me, “The only way to end an argument is to not begin it in the first place.” When I thought about that, with my wife, I was like, “I cannot remember a time in the middle of an argument with someone, whether it was family or friends, they said, ‘You’re right.’” If someone said, “With the eighth time you screamed at me, it made that point. I realized I was wrong, and you’re right.” It’s almost never happened.
I’ve said those words, but it’s usually a bowing out. It’s a tap-out defeat. I’m a jerk. I’m horrible. You’re right. Can I get something to eat now because we’ve been talking for three hours? It’s not being honest.
People need a way out. If you listen to people like Daryl Davis or people who have fundamentally disarmed but people who had real differences, it was almost always sitting down and grabbing a beer. With the person who hated them or wanted to get, I’m like, “What’s going on for you? Help me understand this.” The person was like, “You listened to me.”
I watched this fascinating video someone showed around an influencer and someone who was around the discussion around the confederate flag. He’s someone who had burned it on a show and another person who was upset because their grandparents had fought in the war under that flag and died. They had this emotional conversation. They videotaped the whole thing. It was about when the state changed it.
He changed his mind and agreed with her. He said it was because she listened to him. He agreed that her pain of seeing that and one of her relatives had been killed with it. He came around her perspective once she showed him a little bit of respect. It was a whole video conversation. It’s not the approach that anyone takes, but when you’ve talked to you or anyone who’s done this work in the real world, it’s the only thing that everyone says that works.
That’s a great example, and it elucidates this notion that we’ve got to clarify. What are principles? What are strategies and tactics? Part of what we struggle with is we convolute all of them so that we elevate things that are strategies and tactics to the level of principle that are closest to the rights of values and hearts work because any compromising of principles is an abandonment of it.
If I hold as a principle that I will not engage with folks who hold a particular view, sitting down with someone who does right is an abandonment of my principle. As opposed to I hold certain things to be important, like social justice, which I do. Sitting down with someone who hasn’t a different view is not a tactic that I always enjoy, but it isn’t an abandonment of principles. Therefore, I can do it. If I’m good at doing some of the self-work, I can walk away with a fuller view of humanity in that way as opposed to a narrow view.
That example of the flag was interesting because when both of them understood the why, they had that viewpoint. These are people who don’t agree on different policy issues. If they asked the other person why they had that and where it came from, they might understand it. Someone who hates entitlements might sit down and find out that this person grew up and watched their parent embarrassed getting food stamps.
Somewhere else, this person finds out that their parent was someone who was attacked. The only thing that saved that family from being murdered was someone who had a gun on the other side. At face value, they might not agree with a policy, but it’s interesting when you say to someone, “Can you help me understand where that comes from?” There’s usually a painful story behind it.
What was birthed through that pain was a way of looking at the world’s trauma. Restructure is our worldview. We can push past some of that. That’s what Rumi was talking about when he says, “There’s a field beyond right and wrong. I’ll meet you there.” That’s the place of values. It was Charles Bender, a friend in an entrepreneur organization that I know. He talks about that a lot. He’s like, “What is the value here? Let’s look at that because we’re going to find the common ground in those values.” It’s valuing and honoring my family.
It was about family. It manifested itself. If they had opposite experiences, they might have opposite beliefs on that.
Two things can hold true at the same time. I can honor my family and feel proud of my legacy, and part of that legacy is harmful to other people. It causes pain.
Another quick question and will start to wrap up here. I wrote Friday Forward about how things feel a little hard now. Sloggy was what I heard from everyone in the business. It’s not horrible. It’s the tires spinning in the mud. In that environment, how does a leader hold the line between making people feel supported in that connection without falling into the trap of holding their hand through everything, which isn’t going to help develop the resilience needed to get through it?
Sometimes, the slow burn and the sloggyness are worse than the event-based crisis because we can put that in scope. The sloggyness makes us even look at ourselves. The first thing is to resist the urge to immediately go with the first thing that you think is right. It’s not that our guts are wrong, but it comes from something else. This problem does not belong to you like your personal property. This is a community thing. Part of your job as a leader is to activate the community to address this thing. One is by announcing. It’s like noticing this. Spoke to a lot of people about this. It’s calling truth to power there. This is an equity piece. We have to recognize our proximity to the pain.
There are things that happen in the organizations that I lead that do not cause me the same amount of pain as they do someone else because of privilege and access to resources. Where is my proximity to the pain? I don’t want to pretend in false pain. That’s the second thing. The third thing is to acknowledge the feelings that you’ve heard. You don’t even have to go far to validate them but acknowledge them.
A humble thing is to ask, “In your mind, what info would be more helpful? Even without promising action, what info would be more helpful?” That builds connection. You’re like, “What more information do you need?” Sometimes, that’s what they need. A good friend of mine talks about how when you’re emotionally dysregulated, you have to go mechanical. That’s where you breathe. For me, mechanical often means Excel spreadsheets. When I’m struggling, I break out an Excel spreadsheet. Numbers give me solace. I was never good at math, but I’m good with an Excel spreadsheet.
What information do you need? A little bit more information helps them to digest things. You have to explain the direction forward. You do that, engage with folks, and explain with clarity and, in simplest terms, where we’re going to go and embrace. Heidi Hanna, who Bob and I know, was big in my development. She was talking about oscillation. As leaders, we have to teach that we are in a moment. It feels a little bit longer, but we’re in a moment of whatever it is this season. We’re going to oscillate. Things are going to pick up. We’re going to be moving at a faster pace. If we’re moving at a faster pace, breath is coming. As leaders, we have to embrace that oscillation notion.
It reminds me of someone who said, “Whether it’s good or bad, don’t worry because this moment will pass.” That was such good advice. I want to go out on top of that because I know a lot of leaders are struggling with that. Malik, thanks for returning to the show. You have an incredible perspective. It’s always fascinating to hear your perspectives on leadership and how we can invoke change that works.
It’s been a pleasure. It always is with you being in a community with you. Thank you for the invitation. This was awesome.
We’ll do it again after the next pandemic. Thanks for tuning into the show. Thanks for your support. Until next time, keep elevating.