The Hard Work of Being Good and Just

Disclaimer: Hello readers! I think it’s been almost 9 months since I’ve posted. It’s not for lack of fodder. Since I last wrote I’ve started my second book (where my writing energy has been funneled). I’ve worked with countless organizations and leaders and have been almost always the “right kind of busy.” That said, I’ve missed this forum.

Considering all that has happened in my work and life and more broadly to our world and country in the past months, it’s sort of hard to know where to start. Personally, the last few months have been remarkable. I’ve had the privilege of doing a lot of strategic planning with clients. But even more, I’ve gotten to do frequent offsite leadership team retreats. I love them. They’re always full, deep, and fruitful days. Consistently they revolve around three central questions:

·      How are YOU doing?

·      How is this TEAM doing?

·      How is this team serving YOUR PEOPLE?

While we tackle technical aspects of leadership such as time management, role clarity, decision-making, and communication, at the end of the day we’re really talking about the hard work of treating people well. As any of my former students can attest, we spent a lot of our time reflecting on the hard work of being good.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this even more. I’m sure we all have been in our own way.  One recent occurrence helped crystalize the joyful labor of being good to others that I’d like to share.

We received a call from the counselor at our 12-year old’s school. It turns out that he had been paired with a student who was not always the easiest to work with. To his credit, he’s often paired with this kind of student because he’s just a really cool kid.

In this particular instance, however, the other student was being picked on by other students quite a bit. The counselor called to tell us that our boy was wrapped up in the middle of it, but not exactly participating. But he wasn’t stopping it either. It was a great call from the school. We really appreciated it as it gave us a platform to talk to both our boys about the hard work of justice.

We reduced the conversation down to this image:

Basically, we reduced the complexity of being good to this estimated breakdown of people:

·      50% of people are prone to judgment and take the easy path of being ungenerous.

·      40% of people are more passive. They are not actively unkind but also might step back in the midst of injustice.

·      10% are the people who are willing to take a personal risk in order to defend others. They not only avoid saying/doing harm to others but actively speak up for others when they see injustice.

Don’t worry about the percentages. They could be wrong. But our message to the boys was that while we’re terribly proud of them for being kind and good people, to truly be exceptional we can strive beyond “do no harm” and aspire toward “stand up for others.”

This conversation reminded me of what I miss most about teaching: To Kill a Mockingbird. The title of the book is only the second clause of a compound sentence. A hyper-focus on the phrase “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” results in teaching the novel as though it’s sufficient to remain in that middle section of “not engaging in harm.”

However, in the novel Atticus tells his kids this: “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

How would we teach this novel differently if it were titled “shoot all the blue jays you want”? His central message is that he does not only expect his kids to not harm the innocent but he wants them to engage with those who are doing harm. That’s a scary space. That a jarring, vulnerable place to put oneself.

But guess what? That’s the space we need to fill, perhaps now more than ever. Whether it is in our community, family, or workplace, we have to listen to the clarion call of being in that exceptional 10%. As I think back on the last few months of work, I think of who the truly remarkable people are who have been around me. I think of the pivotal moments in a given retreat. I think of individuals who were exceptional. And without fail, it was the people who were able to take the brave and bold stance of speaking tough truths, extending radical forgiveness, or giving bold kindness to others who made a lasting impression on me and those around them.

I’m a very fortunate person. I get to be around people and organizations that are striving to be exceptional. I get to witness the toil and strain of simply wanting to do right by people. That’s a pretty amazing way to earn a living and it constantly demands of me that I follow my own counsel. It’s an imperfect attempt. But the strain itself has value.

As my wife tells our sons all the time, “be the bigger person.” That’s a challenge we can all embrace.