Lotus Leadership Institute Blog

The Difference Opportunity

by, Lorri Sulpizio

An article last week from NPR suggested that “a majority of parents, rarely, if ever, discuss race/ethnicity, gender, class or other categories of social identity with their kids.” This is according to a national survey of more than 6,000 parents conducted by Sesame Workshop and NORC at the University of Chicago.  The article says kids are hardwired to notice differences early on and not talking about it is a problem.

It’s a timely survey for me because my son had an ‘incident’ involving race at school last week. I got a call around midday that my son made a comment which caused some kids to be uncomfortable. I was told that the kids were sucking on their fingers, commenting how they tasted, and one student, a black student, said that he didn’t like the taste. So, my son, a white student, asked him, ‘if you’re black, does it taste different?’ This comment made some kids uncomfortable, and consequently, I got the phone call.

The administrator shared that my son went into the office and wrote a reflection to help him think about what had happened. On this reflection, in his nine-year-old writing, my son wrote that he had “said something not so nice to a person different than me,” which made the person affected feel “sad and mad.” While there are probably several iterations of the story, as is always the case with 3rd grade incidents, I was told that apparently, it wasn’t the black student who was affected. It was other surrounding students who heard the comment that became uncomfortable, and shared the conversation with a teacher.

When we got in the car after pick-up that day, I asked my son about it. He shared that he didn’t really understand why he ‘got in trouble,’ and that a student said to him, ‘that’s racist.’ My son looked right at me and asked, “what’s racist?”

Here’s the thing. My son has two moms. My ex-wife and I divorced when he was 3 and she remarried a black man, who has three children of his own. So, my son lives in two blended-family households: mine, which has issues of LGBTQ and feminism draped throughout its walls, and his other mom’s, where issues of race surround them every day. My son has three black step-siblings; kids who share with us the very real and often not-so-positive differences black people face.

Difference is all around my third-grader…the differences between black and white, gay and straight, woman and man. We all talk about it. We sometimes get in arguments about it, debating about the source of gender differences, which groups really hold the most power, and other difference-related topics. As parents, we have lectured the kids about it-you can’t imagine the lecture my now-17-year-old son received when he was 6 and said the remote should be ‘in the hands of the man’. Aside from the fact that our home didn’t have ‘a man’ he heard more about equity, control, and shared partnership, than his little mind could even handle. We talk about difference when we think about the culture of our neighborhood compared to the culture of the neighborhood where their step-siblings are growing up, or the neighborhood of Hillcrest that I used to call home. We talk about difference when we reconcile the different rules at the two homes they now live in. We try to understand our difference so that we can understand each other.  We try to avoid pigeonholing any one group into the oppressor or the oppressed, even though we each have our own association with both privilege and pain- sometimes one more than the other, often times with both. We try to stay curious, give each other latitude, and allow each other to make mistakes.

I truly believe my son actually thought it was possible for his black classmate to have a different experience when sucking on his finger. And he asked him about it.

Here’s the problem- we are so ill-equipped to talk about issues of race and identity difference that we gloss over opportunities to explore what’s actually there, and instead avoid, deflect, redirect… reduce things to a comfortable handling of the issue. It’s not unkind to seek to understand each other’s difference and ask a real question. In fact, it’s such a learning opportunity for all the kids involved to talk about that incident- how it made them feel, what they might be curious about, what they wish they understood more. It’s an opportunity for the black student to share how he feels.

And what an opportunity for the educators to help all of them explore their ideas and assumptions, not only about race, but about how they talk about race. What bothers me the most is the possibility that my son now thinks that a question of curiosity that highlights difference is a comment “not so nice to a person different than me.” And that maybe next time, he won’t ask.

We have to do better than this.

It’s likely that my son was the only one who was called into the office to fill out a reflection. So that leads me to wonder about the other kids involved– are they left thinking that they can’t talk about difference without heading into the office with an administrator? What message does this send to the kids about what and how we talk about identity and what and how we don’t? Did anyone engage the other kids in their discomfort and have a real conversation about sweeping things under the “that’s racist” rug? Can we, as educators, sit in our own discomfort, knowing we are sloppily moving through these difficult conversations, and resist the urge to make it look and feel better with quick fixes?

It is possible that something we say is received as ‘not so nice.’ Our identity is a core element of who we are and gives us our sense of self. And there is difference, often showing up in ways that really disadvantage some people over others. It’s possible feelings get hurt when we talk about issues of difference. These are indeed hurtful topics. It hurts me to know the Supreme Court is hearing arguments about whether the LGBTQ community should be included in nondiscrimination laws. I mean, how is that even a question? But that is my lens, and it’s clearly not the lens of all Americans.

We need to learn how to discuss hurt in conversations because these topics hurt. But if we continue to let hurt be the measure of whether or not we engage around these issues we will continue to be divided.

I really appreciate the practice of reflection the school is implementing. It’s so important that we take the time to do deeper work and reflect on our actions, thoughts, and feelings. And I know this is such a difficult issue for educators. I just wish the reflection would have been a collective one. One where assumptions and thoughts could have been explored. Where the kids could hear that the taste of our skin may not differ based on skin color, but there are somethings that do. Perhaps the boy could have shared a place where he does feel different, allowing him to be and feel seen by his classmates. Perhaps some of the other kids feel different for different reasons. Perhaps the kids could have had a conversation about what ‘racism’ means and how it shows up, sometimes in unknowing ways. This is a lot for 3rd graders, I know, but we have to start somewhere.  

This is a messy and uncertain conversation. We are most likely going to get it wrong at some point because it’s hard to face our own privilege, our own power, and the role we have played in the serious injustices that have occurred. We might upset people, offend people, say something we wish we hadn’t. It’s also hard to face the oppression many of us continue to feel. But until we allow ourselves and each other to talk about these things and hang in there with each other, our divide between black and white, women and men, gay and straight, won’t ever lessen. Most of those categories are no longer an either/or but a nuanced continuum that requires curiosity and understanding. Most of us didn’t grow up in homes or classrooms where we courageously had challenging conversations around difference and ‘isms,’ but we have a chance to do it differently with our kids.

As the article says, “grown-ups need to be proactive about explaining the differences kids see and making clear: Different isn’t bad. If children don’t get help from [adults] ‘and have to try to make meaning of different social identities [on their own], they may come up with all sorts of weird and strange reasons that people are somewhat different.’”

We don’t have to let these differences divide us, but unless we stop ignoring them we will never be united. If we are unsure of how, there are people who can help us do this in meaningful ways, people who know how to hold the space for people to stumble through the conversation, learning bit by bit as we get better at it. But let’s have the conversation. Let’s not suggest it’s wrong or single certain people out who are simply trying to connect. Let’s give each other latitude…and yes, that means that parents need to allow our educators to stumble through this, and the educators need to allow the students to stumble along as well. We need to join each other and explore the difference between us, how they show up, impact us, and in the end, potentially and hopefully, connect us to one another.

[Get the full NPR article here]

Lorri Sulpizio is the Director of the Conscious Leadership Academy at USD. Her current work is to help individuals and organizations address the “real work in real way,” specifically around issues of difference and divide. She works hard to help people become their best selves so that they can do great things for great people, creating a great world. She has a PhD in leadership, an MA in Sports Psychology, and is a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator based on the research of Brené Brown. Follow Lorri on Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin: @lorrisulpizio

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Sacred in the Ordinary

As you enter the last month of 2011, we challenge you to appreciate the “sacred in the ordinary.” Oprah talks about how those little ordinary moments are actually extraordinary if you come at them with the right frame of mind—a frame of mind that is grateful for the present moment you find yourself in.

Instead of looking at your pile of dirty dishes with loathing and dread, appreciate the fact that those dirty dishes reflect a meal you and your family just enjoyed—that you are not one of the millions of people who don’t have food for themselves or for their family.

Instead of moaning and groaning, annoyed when that alarm clock goes off at 6:00am, stretch your legs, point your toes, slowly become aware of the muscles in your body as you get up out of bed, thankful that you are able to feel and move your legs, unlike the many quad-and paraplegics who live their lives in a wheel chair.

When you’ve had just about enough of your kids yelling through the house, or arguing back and forth as they tease each other, listen to the vibrancy of their voices and relish in the fact that your children are spirited and strong—that you are not sitting in silence in a children’s hospital room waiting for the oncologist to give you an update.

When your boss gives you grief, yet again, over someone else’s mistake and you want to do is tell her to “shove it,” most likely with some other words, be thankful that you actually have a job and that your boss thinks highly enough of you to want to hold you accountable for high quality work.

It’s those ordinary moments that come and go so often in our lives, yet we fail to appreciate the blessings that the ordinary actually bestows on us. At Lotus we know leadership development is directly related to our own adult development; to our ability to slow down and reflect, to recognize the small signs life provides, and to connect with others in meaningful ways. We challenge you to live out 2011 in this way—appreciating the sacred in the ordinary and living out leadership by living a Lotus Life.

Happy Holidays

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Wake Up And Raise Your Level Of Consciousness

The holidays are always a time for increased consciousness. Marked by gratitude, appreciation, attempts at giving back, we all seem to be more conscious of, not only others, but of our selves as well. Our New Year’s resolutions reflect our attempts to acknowledge personal shortcoming and areas for improvement and to set a path toward reaching that improved place. Our increased philanthropic efforts in December indicate our awareness that others live life in such greater need. When it comes to leadership, and to life, for that matter, we need to raise our level of consciousness if we want to truly achieve a breakthrough.

Einstein probably said it best: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them.” This quote has leadership written all over it, as leadership is about addressing those “significant problems,” making a change, making a difference. But we can’t maintain the same level of consciousness and hope to make a difference—in our own lives, or in anyone else’s life.

How often does your New Year’s Resolution fade? Step into any exercise gym or health club in January, and the place is packed. Come in February, not as many people. Come in March, even less, and by April, the gym is back to the same old, same old…the people who have exercise and health embedded in their lifestyle routine. This phenomenon—the resolution crash factor—occurs because people, year after year, haven’t shifted their level of consciousness. People are facing their problems—personally and professionally—from the same place they did last year, and the year before that. Ask yourself: have you developed and improved your self in any way over the last year? Most people find themselves answering “no,” because doing so requires the deep, hard work of tapping into the inner aspects of our selves and understanding those aspects in a fuller and more dynamic way.

But this deep, hard work is exactly what we need, what our organizations need, what our government needs, what education needs. We are all in need of a raised level of consciousness—a better understanding of our own tendencies and actions, more emotional intelligence, authentic self-expression, and owning the dark parts of our self that prevents us from reaching our fullest potential.

So, forget the lose-weight resolution in 2012, and resolve to increase your level of consciousness, and as a result, increase your capacity for leadership—for making a lasting positive change on both yourself and others.

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Improve Strengths, Not Your Weaknesses—huh?

Most people in authority positions have been high achievers throughout their lives, and they continue in the quest to be better. What we hear most often from clients from all sorts of organizations are requests to improve on the things they aren’t good at—to build up what is currently lacking. While it is certainly important to improve on weaknesses, it is the opposite practice that might better improve one’s ability to be a great leader.

Are we saying that you should take what you are already good at, and get better at it? The answer is yes. The data from extensive global research in leadership-development clearly suggests that it’s people’s strengths that distinguishes them in an organization—essentially, being so good at certain things that people will forgive, or not even think about your weakness.

Why does this work?

1) It makes you a more dynamic and dimensional leader— The most important leadership skills are interrelated. For example, effective communication includes listening, resolving conflict, compassion, focused attention, and interpersonal relations. If you are already a good communicator, you can work on being compassionate or improve your ability to resolve conflict—thereby improving two other leadership skills and making you an even better communicator.

Think of it this way, if Stacy is a good distance runner, she could further improve her ability to run by lifting weights, running short sprints, or doing yoga for flexibility—related, complimentary skills that will improve her overall athletic ability and make her an even better runner. Stacy is still focusing on her strength, but improving it by improving other aspects of herself.

2) It is more fun to focus on what you are good at—People get overwhelmed and often shutdown when working on negative aspects of themselves. Improving what you already do well is much more fun, making it more likely that you will stick to the efforts and actually improve your leadership ability. Follow-through and accountability is the number one culprit in leadership development plans. A strengths-based program increases the likelihood of the program’s success.

So, own your strengths, and begin to make them stronger.

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Authenticity- More Than A Buzz Word

Authentic leadership is everywhere right now. As we enter another presidential campaign, every media outlet is suggesting that America wants an “authentic leader.” But what does that mean? Is it even possible to be authentic in this political climate?

Authenticity, as a concept, has roots in philosophy and originated to describe how the conscious self resolves the tension between one’s true inner being and the external values or pressures. In other words, can you “keep it real,” with the “it” referring to your inner personality and values and the “real” describing how your inner self is reflected in your actions. It is an ongoing challenge for everyone to find the congruence between who we are and what we do—aligning our values with our actions. But the process of living and leading authentically is one worth attempting. Although the journey to authenticity is ongoing and often difficult, small steps can start the process.

First: know yourself. Some of the best philosophers, authors, and scholars have suggested knowing oneself is a critical component to development. It continues to hold true that before you can be more effective with other people, you first need to be more effective with yourself. Taking the time to know your true and honest self is the initial step toward authentic leadership.

Second: walk your talk. Authenticity is about our actions reflecting our values and inner self. Leaders often talk about the traits and skills they want to see in others in their life. Instead of concentrating on finding the best person in life or in business, concentrate on being the best person.

Authenticity moves beyond cognitive and intellectual skills and calls awareness to skills such as expression, integrity, and personal presence. The road toward authenticity is a long one and has many obstacles on its path. However, authentic leadership is possible in any climate if those leaders are willing to focus inward before focusing forward.

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