Tips for Fishing and Living # 53

Tip #53:

“If you’ve got short, stubby fingers and wear reading glasses, any relaxation you would normally derive from fly fishing is completely eliminated when you try to tie on a fly.” 

                                                                                 Jack Ohman, Fear of Fly Fishing, 1988~

Presence is always more important than skills or techniques. This is the fundamental problem with only teaching skills and techniques to leaders: Anxious or fearful people who get so-called leadership skill training, often end up misusing these very skills. They end up approaching their organization/business/enterprise in an anxiously driven way and get either poor results or the opposite results they intended.

Whenever a leader has a calm, relaxed manner, even in the face of difficult situations, this does more good for the enterprise than whatever skills he or she might have brought along. I have written of this extensively before. It’s what I call being a non-anxious presence. Presence of this sort isn’t something “taught” at leadership courses, in schools, or what you get by reading manuals. It is “caught” by those who learn to manage their own anxiety when they are reckoning with those within their system and with their own inner voices.

You could say they are able to have internal conversations that aid them in instituting calmness. They recognize they sometimes feel angst or upset, and rather than ignore this or bull doze through it, they process it. Some even speak aloud about whatever anxiety, they are experiencing as a method for containing it and for not allowing it to overtake them.

You might find a leader say things like this:

“I’m a bit jumpy and uncertain as to how this is going to all go, but I am confident in the knowledge that with all of us working together we will get through it. We’ll make adjustments as we need. But remember we’ve gotten through much tougher situations before. It won’t not be easy, but we’re focused on solving our present crisis.”  

I recently read an article about seven countries that are doing well in managing the global pandemic crisis. The one thing these countries all have in common: They are led by women. So what are these women leaders doing so well, and what can they teach us?

  • They told their people the Truth. As an example: Chancellor Angela Merkel said “This is serious; we need to take it seriously,” and she did so as well. The German citizens got behind her to take aggressive and significant actions.
  • These leaders operated from Decisiveness. They elicited expert advice and then took responsibility to make the tough calls.
  • They used the latest Technologies available. They provided free testing to all citizens and they used social media to get accurate information to their people.
  • They also had as part of their on-going message, Empathy, Care and Love – i.e., one used television to talk directly to the children and was able to be human – even parental – while also carrying out responsibilities as leader. Each of these leaders was able to be both strong and compassionate in communicating to their people. Jacinda Arden, the prime minster of New Zealand, is one more leader that has given a clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing message to her citizens.

Compare these leaders to what we are seeing from many of our strong armed, male leaders. We see some using the crisis to accelerate a terrifying trifecta of authoritarianism: blame others, capture the judiciary and demonize the journalists, blanketing the country in I-will-never-retire darkness (insert: Trump, Bosonaro, Obrador, Modi, Duterte, Orban, Putin, Natanyahu). 

It is difficult sometimes to recognize an anxious leadership with all its bluster and arrogance presented as confidence when actually they are signs of anxiousness. What I am really addressing is the need for a non-anxious presence or for leaders who are self-differentiated. The six or seven women leaders I haven’t named, except for Merkel and Arden, are examples of such a leadership. These leaders are not perfect people; they are, however, mature adults who are able to operate from both compassion and strength.

In this country it appears that many of our governors are demonstrating such a leadership, and for the most part, are going to pull us through this crisis, even as our federal administration slanders these others or is preoccupied with their political agenda.

It is told that at an unnamed hospital, long before the pandemic, there is a rule for caretakers that reads: “In case of cardiac arrest, take your own pulse first.”

This is motto is also aligned with another favorite of mine taken from the airplane safety instructions we all know:

“If there is loss of cabin pressure and the oxygen masks come down, put your own mask on first, and then go about assisting others.”

Both speak to the importance of operating from a non-anxious presence. Non-anxious presence is a fancy way of saying, “Be Calm.” To actually become a non-anxious presence is an anomaly – a lofty goal, perhaps, and one of which we never fully arrive. It is intended to be a description of an ideal way to be, a capacity we ought to strive toward. Here are characteristics of what a non-anxious presence leadership looks like. They are people who:

  1. Manage our own natural reactions;
  2. Use knowledge to suppress impulses and control automatic reactions;
  3. Keep calm for the purpose of reflection and conversation;
  4. Observe what is happening, especially with oneself;
  5. Tolerate high degrees of uncertainty, frustration, and pain;
  6. Maintain a clear sense of direction.

All people have the dual capacity to act without thinking (reactivity), and to also take time for thought before they act (response). We can’t, however, control our original impulses, or even our first perceptions and impressions. But we can control our expression in our words and actions.

Reactivity is necessary for survival; it will get us out of a burning building and to safety. However, we also have the potential to stop and think – and then act. Most times it is a response that is needed. 

Let me elaborate more on the importance of the non-anxious, self-differentiated person. Why do we need such a leadership today more than ever? First off, I am not the only one saying that the pandemic is not the major crisis. It is serious, of course. However, the pandemic is showing us the grave dysfunction within our nation, and it is making this dysfunction ever more evident. And, I hope, by making these dysfunctions more evident, subsequently, makes them less tolerable. I pray we are moving toward being intolerable of the serious, grave injustices, and short-comings present within our democracy. The Constitution states our rights are for all persons – not some! Not some more than others.

Last week I told how we have become tolerant of intolerance. Today, the situation may be even worse. We have been sliding toward this present dysfunction for quite some time. Trump was an exploitationist and his election was the result of – many peoples’ mistaken belief of a quick-fix. We have many frustrated people who latched onto him as a solution.

Recently, he said, in regards to opening up the country and the pandemic, that the “solution for the problem can’t be worse that the problem.” Ironically Donald Trump fits this case to a T. The disheartened or disenfranchised who voted for him saw him as the solution to the problems within our democracy. He has now been undermining our democracy in far worse and unimaginable ways with his exclusively self-serving interest all at a great cost of the rest of America. 

When the Corona virus came to the US we already had a long series of serious problems – you could call these our preexisting conditions. This made us an easy target for the virus. Our corrupt political class and rigidly stuck bureaucracy, along with an economy that only favors the wealthy in hugely disproportional ways, are a part of these preexisting conditions. We also have an intentionally divided and distracted population that is constantly pitted against each other. It is a divide and conquer strategy and an approach for controlling us. We had “tolerated” way too long, perhaps uncomfortably so, many out-of-sort and undemocratic symptoms, without having recognized and addressed them.

If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that we are all in this together: My well-being depends on your well-being and vice versa. We need health care for everyone. We need an hourly pay rate that can support a family. We know we have to act as though each of us may have the virus. You and I use social distancing and face masks for the sake of each other. By acting as though we may be carrying this virus and by doing these necessary things, we are doing acts of charity. Conversely, when we see the economy as more important than people, then we are already a sick nation. I think most people are abiding by the need to stay home, use social distancing, and wear masks. It is actually quite remarkable how most people are doing so. 

Each day it seems more Americans have or are coming to recognize how our Country is in the high-risk category. The US has possibly the largest deaths from the pandemic in the world, and we have mostly dealt with it like a Third World country. We found ourselves with no plan and, therefore, no immediate response. The pandemic demanded swift, rational, and collective response. With our poor infrastructure and with government leaders who are too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering, we wasted valuable time to begin to organize.

The administration squandered two months to prepare, and we have an anxious president with willful blindness, who primarily scapegoats, boasts, and lies. He has lied since the first day of his presidency (Remember: “I had the largest gathering for any presidential inauguration”). What may have initially been annoying has now become down-right dangerous.

As citizens, we all have been ill-prepared, as well. For our part, we’ve become mostly a country where too many have locked ourselves in a hall of mirrors by believing whatever is happening and whatever is constantly being told is real. These people readily believe the repeated and unsubstantiated lies disseminated. Another segment has made itself crazy by trying to hold onto the idea of knowable truth and have even slipped into a reactivity that appears to mostly alienate others with a counter-drama and over-kill. A third segment has plainly just given up trying. This is a segment that has become resigned and cynical.

I, and many others, pray the pandemic is uniting us. We are, after all, recognizing we have a common threat. The virus makes us all equal. We will work our way through this crisis. I believe we will not return to the old business as usual. I contend we are a changed people.

We are currently being carried mostly by people who are paid minimal wage, and often these same people are without health care and benefits. We know that our food supply is being carried by the very poor and by migrant workers – people who if they seek medical care run the risk of deportation.

What is wrong with this picture? Everything. On top of this is a high incidence of poor people and people of color getting the Covid-19 infection and who are dying from it. The preexisting conditions, such as, job inequity, limited education and work opportunities, inadequate living and access good quality food – the cycle of poverty and effects of racism – are now staring us in the face. We must not look away.

We cannot – we must not – return to the so-called normal after this pandemic subsides. We have a lot of work to do. Removing this incompetent and ever more dangerous president is only the first step. We have to return our democracy to the people, with competent, servant-leadership. We must root out the self-serving and with it the corruption of the various politicians who only are in government for the wrong reasons— i.e., self-serving ones. And in order to do this, we must become an engaged and participative citizenship—and one that recognizes the value of the non-anxious presence.

So, back to self-differentiated leadership. The truth is we all need to become self-differentiated leaders. This is another way of saying we need to become mature, responsible grown-ups – adults who participate on in our democracy at all levels. Strangely this pandemic is teaching many of us that we do have these very capacities and we are stepping up. Let’s continue.

Finally, to quote Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” I’d say we are coming to recognize we all, indeed, are each other’s neighbors.

Okay, maybe one more thing. Please allow me to end with a positive, helpful, and perhaps challenging idea. It is taken from a Tibetan saying on Living Well:

“Eat half.

Walk double.

Laugh triple.

And love without measure.”