Wednesdays with an “old nun”

December 6, 2016

By: Richard Haller

Executive in Residence Blog Series

What is the best way to discover lessons of leadership?

Experience has shown me that the sources of these lessons do not always come from the obvious places. Learning comes from a wide spectrum of sources, some conventional and some from what one might consider unconventional or at least unexplored.

Likely the “Star Wars” generation watched the mentorship between Yoda and Luke. Unconventional, but highly effective. To effectively grow we need to seek out and listen to these Yoda’s or – as in my case – the Sister Jeanne’s in our lives as they can offer insight, experience, and a diverse collection of lessons from a life well-lived.

I met Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, OP, PhD at Siena Heights University where I serve as trustee, and where she is spending her time in retirement. Sister Jeanne has been a member of the Adrian Dominican community for the past 70 years, and is the former president and chancellor of Barry University in Miami, Florida. Her career has been an amazing journey of leadership and a compassionate defender and protector of refugees, political exiles, and homeless. The Miami community affectionately called her the “Power Nun.”

Soren Kierkegaard observed that “we can only live our lives looking forward but we can only understand them looking back.” That is the context of my suggestion. You can learn a lot from individuals whose rear-ward reflections are seasoned, deep, and meaningful.

The perspectives of mature leaders are a result of past actions that worked and those that didn’t meet expectation. These rich sources of mentorship throughout our lives are a wellspring of wisdom stories that highlight how success, failure, frustration, fulfillment all look and feel in the context of life. You will be enlightened! You will grow! You will learn!

Let me share a recent example of such a session.

On one of my Wednesdays with Sister Jeanne, we were sharing a lunch of Zingerman’s corned beef sandwiches, her favorite, along with oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert. During our lunch, she looked me square in the eyes and said “Rick, I want to talk about change.”

“Rick, in any effort to initiate change, commitment is the driving energy, the catalyst of any successful change and this committed belief must be present on the part of the initiators and consistently continue through the attitude and actions of the implementers.” She went on further to say: “and you know, commitment is irrational.”

Well that last comment kind of set me back on my heels until I began to process her point of view.

My experiences with initiating buy-in and implementing lasting change is difficult, regardless of the reason or purpose of the change. To initiate and implement change requires energy, passion, belief, and vision.

Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), focuses on positive deviation, change can be and often is an action to move toward a perceived positive deviation from a current norm. We know from our experiences that change is difficult to successfully initiate and implement. You can liken it in an organizational setting to the “the hero’s journey” that Robert E. Quinn discusses in his book The Deep Change Field Guide: A Personal Course to Discovering the Leader Within.

Throughout my career it has always been a bit paradoxical and humorously frustrating that I spent my whole work life in a business whose sole purpose was to implement change. In short we built and renovated buildings (I can elaborate at another time). Our whole culture was shaped to lead a customer through the process of implementing successful change to an envisioned result. However, when organizationally I sought to implement a change there was always initially some resistance. As I reflect on Sister Jeanne’s clarity which, like a laser, quickly got to the point, the friction or resistance to change can only be overcome with dedication by all involved to the envisioned result.

Being committed to something invokes a strong sense of intention or focus to the purpose or intended action. Commitment is an action that effects our behavior. Frankly, I never thought of it as irrational; however, when I sought the definition, in my trusted Oxford Dictionary, it defines irrational as: not logical. I accept that a behavior can initially be triggered through a process of reasoning, but the passion and energy invested in the action goes far beyond logic and reasoning. Think about all the vivid examples in sports or history or hero stories that paint the picture of commitment. Do we see logic in those stories or do we see emotion, passion, fervor, intensity, inspiration, risk taker attitude – in all cases pushing to breaking points well beyond the logically calculated limits? Commitment allows us to depart from the safe zone and break through the resistance.

Commitment is emotive, not steeped in arguments of logic or reason. Being committed to something requires a large helping of positively boundless inspired spirit.

As I think about Sister Jeanne’s clarity of perspective, I am moved by its acute simplicity of thought. That is the value of mature mentors and tested leaders. Sister Jeanne helped me to deeply understand what I casually observed; that commitment in action defies the purity of rational thought, which often demotivates the successful initiation and implementation of a change.

I suggest that another of Quinn’s books, Building the Bridge as You Walk on It: A Guide for Leading Change, is the perfect image of the irrationality of commitment.

Thank you, Sister Jeanne, for your time, your patience, and your shared wisdom.

Rick Haller, the retired president and COO of Walbridge, is an Executive in Residence at the Center for Positive Organizations.