Author Archive for Crane Stookey

To Do or Not To Do, That is the Question

JiSTOP!m Collins wrote a wonderful article about including with our To Do List a Stop Doing List. The Stop Doing List may in fact be the more important of the two. The To Do List is a powerful force in shaping our accomplishments, but Jim’s article inspired me to reflect that the list is just as powerful in limiting our accomplishments. When we set outcomes in advance, we are ruled by expectation and we rule out possibility.

As leaders and teachers, we are usually expected Read More →

How to Be the Sage Commander

Entering the forest

“As the Sage Commander, you start with yourself. Thus the first question is not what to do, but how to be. Simply being oneself brings about a power that is often lost in the rush to be something else.” (The Art of War, Denma Translation Group)

We can’t hope to be clear and insightful in charge of others, if we can’t be clear and insightful when we’re just in charge of ourselves. Part of what we need to practice is cultivating the innate wisdom that we all possess, that is often obscured by our performance of what we think we should be.

Sounds good, but we need a path of practice to follow to make any such leadership ideas real and applicable. Here’s a simple Sage Commander practice you can do every day. Jim Drescher taught me this.

Jim and Margaret Drescher have an amazing forest woodlot at Windhorse Farm, and he has studied sustainable forestry with many experienced foresters. One old-timer, trying to get Jim to relate to his work in the forest in a more discerning way, told him, “When you go into the forest, stop and state your intention before you enter. Say it aloud, in a loud voice.”

Jim does this. I’ve tried it too. It’s strangely embarrassing to speak aloud when we’re totally alone. No one can hear us, but we feel exposed. How weird is that? We don’t like being exposed even to ourselves. But this can be a surprisingly powerful way of “starting with ourselves.”

Sometimes when I hear what I say it sounds trite or incomplete or self-deceptive. Sometimes I realize that I’m saying what I think my intention should be or what I think would sound good to others if they heard it. Sometimes I even feel I need to turn and walk away without entering the forest, to collect my thoughts and try again. I really feel as if the forest sees through my lack of authenticity. It can take a few tries to understand and accept my real, best motivation.

Try this when leaving the house in the morning. Find a place where no one can hear you, perhaps at your front door, perhaps in your car, perhaps in the bathroom with the water running. Perhaps not in the shower; too comforting.

State your intention aloud about some aspect of the day ahead. Choose something that matters. Speak up, as if you are telling not just yourself, but the world you are about to enter. You can’t do this silently in your head, you lose the power of it. Wait, and listen to it. Does it sound true? Ask yourself, “Why did I say that?” What does it tell you about yourself? If it doesn’t feel true, try again.

When you’re satisfied with it, step forward into that intention. Carry it with you. Perhaps find a place at midday to repeat it to yourself, out loud. Speak up. See what sort of feedback the day gives you about it. See whether you understand your intention well.

Why do this? Because it’s hard to be deeply engaged with life if we don’t know why we even show up. And it’s easier to be engaged with life if we feel we’re showing up for the right reason.

Doing this regularly over time, as a practice, gives us a moment each day to have some insight into what matters, and to be clear about what we’re doing. It’s a Sage Commander practice for everyday, whether we’re in charge of big, complex operations, or just ourselves.

To find our more about Windhorse Farm, which is now for sale, click here.

Generous Leadership in Unexpected Places

Ellen at work

I owe my sailing career to Ellen. My first job on a sailing ship was as Chief Mate, second in command. First job? And I was Mate? What sense does that make? I think I managed to get hired as Chief Mate because they were short for crew that year and I already had a captain’s license. Never mind that it was the lowest grade motorboat license you could get, limited to lakes and harbours, and that I had not yet used it professionally, or even set foot on a large sailing ship before. I had a license, so I was Chief Mate.

But my ignorance was mortifying, and the captain was appalled that I had been hired. The rest of the crew consisted of two college kids who didn’t know up, an amateur naval historian who thought he knew everything, a revolving lineup of cooks aspiring to be sailors, none of whom lasted very long, and Ellen, age 54, who had retired early from her job to fulfill her dream of going to sea.

Thank goodness for Ellen. She had already been crewing on schooners for about three years. She was endlessly patient and generous in training the rest of the crew, including me, who was supposed to be her boss.

I’d sailed all my life, and had been working for a few years teaching sailing and coastal cruising and running charter boats in San Francisco.  But this ship was 130 feet long, carrying 5,000 square feet of sail. I was out of my league. I literally did not know the first thing about sailing a large traditional ship.

Ellen taught me everything, including not to call the captain “Skipper,” a term that identified me as a landlubber who watched Gilligan’s Island. In the myriad tasks and skills and protocols that a sailing ship demands, Ellen showed me how things should be done.

The captain told me what to do too, but at the start at least I resisted learning from him. I was intimidated by his disapproval, and painfully aware that he didn’t respect or trust me. This might have spurred me on to do my best, to show that I could meet his expectations, but instead it had the effect of spurring me to avoid contact with him as much as possible, especially if it might lead to any correction of my performance by him. Our relationship devolved into two intractable roles: the demanding, irascible Captain and the resentful, slacker Mate.

You might not think that my pose of resentful slacker helped me much, since it endlessly attracted the captain’s anger. But it also allowed me to deflect that anger by saying to myself, “I’m not giving this guy the satisfaction of meeting his demands. He can’t make me hop.”

I don’t defend my behaviour. I was not doing my job of setting a good example for the crew. I had a lot to learn at that point about hard work, and in the end I learned a lot about it from the captain. But it was Ellen who taught me not only the skills of the schoonerman, but also the delight of the job.

She too might have been expected to assume some kind of pose to protect her rather vulnerable position of old lady trying to be an old salt in a crew of people nearly half her age. But she didn’t seem to be burdened with that kind of baggage. She loved being a sailor on a traditional ship, and she was happy to share that love with the rest of us.

Engagement is a state of mind. One of the fruits of good leadership is an engaged and effective state of mind, a big view, in the people we lead.  Ellen inspired something of this bigger state of mind in me, because she possessed it herself, and she was generous enough to make it the basis of her relationship with all of us in the crew. She could teach me the hard skills of course, but the captain could too. It wasn’t Ellen’s seamanship that allowed her to engage me more effectively than the captain. It was her generous willingness to share her own joy in the work, and invite me in with her. She led me to relax about myself, loosen my grip on my struggle, and step out of my limiting self-protection into the big, glorious world of schooner work.

Leadership can come from anywhere, and it can flow up the hierarchy as well as down, as long as it comes naturally. Great leadership can come from the natural delight one person is willing to share with another. This is the leadership lesson I learned from Ellen. Cultivating our emotional generosity is a key leadership skill that most of us don’t work on anywhere near hard enough.

The Simple Secret to Sustainable Productivity

Working Soft

It’s easy to think that hard-working people are productive, but it’s not always true. I know a man who proves the point.

His name is Dee, and he taught me the secret of truly sustainable productivity. He’s the most mysteriously, uncannily productive person I ever worked with.

Dee’s from the southern US. He speaks with a lovely slloooww drraawwll, and he moves at the same slow, deliberate pace. We worked together building the Nova Scotia Sea School’s first 30′ wooden expedition boat.

Dee is a great storyteller, and he loves to stop and lean on his work, a tool dangling in his hand, to tell a tale. When someone came to visit the boat shop Dee would stop and talk with them, explain what we were doing, make them feel welcome, while his work sat neglected on the bench.

I was often irritated by Dee’s lack of focus and unhurried attitude. I’d try to discourage his ramblings by setting the example of being super-focused on my own task, though half my attention was really focused on my annoyance. Or I’d remind him of our production schedule and demand to know how much longer his task of the moment would take. But I soon learned that I didn’t need to manage Dee’s work ethic.

The thing is, Dee always accomplished more in a day than I or the other boatbuilder on the job could believe. He did this day after day, tirelessly. This was a mystery to us, almost magic. And it just didn’t seem right.

Over time I realized some of what the secret was about. For one thing, Dee didn’t make mistakes. I never saw him have to rework something because the piece he made didn’t fit. He didn’t make false starts. I never saw him be confused about the critical path for his projects, so he never had to backtrack or be held up because he hadn’t planned for the right materials. He didn’t get frustrated. I never saw him in a sloppy or resistant or tired state of mind, so he never got in the way of his own work.

He also always seemed to know where to get an obscure piece of hardware, or find the right tool for the job. The boat’s keel was made from a single 25′ long piece of oak, 4″ thick. We didn’t know how we were going to cut it to shape. Our circular saws weren’t big enough to go through it, so I suggested we cut one side and then cut through from the other side and try to line up the cuts, and then do the hand trimming of the very hard oak to get the perfect line we needed. I thought this was the best plan because, even though laborious and not very exact, we could start right away, we could “get on with it.” We were working this out when Dee came in and said, “I think I can get something for that.”

It took him an hour to drive to a friend’s house and get it, a huge circular saw with a 3-foot blade. It took him 20 minutes to tell us the tale of how a guy who came into the shop one day told him about a guy who knew this guy, how he tracked the guy down and made friends sharing stories with him, and about all the other unusual tools the guy had in his collection. It took him a half hour to slowly set the wood up just the way he wanted it so he could make an uninterrupted cut with the saw, another half hour to lay out the guide lines exactly, and about an hour to make the cuts. So he got it all done, and done right, in an afternoon, where my approach would have taken at least as long, been much harder work, and harder to make accurate. Plus, we all really loved the improbable tale he told about getting the saw, which we enjoyed repeating to our friends.

The secret to Dee’s sustainable productivity is this: he’s relaxed. He’s not tense and narrow under pressure. Precisely because he doesn’t have his head down in his work all the time, he always feels fresh, clear, able to do his best. Because he doesn’t get flustered and hurried, he doesn’t cause trouble for others, and doesn’t need supervision. Because he takes time to build relationships with people, he has great resources to call on when he needs them. He enjoys himself at work, not just because he enjoys the work, but because he just enjoys being himself wherever he is.

It’s not that seeing everyone chatting and hanging out in the office is a sign of super-productivity. Some people are good at wasting time. It’s that a narrow view of what someone looks like when they’re “working” can be misleading. In these days of having to do more and more with less and less, it can ironically be more productive to focus less on doing all the time and relax, so that when we are doing, we’re doing our best. I always thought it isn’t right to say that Dee works hard. Maybe it’s more accurate to say he works soft. And this lets him get great hard results. To boost productivity, try relaxing. It’s uncanny, but it works.

For more about productivity and efficiency, click here.

A Doorknob Practice for Self-Engagement

Do you ever feel psyched out, stuck in worried preoccupation, or just completely disengaged and wanting to be somewhere else? What do you do when you’re caught up in the “mental claustrophobia” of an unproductive state of mind and you’re having trouble getting out of it? Do you have practices that help you reconnect with your more expansive, unencumbered frame of mind, so you can proceed at your best?

Here’s a technique that works for me when I need to re-engage myself; when I need to change my attitude, in the moment, on the spot 

Techniques like this have to be simple and readily available. This one’s called Doorknob Practice. Read More →

How a Strong Back and Soft Front Make Us Powerful

Gentle and Tough Together


Soft? Do we really want to be soft? How can strong and soft go together anyway?  They’re opposites, right?

Or is the business world in desperate need of the “softer directness” that Phil, in my last post, saw he had to develop in order to be more effective?

Here’s a true story of one of the most naturally powerful people I ever met, with a strong back and a soft front; a boy named Peter whom I sailed with on a Nova Scotia Sea School voyage.

Peter was barely 14 when he came on board, and he was young for his age. But he was exceptionally competent and quick to learn, a natural high performer. He was also terribly homesick. He wasn’t ashamed of his homesickness, even though it brought tears to his eyes now and then, and he never said he wanted to go home. He never complained about anything, and often stepped up to help his teenage shipmates with knots, navigation, setting the tarp up at night, all the things they wrestled with that he was immediately good at doing.

On the first night of the trip he was crying softly as we all sat together for our circle conversation to end the day. He wasn’t sobbing or sniffly, just a few tears on his face. He told everyone how homesick he was, but he said it was okay. The rest of the crew tried all kinds of things to make him feel better, but Peter wasn’t uncomfortable about his sadness and didn’t encourage their consolation. He sat up confidently, his emotion simply another presence in the circle, genuine and no big deal.

A few days later he was taking a turn as helmsman to steer the boat. It was a windy day and we had the wind strong and fair on the starboard quarter, which means it was nearly behind us. We roared along at our maximum speed down wave after wave after wave. The crew were exhilarated, faces laughing out from the yellow hoods of their waterproof jackets, dripping now and then with the salt spray blowing over the boat.

Peter had a hard job steering in those conditions. The strength of the wind kept trying to force the boat to turn, and the waves rolling under us would twist us right and left and back again. Peter had both hands on the tiller, which took some strength to manage, and he was braced against the side of the boat to keep steady, thrilled and focused. I sat next to him to coach him but he was such a quick learner that he was soon doing an excellent job on his own and I turned to look forward and enjoy the ride. I could tell by the way the boat continued to surf on the waves that he was doing just fine, and I began to talk with the rest of the crew.

After a while I turned back to check on Peter, and saw that he was crying again. Steering well, with his whole body and attention, with tears running down his cheeks. I asked him if he was homesick again and he smiled a big smile and said yes, very, he really missed his family. Then he turned forward again and continued to surf the boat down the waves.

Peter seemed able to hold everything, his natural skill as well as his sadness, with strength and gentleness. He wasn’t struggling to put up the tough front you would expect from a teenage boy in front of his peers.

This was Peter’s power. Not having to protect himself all the time, he was without struggle, and inexhaustible. Whatever came up, he could handle it. He was truly brave.

But most important, no matter what he was experiencing himself, he was always open to everyone else in the crew. The crew had never seen anyone like Peter, and they began to share their own worries with him, because he could be patient and kind, but clear and not indulging. If they were having trouble with knots or another sailing skill they asked him for help, because he had nothing to prove and would help them and not judge them.

The crew were inspired by Peter to drop their complaint, do their best, and appreciate each other. Peter led by example, the most powerful leadership of all, and he transformed that crew from a group of fussy teenagers into the most high performing crew I ever sailed with.

This is not to say you should break down at your next team meeting. Soft and gentle alone are sentimental and thin. But strong and tough alone are self-protective and blinding. Together, strong back and soft front, gentle and tough, fearlessness and open heart, these are the ingredients of the most effective kind of leadership. We need more leaders like Peter.

Please share this post. I’m in a campaign to grow my readership. Thank you.

The Fresh Start of Small Rituals

Beautiful TelephoneWhen the phone rings, it can seem like one more thing you suddenly have to juggle, along with everything else on your plate. But if you’re going to answer the call, the phone can also be a great chance to stop and give yourself a momentary break from the crush and rush of the day.

Because you don’t actually have to rush to answer the phone as soon as it rings. Even in the middle of a frenetic day, seconds don’t count. You can stop and listen to the phone ring two or three times, and pick it up on the 3rd or 4th ring. Let your attention rest on the sound of the ring, or if it’s your cell phone on vibrate in your pocket, feel the vibration. Let your attention rest on your sense of hearing or your sense of touch for those few rings. Let your vapour trail of preoccupation dissipate, and then pick up the phone and meet the person on the other end with a fresh start.

Even a few seconds spent stopping to just listen to the phone ring, can be surprisingly refreshing. Take a deep breath too. Maybe you’ll go for a run or get to yoga at the end of the day, but this is a moment’s yoga for the mind you can do many times a day, and it takes no time. It’s the kind of thing a colleague of mind calls “a palate cleanser for the mind.”

Telephone practice is a way that you can bring a new intention to something simple and ordinary, something you do all the time anyway, and turn it into a helpful ritual. Rituals can be excellent ways to give yourself a fresh start, and everyone has them, starting with how you get dressed in the morning.

A doctor client of mine told me that on the two days a week he’s in the clinic, he has a ritual for how he brings in his next patient. He goes out to the waiting room and finds them, then leads them back to the exam room. He sits down in his swivel chair, picks up his pad of paper with his left hand and his pen with his right, crosses one knee over the other, rests his hands with pad and pen on his knee, and swivels to face the patient. He does this habitually, but in our session on “stopping practice” he realized that it is his way of leaving the previous patient behind and starting fresh with the person in front of him. By seeing his habit as a ritual with a subtle purpose, he is able to make it a more intentional, and therefore more powerful stop, that helps him start again fresh with each person. He likes his pen, and appreciates the feel of it in his hand. He likes the clean whiteness of the sheet of blank paper, and realizes that it is a visual reminder of the open, unencumbered state of mind he hopes to bring to his encounter with this new person.

You can create small rituals to help others have a fresh start too. An excellent way to start a meeting, for instance, is to say, “I don’t know about all of you, but I’ve been rushing pretty hard today, and I wouldn’t mind taking a moment to stop and catch my breath before we start. How about we all take a minute to stop and have a breath or two, so we can have a fresh start.” It may not be helpful to explain about ritual and all that, but who doesn’t want a moment in the day to stop and catch their breath?

Catching your breath for a moment in silence is a great mini-ritual to bring a more expansive, unencumbered atmosphere to the whole situation. The environment itself slows down, and you can all bring your more expansive, unencumbered selves to whatever needs to happen next.

(Excerpted from “The 5-Way Stop,” the 5-week online support program for making stopping practice and fresh starts an integral part of your everyday life. For more information, click here.)

3 Steps to Fix Bad Peer Relations at Work


This is the real-life story of a client, a VP at a national financial services business, who found 3 concrete steps to change poor relations with his peers on the leadership team.

Phil (not his real name) experiences personal friction with his senior leadership colleagues because they:

  • often revisit their decisions
  • agree with the plan but then do something else
  • don’t give him input on his projects even when he asks for it, but complain later about what he does

This frustrates Phil, who has all the qualities of an exceptional performer. He’s:

  • clear, decisive and direct
  • quick-moving but also strategic
  • often the smartest person in the room.

Phil was stuck in classic high-performer arrogance: “Just let me explain it to you,” “Just let me do it.” But Phil’s colleagues aren’t dolts, and he’ not a jerk. He has enough humility to see his part in the problem and he decided that he wants to practice what he calls a “softer directness.” Over the 5 months we’ve been working together, here’s what he did.

First Question: What’s the biggest trouble trigger?

Phil looked at when he gets into interpersonal trouble, and saw that his biggest trigger was impatience. Others don’t always move as fast as he does. Some talk things through more before they understand. Some examine all sides. Some dig deep enough to know that everyone is truly agreed, not just acquiescing. To Phil, this is time-wasting inefficiency. “Let’s get on with it.”

Step 1: Find value in the process

Phil accepted that his impatience doesn’t change anyone’s temperament, but it does make people not want to listen to him and not want to tell him what they think. His attachment to “get on with it” is a blind spot, too narrow a definition of “results.” It makes true agreement impossible.

The process of interaction that he calls inefficient is the process that builds strong teams, and a strong team is the most important result of all.

So Phil is giving more space for the process of his interactions with his peers. He’s noticing his impatience as it arises and he’s taking a breath and listening. People aren’t on edge around him anymore so they don’t hide their thoughts. He’s letting himself be curious enough to get out of his blind spot and learn how the process itself is a valuable result.

(For more on mistaking efficiency for results, click here.)

Step 2: Ask, don’t tell

Phil understands things quickly, and is particularly good at seeing how specific efforts do and don’t serve the larger purpose. When other people don’t, he tells them. He may be right, but in a team right isn’t enough

Phil describes this as “wielding clarity,” but people don’t like having something wielded at them. They resent being told, and because they haven’t themselves been through the mental process of understanding, they don’t really trust or accept what they’re told. They also don’t build their own capacity to see the bigger picture.

So Phil has stopped telling, and asks instead. This is tricky. His questions have to not be veiled statements. He has to intend to draw out the understanding of his colleagues, not make himself look smart. But asking, “How does this fit with X?” is very different from saying, “This will never work with X.” Especially if the tone of the question makes it clear that Phil actually wants to know what the other person thinks. Achieving this tone is a great way for Phil to practice being part of a fruitful discussion.

This approach creates two options, neither of which is an argument: Phil may see that actually it does work with X, or the other person may see for themselves that it doesn’t. Both build capacity, not resentment.

Step 3: Pull back to see the context

This is really the biggest thing Phil has changed about his behaviour. In the past, his impatience made him lean in. Now he takes impatience as the cue to pull back, to lean back in his chair, take a breath, look out the window, relax.

He asks himself,

  • “What’s at stake right now?”
  • “Is this something I really need to jump on?”
  • “Is there something more important to make a point about later instead?”
  • “Will my jumping in now help the process for everyone?”
  • “Am I just reacting to my pattern with this person?”

These questions let him see the bigger context in the moment, and help him not make waves where there’s no storm.

The key: Let your body advise you

The big question is, how does Phil remember to stop and follow these three steps in the middle of his frustration and impatience?

He listens to his body. He doesn’t watch out for impatience so much as he watches out for physical tension, fidgeting, hunching in his chair, crossing his arms. These are all signs of growing impatience, but are easier to notice because they’re physical. Then he can ask himself, “Why am I fidgeting?” Sometimes he’s just antsy, too much coffee. Sometimes it’s impatience. Then he has a choice.

(For more on ways to stop and remember your intentions even under pressure, click here.)

There are three practices of generous leadership:

  • Generosity
  • Curiosity
  • Less Velocity

Phil was stuck in lack of curiosity and trying to make everything go too fast. Now he’s slowed down enough to ask questions and is generous enough to make space for other people’s process and understanding. He no longer pushes his leadership peers into decisions that won’t hold up. He plans to go back through their meeting minutes and notes for the year and expects to see that the rate of revisited decisions has dropped. Plus, he and his colleagues just feel better about working together. And that’s not trivial.

It’s Personal

It's Personal

It’s Personal

Has anyone ever said to you, at work, “Don’t take it personally. It’s just business. It’s just work, there’s nothing personal about it.”

Maybe someone says, “It’s a tough year, and I know it’s hard, but we’re going to have to cut your departmental budget. But don’t take it personally.” Or they say, “I really appreciate the work you’ve been doing on this project, it’s great work. But things have changed and we’re going to have to pull the plug on it. But it’s not personal.”

We hear this all the time. But the peole who say these things just don’t get it. The only way that I can not take my work personally is if I turn myself into a cog in someone’s machine. Machine parts don’t take things personally. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my car mechanic say, “Your carburetor hasn’t been performing at it’s best recently. I think you’ve been undermining its confidence.” Read More →

The Attitude of Leadership


The bad leader is hated and feared,
The good leader is loved and praised,
The great leader, when their work is done,
The people say, “We did this ourselves.” (Lao Tzu)

Of the leaders and teachers I have met, the most effective have the attitude that their job is to create the conditions that allow others to grow and prosper. Then their organizations, and their society, can grow and prosper with them.

Jack Welch said something similar, as probably many others have. Whoever deserves the credit, it’s a favourite definition of mine because it captures the notion that leadership is a generosity practice, and it’s best offered indirectly, by creating favourable conditions.

The idea that we lead people is a great source of difficulty in high places. If instead we are able to influence circumstances so that people have what they need to proceed well on their own, then our accomplishment becomes leader-proof and self-sustaining. We can’t stand over a plant and say, “Grow!” We place it in the right soil, temperature, water and sunlight, and the plant does its own growing.