When a Story Gets Sidelined
There's only one story that I've written that didn't make it to print. Unfortunately, it was one that I was passionate about telling.
I’d been asked to write an article about the integrative health program at the VA. I met with five vets – men and women who’d served in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq – to talk about their journey of healing. All of them had been injured, physically and emotionally, and all of them had found relief in the ancient practices of yoga, meditation, Qi Gong, and acupuncture. They each responded to the interview process differently – one was very talkative from the start, and another was incredibly closed (especially when he learned I didn’t have a military background. Sitting back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, he said: “The difference between you and a vet is night and day.”). It tested my interview skills mightily, but when he finally decided to trust me and open up, I felt honored to hear his story. Pro tip: Ask good questions and LISTEN. He told me that he doesn't like fireworks, "not because of their lights or noise, but because of the glowing ash that hangs in the sky afterward."
Even though those interviews happened years ago, I still reflect on them today.
Here’s one of the stories:
Dr. Don Glover had been a medic in Vietnam and had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. He had what he described as “pretty severe PTSD,” had trouble sleeping, and was always on edge. Like many vets, he decided this was just part of life and learned to coexist with that dark place permanently, unbeknownst to those around him.
Twenty years later, he was taken to the hospital ICU with an internal bleed. He couldn’t keep warm and kept asking the nurse for blankets. Finally, he asked her why he was so cold. “She just looked at me and said, ‘Because you’re dying.’”
His doctor said that he’d never seen anyone lose that much blood and survive. Don was lucky to be alive, but the experience had a sobering impact on him. An old friend visited him in the hospital and said, “I think it’s time to do something to cure your ulcerative life.” He handed Don a book about meditation – Living with the Himalayan Masters. He began by meditating for five minutes at a time, but even that was difficult. As soon as he’d allow his thoughts to slow down, he’d start having flashbacks. But he kept at it, and after six months, he found he could sit for 30 minutes at a time (and was calmer in general). “I could be with those memories and just let them move through me.”
Don’s story was so impactful to me, and it was heartening to know that he was using his experience to encourage other vets to seek relief through alternative therapies. Shortly after, I decided to sign up for a yoga/meditation retreat (another story for another day) and learned how still sitting can be a life-altering practice, even if it’s just 10 minutes per day.
The story never ran, but thankfully I was able to use some of the reporting in the article I wrote for USA Today’s Special Edition. I don’t know where those veterans are today, but I’m hopeful that they’ve continued to find healing.
When I was asked to interview Simon Sinek in late 2013 for Insigniam Quarterly, it was just before his book Leaders Eat Last was published. Listening to him describe the ideas from the book (as well as theories presented in Start With Why) was incredibly inspiring.
During our conversation, Sinek discussed how leaders can harness the natural set points of their team to foster cooperation. Specifically, that when they promote an environment of safety, their employees flourish.
He used the example of an airline attendant who feels empowered to make the right decision for the customer. Instead of, "Sorry sir, I have to follow the rules, or I'll lose my job," they're able to evaluate the situation at hand and make common-sense decisions that improve the customer experience -- and trust that management will back them up. I love it when I see customer service people with the bandwidth to resolve issues on their own, and conversely, I try not to take it personally when they don't.
The Leadership Pact
"We're very comfortable giving alphas more resources," Sinek said. In nature, that would be food, choice of mate, resources, etc. In the modern world, that translates to salary, esteem, a nicer car and a bigger office. This deference is given as part of an unwritten contract, however, that says when danger arrives, the alpha will protect those weaker than him/her, even sacrificing himself/herself if needed. "The most innovative organizations... almost always have a leader who would sacrifice himself/herself to save their people rather than their numbers," he explained. And their employees know that. This is what creates a sense of trust and shared purpose.
Even if you don't have a management position, you can demonstrate leadership in your circles of influence.
That concept was crystallized recently during a back-to-school presentation given by my kids' middle school principal. In explaining her role in the administration, she said: "My job is to feed the teachers, so they don't eat the children." It got a lot of laughs, but it also underscored where her focus is. As a parent, I'm happy to "feed" my kids' teachers as well. Where can you exert influence to create an atmosphere of safety and trust to foster innovation?
Extras and Insights
Sometimes what doesn't get published is the most interesting part of the story. Here you'll find those extras, plus my thoughts on writing in general.