Yes, No, Maybe

Deipnophobia: (Greek: dinner) — a morbid fear of dinner parties
Uhtceare (Old English: daybreak, care and sorrow) — waking up before dawn and not being able to get back to sleep because you’re worried about something.

I have spent countless hours in airport bookstores during long layovers browsing the newest titles about the power of persuasion or lessons for modern leaders. At first, they seem so interesting, but after a few minutes, I glaze over, ashamed that I have not absorbed enough of their pithy, bottled, intuitive wisdom. I end up drifting away, perhaps peeking into a “Sharper Image” store or something even more immediate, like a jelly donut.

Here are some ten titles I have thumbed through, listed in ascending order, rather than in some kind of David Letterman ranking.

  • Leadership: Lesson One: Mastering the Fundamentals of Leadership (Morten Heedegaard)
  • The First Two Rules of Leadership: Don’t Be Stupid, Don’t Be a Jerk (David Cottrell)
  • The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life (Warren Bennis)
  • The Four Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership: The Power of Leading from your Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength (Jenni Catron)
  • The Five Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential (John C. Maxwell)
  • Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences That Matter Most (Peter. M. DeWitt)
  • The Seven Habits of Effective People (Stephen Covey)
  • Monday Morning Leadership: 8 Mentoring Lessons You Can’t Afford to Miss (Juli Baldwin and David Cottrell)
  • The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential (Karl Hayden and Rob Jenkins)
  • Nelson Mandela: 10 Leadership Lessons from Mandela’s Life (Richard Bowerman).

Ice cream, yes. 52 succinct lessons? That’s just too much to bear.

The theme du jour and rage these days in airport leadership books is the wholesale embrace of failure as a virtue. Increasingly dominated by techno-evangelists, the chorus for this country-western song goes something like this: success is based upon passion, sacrifice, resilience, unwavering commitment, and trial and error. Fail quickly and often. Keep your eyes on the prize. Fail again, regroup, rinse, and repeat. Hang in there. Never give up and you will win friends and influence people.

I’m suspicious.

Most of these books about failure are written by the successful, with a wink to the reader — a pit of hubris hidden inside a peach of humility. I don’t think the universe will reward us for our noble efforts or that everything will work out. The world owes us nothing. The lessons of climate change illustrate that the earth does not naturally self correct. We can’t cash in our karma points for food stamps.

I fail all the time and I hate how weakened I feel each time. I may be remotely related to my great uncle, Tobias Miller (inventor of the folding chair), but he had far greater patience and testicular fortitude than I could ever muster.

We founders are a strange, conflicted, trapped breed. We’re pulled by our vision and pushed around by society. We tilt after windmills, but when we finally catch up with them, we’re easily caught in the blades. We promote collaboration, but we spend a great deal of time trying to differentiate our organizations from the rest. We fix our eyes on the prize, but are easily distracted by the bright, shiny objects of mission creep. We’re tenacious in our efforts to make this world a better place, yet worry if we can make and sustain any lasting change. Ahead of our time, we find ourselves building a road in front of our speeding car.

We wrestle with our inner Karl and Groucho Marx. Our Karl Marx persona proclaims the apparent universality of our cause and for the world to embrace it. He writes: “We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles…We merely show the world what it is really fighting for…” Our Groucho side challenges our resolve. Wiggling his cigar and eyebrows, he announces: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” We find ourselves walking the line between the courage of our convictions and our contradictions, between making the necessary compromises to reach a higher purposes…and being compromised.

We founders must play several roles: lawyer, marketer, teacher, HR specialist, technologist, shipping clerk, program creator, speech maker, and janitor. And when all of that is done, we have to ask for money, though we know that there will never be enough because the need we seek to address will grow faster than our ability to provide a salve, no less a sustainable solution.

We spend hours writing grant proposals, longing for a yes. And we learn a great deal along the way. We get the grant reviewer’s attention quickly because we only have only one chance to make a first impression. We make certain to answer the questions asked, not the ones we would like to answer. We suppress the impulse to dazzle the program officer with our perspicacity or appeal to emotion because we know that our proposal will likely be reduced to a 50-word summary and a check list. We include only those charts and tables that will drive home our point, careful not to make the reader strain. We tell stories, but try to keep them crisp, relevant, emotional, and memorable. If we tell too many, we might be perceived as sycophantic. Deluge them with numbers and be branded as arrogant. We watch our tone. Be confident, but not cocky.

Our sentences are economical, our grammar impeccable. We proofread obsessively. And just after we press Send, we are consumed by second thoughts. After our cognitive dissonance passes and we have found a particularly good reason for having not included an additional description or gone into great depth with another, we do our best to compartmentalize it and focus on the pressing challenges at hand. Several weeks pass. An answer will come soon enough. I rank them as follows: (1) Yes, (2) No, and (3) Maybe.

Yes

A “Yes” answer affirms that you are not crazy after all. I have often hung up the phone and find my DVD of “The Natural.” I fast-forward to the last scene. I remember my baseball fantasy as a child, staring longingly outside my window when life in school seemed so suffocating and demoralizing.

At the most critical comeback game of a career marked by an extended period of adversity and humiliation, the New York Knights baseball slugger Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) hits a ball that curves foul. As he returns to the plate, he notices that his lucky bat has been reduced to splinters. In an avuncular voice, Hobbs reassures his bat-boy, chubby and crestfallen. “Go pick me out a winner, Bobby.” The young man returns to the plate with his own carved pride and joy. Hobbs takes a few practice swings.

Randy Newman’s Coplanesque soundtrack begins to crescendo, a trill of strings and an anticipatory bass counterpart. I crank up the volume. The roar of the crowd turns into a chant. Roy Hobbs is hurting, a streak of blood appearing on his left side, just above his belt, aggravating an old gunshot injury. The umpire says to Roy, “Roy, are you alright, fellah?” Roy winces and says, “Let’s play ball.” The catcher notices, too, and gives a sign to a formidable Pittsburgh Pirate southpaw. Goliath on the mound glares at David at the plate. I am welling up.

The camera pans the screaming fans and players and settles on the pitcher’s arm rearing back in slow motion. It’s just strings now. Hobbs makes contact. We watch the arc of the ball in silence, followed by the announcer screaming, “High in right field! That ball is still going! It’s way back! High up in the air!” The ball smashes into the floodlights, setting off a daisy-chain of fireworks and explosions, the crowd downright apoplectic. I start to sob.

The announcer is on his feet. “He did it! Hobbs did it!” It’s a pandemonium of unabashed elation, faces effused with delight. Brass, strings, timpani, cheers. Roy Hobbs crosses the bases, heading home, bathed in a rain of light, a symbol of all that is right and just.

In the world of international development, these happy Hollywood endings don’t come all that often and the funding picture is not optimistic. But a homer should be accompanied by a soaring soundtrack.

No

It is worthy of mention that the tax designation and classification governing organizations like Teachers Without Borders is, by nature, a “no.” Not-for-profit. Non-governmental. Non-denominational. For a large project in Latin America, the funder made clear that an important criterion for approving proposals would come only after they had determined they had “no objection” to our principal investigators. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

A “No” response to a proposal is second best because it is, at the very least, clear and could even be instructive. It hurts. You get mad. You want to give up. Your worst suspicions about your proposal are confirmed. After a string of “no’s,” I had a recurring dream in which I have joined a queue of commuters waiting for a bus, all of us parallel to the street at precise bird-lengths. I am the last one in line. Their heads are bowed, illuminated by their flip-phones. Somehow, everyone else but me has received a signal to begin a well-choreographed sequence of snapping close their phones closed, then flicking them open in reverse, up and down the line, like a flash-mob performance art piece. I can’t keep up, upsetting the rhythm. Everyone in line turns toward me, as if to say: “We’ve practiced this so many times. It should come naturally by now!”

From atop a building crane above the bus stop, a man looking like Don Ameche, wearing gossamer wings, swoops down upon us, fluttering wildly in front of me. The commuters do not notice. He is mouthing “addled, addled, addled,” his mustache contorting into different caterpillar shapes. Once he knows he has pierced me, he cues an engineer to haul him up, shaking his head in disgust. The commuters walk past me, mumbling their disappointment, as they board an accordion bus. I am left alone. I miss the call and I miss the bus, again.

I console myself that an obscenely high percentage of grant proposals, however painstakingly crafted, have little chance of making it past the foundation’s shredder.

Maybe

“Maybe” comes in dead last for its patronizing sense of sustained animation. The waiting is excruciating. “Maybe” is purgatory.

You make a sheepish inquiry about where your proposal might be in the foundation’s pipeline. The program officer informs you that your submission is worthy of consideration and that you have made a compelling case.

It means little. I have often found myself in well-appointed corporate boardrooms with people truly interested in Teachers Without Borders. You feel your pulse quickening. Everything is exhilarating. You’ve made a lasting impression. This could be a match. Surely, success is immanent. It’s only a match, however, when two contracts arrive in the mail (both for signing, one for sending back), and only then if the check clears. I have been walked up the aisle and jilted at the altar too many times to count on anything.

Even if funders tell you they admire your work, do not take heart. You may be damned by faint praise, brushed off, or dangling by a thread. The derivation of the word itself is telling, having originated from a 15th century Old French term for wonder, astonishment, surprise. We admire Mother Theresa, but are surprised she would want to spend her time with lepers. We admire the more observant members of our religion for keeping the faith so that we do not have to waste a surprising amount of time with those tedious and time-consuming rituals. We admire people who assist those stranded by the side of the road, but are astonished at the risks they might be taking.

There are lessons to be learned from all three answers. The key is to be prepared for the benefits and curses of a yes or no answer and to expect little from a maybe. As for the first and second answers, Rudyard Kipling has sage advice. He implores us to meet these two imposters of triumph and disaster and treat them both the same. The yeses are essential for survival, no doubt, but a transitory and addictive dopamine rush, for what goes up must come down, and dependence makes the disappointments that much more devastating. The nos are deflating, no doubt, but equally transitory, for what feels like bottom may just be a blessing in disguise.

I have also learned that the revolution is more likely to bring resources, than resources necessary in order to bring about the revolution. Our most successful programs received funding only after they had already begun to take on a life of their own. A funder will support an idea you have already implemented and wish to scale far more than fund an idea you hope to implement, regardless of its inherent goodness and moral clarity. I am not saying that one should not pursue and seek support for passionate, yet unproven, ideas. But not all the time. Besides, it may not even be that new original or groundbreaking.

The Executive Director at The Cisco Foundation once confided to me, “Many nonprofit leaders treat us as if we are Hollywood producers to be pitched and wowed. You, however, asked for advice for two years before you ever asked us for a dime. If we get a sense that an organization seeking funding wants the money alone, but doesn’t seek a partnership with us, it’ll get advice, most likely to go elsewhere. But if you sincerely ask for advice and consider us to be on the same team, the chances are far greater that you’ll get money. Keep that in mind. We’re no dummies.”

Let’s say you have managed to wrangle an invitation to a well-heeled dinner party. You iron your cheap suit. You rehearse your lines. Once there, however, someone hands you their dirty plate, and you take it — balancing it with your own. I come from working class stock and never have had a problem with good honest work, like cleaning up. At the same time, no one consults the person wearing the rubber apron and oversized gloves to probe what he or she thinks about the impact of globalism and emerging economies on educational transformation in sub-Saharan Africa.

You suppress your feeling of inferiority, knowing that you will be asked questions about the percentage of money you spend on overhead. Businesses think nothing of creating a powerful, successful impression by dolling up their waiting room with overpriced furniture and imported espresso machines. Grassroots non-profits are criticized, however, if they have any overhead at all. At a conference of non-profit leaders, a colleague confided that he had shifted his mission to meet the potential of funding, rather than sought the kind of funding that would sustain his mission. Another was more blunt. “I’m exhausted,” she said, despairingly, “of strapping on knee pads and wearing ChapStick.”

But these are first-world problems. As my father eloquently put it: “Get over it. Stop taking yourself so seriously. Your whining feels like a pimple on an elephant’s ass.” It is not about you. Your funding challenges are equivalent to an irksome pebble in one’s shoe compared to the staggering mountain debt some countries must bear for basic infrastructure — crumbling schools, contaminated wells, intermittent electricity, pitted roads, or for an upgrade to a feudal education system itself — unpaid teachers, 50 year-old textbooks, or resistance to learning itself.

This is the environment in which we work. I, for one, will stick with the teachers. If we invest in teachers, we have just facilitated multipliers of change, at scale. They are the supply-chain of human development, a renewable resource of human capital and ingenuity. The word, entrepreneur, is derived from two Latin words: entre: to swim out, and prendes: to grasp, capture, or understand. Education also comes from the Latin, educare, to rear, to bring out, to lead forth. Teachers, by nature, are entrepreneurial, enterprising people. Always a yes.

And for them, it’s hard to say no. While I am worrying about money, I get a call. It’s a voice 7,000 miles away, asking for cooperation. In the background, you hear honking horns, barking dogs, echoes. You strain to understand the broken English. You find yourself engaged, renewed. You reassure the caller as you wish you were reassured. You set a date a Skype call. You activate your network.

Somehow, you no longer hear the cheering crowd in one ear or Don Ameche’s splenetic humiliations in the other. You realize that your mood has shifted from resignation to engagement. You may have been screwed over 49% of the time, but you suddenly feel that your efforts have borne fruit a majority of the time.

You are reminded that this work is, in the end, not about you, but about others. You are reminded, too, of your own theory of leadership — that leaders aren’t born or made, but show up. I were to write my own book about it (perhaps this one), I imagine the review: “A half-baked bromide — superficial, hardly instructive, and without basis in empirical studies. But you can’t fault the guy for trying.”

True, the world owes us nothing, even if we try hard. The indignities will come again. This endorphin rush will fade.

So what? Say yes, anyway.