Advice and counsel from the past for the issues of today

With any crisis, we owe an acknowledgment of the truth. While that can be harsh, it’s necessary.

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Les Énervés de Jumièges by Évariste Vital Luminais, 1880 (public domain — Wikimedia Commons)*

“Whatever the apparent cause of any riots may be, the real one is always want of happiness.” — Thomas Paine, 1792

As much as history can inform our understanding of the present, we’re never quite prepared for a crisis.

We can point to events and behaviors that presaged certain crises, and perhaps we can even pick them out today, but when a situation becomes acute, it seems to happen all at once and takes people by surprise.

Well-trained corporate communications teams participate in crisis planning and usually have a crisis plan or handbook at the ready when they need to snap into action. …

Leaders know themselves. And that requires reflection.

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Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1903 (Wikipedia — public domain)

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Søren Kierkegaard

With the new year upon us, it seems like everyone is trying to put 2020 in the rear-view mirror, never to be mentioned again. But healthy reflection doesn’t avoid the unpleasant reality; it acknowledges it and uses it to grow.

Reflection isn’t something that needs our attention once a year. It’s a habit and should be developed like any other habit.

If done well, it can result in clarity of mind, a less volatile knee-jerk reaction to things, and deeper relationships.

Why is it that we find reflection so difficult? …

Your words are only as good as your actions.

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The Punishment of Lust by Giovanni Segantini, 1891 (public domain — Google Cultural Institute)

“A great deal in life depends on who smacked your hand at breakfast when you were a child.” — Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993

“Don’t make me turn this car around!”

Who, having been confined to the backseat of the family wagon, hasn’t heard those words uttered in frustration from the front seat? They’re part of the lore of the family trip.

But who in reality has experienced dad or mom actually turning the car around and canceling the vacation?

As children, we’re trained to believe that the worst threats would be fulfilled, with devastating results. Intimidation by corporal punishment (“the belt”) has given way to the terror of revoked screen time — generations separated by virtue of disparate physical objects — evocative of a horrible, dreadful outcome. …

By Sir Walter Raleigh

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Stańczyk by Jan Metejko, 1862 (public domain — Google Arts & Culture)

Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies,
A mortal foe and enemy to rest,
An envious boy, from whom all cares arise,
A bastard vile, a beast with rage possessed,
A way of error, a temple full of treason,
In all effects contrary unto reason.

A poisoned serpent covered all with flowers,
Mother of sighs, and murderer of repose,
A sea of sorrows whence are drawn such showers
As moisture lend to every grief that grows;
A school of guile, a net of deep deceit,
A gilded hook that holds a poisoned bait.

A fortress foiled, which reason did defend,
A siren song, a fever of the mind,
A maze wherein affection finds no end,
A raging cloud that runs before the wind,
A substance like the shadow of the sun,
A goal of grief for which the wisest run. …

Our memories can play tricks on us. Good leadership needs to balance emotion and clarity.

Painting by John William Waterhouse of Miranda, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, looking forlornly out to sea
Miranda by John William Waterhouse, 1875 (public domain — Wikimedia Commons)

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Miranda is the daughter of Prospero. She was banished to an island at the age of three, along with her father, where they lived for over a decade with only their only company their slave, Caliban. Miranda is blissfully unaware of the evils of the larger world and is openly compassionate.

“We are all sensitive to the splendors of beginnings, to the rare quality of those moments when the present is freed from the past without as yet letting anything shine through of the future that sets it into motion.” — Marc Augé, 2004

Nostalgia is something of a false prophet. It feeds us powerful visions: memories of a glorious experience of the past-something that makes us long to relive it, like a first visit to a favorite location or a first viewing of a classic film. …

Talking about our past is key to determining our future.

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The Battle of Actium by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672 (public domain — Wikimedia Commons)

“The biological (if not the aesthetic) value of remembering is not that it allows one to reminisce about the past but that it permits one to calculate coldly about the unknown future.” — Colin Blakemore, 1976

Everyone loves an origin story.

From the first book of Genesis to Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder, we find satisfaction in knowing how people got where they did. Origin stories give us a raison d’être — a purpose for being.

Your own origin story and the origin of your company are important aspects of building a cohesive culture. …

Leadership as told through a scene in a classic western

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Among the Sierra Nevada, California by Albert Bierstadt, 1868 (public domain — Wikipedia)

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”
— William Shakespeare, 1599

We can find inspiration anywhere we look, if we keep the proper mindset.

Gratitude combined with curiosity — being a lifelong learner — is a formula that can set us up for success.

I usually pull stories from history or literature as guides for leadership and communication. In this case, I’m going to switch it up a bit.

Last week I came across a scene in the 1958 Academy Award-winning film The Big Country that gave me pause. …

We can find positives even in the most dire situations.

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Plague in an Ancient City by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1653 (public domain — Wikipedia)

“What we learn in the time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” — Albert Camus, 1947

The story I’ll share with you in this edition of the newsletter is more personal than most. But the lessons are universal.

A couple of weeks ago, I tested positive for Covid-19.

It was a complete surprise, since I haven’t traveled since March when I returned from a client meeting in New York. …

An appeal to our better angels

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America Guided by Wisdom: An allegorical representation of the United States depicting their independence and prosperity by John James Barralet, 1815 (public domain — Library of Congress)

“If you are ferocious in battle, remember to be magnanimous in victory.” — Commander Tim Collins, 2003

As children, we learn that there’s no honor in being a sore loser.

We’re taught to shake hands and wish our opponents well, even if it means feigning happiness or enthusiasm for them.

But we also learn there’s no honor in being a sore winner, either.

No one likes someone who gloats, makes merry or rubs it in at their opponent’s expense.

These simple examples are representative of the concept of grace.

Grace has a number of definitions, from the more physical, meaning elegance of movement, to the religious, signifying the favor of God. …

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