Error Is For the Little People


This saying is often true, which makes it both funny, and not.

We laugh at first because it changes the second part of Alexander Pope’s famous quote from 1711. We expected “To err is human, to forgive divine” and instead we got a revised and snarky saying about less-than-divine managers. This is humor based on surprise and biting commentary. We love to take the powerful down a peg and ascribe a manager’s success to politics and low virtue.

Corporate leaders and managers might allow some self-deprecating laughter at this, but it does not last long. If you care about organizational culture, this is a truth that hurts. Dishonest dodging of blame for error becomes an unintended consequence in environments where evaluating performance is mostly about punishment and fear.

Error is the gap between performance and expectations, and is all too human. Both the original saying and the altered one agree on this, but then they differ, one telling us something about the Deity the other about corporate leadership. It’s like the Deity to remedy the error, but it is like a manager to find someone to blame for it. The former is to personally own and repair the gap, the latter to distance oneself from it.

This sets up the managers’ choice: You can own it or blame it.

Blaming can masquerade as a kind of messianic bravery. It looks quite active and tough—it looks like you are fixing things—but your kick-butt-take-names swagger breeds fear and lying. Employees can sniff out your avoidance of responsibility for the gap. And based on your example, they are not likely to own the issues any more than you are.

When you own the gap, something different happens. You work the problem and regard your performance as part of the analysis, including your prior decisions, communications, and your commitment to develop others. You are on the hook for this as leader, both in terms of where it went wrong as well as where to go from here. Your sentences cease to begin with “you” and start with “we.”

Never has my estimation of a CEO been higher than when my leader owned up to missing an opportunity that would have put our product in millions of devices around the world. The resultant corporate new trajectory, now bearing fruit in the marketplace, was engaged with enthusiasm because the CEO was bold enough to be honest about his own role in the error.

Consider this: If something needs to be fixed, that something might be you. And now, since you are trying to build a culture of honesty in your organization, you get to lead by example. Your personal identification with the error, your leadership in repairing the gap, can build a trickle-down trust for your org.

So manager, take heart. When I first saw the funny sign, I also laughed because I knew the situations where the joke was painfully true. Yet I also knew that this does not apply to all managers. I’ve worked for several who owned the key issues in the workplace, and who were with me in growth, improvement and ambition.

It can be done. If you pull it off, people will still laugh at this saying, but they will not have you in mind as an illustration of it. Even better, they may think of your legacy as an example that refutes it.


Must We Even Take Sides at Thanksgiving?

The_First_Thanksgiving_cph.3g04961You would think that Thanksgiving is not a holiday for controversy. The occasion is intended to be warm, its history strong with themes of diversity and acceptance, religious freedom and pluralism, and the sharing of resources in response to need.

But we can argue nevertheless, and I am not referring to the way your Uncle Harry behaved last year.

To view the argument, look up any online article about a traditional aspect of the holiday, like “Mayflower descendants,” and then read the comment blog at the end. Witness there a social-political taking of sides more serious than whether the cranberry sauce at the first Thanksgiving had those ripple marks from the can.

It’s a thing, and you have to be on the right side of it. Didn’t you know that the Pilgrims were actually imperialists and the advance guard of the coming rape of the American landscape? Inside this opinion slung-with-swagger is the implication that with this new information your world is about to crumble. Worse yet, you probably perpetuate this piggish myth ever since you used crayon to color Squanto’s headdress.

This cracks me up. Mainly because it’s hilarious how the correctors of history take a kind of glee in destroying our mythologies. Of course we have myths. Get over it—your sentence beginning with “but did you know” delivers content neither new nor helpful. And any “yeah but” argument from the other side about inter-tribe Native American violence is equally unhelpful. It keeps the argument in the wrong place and just makes me tryptophan-tired.

These are discussions for another time. Just like Uncle Harry’s regrettable remarks, there’s a valid point to be made here, just not at the table. I like the truth too, and there is something good we can do with it.

And what is the truth? The first Thanksgiving came at a time of tremendous hardship for the Plymouth settlers. The local Wampanoag peoples helped the settlers with cultivation practices. A single letter records a feast with no mention of an invitation to the Wampanoag, but in response to the noise of musket practice, a group of them appeared at the meal and the Pilgrims offered them food and they ate with them.

That is all, and that is enough. I do not need the mythologies or revisionist histories from either camp in a debate. Here in bare and simple form is the picture of divergent lifestyles, faiths, races and cultures sitting at table. Some pictures do better without a caption.

Keep your narratives about the sins of the white man or the native. Give thanks for your meal, and invite someone over who you might otherwise have reason not to like. And make that your holiday narrative instead.

Today is God-Is-Absent Day

IMG_0180The Saturday of Holy Week sits like a giant pause button between the disappointment of Good Friday and the vindication of Easter morning. As such it defines God’s absence in a way. The Deity is OUT, the red plastic clock hands indicate a return at sunrise tomorrow. 

I like that, actually. Let’s make a holiday about God being absent. I know, it’s his apparent absence, but c’mon—my perception is my reality. 

Today has a bizarre vacuum-like quality. Following the Christian calendar as it marks the story, it’s the day after he left us. It’s a day of his absence and our doubts. We were huddled without answers, under obligation to a quiet sabbath, without direction or hope, and not sturdy enough to remember any of his promises. 

On this day, God affirms that I will doubt and feel alone. My theology is made uncomfortable by this, but that’s a good thing. Theological discomfort is like what Frederick Buechner said about doubt, that it’s actually the “ants in the pants of faith.” I love dangerous ideas, and this is one: God is apparently absent and we dare to make something of that, even to mark it one day per year. 

But here’s where I think the idea turns for me. He went somewhere I was not invited to go. He left me to go do something, to face the Ultimate Separator. And for the 39 or 40 hours from Good Friday afternoon to Easter Morning we actually mark a time when he went to the grave, even Hell, and we have to stay behind and wait. What he has to do there, we cannot do with him. So we think he’s absent, and in a way he is, but really he’s off somewhere with his boot on the throat of death, and my not being there is a good thing. 

It’s as if he’s saying “trust me; you don’t want to see this.” 

I think of it this way: If there are other moments when Jesus Christ is my teacher, my friend, my coach, my guide and my mentor—and there are plenty of those times—this time is different. This is the moment when he is sin for me. For the substitution to be utter, and for the percentage of my participation in this gift to be 0% (otherwise, how is it a gift?), then he will be there alone. 

He invites me to everything else, but not this. He does not ask me to share the burden, but he wants to take it solo. And he says “wait here; I’ll be right back.” 

Then on Sunday….

The Flexibility of Hope

Could I have seen 2014 from 1961? Heck, can I even see it now?

Could I have seen 2014 from 1961? Heck, can I even see it now?

I may have been way too certain that my vocational next step was the Employee and Org Development Manager position at Cal Poly. It happens when you get excited about an opportunity, and then you invest in research and prep for it. We even had what appeared to be Divine clues when quirky circumstances pointed us to this job.

The interpretation of this rejection is still being formed in me. I was deflated, I say in my letter (reprinted below), and the perceived impact of that is larger because of how protracted the hiring process was.

My hope is undeterred, but hope must also be adaptable. In fact, to overly proscribe one’s future is to limit the wonderful variety of ways that this future can arrive. In the end, A claim to know the best and narrow path is a conceit, and can lead to missing an even better future than first imagined.

Here is a note I sent out yesterday, briefly telling the results and then processing its meaning for us. If you and I are email correspondents, you might already have seen it.


Hi there,

Well, I’ll get right to it: I did not get the job as Employee and Org Development Manager at Cal Poly. The hiring manager told me it was a difficult decision and caused quite a bit of back-and-forth among the hiring team members. My candidacy was strong and impressive, she said. In the end, the job went to a person who has had years of experience doing OD in higher education, most recently for the US Department of Education.

It was deflating news, but I’m glad finally to know. Now it’s on to other things.

I much appreciate the support of family and friends who prayed, asked about status, and supported us through this time.

Cal and Nancy

Here are some postscripts that provide some further reflections, and a look ahead.

My response to the process: You might agree with me that a hiring process that begins in October and ends in April is a test of patience and resilience. It’s some consolation to have been a finalist, but for those few who get that far, and then not get the prize, it feels nearly abusive to drag it out that long. Oh, that’s dramatic, I know. I am not accusing anyone of doing that intentionally, but it is a system thing. And it is how I experienced the process as a participant in it.

Given their deliberate and moribund processes, it’s a bit of a catch-22. They might make it long, but over the entire span of time I am full-bore enthused, anticipating a great life change, and approaching each step with singularity of mind.

How could it be otherwise? I entered to win: Application materials in November, a Skype interview in December, prep of portfolio of work in January, the finalist all-day campus interview in February, a phone call from them to discuss salary and another to request permission to contact my references. The hiring manager confirmed today that I was not wrong to sense that I was near the finish line in March.

When they ultimately did not contact my references, I thought something was up, and it was. The field had expanded to contain another interview. As I said, in the end they selected the OD professional with the higher ed background.

What now? With upheaval at Intel, the continued lack of commitment there to OD services, and then an attractive option to retire I moved to this better place in which I now stand. But there is more for me to do, and this afternoon I begin to sense some freedom and hope.

Even some freedom, I say, from this whole process with Cal Poly. Much as I thought that role was perfect, and that I would make a difference there, I now sense some liberation from the whole process. As I think back over the last few weeks, I was starting to think whether I even really want to work there. One of my interviewers in February said that one of their workforce strategy barriers is their lengthy hiring process. No duh.

Hope, I say, yes. There is a path ahead to that better place—consulting, teaching, writing. God knows, and it’s going to be fun to see what it is. Oh, and we still want to move to San Luis Obispo.

Retire from Intel? What does that mean?


Does this guy look like he’s ready to retire?

Retirement, as a word, carries a different meaning for me than any of those found in a dictionary or thesaurus: to give up work, go to bed, step down, be pensioned off or be put out to pasture.  These are classic, but not one works as a definition of my retirement.

There is nothing wrong with taking a classic retirement and leading a full life in post-employment. But for me, for this moment, retirement is simply the technical term for a program at Intel. It is the name of the doorway through which I pass, though it does not describe my life on the other side.

Life on the other side of the door is about having a purpose and applying that in service to a cause. I cannot retire from that. And it is yet uncertain what that cause will be, though there are some wonderful possibilities for my employment. But it will be meaningful, to a purpose, and it will add value.

When that takes shape and is realized, I will let you know what it is.


Applying team learning in a hands-on simulation / challenge. And the contraption worked! (in Arizona, 2006)

By saying these things I do not infer that Intel could not continue to provide a setting for passionate value-based work. Intel is a wonderful employer, a corporation that wants to connect the world. And the several jobs I had over my 16-½ year career had clear objectives that could be described meaningfully.

It was just time.

I have worked on 8 teams with 14 different managers. I have had the wonderful satisfactions of leading in org re-design, creating and deploying development programs, managing change and transition, supporting, leading teams, teaching and consulting.

With our Guadalajara team after a day's work (2013)

With our Guadalajara team after a day’s work (2013)

With yet another season for Intel to sort, sift and adjust—and with many of the remaining org development practitioners (including me) now scanning the landscape for new gigs, I chose to find the next one outside this time.

This intends no negative critique of Intel’s restlessness. It is an exciting and dynamic business, morphing and refusing to rut itself, running hard in a marketplace with products that become obsolete

2010 Instructor of the Year. Folsom site; V Gould conferring the honor.

2010 Instructor of the Year. Folsom site; V Gould conferring the honor.

every 18 months. If we blinked for even half a heartbeat, a competitor lunged ahead in an attempt to dominate a market. We all needed to hang on, ride the waves, and persist in adding value wherever we worked.

It is exciting, actually. But I had a restless spirit last fall, and my eyes began to scan the horizon for a new setting in which to bring value, to apply a mission of developing thriving individuals and organizations. I had an option to retire and took it, and will use it to enter on a new passion.

Maybe I should coin the term refirement. Does that work?


A day off during a trip to our UK (swindon) site; here at Bath (2007)

Dinner transpo in Malaysia

Dinner transpo in Malaysia

Blowing off steam after class, Dublin.

Blowing off steam after class, Dublin.



Lunch with HR team, Malaysia

Lunch with HR team, Malaysia

Leading a session, Malaysia

Leading a session, Malaysia

Leading a session in Folsom

Leading a session in Folsom

Tour day after a week in Tel Aviv

Tour day after a week in Tel Aviv

2013 Lessons / 2014 Actions

It took most of January 2014 to reflect and wordsmith some lessons learned from 2013. Here are four insights, and some action items for the upcoming year of changes.

6e40e540-c77a-4935-8f99-a04b2ff85d68_20141.  Risk Assessment in my life must improve. My positivity serves me well in so many ways, but it can hinder a full view of reality. Positivity shows up on my StrengthsFinder test. It can help me encourage others, create a brand, set a vision, and inspire a learner. However, positivity can also blind me to risk and rob me of any respect for the possibility of failure.

2014 To-Do Items:
a)     Invite my family and friends to be honest with me. And not with words like “have you considered whether…?” or “is there a chance that…?” No. Please say that you think what I’m about to do is really stupid. If it is, I mean.
b)    Get to know a few pessimists, just for a little balance. I know to hold those people at arm’s length, but that’s still close enough to hear them. I need to.

photo 4-1 2.  Dreams can come true. I refer to the kind of dreams that start with the words “someday I will.” 2013 saw one of these come to life when we camped across the US. Planning really made it possible, along with a generous sabbatical benefit from my employer.(

picstitch42014 To-Do:

a)     Quit thinking that anything is necessarily just not going to happen
b)    Start planning the next childhood dream. Alaska?
c)     When is someone too old to finish the John Muir Trail (half completed in 2002)?

3.  Relationships Matter: It is clearer to me than ever that I married my best friend and that my family means everything to me. And friendships can be too rarely enjoyed, but as we discovered in NY, DC, VA and CO last fall, many can be re-ignited on contact.


Action items for 2014:
a)     Invest time, resources and attention in doing the best by family
b)    Add family members!
c)     Nurture friendships the old fashioned way. Not what Facebook means with the noun-made-verb friending. I mean, rather, to be a friend…old school, analog style.

4.  Reconciliation, I am convinced, sums up the Christian faith. 2013 was not different for me with respect to this; I’ve believed it for a long time. But reflecting on another 12 months of human activity, of families, nations, lovers, leaders and regular people, I cannot help but revisit that truth. The right and just God reconciled to us at his expense, when it was our entire fault, without waiting for an apology. So I guess it is more important to be close than to be right.

For 2014:
a)     Reconcile
b)    Forgive

We Have Met the Enemy …

The Sandy Hook grief will be raw for quite a while, yet as the days go by more of us find it irresistible to move from empathy to commentary.  Tweets, posts and punditry about guns and God began almost right after the awful shooting—too soon for some, but inevitable for most of us.

Our comments reveal a search for a cause.  Faced with such unthinkable wrong, the heart demands an explanation.  Only a sociopath would calculate this tragedy in Darwinian terms, shrug and move on—the rest of us will construct a cause-effect narrative as a pretext for some kind of action plan.  We will want to fix it.

A root-cause analysis ought to give us a single thing to work on, but it does not.  Most honest analyses of problems show an interconnected web of causes, and Sandy Hook is no exception.  It would be nice, if true. If the cause is access to guns, then we work on that.  Or if the culprit is the absence of God from school curricula, then we focus there.

Having multiple causes makes every pundit partly right, but incomplete when advocating his or her favorite position.  Everyone then has a piece of the truth.   This leads to the talk show shouting matches between biased half-right / half-wrong people who seek to land their points more on decibels than on reason.

Yet there is a cause underlying them all: It is the condition of the human heart.  By this I might be referring to the offender’s heart, that by some possession of illness or evil a human being would be capable of such horror.  But I mean more, much more.  I refer to our own hearts, each of our own individually and together corporately.   And I do not mean to infer that some lack of heart in Connecticut is to blame locally—I am referring only to the wider culture, and our responsibilities in it.

The social fabric is frayed, and each of us is one thread in particular.  And we have become—I have become—insulated and unconcerned for its integrity.  So I blame, when I should look within.

And what do I find within?  If I’m honest I see my comfortable and accepted hatreds, my limited affections, and my consumption of entertainments that distract me from those who might try my patience or exhaust my interest.  I see my supreme self-interest and my unconnected and insulated life (online connections do not count in this assessment).

Now take this narcissism and multiply it over all of us, over the millions of us.  In its full flower we see a kind of moral abdication.  We have turned our cry for independence into the demand to be left alone. We then create huge bureaucracies that will care where I will not, or cannot, and then some of us complain (rightly, I think) that those bureaucracies are too large and costly.

If we saw this abdication, this vacuum, and understood its negative power we would repent.  We would turn from our ways and meet our neighbors, learn the names of their kids and watch for their safety on the streets.  We would bring them meals when their grandparents die, ask to see the pictures of their vacations, pray for their teenage daughters when they run away.  We would volunteer. We would repent of our most insidious judgments, where we have called others wackos or fly-over-people, lefties or hicks, fags or breeders.  We would stop all that and weave a new fabric.

History gives us a few examples of such spiritual and cultural reformation, such as America’s “Great Awakenings” which contributed to public sentiment on slavery.  Or on a smaller scale, and more recently, we can point to a grassroots effort like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers that moved the dial on public perception of drunkenness from a quaint humor to a deadly irresponsibility.  Yes, the force of law came to bear on these examples, outlawing slavery and increasing punishments for drunken driving.  But the foundational re-assessment was at first a matter of the public soul.

I am not saying that we table our attention to the important social questions before us, whether those are the solutions loved from the left or right, whether about guns or prayer.  What I am saying is that all of us, left, center or right, must look to ourselves first, even before we leap to root out the broken systems, the inadequate laws or the wrong-headed interest groups.

The tragedy was even more than an injury to us; it was an affront.  The killer shamed us.  He shamed our community and our humanity.  One of our members spited us; he snuck under our instruction and avoided our scruples.  He defied us, or perhaps ignored us.

We think how could this happen?  Like a fix-it person who’s certain the problem must be out there, like a broken fuse in a circuit, we rush out, brow furrowed and tools in hand, yet fail to look inwardly.  Most of the discussion after Sandy Hook is about blame, and not introspection.  Rather than “shame on us” the messages are shame on the NRA, on the court rulings against prayer, on the Reagan-era disinvestment in community mental health practices, on video gaming or on movies.

However important some of those things are (and some of them are), that is not my point here.  I think we, and the way we live, is more at the heart of the matter than we want to admit.  In the words of the late Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”