There are only two people on this planet now who make me go weak in the knees in abject admiration when in their presence: Nikki Giovanni and Norm Kerth. They, in many ways, are not alike. Nikki is an elderly black female poet who has made her way, through the power of her thinking, outspokenness, fiery intelligence, and willingness to say what she knows needs to be said, to the halls of hallowed American academia. Norm Kerth is a white male software professional who lives a comparatively low profile life but who has brought not only the practice of humane and potentially quite powerful and deeply integral retrospective learning methods to a typically chaotic and grueling kind of work but who has for some of us who’ve had a chance to meet him or study with him even briefly modeled a kind of servant leadership so timeless that the experience has informed how we go forward in the world. But, other than those two people, I tend to remain unastonished by my fellow human’s ability to bring good or delight into the world. I am amazed, not infrequently these days, at the willingness we each bring to cause damage to ourselves and each other, however.
Of course, my key area of interest has much to do with how we are intrapersonally and interpersonally in the workplace. And, I caution you to consider that workplaces vary radically in their kind and constitution, not to mention purpose. An American soldier, as my nephew reminded me last weekend, “goes to work” every day whether or not he is deployed. So does the leader of a group of terrorists embedded in a relatively peaceful country as he or she prepares and leads a group into an attack upon the peaceful populace; these attacks we have been seeing over the last decade and more have taken a great deal of planning and careful execution—project management, if you will. A programmer working on a team which is building a new medical device to improve the speed and diminish the pain with which diabetic patients can determine their need for and self-administer insulin goes to work every day. So does the librarian at your local public library, the teacher at the local elementary school, and the governor of your state. And, with regard to the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges of the workplace and how those challenges form and inform the crucible in which the being, or soul, if you will, of that individual is tried, tested, and proven in his or her workplace, there are a remarkable number of similarities.
David Whyte in his book The Three Marriages talks about the marriage to oneself, to the other, and to one’s work as the three contexts in which the self is formed and through which we show ourselves and others who we are and what we are made of. In “David Copperfield,” Charles Dickens writes, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” To a large extent, our work life provides the pages on which the story of our own personal heroism—or self-actualization—is written.
For some of us, most notably in the examples above the teacher, the soldier, and the librarian are proven in the context of community. But some of us have chosen work where our community of practice can change frequently. For instance, the programmer instantiated by reference above is likely to move frequently from team to team throughout the course of his worklife and even from organization to organization every one to three years as his career matures. He may become known by repute but a relatively small group of people may ever come to know him through working with him at close quarters and experiencing the consistencies and inconsistencies of his words and actions, observing the extent to which his exercise of personal freedom, free will, intelligence, and compassion reveal who he is and what he can uniquely bring to the world.
Nonetheless, all of us are consistently with ourselves and see the extent to which our words, actions and beliefs create the ghostly image of who we actually are. If we are paying attention and do not like that image, we can remake it into a more pleasing shape over time through dint of our will, intelligence, and effort. Likely, Norm Kerth and Nikki Giovanni know this, too.
I first came across Nikki’s work at least 30 years ago; I have watched her change, mature, and deepen over these 30 years though she has always been herself. I have not been watching every day, but sometimes I seek her out through her work—the web makes this so much more possible now—and see what’s she’s up to. I don’t remember which poem first caught my attention, but it seems to me it was in her collection The Women and The Men. So many of her poems have meant so much to me. One quote in an interview between Nikki and Morley Safer caught my attention many years ago. In the middle of the interview Nikki said “White people don’t love their children,” which, of course, caught Safer quite off-guard. When he asked her to explain, her explanation was so clear, cogent, and spot-on that I knew I would have to listen to what she had to say for a long time. Her reasoning was, based on her observations of white society and the way white children were often raised, that children in white households were not usually intentionally prepared for the realities that would face them in this complex and often cruel world. Her data was sound and rang true as a bell for me. Most recently, though it’s been a few years now, I had an opportunity to hear her speak in a small reading room at a local bookstore. I left the office early and made sure I got a front-row seat and throughout the presentation experienced that odd high that can only be called hero worship; I was surprised that I could experience it.
Norm Kerth first occurred in my life one summer afternoon at an informal gathering at the home of a mutual friend. His presence was at first inauspicious but as he engaged in conversation through the evening the texture of his thinking and the manner in which he brought it forth held showed a kind of authenticity that cannot be faked. A few years later, I had a chance to attend a talk he gave one morning at a small consultant’s retreat. This brief tutorial was the finest explication of servant leadership from the consultant’s perspective that I have yet heard. And then again, a few years later I consulted with him over breakfast one morning about a particularly difficult struggle I was having in planning a project retrospective. The quickness of his anger over a certain aspect of my blindness to my situation was scorching—and taught me a quick, indelible lesson.
It’s good to know a few people at least who make you go weak in the knees with admiration and in no way diminish you in doing so. But, it’s even more important to be the hero of your own life. My experience and firmly held belief is that, will we nill we, our work is a crucible in which we are formed, a stone on which we grind the finest edge of our character that it make cut through the underbrush of this messy jungle of a world humankind has created for itself. May you see the ghost your words, actions, and beliefs have created and may it not frighten or horrify you; may you become the hero of your own life when all is said and done.