May 2, 2017

Boundaries are for Safety

I understand why many leaders I talk to seem to be afraid of creating boundaries. They don't want to emulate the jerks they've met who create elitist, snobby, almost pointless boundaries simply to keep others out.

Earlier I discussed that it is important that you know, at some level, who is inside your community and who is outside. This can sometimes be a fairly fuzzy line.

I know of a neighborhood that hosted an annual community block party with too much food and drinks, a fire pit, and lots of friendly conversation. Over the years, some people moved away and others moved in. Of course the newcomers became part of the community, but what about the those who moved away? It got fuzzy. They (informally) decided that once a member, always a member, so party invitations went out locally and sometimes to towns, states, and countries far away.

Membership can be informal. The boundary can be crossed through self-selecting visitors. There still must be a sense that not everyone is in your community at any time. Communities are bound by values. Anyone not sharing your values, really shouldn't be in your community. (Valuing the residents in your neighborhood counts!)

Boundaries can be used to create a safe space inside for members. Members want to have a place where others share their values, where they don't have to explain themselves, and where they know others want to help them grow. I call this a sacred space. You can recognize it because others are willing to be vulnerable. In this context, vulnerability means that we are willing to share the parts of us that we fear may make others reject us when they see them.

To create a sacred space where vulnerability can be shared, we need to hold the boundary where our members feel safe. This means we protect the space for those who share our community’s values. This doesn't have to be every event or space our community gathers, but for deep belonging we need to have a time and place where members know they are safe among members. This means not any visitor can swing by and observe and/or judge at any time.

For example, my friend Bjorn is part of a Tibetan Buddhist community. At each of the weekly meetings, visitors are welcome, even given hot tea at the end of the Dharma talks. However, on the weekend retreats, attendance is limited to the students who have achieved a certain level of understanding in the tradition. The head teacher prefers to avoid using that time to convince visitors of the teaching merit. These sacred space weekend retreats are times when real depth and vulnerability can be explored in the tradition.

Here’s another example: My friend Adam is part of an informal executive chef community in San Francisco. They make meals together and welcome their friends who like to eat. The kitchen, however, is a sacred space. Only chefs are welcome inside. They don't want to spend their evening explaining what they are doing or training novice cooks. It is their time to celebrate their enthusiasm amongst professionals.

Further, they have some dinners to which only chefs are invited. Adam explained that if a first time visiting chef does not demonstrate adequate investment or creativity, they are not invited back. Those dinners are sacred space for those who value quality and creativity in pushing the boundaries of culinary arts.

Are you creating sacred spaces for your community? Is there a time and place that your members can gather where they know they can be vulnerable, when they can share what they care about, and when all want to support one another in growth? If not, there is real opportunity to bring the belonging to the next level.

March 26, 2017

Belonging in the Surf

One of my most magical memories is from when I was about 29 years old and moonlight surfing on Waikiki Beach with my cousin Kelly Chang and dear friend Hugh Khim.

On one of my visits to my family city of Honolulu, Kelly and Hugh had loaded up their cars with surfboards and had taken me into the Waikiki waves on a full moon night. While Waikiki is famous for the wall-to-wall sunbathing tourists that crowd one of the most beautiful beaches in the world during the day, that night we had just about all the water to ourselves.

I remember sitting on that longboard, smelling the Pacific water, feeling the tropical breeze, and admiring the hotel lights. After many, many, failed attempts, I think I caught one or two waves that night. Truly transcendent moments.

I remember thinking how powerful it was to be invited there with them, for them to share this special experience with me, late into the night.

There are at least two principles that make this such a meaningful memory for me.

The first is that we were within a safe “inner ring.” In this context, an inner ring is a safe place among people who share relationships beyond competition and judgment. This was a time and experience only shared with people who already appreciated and respected one another. While in the future others may be invited, that night we already knew we were safe with one another.

The second is a bit more profound. Through my cousin Kelly, I felt deeply connected to that place. My family has made its home in Honolulu for at least four generations. I was participating in a long line connected to me enjoying that space and appreciating its magnificence. Had we been on any other island in the world, even if we had been surfing, even if there had been tropical breezes, even if there were bright hotel lights glinting on the water, I would not have felt that connection.

Meaningfulness comes when we feel connected to the past and/or the future. That place, that experience in a relationship I had with those hosts were meaningful to me. In fact, I hope I can share the grandeur of Hawaii with the next generation in my family.

When we are helping others belong, connecting experiences to the past can change a fun event to something profound. Then we get to be the generation that connects those who come next with us.

How are you letting others know the way they are connected to a place no matter how unglamorous or changed it has become?

March 12, 2017

I Belong Here

I grew up in Southern California, but most of my extended family lived in Honolulu, Hawaii.

As a child, I would accompany my parents on family visits. In my 20s, I started visiting on my own.

Among other family members, I would visit my cousins Kelly and Kevin, who would introduce me to their friends, fellow artists, and church communities.

For those who don't know, my heritage is half Asian and half European. I have what is commonly called a classic Hapa look of people with my ethnic mix. Wherever I go, people ask, "Where are you from?" I tell them: California.

However true, this is not usually an acceptable answer.

From Lusaka, Zambia, to New York City, people want to hear where my 19th-century ancestors lived. When I explain, they often tell me how "interesting" my mix is. I’m not even sure what that means, except, “You sure aren’t like other people I know.”

As I was born in the 1970s, many people I met assumed I was the product of military sexual promiscuity who had made it to United States. In college, one of my roommates told me that he had always thought that people of mixed race like me happened only as an "accident maybe."

Hawaii is a place that’s experienced well over 100 years of immigration, profound eastern and western ethnic diversity, and countless generations of intermarriage. It is the only place I’ve ever been where people don't ask where I'm from.

When Kelly, Kevin, and my Oahu friends Hugh and Tim took me hiking or surfing, to church or to beach picnics, to backyard barbecues or to hula performances, I didn't have to explain myself. They knew what it is to be part of and within an ethnically diverse culture so enmeshed that it has created something wholly new and unrecognizable to the rest of the world.

Now you understand why I felt like I “belonged” when I was in Hawaii. There were the invitations, smiles, and listening. Most importantly, I didn't have to explain myself. I was accepted for who I was, no matter whether I was "interesting" or not.

Are you creating a place where people don’t have to explain themselves? Are they accepted for who they are even when they just don’t look the same? If you can do this, then you have created a special type of belonging indeed.

I wonder, when people visit your culture, who has to explain themselves and who doesn’t?

March 1, 2017

Even Simple Invitations Matter

Just this morning, I reached out to many friends to invite them to dinner at our house tomorrow night.

Of course, most people with active lives have their weekend plans already set. So I knew that at least some, if not most, would decline. That's exactly what happened. No matter, I reached out all the same.

Over the years I’ve learned that invitations matter. Invitations — even unaccepted, even unacknowledged — are an important tool in our efforts to build community. Invitations are evidence to others that someone cares about them.

Our dinner party tomorrow will consist of about 14 people. I've already noticed my anxiety rising as I wonder whether I can make it nice enough or impressive enough, given my own schedule tomorrow. Which means I get to remind myself that the relationships are far more important than the food I serve. I get to remind myself that my friends are looking forward to a welcoming space more than to culinary genius.

I'll make a simple meal of ginger chicken, garlic greens, and brown rice. It is a classic Asian-American home dinner. I'll trust that if they want to know us, this will be a perfect meal for them.

As you focus on how to grow or strengthen your community, think about who you are inviting into your space, and please put aside all your concerns about impressing them… even if you struggle with this like me.

For years we did not have a home that could host 14 people. You may lack a recipe for ginger chicken. No matter, we all want a genuine welcome far more than an impressive buffet.

There is no reason to wait in offering the welcome to others. They may be busy with their lives. Whoever accepts, wants to spend time with you. They may be the best kind of people to host.

Feb. 1, 2017

Flywheel Podcast: Building Communities That Inspire Connection

This week Victor Jimenez hosted me for a conversation for entrepreneurs on building cultures of belonging.  

You can listen at the link below.


Flywheel Podcast - Building Communities That Inspire Connection

In this episode, we talk about community and connection. Consider this, most businesses rise and fall based on the strength and depth of connection Communitythey build with employees, partners, and even their customers. Many of us don’t give a lot of thought about building a structure that can create a sense of belonging within our broader community and the micro-communities that form as a result of doing business.

Building that belonging takes work and strong leadership and commitment. Listen carefully to this episode and learn some of the principles that create and maintain those connections.

Some of the ideas we touch on that make strong communities

  • Boundaries
  • Space and safety
  • Implicit and explicit values
  • Creating paths to growth
  • Leadership