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Leading Meaningful Change

Leading Meaningful Change

Capturing the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of the People You Lead, Work With, and Serve
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The Good Fight

The Good Fight

Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track
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The Freedom Framework

The Freedom Framework

The Business Owner’s Guide to Earning More and Working Less
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Throw Your Stuff Off the Plane

Throw Your Stuff Off the Plane

Achieving Accountability in Business and Life
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Thirty-five years ago I made a decision to take a whole new direction in my life. Two weeks later I changed my mind. I was neither accountable to anyone for the decision nor, apparently, even remotely committed to it. A day later I was almost in a plane crash and had to do what the pilot told me to do or we would die. In that case, my accountability wasn’t an issue and I was about as committed as one can get.
After 30 years as a leadership consultant, I still find myself informed by the little snippets of insight embedded in such experiences. Feeble decisions, foggy accountabilities, how fear really cranks up one’s level of commitment, the nature of commitment born of fear, and what it feels like to have a muscle-tightening, eye-squinting level of determination are all fascinating to me.
The big decision I changed my mind about way back then was to join a cult. I had been seriously involved in the world of meditation and became convinced that joining would put me on a fast track to enlightenment. I had just finished my fourth year of university, and rather than go back to my old summer job in a Northern Ontario logging operation with an eye on graduate school in the autumn, I declared my choice to pack it all in to join a community of like-minded followers of a famed guru.
Two weeks passed. It was the night before the logging operation got started, and I had a bad case of cold feet. My father could barely hide his smile when he heard my explanation. It was as if he knew all along that granting me the freedom to commit my soul would open me to the possibility of not committing my soul, if you know what I mean. His advice was that I call long-distance to the home of the logging company’s human resources person to see if I could take the job, even though I had already turned it down.
I made the call. A little boy answered, and he went to get his father on the line. While waiting I told myself that if this guy said it was too late, it would be a message from the universe that I was meant to be a yogi. But he didn’t say that.
“Sure, that would be great, but you’ll have to be here tomorrow. Can you do that?”
I thought, Are you kidding? I would jump out of an airplane if that’s what it would take. What I actually said was, “Why, yes, I’m sure I can get there. Thank you very much. Really. Thank you very much!”
I packed a duffle bag with my clothes and loaded up two boxes with my books about meditation, Eastern philosophy, and all the materials from the meditation community I had just left behind. The next morning my father drove me to the airport so I could catch a flight to Thunder Bay, where I would then somehow travel the additional 300 kilometres to the small town of Marathon. I was both relieved and excited.
The exact answer to the question about how I would get to the small town of Marathon came in the men’s room at the Thunder Bay airport. Normally I’m not inclined to talk to strangers in a men’s room, but I happened to ask the fellow standing next to me if he had any idea how to get to Marathon. “What a coincidence!” he replied. “I’m about to fly right over that area and would be glad to take you there. They have a little landing strip, so it won’t be a problem.”
Bingo! Fate was unfolding.
The fellow had a little two-seater aircraft. I squeezed my two boxes of books and little duffle bag into a small side door of the plane and hopped into the co-pilot seat, and we taxied out to the runway. The pilot said it was too bad the books were so heavy, but “we should be okay.”
During takeoff, he once again mentioned the books. He kept tilting his head and wincing. Over the sound of the engine strain, he raised his voice. “She’s a little heavy, but I think we’ll be fine.”
You think we’ll be fine? Where’s the conviction in that? I had assumed pilots took some sort of chest-thumping responsibility, that there’s a lot of accountability built into the system beyond just giving it their best shot. I mean, I wouldn’t walk a blind person across the street saying, “There sure are plenty of cars out here, but I think we’ll be fine.”
It was just 30 seconds later, when we were in the air and I could see the airport buildings shrinking beneath us, that I heard him say, “Oh-oh.” He was leaning over and tapping hard on a gauge. I could see panic in his face.
Out the window I saw the huge lake over on the right, dense forest on the left, and that we were already out of town.
The next thing I heard was, “No! We’re just too heavy. Throw your stuff off the plane!”
“What?” I asked incredulously over the roar of the engine.
“Throw your stuff off the plane!” He twisted around, quickly pointed at my baggage, and motioned toward the little side door of the plane. “Your stuff — it’s too heavy! Throw it out!”
At that particular moment, none of the possible metaphors that now cross my mind dawned on me. And I wasn’t about to question a panicking pilot giving a do-it-or-we-crash command.
There is still a part of me that superstitiously believes my spurned guru had a little temper tantrum and with a twirl of his magic wand admonished, “You’re either in or you’re out, and if you’re out, be out. Toss all your pretended wisdom and feigned commitment out the window — now!”
I unbuckled my seat belt and wiggled my way behind the seat, where the two boxes that had absolutely no idea what was about to happen to them were sitting innocently, trembling with the shake of the little airplane. I opened the side hatch of the aircraft and looked down to the ground below and the trees whooshing by. I specifically remember thinking, This is just bizarre. I shoved one box out the little door. And then the other.
The sound of the aircraft changed somewhat, and I heard the pilot’s relief: “Ahh, that’s better.” And in seconds it was as if nothing had happened.
I was inclined to answer, Well, how lovely that you’re feeling relieved I pushed my boxes of books off your airplane. How nice I was able to help out like that.
More directly in touch with my anger toward the pilot, I thought, Couldn’t you have warned me? Couldn’t you say, ‘Sorry about that’? Or maybe just offer a little explanation with a couple of tokens of remorse?
I think what I actually said was, “Good.” I pretended it was no big deal.
I did have fear about whether we’d actually make it to Marathon. We were, after all, only about one minute into the flight, and already I had thrown out not just my summer reading but also the only tangible connection I had to my dream of the yogic life. I had just tossed it out the window.
All that summer I thought about my boxes of books lying on the forest floor. Up in that area of the country, who knows — they might still be there after 30 years. I never went back to look.
What I look at nowadays are things like how, even if an organization is beautifully designed around accountability, what really makes it hum is a genuine commitment from the people who are being held accountable. I am particularly intrigued by what it feels like to be wholly committed rather than being just a little committed, and intending to do something without any serious commitment rather than having no commitment at all — even when there is accountability.
I think about how time is an enemy of commitment. At one moment, a determined person might declare, “I will exercise daily,” and a day later, poof, it’s as if that person has been replaced with a whole new being. The new guy remembers the former person’s intentions but doesn’t really share them.
And I think about how mental clutter is another enemy of commitment. Our unresolved feelings, our conflicting obligations, the sheer number of tasks we must juggle — all make for a very heavy load. So some commitments have a better chance of being fulfilled than others.
The amount of determination I brought to shoving my boxes of books off that airplane was way up in the red zone. I could feel that intention in my body; it was an eye-squinting, full-blast, no-matter-what! kind of willpower. If I had, and sustained, that same level of determination in my commitment to the guru, folks would be calling me Uncle Yogi today.
It still feels good to throw my stuff off the plane. I like the feeling of doing something with all my might.

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