Glorious Moments, Disturbed

It should be the most glorious of moments.

Holding his grandson in his arms is the brightest of lights in Rob’s life. There’s no joy greater than the chance to “just love that child,” as Rob (not his real name) said recently.

But his son’s wife, his daughter-in-law, sits right next to him, glaring. She won’t leave the room while Rob holds his grandson. She won’t let him out of eyesight. She stays close enough to extract her child in an instant.

Rob has never done anything to hurt another person, certainly not his grandson. “I love that child with every bit of my heart,” he says.

But he feels the fear. He feels the judgment. He feels the absence of trust.

Rob has indeed hurt someone in the past—himself. [Read more…]

Leading Integrated, Supportive Lives

In groups I’m co-facilitating in Chicago, discussing and supporting each other through common struggles quickly erases boundaries of race, age, gender, religion and sexual orientation. I feel the same way when I’m out on the trails. Everyone watches each other’s back, offering helpful hints on the next obstacle, like this waterfall climb in Rocky Mountain National Park.
While too many political leaders encourage divides (no, this is not directed at just one person), no one can prevent us from leading integrated, supportive lives if we choose to pursue unity and peace over segregation and conflict.

Hiking up the side of a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National Park.

My Post-Retirement Performance Report

This was supposed to be a bonding experience with my daughter.

This was supposed to be a bonding experience with my daughter.

Five years ago, I took a leap scarier than jumping out of a plane. It was the last day I had a boss other than the one I married. I’m grateful for these years, particularly for the chance to:

  1. Be flexible with my time so my wife’s move 2-1/2 years ago to New York City for her work strengthened rather than strained our relationship.
  2. Live with my children as a better person than while I carried the stress of my corporate work years–and to be part of the lives of young adults and children we now consider to be bonus family members.
  3. Write five books, publish four of them and even start on a sixth.
  4. Volunteer with great groups like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, No Stigmas, 360 Youth Services and the University of Illinois Leadership Center.
  5. Hike to the top of Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona, Yosemite’s Half Dome and several sites along the Appalachian Trail, along with into the Grand Canyon.
  6. Travel with my family, Mom, in-laws and brothers, developing deeper connections on each trip.
  7. Be present for extended family, and for people who gave me the opportunity to help them through tough challenges in their lives.
  8. Speak and teach, as a university guest lecturer, as a mental health advocate and as a judge for literary contests.

It hasn’t all been rosy. I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve struggled at times to find energy and motivation. I’m not in as good of shape as I thought I would achieve, though I’m far better off than when I started. Financial results from my endeavors are what I expected. Unfortunately, I had very low expectations.

To everyone who has been part of my life these last five years, thank you. To my former colleagues at Nalco, Quaker Oats, with Congressman Terry Bruce and at The Daily Illini, I miss my interactions with you even though I can’t say I miss the corporate world in particular.

I look forward continuing my efforts to make the world just a little bit better while enjoying its beauty along the way. And I promise myself I’ll spend just a little more time blogging as well.

Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.
[Read more…]

A Mother Turns Tragic Loss Into a Lifetime of Purpose

A varsity football starter, 16-year-old Kyle Braid led naturally. A standout among his peers for an inclusive, inspirational attitude in addition to exceptional athletic ability, Kyle’s positive presence created a deep, wide imprint at an early age.

Following his sophomore season, one of Kyle’s Florida high school football coaches informed him that he would captain the following year’s team, urging Kyle to work hard to build his speed, skill and strength.

To Colleen Malany, Kyle was much more than a leader. He was her only child, the fulcrum around which she balanced her life and a constant source of pride, joy and fulfillment. He was all that, and much more, right up until Feb. 28, 1994. In an impulsive flash during the middle of a second six-week steroid cycle as he tried to bulk up the fastest way he had heard was possible, Kyle died by suicide.

Speaking at University of Illinois leadership development program.

Colleen Malany during her keynote speech at a University of Illinois leadership development program.

As Colleen talked about Kyle with 200 students and alumni mentors taking part in a recent University of Illinois leadership development program, I found myself frequently wiping tears, in part thinking about the horror of being a parent subjected to the worst imaginable pain and in part contemplating my own struggles with depression-driven suicide ideation as a teen. Several fellow alumni mentors, including many who had met Colleen but didn’t know her history, had to leave the room. Other mentors and student Imprint leadership program participants focused intensely on every word.

Colleen acknowledged that she still cannot accurately describe the agony that tormented every moment in the days, weeks, months and years following Kyle’s loss. Colleen’s story, though, doesn’t just reach an ending with losing her son. It also starts there.

“We had to find a purpose, some way to take Kyle’s life, to take our experience, and turn it into a gift for others,” Colleen told us. “It was the only way to make sense of our pain.”

As she and then-husband Ken Braid grieved, they considered the best way to memorialize Kyle’s life. They found it in creating a program to provide high school student leaders with the skills to create even broader impacts within their schools and communities. Colleen and Ken created the J. Kyle Braid Leadership Foundation. [Read more…]

Lessons from Civil Rights Legend Timuel Black

It could have been one of life’s passing pleasures, a serendipitous opportunity to spend an evening absorbing the insights of 96-year-old civil rights leader, educator and World War II veteran Timuel Black, Jr. on what it was like to create his own pathways through life.

As we talked, however, it seemed that there must be a purpose to our fortunate table placements beyond my simple fascination with his living history. There were lessons to be gleaned, insights that apply to any young adult but seemed particularly relevant to an intensely dedicated and gregarious African American man who has lived as part of our family between college breaks during the past 18 months.

Graciously, Mr. Black was willing to share during our extended conversation.

Timuel Black, Jr. has both endured and created dramatic events. The grandson of slaves, he survived the Normandy Invasion and Battle of the Bulge during World War II before making a lifelong commitment to human rights after seeing the horrors of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp. An educator who received his master’s degree from the University of Chicago, he brought in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his first Chicago appearance, organized Chicago’s Freedom Trains to the March on Washington, helped elect Chicago’s first African American mayor and introduced around a young man named Barack Obama who became another important first.

His history is extraordinary: his insights are equally important.

“If Demetrius were sitting here instead of me, what would you tell him?” I asked from my seat next to Mr. Black at a fundraising dinner for the Kennedy Forum, a group founded by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy to improve mental health awareness and treatment.

Chicago 96-year-old civil rights legend Timuel Black, Jr. and his wife Zenobia

Chicago 96-year-old civil rights legend Timuel Black, Jr. and his wife Zenobia

“I’d tell him to prepare himself; academically, if academics are the right direction for him. But whatever he wants to accomplish, he needs to be prepared, really prepared. The door of opportunity doesn’t swing open very often. If you’re ready, you’ll find a way through, but you have to be prepared,” Mr. Black replied. “Barack Obama didn’t become President just because he wanted it. He was ready when the time came.

“And I’d also tell him to persevere,” Mr. Black added. “There’s always someone or some institution to stand in the way of your success. If you know what you want to achieve – and you know it’s right – keep working, keep pushing. Don’t give up. You may even achieve beyond your dreams. I didn’t grow up dreaming about a black President. But we persevered. Something greater than my dreams happened.”

[Read more…]

Creating Golden Rule Social Services

“Each individual has different needs, different capabilities, different dreams. What I see in government programs is an effort to fit people into boxes, to make people easy to administer, rather than to provide resources we need to become our greatest selves.”

Tamika Jackson
Doing Unto Others; The Golden Rule Revolution

With more than 100 government welfare and life-improvement programs potentially available as sources of support, Americans most in need of assistance are often overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and complexity of government support structures.

Every year, elected officials debate adding to or deleting from this over-mixed structure, providing never-ending fodder for the divisive hate game dominating politics today. During these debates, accusations quickly turn overwrought.

Hate the poor. Burn taxpayer money. Racist. Enabler. One percenter. Cultural rot. No accountability.

When it comes to social service programs, this debate misses a more critical issue.

Existing programs are bureaucracy centric, designed to remain within the purview of particular legislative committees or to ensure the legacy of a particular elected official. Each has its own application, funding requirements, auditing processes, staffing and timelines aimed more at fulfilling process requirements than at providing support. Many programs are established with set financial cliffs that force participants to lose nearly as much, and sometimes more, in support than they gain in income when they work additional hours or earn a raise, providing dramatic disincentives to career development.

People and their needs don’t fit neatly within congressional or state legislative jurisdictions. [Read more…]

Traveling with the Oldies (Music and In-Laws)

Taking my 70-year-old-plus in-laws on a 1,800-mile, seven-day road trip had potential relationship calamity written all over it.

My in-laws’ vacation history includes sit-down meals just 15 minutes into the start of a long day’s drive, genealogy-inspired gravestone stenciling and anguished moans at missed shopping opportunities — none of which I find comprehensible.

I wondered how three decades of strong in-law relationships would survive an excess of 50s music and Cracker Barrel consumption, particularly after my father-in-law let me know he had mapped every possible stop at those “Old Country Store” restaurants on our route.

Once the trip was gifted at Christmas, there was no turning back. We would travel from Chicago’s suburbs to Washington, D.C. to New York City and back home in seven days.

The reward for me was time with my wife, who recently relocated for work to Long Island City, New York. For my in-laws, it was play time with the D.C. grandsons, drinks and dinner with three of their four children, the 9/11 Memorial, a couple of shows (Jim Parsons’ play was a particular treat to diehard Big Bang Theory fan-in-laws) and a two-hour side trip to photograph a Brooklyn apartment complex my grandfather-in-law lived in during the 1930 census.

Somehow, it worked. While we didn’t discuss rules before departing, several elements contributed to the trip’s success: [Read more…]

With Family Afar, Thankful for An Unlikely Friendship

From a distance, the 350 pounds Jim Bowen packs into his thick, muscular frame appear menacing. A shaved skull and elongated Van Dyke beard edged with the first trimmings of grey only add to the suggestion that he must be a bouncer at an edgy Daytona Beach bar.

As Jim approached my wife’s Aunt Annette, he pulled open the passenger door and reached in to extricate her from the passenger seat. She looked up at him, reached immediately for her inhaler and prepared herself. Sharp, relentlessly combative and attractive despite a series of medical misfortunes, Annette knows the routine. The long-ago Miss Otis Air Force Base turned world-roaming travel agent has been widowed for more years than she cares to count and, equally challenging, now requires daily living assistance thanks to a shattered hip too dangerous to replace.

Jim gently wedged his thick hands under her arms and waited for her to move her legs to the side before slowly lifting her from the car and carefully spinning her into a waiting wheelchair. It was my first trip to visit Aunt Annette since she lost her ability to live independently, a tough adjustment for such a strong-willed woman.

Jim Bowen with Aunt Annette

Jim Bowen with Aunt Annette

That Annette is accepting the adjustment is partially a testament to Jim. Through several years of physical turmoil that have turned even more troubling in recent months, Jim has been her protector, her friend, her handyman and, more recently, her escape from confinement.

In many ways, they are opposites:

  • Jim dwarfs the petite Annette in physical stature.
  • At 51, Jim is youthful and vigorous. A lifetime of battling Lupus never slowed 74-year-old Annette in the way recent challenges have confined her.
  • Since moving from Upstate New York to the Atlantic Coast of Florida as a child, Jim has rarely departed the area other than during his six years of Air Force service. Annette enjoyed decades of world travel with Uncle Ed. She set off to Antarctica not long after his passing, never afraid of overseas adventure.

The unlikely relationship between Jim and Annette formed initially at the Moose Family Center, a lodge dedicated to raising money for the Mooseheart Child City outside of Chicago and Moosehaven retirement community near Jacksonville, Florida. A regular at the Moose Lodge who has taken on leadership roles at times, Jim worried when Annette hadn’t been around for too many days.

One of Jim’s checks found Annette in the midst of a serious medical emergency. In stubborn fashion typical for her lineage, Annette refused to allow an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Jim drove her instead. In the years since, he’s taken on a substantial role for Annette’s physical wellbeing, along with simply being her friend.

During the day, Jim toils at his single-man construction and handyman business. Several times each week, though, he turns into driver, bill payer, confidant, care provider and personal shopper (with coffee-flavored Haagen Dazs ice cream her clear priority based on my freezer check).

Annette’s handful of blood relatives reside 800 or more miles away and are able to visit only infrequently, as are several other relatives connected through her departed husband. Her nuclear family is too small and spread out to provide the assistance that close-knit, extended families historically delivered in difficult times.

Through a series of challenges, Jim’s concern and attention has helped save Annette’s life and, just as importantly, her mental health. The men and women at Kist Assisted Living who rotate in to help Aunt Annette with her daily needs do incredible work (including, in small world fashion, the sister of a man my wife has worked with for more than a decade). Even so, their attention is split among multiple patients. Jim’s visits are dedicated to her.

Jim doesn’t need to do this. There’s no family connection, no sense of religious obligation, no commitment to remuneration though Aunt Annette certainly tries to return his generosity when possible. He sacrifices some of his infrequent leisure time, a valuable asset for a single man, in order to take care of his friend Annette. He is gentle, patient and able to endure the routine needling from her that is traditional to family encounters. It turns out, he’s also well prepared, having worked for several years at an assisted living center before the heartache of losing too many residents who became his friends weighed so heavily on him that he decided to pursue a new path.

As nuclear families shrink and spread out, it’s relationships built on true friendship borne out of chance encounters that increasingly sustain people in times of need.

When I joined my wife and in-laws in a recent visit to Aunt Annette to spend time with her and share stories of times past, it was my first chance to meet Jim. It’s reassuring to see in Jim a gentle giant of a man who cares and worries more frequently than we ever could from our distance.

Jim Bowen is a difference maker in this world, making life better one person at a time. It turns out that he’s the antithesis of menacing.

When Pasties Appear on Guys’ Weekend

Staring at the pasties we caressed in our hands, we weren’t sure what to do next.

Do we envelop them in our mouths, wrapping our lips as far around as possible? Is it better to nibble at the edge while maintaining a firm handhold?

For the rest of the story, read my blog at the Huffington Post.

One hint. This photo plays an important role.

Launching over Volkswagen Rock in Piers Gorge with best friends Dave Steel (front left), me (front right), Mike Collins (middle right) and guide Forrest Smith on the Wild Ride.

Launching over Volkswagen Rock in Piers Gorge with best friends Dave Steel (front left), me (front right), Mike Collins (middle right) and guide Forrest Smith on the Wild Ride.