Two Mountains and a Valley

In David Brooks book, The Second Mountain, he describes a life in adulthood as lived in two stages. The first is success–career, prosperity, and the acquisition of status symbols. Perhaps with a valley in between, in later life one is called to embark on a second mountain–that of commitment, including marriage, other relationships, religious commitment, and community. The book is rich in insight, but it did not speak to how I, or many others (especially women) lead our lives. Success and commitment are not sequential. They are simultaneous, and the challenge is balance.

As I was reflecting on Brooks’ book, I had a learning experience. I was at the beach with a friend and she wanted to try her hand (and mine) at an adult tricycle. Despite more physical handicaps, she conquered it fairly quickly. I did not. It was a humbling experience. Part of my challenge was the difficulty of adjusting the height of the seat, but the larger challenge was unlearning the habits I had developed in may years of riding a ten-speed, which now had me going around in circles.

I started thinking about kinesthetic learning, which is learning by doing. In my particular case, my lifeong kinesthetic learning challenge has been learning with the body. I was gifted as a visual and auditory learner, but challenged by learning with the body. I struggled to learn to dance, to swim, to participate in sports., to type (poor sense of rhythm). I also have some specific issues in visual learning, especially visualizing in three dimensions, which makes it difficult for me to draw. But that’s another story.

So I learned to live in my head as the path to success, and it worked. But it also made me feel smug about my superiority, while failing to come to grips with my unwillingness to learn things that were difficult. It also made me tune out what my body was saying to me about what it needed. It needed movement. It needed better nutrition. It needed attention.

Two lessons from music and one from tutoring helped me to gain some perspective on my body learning challenge. First, I sang in church choirs for about 30 years. Good pitch, but rhythmically challenged. It got better with practice, but never up to the level of most of my fellow choir members. One day I read an article about how developmentally challenged people can learn anything that others can learn: it just takes them longer. It gave me hope as a “retarded musician.” (Retarded was the word back in the 1980s.) So I persisted, and actually was a fairly decent singer, although never a soloist.

One of my fellow choir members was a long time excellent bridge player and a person with good rhythm but lousy pitch. Ours was a tolerant choir, and his erratic notes were forgiven. He decided he wanted to play an instrument and joined a local band, where he discovered he was a truly awful trumpet player. However, I admired his effort to learn something difficult instead of sticking at what he did very well, playing duplicate bridge. He made it through one season and returned, chastened, to bridge.

Last spring I tutored a sixth grader in language arts. She was doing well in math and science but struggling with language. She turned out to be a kinesthetic learner, and after studying up I found a few tricks to help make her learning easier. But it made me more understanding of the students I had taught in my career as an economic professor who struggled with the standard visual/auditory teaching and learning style just as I struggled with body learning.

Over the years I have made progress. For 23 years I have been a Jazzercizer, which has greatly improved my rhythm and my enjoyment of physical activity. Over the same time I also continued bike riding and added walking and hiking, which was the easiest form of exercise. With better rhythm I learned to enjoy kayaking. But most important, accepting the challenge of body learning taught me humility. I am good at some things, and not others. If I stick to doing just what I do easily and well, I feel good about myself but impatient or critical of those less gifted in that way of learning, doing, and being..

The Greek philosopher Socrates was married to Xantippe, who had a reputation as a shrew. Why did he put up with her? This was his explanation. “None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me,” he says; “the horse for me to own must show some spirit. If I can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.”

Okay, not a lot of humility there, but definitely wisdom. It is fine to enjoy the things you do well and the people you are comfortable with, but the growing edge, the spiritual challenge, is to connect with people you don’t particularly enjoy and learn things that are difficult.

Once I can master the adult tricycle, art lessons are my next body challenge. What’s yours?

In Honor of Work

Labor Day 2021, is a good time to reflect on the meaning of work. This post was inspired by a children’s story about an owl and a squirrel to ask the same questions of work and workers that the owl asked of the squirrel.

Who is a worker? Anyone that undertakes effort that in some ways benefits other people.  There are paid workers and unpaid workers, people who work for their families and people who work for strangers, people who work as part of a community and people who work alone.  Work is not defined by a paycheck.  That’s a job. (It was the squirrel’s work to keep cats from climbing trees and getting stuck, to slow down cars, and to store acorns for the winter.)

When is a worker? One is a worker when there is commitment. Even if the current job is not part of a long term commitment, a worker makes a promise to show up and do the work at hand, whether as a paid employee, a volunteer, or a family member or caregiver. Some people not currently employed are workers in search of an opportunity, or former workers who are enabled to desist from working by retirement programs and Social Security or who had to leave the workforce because of illness or disability. But most of them see some kind of work, however limited, as part of their future. Many retirees return to work as expressive rather than a source of income, embarking on second careers, care giving, or volunteering as they search for another source of meaning and community.

How is a worker? A worker is in a good space, satisfied and fulfilled when the work is meaningful, expressive, and appreciated, when the worker looks forward to the next day’s work (or night’s) as a place to feel useful and develop and practice the skills the job requires, when there is a sense of community and common purpose..

Where is a worker? In a pandemic era, that question is harder to answer.  Workers may be working from home at least part of the time, and struggling to maintain their sense of community of a group of people with a shared mission A worker, paid or volunteer,  is often someone who goes where his or her time and skills are needed.  This Labor Day we especially need to honor the US. Military who handled the rescue work in Afghanistan and the workers and volunteers deployed for the earthquake in Haiti, the wildfires in the west, the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. As well as the health care workers hanging in through the long and challenging COVID pandemic. 

Why is a worker? All of the above!  That was the owl’s important question for the squirrel, why he gathered acorns, teased cats, and ran in front of cars. This year marks the first Labor Day in my long memory when there was a serious labor shortage, creating an opportunity for those who are mobile, fully vaccinated, and willing to try something new or explore their options.  We may work to earn a living, but the kind of work we do as  workers, owners, caregivers, and volunteers is also a source of meaning and purpose, an important locus of our networks of colleagues and friends, a chance to develop our gifts and skills and practice them, and a way to enrich the lives of others. If your work is not doing that for you, perhaps it’s time to rethink what you are doing.

Wholesale and Retail

Most of us affirm abstract virtues and values like justice, freedom, respect, hope, trust,, sutainability, and gratitude. But we often neglect to practice them in the concrete instance involving one or more particular people, places and things Our actions have to embody our abstract virtues and values in order to be a virtuous person who puts time, money, and attention into living them in daily life.

Consider the minister who loves to preach but refuses to do pastoral care. Preaching that engages both head and heart must flow from directd personal experience, and pastoral care is an important form of that learning experience, Or the teacher who lecdtures but does not engage in answerubg questions or one on one help with students who are having trouble learning. In those one-on-one sessions the student is teaching the teacher how to be more effective in guidingthe learning process and keeping students engaged. Or t he supervisor who assigns work but is quick to punish or even fire but slow to affirm or help a struggline employee. Empasthetic and respectiful support and ennouragement is not only virtuous, it is also profitable, because high employee turnover is expensive to the firm.

It is those one on one acts that embody and feed the abstract understanding of how we should be with one another. It is good to seize the moment. I was at dinner with friends the other night when we realized that the woman ast the next table did not have any cash and the restaurant did not take credit cards. We came to her rescue with a $23 loan, trusting that she woujld payus back. When she was able to access cash and came to repay us, we were rewarded with a delightful evening of conv ersationwith our new fried.

Seizing the moment is ngood, but not enough. WE need to seek the moments as well. That ;m;ay mean getting out of our comfort zone, but the rewa rds as almost always bilateral I remember volunteering to teach English as a second language to three wives of grad students, all Muslims from different countries. I learned as much as I taught about their history, theiir cultures, their hopes and dreams.

So pick a value or two today to try to practice on friends or strangers, those with reandom encounters like our restuarant friend and those you seek out intentionally. Ast the end of the day, ask yourself how you practiced justice, or trust, or respect, and how it enriched your understanding of what that virtue means in practce and how that encounter strenftgthened your commitment to being a just or trusting of resepctful person.

You and the world will be better for the effort.


Beyond Pain and Pleasure

I am an economist by profession and vocation. The discipline of economics is grounded in the assumption that people have given and stable  preferences (that would be a surprise to marketing professionals!) and individuals are in pursuit of their own self-interest guided by those preferences. That model of human nature is known as homo economicus. (economic person). Homo economicus is a self-interested, cost-benefit and pleasure/pain calculating machine that surveys the range of options and chooses the one that uses personal resources of time, money and attention to reach the greatest satisfaction with the least pain in the process.

Homo economicus does not encompass all aspects of being human. It is a subset of the larger species, homo sapiens, which literally means “wise person.”  Homo economicus seeks happiness. Homo sapiens seeks joy. Homo economicus has a job that is a means to a materialistic end. Homo sapiens has a vocation that is an end in itself.  Homo economicus is the Lone Ranger without Tonto, Robinson Crusoe without Friday. Homo sapiens values connections to others. Homo economicus is a competitor in a world of scarcity.  Homo sapiens is a collaborator in a world of abundance.

Psychologists, biologists, and behavioral economists have challenged the validity of both the self-interest assumption and the calculating skills of actual human beings. Research by psychologists and neurobiologists finds that  emotions, habits, and the influence of others play a big role in shaping values, attitudes, and choices. Their research also raises questions about the assumption that the brain is an efficient pleasure/pain calculating machine. Homo sapiens is less like a computer and more like a person that has a need to belong, to be loved, to be accepted and respected, to be useful, and to be part of a community.

I was thinking about those two views of human beings as I began reading David Brooks’ wise new book called The Second Mountain. Without using the same labels, Brooks acknowledges the integrity of both versions, but he sees them as sequential rather than as alternative ways of being. Like theologian Richard Rohr in Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, like Kohlberg with his six stages of human moral development, Brooks sees these two kinds of humans as successive stages that we can aspire to pass through, in which the first will eventually be subsumed and expanded into the second. According to Brooks, there will often (but not always )be a valley of despair, loss, and rethinking the meaning of lifebetween the two mountains there will .

It is okay to enjoy the world. It is good to improve the world.  We can do both.

What if Nobody Did It?

When I was teaching ethics and public policy, we often distilled the Kantian categorical imperative to the simple question, “What if everybody did it?” If you choose lie, cheat, steal, or do bodily harm to another person, would you be willing to let everybody do it? What kind of havoc would that wreak on our social structure? What if everybody threw litter out their car windows, or drove drink, or beat their children? That’s why we pass laws that limit our ability to do those harmful things. 

But what about the other side? What if nobody did it? What if nobody got vaccinated, wore a mask, voted in elections, paid their taxes, fed the hungry, or contributed to charity? It’s much easier to pass laws to prevent or limit bad deeds than it is to foster or require those positive actions that benefit others (as well as, often, the self). Those are more difficult to mandate, to use a term that has suddenly been on everyone’s lips recently. We do have laws about paying taxes, and non-COVID vaccine requirements to attend school. Some states, workplaces, and private organizations have mask and vaccine requirements (with limited exceptions) for customers and/or employees. Through government, we use tax money to feed the hungry and offer a tax deduction for charitable donations.  Until recently, we as a nation also actively encouraged voting, but now a fair number of states are trying to discourage it instead with voter suppression laws. (Under a newly enacted Georgia law, it is illegal to provide water to persons standing in long lines to vote.)

Ultimately, doing the right thing depends on good will, a sense of responsibility and concern for others.  Economists have borrowed an old labor union term for a “let the other guy do it” attitude. Free rider. A free rider was a worker who refused to join the union but got the benefits of its negotiations on behalf of all the workers. 

We are becoming a society of free riders. While 2020 showed an exceptional high turnout (67 percent) of voters going to the polls, the last time before 2020 with a turnout that topped 60 percent was 1968.  In between, in presidential elections, voter turnout ranged from 49 percent to 57 percent. COVID vaccinations? At this writing, 48 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, and 56 percent have had at least one shot. Charitable donations? In 2020, 73 percent of adults contributed to charity, lower than the previous low of 79 percent during the great recession. Since 2000, most other years have been in the 82-87 percent range.  What about volunteering? The percentage of adults volunteering their time was 58 percent in 2020, down from a high of 65 percent in 2013. (The adage among religious organizations is that 20 percent of the members do 80 percent of the volunteer work.)

The key word in free rider is free. In the name of personal freedom, people endanger their own health and that of others by refusing to wear a mask or be vaccinated. They limit the ability of government to help those in need by avoiding taxes and encouraging or demanding tax cuts, but don’t pick up the slack by using their time and/or money to support homeless shelters, soup kitchens, free clinics, and other services to those in need. The freedom to refuse to co-operate is apparently at the top of the list!

If nobody did it, democracy would cease to exist.  The nation could degenerate into anarchy or more likely slide into authoritarianism.  Economist Gene Steuerle has a blog called The Government We Deserve. If we as citizens want to deserve  a good government and a healthy society, we must earn it.  The opposite of free rider is all hands on deck.  What are you doing to deserve a good government and a healthy community?

Women’s Equality Day

About 10 years ago, I wrote a book called Economics Takes a Holiday. I organized my essays by month from New Year’s Day to Boxing Day. When I came to August, I was stumped. I wound up with a single essay for August, called The Month with No Holidays., which was about the lack of leisure time among American workers compared to those in other developed countries. After the book was published, I discovered my glaring omission, a holiday of great meaning to me personally as a politically engaged woman. Now I regularly celebrate August 26th, Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment ending the 72 year struggle for women’s right to vote.

Where did the story begin? There was Abigail Adams, writing to her husband John at the Constitutional Convention urging him to “remember the ladies.”There were the Grimke sisters out of South Carolina, campaigning for abolition of slavery, and when they were told they could not speak before men, they added suffrage to their causes. There was Frederick Douglass, a freed slave and eloquent speaker, who added suffrage for women to his crusade for abolition. But the pivotal event was the Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls, New York which met for three days and produced a Declaration of Women’s Rights that was modeled on the Declaration of Independence.

Women in 19th century America had few rights. They could not buy, sell or inherit property. In a divorce, the husband was entitled to the children. If she earned money, she had to turn it over to her husband. There was no recourse from physical abuse. In a criminal trial, there would be no women on the jury. Women were barred from the professions and denied access to higher education. The right to vote was seen as a significant form of protection that would change the subordination of women and grant them equality before the law.

The struggle was long and hard. Efforts were to add sex to the conditions for which the right to vote could not be abridged (fifteenth amendment), but they failed. Instead, the women’s movement, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, won small victories. Individual states, many of them in the west, grated women the right to vote–some in all elections,others only i presidential elections. By 1912, 15 states gave women the full right to vote and another 12 in presidential elections. In 2013, the National Women’s Party led by firebrand Alice Paul upped the game. They had a march on Washington. They picketed the White House and protested at the Capitol, demanding an amendment for women’s rights. Suffragists were jailed, suffered abuse in prisons and went on hunger strikes. Aware of he rising number of women who could vote (and especially after the 17th amendment called for direct popular election of senators), Congress finally passed the 19th amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.

By March 1920, a presidential election year, 35 of the reuqired 36 states had ratified the amendment. And then it stalled. The final hope was Tennessee, whose legislature was still in session in August. OnAugust 19th, ratification passed the Tennessee House (it had already passed the senate) by a single vote from a first term legislator who was urged by his mother to empower her to vote.A week later, the amendment was entered into the Constitution. That November, eight millionAmerican women went to the polls. One of them was my great-grandmother, who had participated int he 1913 Washington march.

In gratitude to our courageous, determined, and persistent foremothers, be sure toeexercise your right, privilege, and responsibility as a citizen. Be an engaed and active voter. It’s how domecraciy is supposed to work,

The Preacher and the Pragmatist

Margaret Marron writes mystery novels set in eastern North Carolina.  Her heroine is a lawyer turned judge.  Deborah Knott is a bootlegger’s daughter, the youngest and only girl in a family of boys.  Deborah is the name of one of the few female judges in the Old Testament.  In becoming a judge, Deborah was Judge Knott.  Nice pun.

These novels are not great literary fiction, but they are engaging and full of Southern character.  Faced with a difficult choice, Deborah Knott has her own version of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  She calls these two inner voices the preacher and the pragmatist. I can relate to that.  The preacher is my inner theologian, the pragmatist my inner economist. Both have something to say when it comes to making both individual and collective choices.

In the 1930s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book titled Moral Man and Immoral Society.   He wrote that each of us may listen to the preacher on our shoulder as an individual but get us together in a situation of collective decision making—otherwise known as democracy—and we tend to sink toward the lowest common denominator.  Pragmatists all, we take what we can get and settle for less than we want.  And if we aren’t good negotiators, maybe even less that we could have achieved if we had been a little more stubborn, or a little more patient.

Most of us have some firm principles that we are unwilling to compromise.  For the League of Women Voters, for example, the one no-compromise principle is nonpartisanship. It is vital to the credibility of the League in its advocacy and voter service work.

The League was born out of the struggle for women’s right to vote. Our foremothers fought for seventy-two long years for the right and privilege of voting.  All but one of the 100 signers of the 1848 Declaration of Women’s Rights were dead in 1920, and the survivor was too ill to get to the polls. But there is another part of that story that is often overlooked, a compromise that still reverberates with us today.. 

There was a deep division between the suffragists fighting for the right to vote and the National Women’s Party insisting on a broader Equal Rights Amendment that would cover the many forms of discrimination against women solely on account of their sex.  The prevailing pragmatists settled for the right to vote, figuring they could use the vote to make the other changes in divorce laws, child labor laws, access to health care, protection from domestic violence, equal pay for equal work, fair labor standards.  The ERA was introduced in the still male-dominated Congress but never made much headway. Legislators argued that they had given women the vote and what else did they want?

Finally, in 1972 at the height of the women’s movement, Congress passed the ERA and sent it to the states for ratification with a time limit of seven years, later extended to ten. (Most amendments have no time limits.) Thirty-five of the necessary 38 states ratified fairly promptly,  but only in 2019 did Virginia become the 38th, long past the deadline.  ERA is still unratified.  On the other hand, if the preachers, the idealists, the perfectionists had insisted on the ERA, might women have found ourselves with neither?  Who was right—the preacher, or the pragmatists?

Politics is about principles like justice and honesty and responsibility,  but it is also about the art of compromise, and figuring out what can garner enough support to make it into law and policy and what can’t.  That tension is evident in the federal government even at this writing with the infrastructure bill, the voting rights bill, and the proposed bill dealing with human services.  Other aspects of life have the same tension.  Between justice and mercy.   Between patience and action, present and future, bridging and belonging, aggression and affiliation. Or my favorite, which I quote often from E.B. White, between enjoying the world and improving the world.

We need both the voice of the preacher who reminds us of what is right and the words of the pragmatist who tells us what works, what can be done now, how far we can push the envelope.  May they guide our personal lives, our common life, and our politics so that we accomplish the possible in the moment while still holding fast of a shared vision of how we would like our world to be.

When Hope Is Hard to Find

Do you ever feel that your personal life is going fine, but the outside world is going to hell in a handbasket?  I was feeling that way already—climate change, COVID, political polarization and deadlock, frequent mass shootings—when I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix last night.  Along with depressing me with the presentation of the widespread addiction to exploitative and divisive social media sites, this documentary affirmed my decision almost a year ago to divorce Facebook.

As a born activist, my response was, what can I do?  And the answer is, not enough. I can make my tiny contributions to slowing climate change, but they are not enough, and it may already be too late.  I can protect myself from COVID, and encourage others to do the same, but I can’t get through the noise about the vaccine and the refusal to take responsibility that make it hard to get back to anything we would consider normal life. I am trying to engage in dialogue across boundaries, but I am not a very effective little progressive wave against a Tucker Carlson ocean.

Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy describes the merely muscular Christian as one who attempts to continuously ladle from a bowl that is never replenished. So, after watching the climate disaster play out in Germany and the Western US (in the southeast, we are enjoying an unusually mild summer), after watching The Social Dilemma and then news of shootings and political fighting, how do I refill the bowl with healthier thoughts?  

I am not a Buddhist, but Buddhism does offer good advice for hard times.  Take refuge in the sangha, which I translate as community. Family, friends, congregation, voluntary associations (the League of Women Voters at the local level, in my case).  Take refuge in the dharma (which I translate as wisdom—the teachings of faith traditions and philosophers). Take refuge in the Buddha (which I translate as the presence of the sacred, by whatever name you may call it.)  And go for long walks in the woods.

May you find ways to refill your bowl and go forth with your ladle to save the world.

Who Speaks for Me?

I am a moderate Democrat, living in South Carolina.  We don’t have party representation, so I can’t prove it, but while I find much to admire in respect in a more conservative Republican position and much to appreciate in the left wing of my own party, I know my identity.  Based on results of 2018  gubernatorial(McMaster/Smith)  and 2020 senate (Graham/Harrison) races, South Carolina is about 55 percent Republican and 45 percent Democratic, although it varies depending on the candidates and the turnout.

The state, like all states, has two senators. It has seven House representatives,  currently six Republicans and one Democrat, although we did have a brief two years of 5-2 when Democrat Joe Cunningham won an unexpected victory in 2018. If our delegation in Washington was representative of the people of South Carolina, it would consist of one senator from each party and four Republicans and three Democrats in the house.  (We did have a very long period when the state had Republican Strom Thurmond and Democrat Fritz Hollings in the Senate, but that was in the distant past.)

Ah, you think, this is a diatribe about gerrymandering. Not really.  For one thing, the Senate is immune to gerrymandering, unless you think we should also redraw state lines very 10 years based on population. The idea of one person, one vote is not well served by having equal representation in the Senate for both California and Wyoming, both Texas and Delaware.  A majority of the U.S. senators currently serving were elected by 43.5 percent of the voters. So, while I would love to see one senator from each party representing the state I adopted 55 years ago, it is not going to happen. 

I am thinking about the House.   Gerrymandering may enhance the over-representation of the majority party, but the real fly in the political ointment is the winner take all structure of electing members of Congress.  At the local level, like most of our cities, we elect a city council with staggered terms, three every two years, mayor every four years.  The elections re nonpartisan, but they could just as well be partisan.  They key is that the candidates do not represent a particular part of the city—they all run against everyone else, each voter gets to vote for three, and the top three get elected. What if we did that with Congress? After all, the member of Congress from House District Three, where I live, does not just represent the interests and concerns of the northwest corner of the state, he represents our state on national matters. What If I could vote for all seven members of Congress instead of one? My chances of getting more than one member of the U.S. House whose views were closer to my own and my fellow 45 percent of South Carolina voters would be a lot better.  And we wouldn’t have to go through redrawing Congressional district lines every ten years!

Two ideas have been floating around out there for decades and have gained some traction to address this concerns in some races, although not yet for Congress.  In a few states, notably California, they have what has been nicknamed a jungle primary with multiple candidates for, say, the state legislature.  The top two candidates then go forward to the general election. Suppose you, like me, were a moderate Democrat in a heavily Republican district. If I am sure  that a Democrat will not get to the ballot in November, I might vote for the more centrist Republican so that I am more nearly represented. Very often in districts that are strongly Republican or strongly Democratic, the resulting general election will offer a choice between  two candidates of the same party representing different wings of their party, perhaps a moderate versus a liberal Democrat or a moderate versus a conservative Republican.

Another idea that people are just waking up to is ranked choice voting, which has been used in Maine for some time.  It got a lot of attention when it was used in the New York City Democratic primary for mayor. Voters rank their choices. If no one emerges with a majority from counting just firs choice votes, the vote counters drop the lowest ranking candidate and redistribute those votes to the voters’ second choices.  And so on, until someone gains a clear majority.  No runoff, and the outcome represents  a better understanding of what voters really want. Right now, there is a push on to call a Constitutional Convention.  I am wary of that effort because the nation is deeply divided and none of us from far right to far left has any idea what might be changed. But if I could change just one thing, I would rethink the way we elect the House of Representatives to make it truly representative.

Don’t be a Lone Ranger!

Leadership in volunteer organizations has high turnover and frequent burnout.  If you are paid staff or a volunteer in a church, civic organization, or other kind of non-business organization, you need to brace yourself for that possibility, whether it is burning out yourself or failing to find, train and support new leaders.

In describing the work of corporations, economists invented a fictional character called the residual claimant.  That’s the person, or persons, who get what’s left over after the revenues roll in and the company’s suppliers and workers and banks have been paid.  That leftover is called profit—or loss.  In a for-profit company, profit or loss belongs to the residual claimant—the owners in a privately owned company, the stockholders in a publicly traded company.

In nonprofit organizations, there is no residual claimant, because presumably there is no profit.  But there is something similar.  In these organizations, people accept various responsibilities. They may sort groceries or do client intake in a food bank, coach a kids’ basketball team or take care of the grounds, edit the newsletter or make the coffee.  But there are usually some leftover responsibilities that don’t belong to anyone in particular. It may be putting the chairs back after a meeting, or welcoming visitors, but whatever the leftover chores are, they belong to the person (or people) I call the residual obligants.  In a church the residual often the minister.  In most volunteer organizations, it’s the president, or the secretary (paid or volunteer), or some of each.  Think about the times when you were the residual obligant.  How did it make you it feel? Virtuous? Resentful? You are not alone, even though you may feel that way.

The leftover tasks that don’t seem to belong to anyone are the ones that make leaders burn out. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a call that someone has droped an obligation or needed a meeting covered. I may need to find someone to drive a member somewhere or be there to sign for a package or fill in for a missing speaker/teacher/cake provider/greeter.  I recall the time that a colleague was supposed to give a speech in a distant county, and he called in sick.  The group asked if he would send the speech and they would read it.  Turned out, not to my surprise, he hadn’t written it yet, and wasn’t planning to.  It was five days before my daughter’s wedding, and her in-laws were arriving that day, holding the rehearsal dinner three days later at my house.  I hadn’t cleaned the refrigerator.  I wrote the speech, and three of my close friends cleaned the refrigerator.

One response to the challenge of unassigned duties is a common style of leadership in volunteer communities that I call the “Lone Ranger syndrome.” For women, it might be called the Supermom syndrome.  It’s easier to do it myself than to hunt down a volunteer or pester a teenage daughter. But being unwilling or unable to delegate is a form of failure in another dimension of leadership, because part of your job is to teach people (or offspring) what it means to be part of a community or a family. 

The Lone Ranger leadership styles takes various forms.  The first is the delusion of superman. The thinking process goes like this: I know better than these fools and I can set everything straight single-handedly.  Give me advice I can agree with if you want to belong to my team, which is not really a team because I get to make all the decisions and take all the credit.

The second style might be labeled helicopter mom, a term popular familiar to college faculty and staff working with young adults. It is based on fear and the need to control. Here the thought process is like this: If I really delegate, I lose control.  The person to whom I delegated may screw up and I will have to clean up the mess. So even when I delegate, I am sorely tempted to continue to oversee, second guess, and often overrule. This style relies heavily on preventing people from making mistakes, but making mistakes is actually one of the primary ways in which we learn.

The third Lone Ranger leadership style is based on an aversion to asking for help.  It’s easier to do it all myself. Watch this person burn out.  Watch this person scare off anyone else from picking up her mantle because the job looks too overwhelming.  I have operated in that style in the past, but I hope I have learned better. 

If you think I have real people in mind, you are right. And at various times in my leadership roles, I have been guilty of at least the last two. What all three have in common is that they fail to create a sense of ownership among others and develop new leadership that can pick up the ball when it’s time to move on.  All three styles are also an invitation to burnout.

A lone ranger or superman operating style fails to build and sustain the connected web of community that can prevent or mitigate future problems and crises. So lone rangers need to be appreciated for their good intentions but schooled in the ways of community, a hard task in a society that is very individualistic. Each of us needs to look at our own operating style in leadership roles or the qualities we look for in choosing leaders. We need to reflect on how our communities—families, neighborhoods, congregations, nations—can all work better if we adopt, model, teach and/or applaud a leadership style that is intentionally collaborative.

Delegation is an important form of collaboration. It’s also the best way to avoid becoming the residual obligant. Delegating doesn’t mean that you do nothing.  You are a part of a team, and everyone on the team pitches in to make things happen.  Just don’t take on more than your share of the responsibility. If the team is sponsoring an even that requires food, bring one item. When you are functioning in your president role to conduct a membership meeting or introduce a speaker, it’s someone else’s job to set up chairs, greet visitors, or make the coffee. Your job in that moment is to be the president. The next time you are tempted to say, I can take care of that—stifle yourself. Failure to delegate is a form of enabling others to shirk.  Ask someone else. Wait for the silence to get someone to step forward. Or consider whether that particular event, or action, needs to happen at all if nobody cares enough to do it. It’s a teachable moment. Make the most of it.