Executive Perspective

Daily Blessings

by Paul D. Houston

A few months ago I saw a homeless person by the side of the road holding a sign with an unexpected message. Instead of the usual phrases, “Will work for food” or “Stranded, please help,” his sign read simply, “Blessings anyway.” His message caught me short because given his personal situation I did not expect him to be offering blessings.

This encounter started me thinking that often our lives are blessed in strange and unexpected ways. Sometimes the darkest moments in our lives hold unexpected blessings because they offer us the opportunity to peer from the shadows that surround us and reveal to us the brightness we are granted so much of the rest of the time. That homeless person’s sign was a reminder to those who saw it that, no matter how desperate his own situation, he could be a source of blessing to others. Could we do less ourselves?

Shortly after that incident, Jean Reid, the wife of C.J. Reid, who is one of our senior managers at AASA, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Her death hit all who knew her and C.J. with the force of losing one of our own close relatives. Part of the loss was due to her unique personality. All of us who met Jean felt as if we had known her our whole lives. Her personality and life force were so strong, she blew into our lives like a benevolent hurricane and our landscape was permanently altered by her presence. Her laugh was contagious and she saw humor and humanity in everything around her.

Story Sharing
As we sat at her memorial service on a magnificent spring afternoon in Alexandria, Va., I kept thinking of a line from a James Taylor song, “So the sun shines on this funeral, just the same as on a birth, the way it shines on everything that happens here on earth.” This was reinforced by the fact we were sitting as an AASA family and two of our staffers were moving toward the upcoming births of their first children. There we were, book-ended by the complete circle of life—birth and death. While each is a dramatic milestone, they mark but two days in the thousands we are given. Each is out of our control—birth determined by our parents and death by cosmic circumstances.

It is all the days between that we have responsibility over. The question becomes how we choose to live them. During the memorial service, those offering Jean’s eulogy observed that, at her core, she was a storyteller and that you couldn’t be around her without her telling stories, even if it only involved a recent trip to the supermarket. They went on to observe that storytellers don’t live lives that are more interesting lives—they live lives that are “wide awake.” Storytellers have to be present in the moment for it is only then that they can observe life as an unfolding story that bears repeating. And in the repeating they are living lives of celebration because they are able to celebrate all that seems so ordinary but yet is quite extraordinary.

I often have advocated that leaders must learn to be storytellers. For in telling stories one can connect to the core humanity of others and make life accessible. It presents your humanity to the humanity of those you need to influence and connects you to their essence in the only way that counts—soul to soul.

But as I heard Jean eulogized, it seemed I had been missing the point all these years. It is not the stories that make the connection, it is the being present that makes one a leader of others. The great irony of the work of leadership is that so much of it seems to be centered in the past—building on what has been or correcting past problems or in the preparation for the future and for building that which is not already created. Yet the real work of leadership occurs in the space between yesterday and tomorrow—the present.

Connecting Humanity
I am reminded of the observation I once heard that “yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not arrived; all we have is today and that’s why we call it the present.” The reality is that each day we have is a present that allows us to connect to our humanity and to the humanity of those around us. Leadership is not about bottom lines, test scores, buildings built, people hired or fired or the thousand other things that take up our time.

Leadership is about our ability to make a connection to another person. And we do that by staying in touch with our own humanity and with our own awareness of our fragile place on this earth. It is good that we not get too caught up in our own significance because whatever significance we have comes from the connections we create rather than from the positions we hold.

Being in the moment, staying centered—being present is the best present we could give ourselves in this or any holiday season. Being present allows us to pay attention, to see the little signs by the side of the road that remind us that regardless of where we are or who we are or what we are facing, our duty as humans and as leaders is to offer blessings to others.

The meaning of blessings can range from giving permission to pieces of good fortune and miracles. My friend Bill Milliken, when leaving the company of others, always says “Blessings.” Now I know why. He is giving the most important gift one can offer another. In fact, it is the role of leaders to bestow their blessings on others by granting permission for people to become what they can and by doing so to allow miracles to happen. Even on those days we may wish we had stayed in bed, it is good to know our presence can offer blessings anyway.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org