The First Law of Business


You know you’ve made it when a theorem or scientific law gets named after you…Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Pareto Principle, the Doppler Effect, etc. So how great must it have been to be Sir Isaac Newton? Not only did the 17th century mathematician create Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation but he is also credited with not one, not two, but three laws of motion, including the Newton’s famous Third Law: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

So now, to create my own small legacy, I humbly introduce Dupree’s First Law of Business: “For every business rule there is an equal and opposite business rule”.


Virtually every business cliché has some countervailing platitude. For every coffee mug that says A Satisfied Customer is Our #1 Goal, there is a break room poster shouting A Happy Employee is Our Top Priority. So which is it? For every pep talk on Pivoting there is another one on Staying the Course. Think Strategically says one book, It’s All in the Detail says another.  Lead, no, Serve, scream LinkedIn memes. It’s confounding. Delegate but control, scale but customize, grow quickly but build profit, move at Internet speed but don’t act too quickly.

The consequences of the First Law of Business are so befuddling, in fact, that they demand a separate proposition devoted to what it means for good management, Dupree’s Second Law: “In the absence of reliable business absolutes, the single most important professional attribute is sound judgement”.

Individuals who can evaluate competing inputs and render good, thoughtful, business decisions are simply the best colleagues. This expresses itself most powerfully when those inputs conflict or when competing options seem equally desirable. It is vital when the information is unclear or when the decision is not between good and evil but between the greater of two goods or the lesser of two (or more) evils. It is brought to bear as often in deciding on inaction as it is action. It may not be the showiest of management qualities but it is the most potent. Workers with sound judgement are like athletes who may rarely make the individual highlight reels but somehow always seem associated with championship teams.

They are not swayed by passion or the buzzwords of the day. But with the information at hand, however imperfect, they consistently make reasonable choices based on the whole picture, not merely their direct self-interest. They constantly groom their business judgement through their own experience, good and bad, as well as their keen observation of colleagues.

Of course, the First Law tends to overstate things. Customer attention is not exactly the opposite of employee focus, nor is growth inconsistent with profitability. But commercial life routinely presents business people genuine discordance in priorities which they must learn to synthesize as best as circumstances allow. It takes double helpings of both energy and brains.

Almost 80 years ago F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Today, after two world wars, multiple global financial crises, the creation of the Internet, the information age, and postmodernism, it still comes down to that.

Keep your charismatic showmen; your showy iconoclasts, your radical innovators. Give me the team of men and women who can thrive in uncertainty and still lead with sound judgement day in and day out.


Still Goodbye Football for Me


It is football season again and several folks have asked me whether I am continuing my position regarding not watching NFL games live or on television.


For those interested, here is last year’s post in which I outlined my reasons:

Were I to re-write for 2015 I don’t think I would change anything except possibly to be a little harsher on the vast corporatism represented by the National Football League. Sadly, little else has changed for the good. I also might expand my tiny boycott where it would hurt the most…not simply abstaining from viewing the games but compiling a list of all the official NFL sponsors and deliberately committing to move a meaningful portion of my own purchasing to a non-sponsoring competitor. Look out Papa John’s and Dannon. You too, Nationwide and Hyundai.

Because it is still “goodbye football” for me.

“Do not go gentle, Jimmy”

isMy first foray into door to door grassroots campaigning came in the fall of 1980 when I boarded a bus full of other students in Boston and rode to Nashua, New Hampshire to walk leafy neighborhoods on behalf of Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful presidential re-election campaign. Had I been more experienced in campaigning I might have noticed that there were far too few of us and we were far too uninspired for that point in an election year. Of course, Carter lost resoundingly to Ronald Reagan.

I suspect that historians will one day admit that Carter was neither quite as bad a president, nor Reagan quite as good, as is popularly held today, but I cannot contend that Jimmy Carter will go down as one of our great Chief Executives. The office seemed big and even in his best moments he seemed small and ill at ease in it. I have only had that feeling again once since, and that was with George W. Bush for whom the presidency always seemed like a man’s hat on a boy’s head.

No, Carter certainly wasn’t a great president. But as he announced this week, at age 90, that he has cancer, I experienced a surprising swell of admiration for him and I know why.

Jimmy Carter is a terrific retiree.

I know a little about this as I grow older myself and my professional efforts have morphed…if not into retirement, at least into something unconstrained by the conventional demands of my former corporate life. I’m moving on and as I do so several characteristics of Carter’s post-presidential career influence my own journey through the second half.

Exercise of Faith

Carter was a very public evangelical Christian as president and has been unembarrassed in suggesting that his personal spiritual convictions have shaped his views on public policy issues of all stripes. But at a time of life when many faithful are content simply to reinforce and protect our comfortable spiritual bias Carter demands that his faith and the messy world around him interact. It hasn’t always been pretty and he has created many detractors to his right and left but his faith clearly is something more than a mild palliative taken once each Sunday morning.

Intellectual Curiosity

Thinking is an adventure. There are many retirees whose world has become smaller with age but one gets the sense that Jimmy Carter’s world has continued to enlarge. Virtually every president, Democrat and Republican has been on the receiving end of Carter’s thoughtful, if unsolicited, insights whether on the War on Drugs, Guantanamo, Iraq, drone use, privacy, women’s rights, etc. and his personal involvement in the Carter Center has yielded results from North Korea to Cuba, from rigged elections to Guinea worm disease. It is an amazing testimony to mental acuity and the willingness to engage intellectually.

Breadth of Conviction

But mental acuity and strong opinions alone can simply produce curmudgeons and they just annoy rather than inspire. What generates affection for Carter is not the depth of his convictions but rather their breadth, by which I mean that his passion for purpose manifests itself across a broad range of activity and isn’t restricted to what is seemly and elevated.

If most Americans are asked to describe Carter’s post-presidential life, they likely remember him in a denim shirt with a hammer at some Habitat for Humanity construction site. While many celebrities restrict their good works to appearances at tony fund-raisers, Carter got dirty and modeled to America that sometimes as citizens it is simply about showing up on a volunteer workday.

It is a powerful image that speaks to us all. I may well not found a world-renowned peace center or win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I can lift a hammer or mow some grass…just like the President. For the things that make him a beloved ex-president are precisely those things that are accessible to all the rest of us semi-retirees: making the small efforts purely for the benefit of someone else.

So good for you, President Carter. I am glad I was there back in 1980. I hope you recover and on behalf of all of us semi-retirees, please keep it up.

            Do not go gentle into that good night

            Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

            Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Burn and rave, Jimmy, burn and rave.

The Three Secret Words


Having been married for well over thirty years I sometimes get asked what accounts for the longevity of a relationship. Of course there are so many factors that it is impossible to highlight any one or two things that insure matrimonial happiness. But I often use the opportunity to give people the three simple “secret words” which, if said often, with sincerity, while gazing into your spouse’s eyes, will 100% guarantee a long and loving marriage. The three words?

“I’m paying attention.”

Okay, one of the words is a contraction.

The point is that my wife knows I love her but what she doesn’t know is whether, at any given moment, I am actually paying attention to her. How, you might ask, could you ever be inattentive to someone you truly loved? I honestly don’t know but it happens, trust me.

And if it happens in your most intimate human relationship, it is likely common in interaction with schoolmates, friendships, work colleagues and other associates. In a world of relentless multi-tasking and uninterrupted connectivity to electronic media, the temptation to tune people out, to half-engage, is constant. But precisely because of that, we also have the opportunity to profoundly impress, because simply being mindful of others and truly present when interacting sends a message of respect which, over time, generates regard, even affection.  Because of our distraction-infested environment, even small investments of undivided attention yield huge returns.

Decades ago corporate bureaucracy, simple scale, and process-obsession were commonly blamed for workplace disaffection. Now, that sense of irrelevance has been democratized by inattentiveness in individual relationship. If you are a manager, a team leader, a member of a family, you know this. We declare our intentions to that colleague, friend or even spouse (“to love and to cherish, til death do us part”) and then we demean that intention by taking that call in the middle of a conversation, or constantly peeking over a shoulder to see who else has entered the room, or carrying on a conversation while looking at the computer screen.

I know because I’m the worst.

While most of us recognize this in ourselves, who among us is going to go cold turkey on our multi-tasking? It is simply unrealistic. But we do not have to toss away our cellphone or embark on a wholesale denial of distraction in order to make a change. Rather we simply commit to finding steadily increasing opportunities to surrender a potential distraction in service of a higher good, whether it’s turning your cellphone off during an important meeting, turning away from the computer screen to talk to a child, whatever. The discipline of attentiveness is not forfeiting distractions altogether; but it is conscientiously accumulating opportunities to narrow your field of attention if only for a limited amount of time. Even that is a challenge, but it helps to find somewhere to start.

Many years ago I had a much taller mentor. I used to think that part of my admiration for him was associated with his stature, but as I think back I realize that it wasn’t that at all. What affected me about him was not the fact that he was so tall, but that, because of his height, whenever he spoke he would very slightly incline toward me. In that little move I was made aware, if only subconsciously, that I was the recipient of a great voluntary gift: his undivided attention. Parents of small children do the same thing instinctively.

So try this very small little exercise: whenever you are standing around having a conversation with a family member, friend or co-worker, particularly if it is in a crowded room or another place where potential distractions exist, lean toward them ever so slightly, almost as if you were attempting to hear better. A very small change in body posture alerts you that your intention is to focus solely on the person with whom you are speaking, and doing so faintly reduces your field of peripheral vision which also reinforces to your brain that this interaction is an important one.

Over time those with whom you relate will get the sense that they always have your undivided attention, something increasingly rare in their daily experiences. And for you, this little practice also becomes a reminder to find opportunities to build a discipline of attentiveness in other parts of your life as well.

But don’t get creepy and invade your companion’s personal space. The posture change should be very small, natural, and almost unnoticeable. After all, it is not some grand gesture meant to persuade your companion that you are paying attention.

It’s a small gesture meant to persuade yourself.

The Commons Problem (or the Real Case For Culture)

08vespaEveryone likes the guy who figures out how to get things done: the fixers, the innovators, the Radar O’Reilly’s who develop the informal network of favors to cut through the bureaucratic silos and “make things happen”. When I was running a large sales organization I had plenty of those folks and they were often my most successful producers. They had figured out how to grease the system, who to call for an expedited approval, how to divert disproportionate corporate resources toward their pet accounts. By way of full disclosure, as a young salesperson I was probably one of those people myself.

I admired those teammates but to be honest, they scared me as well because I could not shake the thought that if everyone behaved in that same way, the company would inevitably collapse into chaos. The license to self-organize, to collaborate across boundaries and to innovate processes depends on a tight alignment between the self-interests of the individuals and the goals of the organization to which they belonged. We often take that alignment for granted but I knew full well that was a mistake to do so.

In 1833 William Forster Lloyd, an English economist, wrote a paper in which he described the behavior of herders who are all grazing their cattle on the same parcel of common land. An individual herder could make the independent decision that it is in his self-interest to add cattle to his grazing herd even though it would contribute to the quicker depletion of the commons grasses. He makes that choice rationally since the short-term benefit of his additional animal accrued to him alone while the negative long-term impact on the commons was shared across the entire group.

But if all the herders were independently making the same rational self-interested decision regarding individual gain and collectivized loss, then the commons would deteriorate at a far faster rate and everyone would suffer. This metaphor has come to be known as the “tragedy of the commons” and was later popularized in 1968 in an article by Gareth Hardin which set off a decades-long debate on exactly what this meant for ecology, population, pollution, political philosophy, social welfare, sustainability and on and on.

The “commons problem” is one of our most profound challenges for businesses, indeed all organizations. We want people who figure out better ways to do things, not simply people who do more of the same thing. Yet when self-interest is the compelling motivation those successes may simply reflect cutting corners which create more work for others, or engaging too many resources thereby depriving them from their peers. Their short term individual motivation may stunt rather than enhance the ability of the organization itself to grow. Modern collaboration tools may indeed allow new interactions among colleagues but if those interactions merely quicken the ability to exploit self-interested behavior, we haven’t really done much good.

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” Hardin suggested. In modern business terms we might replace “freedom” with collaboration, delegation, innovation or any number of buzzwords to describe colleagues solving problems in more kinetic, boundary-busting ways. And for those of us raised on the extrapolations of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, the idea that self-interested motivation could be anything but good is disquieting. But every sales leader knows the salesman who would enthusiastically sacrifice company profit if it helped him overachieve his personal sales quota. Most managers have encountered score-carding problems where cross-divisional programs benefiting the entire organization would be rejected solely because individual executives could not agree on which departments would get to report the financial gain, a perverse restatement of the commons problem in which executives may rationally choose not to engage in the common good unless it maximizes his or her short term position.

A sea of thinkers since Hardin’s article have suggested numerous ways to minimize the impact of the commons problem. Hardin’s own conclusion was simply either regulating commons land or privatizing them altogether. However, within business organizations we have a secret weapon: our corporate culture.

Too often a company culture initiative is a managerial afterthought or an ineptly executed HR distraction. When it is managed poorly it is fair game to be ridiculed and derided. But our delight in pointing out poor execution should not trick us into dismissing the need for culture itself. A healthy common culture is the greatest tonic to unreserved self-interest. The governor against poor individual decision-making is the shared sense of belonging to a bigger enterprise with shared goals and long term values. Aligning the interests of the individual as tightly, passionately and genuinely to the interests of the firm is both the essential ingredient to real innovation and the preeminent responsibility of corporate culture.

How nice it would be if organizations adapted as fluidly and gracefully as the murmuration of a flock of starlings but that just doesn’t naturally happen. We require innovators at all levels pushing the boundaries of our bureaucracies and discovering quicker and better ways of doing things. But they must do so on behalf of the common welfare not just their own. Company cultures are built precisely to remind individual innovators of the corporate community to which they belong, and to provide the sure footing from which to channel their energies toward the common aspirations of the organization.

In an age where working across corporate silos is all the rage, don’t be fooled: the true leader’s job is not to knock down walls but rather to pour firm foundations.

Book and Poem


This week I finished one of the most arresting books I have read in some time, A New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s meticulously researched indictment of the racial caste system created in America as a result of the law enforcement, prosecutorial and sentencing changes brought about by the War on Drugs. I felt angry and ashamed that, as a citizen and voter, all this had happened during my watch. Ferguson, Staten Island and North Charleston surprise me now not so much at the violence and anger, but rather at the level of restraint shown by communities of color who have been so profoundly and systematically alienated from society and civil protections.

It was with this peculiar perspective that I recently reread an old favorite poem from William Butler Yeats. Written in 1918, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is a tribute to Major Robert Gregory, an Irish aviator shot down while fighting alongside the United Kingdom even as Ireland was attempting to wrest its own independence from England. It is a brief, first-person reflection on the surprising motivations of an Irish airman as he faces certain death. It is not love of country, nor duty, nor personal gain, nor glory that drives him; he does not hate his enemy, he suspects the conflict he is a part of is essentially futile in any case. It is only a “lonely impulse of delight” that sends him skyward. He has done the math and nothing he has experienced or will experience, is worth altering his course.

Any Irishman who fought alongside the English in World War I was considered a traitor to Irish republicanism. To defend the brutal English institutions that kept Ireland in subjugation was inexcusable to nationalists. Thus the perspective of the poem’s Irish narrator is all the more highly charged, so much so that Yeats waited until 1920 to publish it in consideration of its political implications.

But now, as I reread it fresh from finishing Michelle Alexander’s powerful critique, I no longer hear in it the voice of a 20th century Irish airman fighting someone else’s war, but instead that of a 21st century African American police officer guarding someone else’s peace. Choosing to serve and protect the public, he guards those very institutions that produce the disaffected classes who no longer believe that citizenship extends to them.

The poem is a statement of profit and loss, weighing continued life against imminent death and choosing death. Like so many others I had been preoccupied with comprehending the narrator’s “lonely impulse of delight” when I first read the poem several years ago. What could draw one so powerfully to his own destruction? But perhaps the key to the poem is understanding instead what has made the accounting of a man’s past and future so cheap. It has all of the sudden become to me a profoundly sad poem, an upsetting one. Society endangers itself when entire classes of citizens do their own accounting and reason that there is little to live for, that circumstances will never change, and that the deck is too rigidly stacked against them.

In our history there have been those times in which the fraying of the social fabric has been enough to bring about reform and renewal. Let’s hope that this election cycle brings these big hard issues to public attention. For until we create a grassroots affection for real justice, we should not wonder at those for whom citizenship, the social order, possibly even life itself, are merely a “waste of breath”.

The poem:

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

A Business Skill For Politicians

good_sorting (2) Years ago in Mississippi where I grew up, I heard a story about the backwoods fellow who had just been hired at his local post office. His first day on the job the postmaster saw the man sorting letters and parcels into alphabetical slots at blistering speed. As the postmaster watched the mail seemed to fly from his new employee’s hands. Amazed, the boss complimented the worker on his remarkable sorting prowess.

“You think I’m fast now,” the bumpkin cheerfully replied, “just wait until I learn to read!”

It’s an old joke, of course, but there is a tinge of reality in it. It is easy to be fast and decisive if you do not have to balance it with accuracy. And it reminds me of what I wish my politicians would learn from business people.

I do not think corporate executives automatically make good politicians. In fact, when I hear corporate leaders promote their business experience as they campaign for political office, I am skeptical. Running a government is quite different from running a company or deploying a product. In a business a good manager constantly redeploys resources from under-performing assets and moves them to higher return activities; they target the most efficient processes and most profitable customers. In a modern democracy, however, we expect the government to attempt to provide a basic set of rights and services to every citizen, something that is difficult, inefficient, and expensive, but fundamental to our social contract.

Yet commercial experience does promote one skill policymakers from both parties desperately require: the ability to understand and balance competing principles and facts. Each time a price is lowered a businessperson makes a calculation that he can acquire enough new customers to offset the loss of profit from the unit price reduction. He asks the question, what am I putting at risk with this price action and is it wise? Whenever a businessperson invests in a new product or service she balances the potential return on that investment against other opportunities which remain unfunded because of it. She asks, what am I putting at risk in making this investment and is it wise? Business people learn to balance the real world priorities of shareholders, employees and customers, recognizing that each affects the others.

In contrast we too often hear politicians venerate their principles as if they are religious absolutes existing independent of worldly contamination or contradiction. Principles should mark the beginning, not the end of debate and should never be used to justify concluding consideration when their proper role is to enable it in the first place. In reality political values are a set of propositions that help us work through the grubby process of governance and citizenship. Often those propositions compete: security vs. liberty, personal freedom vs. common good, justice vs. mercy, market forces vs. regulatory oversight, and so on.

These principles are not necessarily contradictions, but they are contestants for citizen attention at every given decision. It is not up to government to resolve them but rather to balance them over time and trust that successor generations will attend to the same. It is why we need leaders who are thoughtful and willing to compromise. In fact, it is why we need flesh and blood representatives at all: not because new problems keep popping up but because old problems are never truly solved, they are merely recalibrated to the demands of the current age. Every businessperson learns this; few politicians appear to have.

To the extent that a politician hides behind principle to forego real debate and genuine consideration of opposing views, we become, in Whitman’s words “large masses of men following the lead of those who do not believe in men.” For to eschew compromise solely on the basis of principle alone is not to trust the judgment of men to think, to consider, and to balance the competing imperatives of their age.

When I watch witless candidates today grinning at the ovation from some hackneyed applause line I often think back to that postmaster bumpkin of the old joke. I half imagine the politician to grin, raise his hands and shout to the crowd, “you think I’m a policy-maker now, just wait until I learn to think!”

Lose It To Use It

Empty-Giants-Stadium-New-Jersey Last August I wrote a blog post in which I declared I was embarking on a tiny one man boycott of professional football for the upcoming season ( My reasons for doing so seem almost quaint now given the parade of bad news and missteps that have continued to define the NFL’s football-industrial complex in subsequent months. My boycott took the form of a simple pledge not to watch any professional games this last season, live or on television, including those of my beloved Cowboys who made my pledge slightly more sacrificial by having a wonderful season in my absence.

Since then I have answered many questions about my little act of defiance. Some revolve around the boycott itself. Did I see it through? (Yes) Was it hard? (No) Did I miss football much? (Not really) The effort itself was about what I expected. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the surprisingly congenial set of ancillary personal benefits I experienced. I discovered what those who practice austerity have known for ages: value accrues when we intentionally change our routine and deprive ourselves.

This week is the beginning of the Lenten season of self-denial. For those who adhere to Christianity or, for that matter, any number of faith and ascetic traditions, abstinence, fasting, and austerity have long been powerful aids to the penitence, prayer and self-examination critical in the nurture of spiritual discipline. But for all of us, even for those who are secular, not spiritual, pilgrims there are less hallowed but still very important lessons in depriving ourselves every so often.

At best diminishing old distractions (like Sunday afternoon football) can make space for more important life passions or at least for the excitement of fresh new distractions. Investing a few found hours in something or someone is a profound statement.  We may find that making even minor changes in our routine generates an intentionality that is infectious. Mindfully considering deselection of one activity brings a healthy new willingness to consider lots of other things you do. Of course some intentionality, particularly in self-denial, can slip into an unhealthy obsession if our goal is to exert complete control of circumstance. But most of us suffer from a different ailment: we wonder if we can have any lasting direction at all in our jobs, families, communities. We need a reminder that though control may be out of our reach, influence is not, and one way to practice influence is to deliberately change small routines, reinvest bits of time and remain sensitive to the lessons we learn.

One of the comments I heard often during the season was that my boycott was hypocritical. I had stated that though I would refrain from watching professional games, I made exception for the Super Bowl and would continue to follow the season, even avidly, through sports news. For some this was a symbol of moral inconsistency; if I was going cold turkey on football it should be all football: games, reporting video clips, whatever. And certainly no Super Bowl.

While there are absolute moral positions (I don’t aspire to murder less, I aspire not to murder at all), I expect that in practice quite a larger number may be of degree. I cannot easily use no energy or non-renewable packaging or processed sugar but over the years I have pledged to use less and I (and the planet) have benefited as a result. For some moral crusades purity is demanded, but for many others, the first step needs to be just that, a first step. If we all want to save the planet we are not required to consume nothing, we simply all consume less.

How often in my own life is nothing at all attempted because everything cannot be accomplished? I don’t believe that the NFL is very worried about my little act of defiance. Perhaps they should be. Maybe next year I will pick 5 NFL sponsors and deliberately purchase their competitors’ products. And maybe ten or ten thousand or ten million others will do the same. But what I learned last season was that the very act of deliberate change in my routine was in and of itself a potent exercise for my life.

So go do something different.


Find something to change in your routine; an activity or circumstance to adjust for a defined period of time. Perhaps you give up vending machine snacks, or designer coffee for a month and give the savings to a local food bank or take your spouse or significant other out to a special meal with the proceeds. You decide.

Coworkers or Friends? 4 Criteria

the-office-entire-castYou and your coworkers are sitting in some bar in a business hotel in Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Chicago, unwinding after a long day of activities. As you find yourself enjoying the easy ambience, inside jokes, and shared experiences built up through the years you realize that you much prefer sitting here with them than watching Monday Night Football alone up in your room. Then the question hits you.

Are these my coworkers or my friends?

The conventional notion is that there are healthy boundaries between work, home and social life. The fear of spending too much time at work so makes some of us uncomfortable even speaking of work friendships as if it underscores our lack of personal balance. So, do coworkers only become friends if I choose to engage with them outside of a work setting? Should I feel guilty having relationships not shared by my spouse or the rest of my family? As men and women become broadly accepted as workplace peers can the emotional complications of a “work wife” or “work husband” be managed with teammates of the opposite sex?

And really, aren’t most of my coworkers just that…coworkers? Sure, but some work relationships will rise to such a level of familiarity as to demand a more thoughtful place within our emotional furnishings. How do you know which ones? As I think back on the colleagues that have built themselves into my life four recurring features come to mind:

Wishes you well for your sake

Many individuals may wish you well but, to borrow from Aristotle, the real friend is the person that “when he wishes a person good, wishes it for that person’s own sake.” A colleague is interested in my well-being not for whatever good it might do for him or the firm, but simply because he wants the best for me. The rules of fiduciary responsibility are not waived among colleagues. They must be hired, promoted, terminated, managed and followed as circumstances require, just like any other individual. But the true colleague exerts the effort to mind the inevitable tensions responsibly on behalf of both the firm and the friend’s well-being.

Takes you seriously

My work-friends respect me both as a professional and as a person. That means my contributions and opinions are appreciated but not patronized. Colleagues can and do disagree. After all, the old maxim is largely true, if two business people always agree one of them is unnecessary. But my perspective is requested, evaluated, supported when deserving and rejected when not. Mark Twain joked “the proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right.”

Not colleagues. Since they truly wish me well they both compliment and correct, encourage and dissuade as business reality demands. But all is done with an eye to building me up.

Is honest, but not necessarily blunt

We must always count on workplace honesty, but a work-friend will add to truth-telling a sense of candor and timing. A colleague never tells us an untruth, but neither does she feel obligated to tell us every true thing she thinks at the moment she thinks it. However valuable a golf tip, few of us would want it shouted out during our backswing. So it is with work colleagues who, by virtue of the fact that they spend so much time with us, can engage the right moments for the right discussions.

My son is a poet and he describes workshops in which new poems are shared among other writers. The first reading is always done by someone other than the author of the poem. It allows the poet to hear his work presented back to him in someone else’s voice. It is a beautiful description of the work of a colleague. He takes your own story and speaks it back to you at the time when you are ready and able to hear and discern it. Because he is your colleague he, better than anyone, knows when those moments are likely to present themselves.

Enjoys company, respects boundaries

Work-friendships are usually bounded by the workday at the office, factory, or shop. It makes being colleagues complicated and hard because those boundaries are real and important to home and family life. Work-friendships should be celebrated but never to the point that they diminish family relationships and responsibilities. Workplace friendships are also naturally burdened by organizational hierarchy, company fiduciary responsibility or departmental boxes which must be respected. It is not surprising, then, that among our many co-workers only a few rise to true work-friends.

But arrayed against those complications is the powerful fuel of shared experience. Business teammates often speak of having “been in the trenches” with each other and while it is trite to compare work with combat, the battle tempering of friendships is real. Some of the most powerful words spoken into my life have been from colleagues, and those words came out of an abiding affection for me built from common purpose. How sad if I had avoided, rather than pursued those work relationships.

It is this very peculiar nature of work friendships that should make them important and intentional. But most of all, the potential power of work-friendships should also cause us to communicate them to our spouse and family so that in our transparency we can reduce the mystery of the office and connect the emotional dots in a way that helps us all understand and enjoy each other.


Write down the names of the first two or three people that come to mind when you think about “work-friendships”. Then run through the four criteria and see how many fit. Are there other characteristics of a work-friend you would add to the list?

Does your spouse or significant other know the names of your work-friends and the important role they play in your life? If not, why?

Marfa Lights

marfa lightsmarfa lights viewing area

About 20 miles outside the small far west Texas town of Alpine there is the even smaller town of Marfa, Texas. For a place of roughly two thousand residents, Marfa has much with which to recommend itself: it’s the Presidio County seat; notable movies such as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood have been made in and around Marfa; in the old Hotel Paisano you can still see where Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor stayed during the 1956 filming of Giant. Donald Judd, the great minimalist artist moved to Marfa from New York City in 1971 and the Chinati Foundation still oversees its expansive local collection of works from Judd and his contemporaries.

All well and good. But to most people Marfa is best known for one thing and one thing only: the mysterious Marfa Lights.

For over a hundred years local residents have claimed on clear evenings to see shimmering balls of light on the distant desert horizon southeast of town, flickering, darting, floating, sometime splitting into twos and threes. The lights are unpredictable but persistent and have become such a tourist attraction that Presidio County has shrewdly built the Marfa Lights View Park, a modern viewing pavilion on the highway nine miles outside of town.

Late one recent frosty evening at that very View Park my family and I peered into the desert in search of the mystery. Sure enough, out in the distance: a single orange pinpoint of light.

“There! It moved. Did you see it?”

Several were certain that the light was moving from side to side but in the largely moonless night it was impossible to determine any reference point in the distant darkness with which to confirm it. I chose skepticism instead, partially just to be contrary but also the glowing dot appeared to me more like the fixed porch light from some far remote ranch house.

But as the believers in the group expressed their conviction with more and more excitement I gradually began to think I saw some movement as well. Having come many miles into the middle of nowhere and several hours toward the middle of the night, I felt a genuine longing to forfeit my incredulity and experience the fabled Marfa Lights.

In the end I can’t be certain what it is I saw. I still think it was an isolated porch light in the vastness of the desert dark. Any perceived movement was likely just the result of collective confirmation bias brought on by a suggestively placed “viewing station”. But I do know this, there was something exciting and special to be all together as a family in that place peering into the black and encouraging each other to see something mysterious, unexplained and a little scary.

It is no great thing, of course, to see what you’ve been encouraged by others to see. We often count that as a vice not a virtue. But if there is a time when it is acceptable, then it is surely at the passing into a New Year. Marfa reminded me that it invigorates and ennobles us to stand together staring into the unknown and New Year’s Day is our annual “viewing station”. Each January 1 just for a moment we allow ourselves to gaze into the darkness of a yet unlit pathway with family, friends and colleagues, expectant and wondering together what awaits its traversing.

Maybe I saw the Marfa Lights and maybe I didn’t. All I know is that I was nourished by the shared experience with the people I love. As we navigate 2015 here’s hoping that we all have occasional roadside viewing stations within which to wonder and hope. It is how we move forward.

Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe.