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"Rules for Radicals": Getting to the Root of Relationship Challenges

Too often in our society a popular word takes on a different meaning than its original. This fate has befallen the word "radical."

Not long ago, radical--or "rad"-- had the connotation of being "way out there." More recently, it seems the word has been taken over by a faction with an agenda. Radical has become synonymous with "extreme," and people with “extreme views” are now called extremists.

But the original and preferred definition of “radical” has nothing to do with extremism.

“Radical,” which shares its origin with “radish,” means “at the root.”

Let's use "radical" in various scenarios to distinguish the “extremist” meaning from the “at the root” meaning.

Extremist: “Peter and Tracy believe spanking children is too radical, and unnecessary.”

Root: “Understanding the origin of Betsy’s migraines would require a radical investigation spanning medicine and family emotional patterns.”

Extremist: “She’s a left-wing radical, a real nut case!”

Root: “The new CEO wasn’t interested in cosmetic changes. She sought a radical culture change that would restore the confidence of long-time customers.”

Extremist: “The commencement speaker was disinvited because of her radical views.”

Root: “The commencement speaker’s radical solutions reflected deeper thinking, not just strong opinions.”

A true radical is one who seeks to get to the root of something.

If you are a leader who wants to get to the root of what’s really going on in your organization or family, if you are more concerned with long-term than short-term impacts, if you are suspicious of the comfortable tendency to treat symptoms instead of root problems, if you have a greater desire for seeking common ground than for drawing a line in the sand, then you are already thinking like a radical leader.

It might be uncomfortable for you to think of yourself as radical. But stay with it for a moment.

By seeing yourself as a radical leader, you would be acknowledging that superficial solutions and extreme pronouncements don’t really work. You might devise your course of action: to acknowledge the complexity of life, to reflect more on your own deepest beliefs and wants, and work to reduce emotional reactions and simplistic views.

Why would you do this?

Because the extremism we see in our families, businesses, culture and politics bears little resemblance to radical truth-seeking. Both the far left and the far right show a persistent disregard for facts and deep understanding. The bias of, “I’m right” prevents getting to the root of any problem or challenge I can think of. Can we as leaders do any better?

To be an authentic radical means to ask, “What’s really going on here?”

It means to come slowly to any judgments, and to apply robust curiosity, investigation and discernment before conclusions are reached.

For genuine radicals – the kinds of individuals who instigate meaningful changes in systems – their humility sets them apart. They know they could be mistaken or biased at any point, so they stay open to the views and ideas of others.

For example, history has shown that Abraham Lincoln functioned as a true radical. The tough issues of his presidency - slavery, the Civil War, the threat of secession of states from the Union - stimulated widespread extremism, not unlike the fiery issues of our own time.

Lincoln’s response involved a radical commitment to connection and calmness, and a reliance on careful reasoning that countered the extremism of his day. This inspiring radical became perhaps the most admirable of all U.S. presidents.

But he didn’t have an easy time of it. Lincoln’s radical leadership triggered loud and angry reactions. No matter the time in history, reasonable compromise infuriates the unreasonable.

If you want to be a radical leader – getting to the root of what is really going on in the world, your marriage, your family or your organization - you might find it helpful to develop some guidelines for radically understanding and managing relationship challenges.

I’ve developed my own, which I’m calling “Rules for Radicals," and I offer four of them here in the hope that they can help you get started. I’ll share six more in next month’s blog.

1. The clearer I am about myself, the less I will be defined by other’s needs, wants and expectations.

Only a radical commitment to self-honesty can put me in the driver’s seat of my own life. Ironically, I rely on the company and insights of others to assist my clarity. For example, I develop connections with family members, and friendships that feature deeper questions and more personal discussions. Those kinds of conversations help me think more broadly and reach greater clarity.

2. The harder I try to change others, the more the others will resist the change.

I notice myself wanting others to change. That never seems to work. A more radical approach would be to examine the worry, insecurity and fear that propels my focus on others. What’s that all about? What would it look like if I reflected more on how I respond to being disappointed, rather than over-focusing on the disappointments per se?

3. The more intensely I pursue another, the more intensely the other distances.

My pursuit begins when I want something from another: appreciation, approval, attention, a final decision. I start tracking and chasing. The other responds by running, avoiding me, seeking out someone else. I despise their distancing, unable to see that my pursuit keeps this dance in motion. A more radical decision might be to “state and wait.” That is: clearly communicate what I expect and want, then stay poised and patient. See what happens.

4. The greater the blame, the less the self-responsibility.

Blame is the behavioral opposite of responsibility. This is difficult for me to admit because, in my eyes, I am justified about my blame! Yet whenever I am blaming another or myself, I am not taking responsibility for what I can do about the issue or problem at hand. An important dimension of responsibility is the willingness to see my part in anything that bothers me.

In any of these four relationship patterns, I might find that I am on one side or another. Am I taking a good, honest look to see my part? Am I being asked to change, or am I demanding change of others? Am I the pursuer or the distancer? Do I blame or am I the one being blamed?

This purposeful examination of how we handle relationship challenges puts us on the path to radical leadership.

I’ll fill in more of my Rules for Radicals next month.

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