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Opportunity, Obligation & Innocent Wonderment: Thinking About Social Justice

July 28, 2017



I view my life through the lens of two words: Opportunity. And obligation.

After nearly a half century of life, almost 30 years in my career, 22 years running my own business, 21 years as a husband, 19 years as a father, 18 years immersed in the Central Florida community – those two words are my North Star.

Opportunity. Obligation.

Opportunity is the easier of the two words.

I ask myself constantly, in my world, my life, my realm, what opportunities are available to me?

I’m searching and hoping for opportunities to better understand myself, to better understand my world, and to better understand the human condition.

I’m eagerly seeking opportunities for adventure and discovery of all kinds. I crave opportunities to inspire and influence others. And ultimately, I’m hoping for an opportunity to leave a legacy.

I’m fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity to do what I think are some pretty cool things. I’ve run across both the Grand Canyon and the state of Florida, two amazing adventures and unforgettable experiences that tested me physically and mentally.

Speaking of being tested mentally and physically… as the father of three teenagers, I’ve had adventures of a different sort … those I will not be sharing with you today.

But, being a parent means having the opportunity to share my ideas with my kids, It means the opportunity to see today’s world through their eyes, enlightening indeed. It also means the opportunity to set an example and impart my values. Occasionally, I even catch them listening.

As a business owner, I have the opportunity to inspire my team members through my words and actions, through the energy that I bring to my work, and through the values that I, and we, stand for.

I have the opportunity to help the people who come into my office every day to grow and thrive individually, And collectively, we have the opportunity to use our talents to do good not just for our bottom line, but for our community, too.

Through my volunteer positions in the community, I am honored to have the opportunity to champion important issues, and to use my voice to speak out for those in need.

These are opportunities available every day. But it’s a conscious, daily decision whether and how to take advantage of them.

Or to ignore them completely.

After all, making the most of these opportunities takes effort. And some days I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m burned out. Maybe some of you high achievers can relate.

But what I’ve found is that opportunity has its own inertia. When you recognize the opportunities available, when you get in the habit of exploring those opportunities regularly – they just keep coming to you.

For example, when Mark Brewer calls and asks if you want to share some ideas with the staff and board of the Central Florida Foundation, well that’s one hell of an opportunity.



Obligation is trickier. It’s not always a black or white, yes or no proposition. What is my actual obligation to the people who work for me? What is my actual obligation to our community? What is my actual obligation to this world? I’m only here temporarily, so why do I care? I’m only one person, so what can I do? I have a lot on my plate, so why should I try?

But if I believe that I have obligations in this world – call them moral obligations if you want – then I have to ask the hard questions:

What are my values?

What does right, fairness and justice mean to me ?

What are my unbreakable promises?

What are my non-negotiables?

Some I have a pretty good handle on:I have an obligation to treat everyone with respect, an obligation to use my limited time on earth for good, an obligation to invest my time and my talents for the betterment of others.

Some I struggle with: I believe I have an obligation to help people in need, but there are so many people and so many needs. who am I obliged to help? What am I obliged to do?

Like I said, this is the harder of the two lenses.

The Ferguson Commission knows what I’m talking about. In their report, they say, and I quote:

“This new, shared sense of understanding calls us to a shared sense of responsibility, and also brings a shared sense of opportunity. What would a more just, a more unified, a more equitable St. Louis be capable of?”

In other words: “What is our opportunity?” “What is our obligation?”

I’m repeating these words because in a few minutes, we’re going to have a conversation about social justice and what this organization, the Central Florida Foundation, can or should do to support that concept in our community.

And what I’m hoping is that we’ll view that conversation through these lenses:

So, ponder these ideas as you finish lunch and I keep talking: What opportunities do we, in this room, individually and collectively, have to advance social justice in our community?

And then, the harder one – obligation. What is our obligation? What are the values we are acting on? What is our purpose? And in light of our values and purpose, what MUST we do? What MUST we do with a capital M?

Opportunity and obligation.

Last week, I went to Mayor Dyer’s State of the City address. I saw several of you there, and I thought it was a great speech. As I listened to the mayor describe the growth of our city and the things that he and the city staff are focused on, the two unspoken words that were underlying the entire speech were, yes, opportunity and obligation.

Paraphrasing a bit, some of the things I heard the Mayor say were:

Today, we have an opportunity to enrich the culture of the city and in so doing, enrich the lives of our citizens.

We have an obligation to strengthen the economic base and the economic diversity of our city because otherwise some people will be left out, and excluded from the good that’s created.

We have an opportunity to set responsible guidelines and parameters around the way growth happens in our city because we have an obligation to leave our city in a better place for the next generation.

Furthermore, we have an obligation to be good stewards of our natural resources and the planet we inhabit, and along with that, an opportunity to implement new standards that will protect the land and air.

Opportunity and obligation.

But, as Mayor Dyer talked about all the amazing things the city has accomplished this last year, and the things that have been set in place in order to ensure that the city continues to grow and prosper, another thought came to mind – that none of it matters.

None of it matters if we aren’t first … a community that takes care of its own, that creates an environment in which everyone feels safe, in which all people can fulfill their potential, in which no one feels left out.

All those things he talked about – urban planning, economic growth, education, arts and culture, the environment – none of it matters if we aren’t the kind of community that values all citizens.

I speak a lot about organizational culture in business, and this is an exact parallel.

You can build a business that makes tons of money, that wins all kinds of awards, that tops all the lists, (those lists seem to be very important to us), but if you hate going to work every day, if there are no meaningful relationships, if you don’t feel fulfilled, if you aren’t able to be your true and authentic self there, if you’re pushing others down in order to make your way up – then what does it matter?

By some metrics the businesses may look like a “success.” Or you may call it a means to an end, but I would call it meaning-less. And that’s no way to work.

And that’s what our community would be like if we were doing all these things right – taking care of the economy, taking care of our infrastructure, taking care of the environment – but not … taking care of our people … all people.

And so, again, by some metrics the community may look like a “success.” Or you may call it a means to an end, but I would call it meaning-less.

And that’s no way to live.  

So, let’s add another word to our list – intentionality.

You see, one thing I’ve learned is that in any group, whether a business, a nonprofit or a community, it’s easy, and perhaps even natural for us to do good when things are good.

But it’s just as easy for that good culture and those good values to be cast by the wayside when things aren’t going well.

I saw this in my own business.

When the recession hit in 2008, we’d had 8 years of riding the wave of growth and success, 8 years of building relationships and organically creating a great place to work. But when the economy went bust, when our clients started going away – many literally going away – out of business – we struggled and suffered, and all that good stuff – the having fun together, inspiring each other, being happy at work – was replaced with survival. Just survival.

Fortunately, we did survive. But we were nothing like what we had been before, because before we just assumed that things would always be good, assumed that our culture was strong. But when things stopped being good, our commitment to culture was the first thing that went away.

So, in 2010, as I started to put the pieces back together again, I did so with intention. I did so with a commitment to creating non-negotiable practices that would ensure the survival of our culture. No matter what.

The parallel here is that when communities are thriving, when we’re doing well, that social piece, the culture, usually takes care of itself.

We’ve seen that in our own community and our world – when things are going well, we treat each other well. But, when things change, when we’re struggling, we turn inward, we turn against one another, we build walls, we point fingers and we look for people to blame (usually people who look different from “us”).

And that’s why now, while things are pretty good here in Central Florida, it’s time to articulate exactly what our values are, exactly what social justice means to us, exactly what our moral code is, exactly what we stand for AND to put in place defined strategies for supporting our values and all the things that are important to us – before we find ourselves struggling, before those values are challenged – in the name of survival.

We need to recognize…and appreciate that this is a unique opportunity that we have today – to talk about what social justice means in Central Florida and to address our obligations and opportunities around this topic while not in crisis, and before a storm comes.

I think I’ve talked enough about opportunity and obligation for a while, and I want to switch gears a little bit here and talk about the five stages of tribal leadership because I think this will shape our conversation, too.

The five stages of tribal leadership, if you aren’t familiar with them, are really a construct for looking critically at the groups, organizations or communities we belong to, giving us a framework to identify where “our group” is today and to develop strategies for how we might evolve up the stages – to a place where we can do the most good and have the greatest impact.

We won’t say that stage one groups are at the bottom of the ladder – we’ll just say that they’re the least evolved. Organizations, teams or communities that fall into the stage one category are defined by a group mentality that “Life sucks.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

Stage one groups – as a group – believe that life sucks and that’s just the way it is and the way it’s always going to be, and so all they’re trying to do is endure.

In the business world, these are typically unskilled labor driven, commoditized service type companies. For them, work is misery – but then again, everything is misery.

Communities exist like this, too.

Did anyone listen to the podcast S-Town? It’s the third “Serial” podcast and it takes place entirely in rural Alabama, In a community where everyone feels trapped, there’s no escape, no better alternative to where they are. It’s a fun story to listen to. Not a fun place to live. This is stage one.

In stage two, the group functions a little better, but there are still individuals within the group who believe that “My life sucks,” and these individuals feel hopeless and poison the group.

Within stage two groups, a fair amount of focus is on trying to neutralize the toxicity of the individuals who have this fatalistic view of their existence.

These groups end up, at best, treading water because their energy isn’t being used to move things forward, it’s being used to insulate themselves from the negativity of those “Life Sucks” individuals.

Stage three gets a whole lot better and, in fact, stage 3 groups achieve a fair amount of success, but these groups are defined by individuals within the group who believe: “I’m Great…and you’re not.”

Does this sound familiar?

We see this in organizations, teams and communities that revolve around superstars or self-centered leaders – individuals who don’t recognize the strength of the team, but want the recognition all to themselves, and who believe that their success is because of their talents and their talents alone.

The prima donnas in stage three organizations believe they don’t need the organization or its culture to be successful and in fact, all the people around them are replaceable.

You can imagine the kinds of organizations or even communities that are stage three, There are plenty of examples out there. In fact, in the business world, more than 45% of organizations fall into this category.

Stage four is a whole lot better, and these groups are infinitely more successful…and sustainable.

Stage four is defined by a prevailing “group belief” that “We are great….and they are not.” In other words, we work together as a team, we recognize the benefits of being a team and sharing responsibility. We value each other’s talents, and know that the whole is greater than the sum of our parts. But, we are constantly looking at what others are doing, and our measure of success is how we compare.

As a result, stage four groups find success and growth, but only incrementally. It’s impossible to take great leaps forward when your only focus is on getting a step ahead of someone else.

And so, all this leads to stage five.

Stage Five. Cue the angels!

Stage five is defined by a world view summed up as “Innocent Wonderment.”

Can you imagine it? Innocent Wonderment.

Stage five groups do something so simple and yet so hard. Stage five groups look openly and optimistically at the talents and resources they have available to them and say: “What’s possible?”

Stage 5 groups come to the table and say things like: “Let’s try this because we can do it. And it could change the world.”

They don’t waste time or energy comparing themselves to what others are doing. They’re less concerned about making mistakes, and unconcerned about who gets credit.

The members of Stage five groups put their personal egos aside. They trust each other. They’re vulnerable. They know they’re aligned around a common purpose. They know they share the same values and so now, the only question is – what can we do?

Stage five thinking sounds like this:

“We do not know for certain if these calls to action are the answer. We can’t. But they are what we believe to be the best starting point, the beginning of a path toward a better St. Louis.”

As you know, that’s a direct quote from the Ferguson Report, and that’s Stage five thinking.

You see, the more the culture of our group, our team, or our community evolves, the more we move away from negativity, self-interest, division, and competition.

As we move toward this stage five mentality, that’s when we get into the truly creative and visionary ideas.

When we get to stage five, that’s where transformational change happens.

And so, when we start our conversation in a few minutes around social justice, this is where I hope we’ll be:

Stage 5 thinking.

Innocent wonderment.

What’s possible?

Now, before we start to think about our opportunity and obligation around the issue of social justice, before we start to think about how we pursue social justice with intentionality, before we start to think about how we approach the issue of social justice from the standpoint of “innocent wonderment,” let me share one story.

As you know, one of my roles in the community is as the board chair for Orlando’s Holocaust Center, and our mission is to use the lessons of the Holocaust to change the world, to create a more just society, one that’s free of hatred, prejudice and bigotry so that everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

While most people think of the Holocaust and immediately go to Hitler, the Nazis, the pogroms, the concentration camps – we go to a different place. We like to share the stories of people who acted courageously and saved lives because these are where the teachable moments are.

My favorite is the story of the Albanian Muslims.

Albania is a tiny country on the Balkan Peninsula, predominantly but not entirely Muslim, and with a complicated history, having been fought over for Millennia and ruled over by various countries for centuries.

What makes Albania unique is that its Muslim community lives by a code, a moral code called BESA.

BESA is difficult to explain. The literal translation is “keeping the promise or word of honor.” Some say it means “Faith.” Others interpret it as, “Taking care of those in need and being hospitable.” None of these does the concept of BESA justice, but the Albanian Muslims know intuitively what it means.

You see, this code has been a part of the Albanian Muslim culture since the early 15th century, since the Ottoman Empire, and it incorporates all of these ideas that I’ve been sharing with you today – Opportunity. Obligation. Intention. A more evolved level of thinking.

BESA is passed down from generation to generation and is a non-negotiable part of their society.

During World War II, the Nazis invaded Albania, and by all rational thought, this tiny Muslim community should have gone into survival mode, worried first and foremost about protecting their own. Instead, they did something extraordinary. They continued to live by their code – BESA.

You see, rather than handing over the small population of Albanian Jews to the Nazis or even, instead of hiding the Jews in their attics or in the woods, the Albanian Muslims took these Jews, their neighbors, into their homes and made them a part of their families and protected them in an extraordinary way.

Adhering to the BESA code, the Albanian Muslims dressed their Jewish neighbors in traditional Albanian clothing, Muslim clothing. They gave them Muslim names. They taught them Muslim customs. Their Jewish neighbors became family – not “like” family, but family. in fact putting their own families at risk.

That was BESA. That was their obligation.

BESA said that in our community, we take care of those in need no matter what.

BESA said that protecting our neighbors is a non-negotiable obligation.

Individual Albanians didn’t stop and ask, “should I or shouldn’t I?”

They didn’t ask their neighbors “are you or aren’t you?”

They just did what was right because doing the right thing was part of their moral code – had been established as their moral code centuries before.

The Ferguson Commission said:

“There are no easy answers. We are faced with many tough decisions. But inaction, sticking with the status quo, just isn’t an option anymore.”

And now I ask:

Where do we stand with the tough issues at hand?

What do we see on the horizon that we must prepare for today?

What opportunity do we have to create the kind of community we want to leave for the next generation and beyond?

What is our obligation?

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