When we promote …

Promotions. We’re talking about people, not product.

I recently went through promotions at my work and at my avocation. My work is marketing communications business. My avocation is Karate.

At work, we have annual performance reviews. There is the question of whether you promote a person to a higher level of responsibility, higher pay and perhaps a new title.

At most martial arts schools, it is different. I’ve taught Karate at Williams Martial Arts and Fitness for over twenty years. Opportunities for promotions are more frequent than annual reviews at work. Here they can happen  every other month or quarter. Students complete their routines and are tested on the mat.  Then there is the ceremony itself – a formalism and public pageantry which would likely be illegal in today’s workplace setting. Parents and friends are there to watch.

And as we award the karate-ka the next ranking and perhaps even a new belt, we state the following:

you are hereby awarded the rank of [X] kyu in the art of karate-do in recognition of the great progress you have made by your diligent study of the art … it is our wish that you will endeavor to attain a higher standard in the future …”

I have said it so many times I can recite it by memory.  As I think about those words, I think about what those outside of the martial arts world – those in the business world – could learn about the true meaning of meriting  a “promotion.”

First, there is the “great progress you have made …”

This is something most would agree. We should promote after, not before.  Progress first, promotion after. Too often we convince ourselves that we “see promise” in someone and promote them in hope that our hunch is on mark.  My experience in business is that too often our hunch is wrong.  For my Marine-trained sensei, it is simple.  First show that you have the skills for the next rank. But not just that. Show that you have the ability sustain those skills over time. Then, and only then, are you granted the promotion.

Second, there is the person’s “diligent study of the art …”

We promote in recognition of work. It is commendable that someone has been around for awhile. They’ve stayed the course. Loyalty is important. But true promotion should be an outgrowth of effort, not tenure.

Finally, there is the person’s “endeavor to attain a higher standard in the future …”

With this, I’ve likely crossed the border both of what is politically correct and what is HR compliant. In the martial arts world, you promote based on evidence that the person seeks to improve his or her station. They have to exhibit some desire to advance the art – the desire to not only improve their own skills but also the skills of others.

We could learn from that. You can make progress. You can work hard. But if someone doesn’t want to get better and is completely content to stay where they are and not move to a greater level of both skill and responsibility, is a promotion really merited? I don’t think so.

Three simple standards.  You’ve made progress. You’ve worked hard. You want to do better.

That, to me, is a reasonable standard for a promotion.

Whether you are in the dojo or the workplace.

Truth Takes a Beating … But No Lie Lives Forever

In the famous exchange between Jesus of Nazareth and the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate, Jesus is recorded as claiming “everyone on the side of truth, listens to me.” Pilate dismissively responds, “What is truth?” and walks out of the room.


It has never been very popular.  It is taking a particular beating these days.  Consider this:

Two years ago Twitter said that 23 million of its 271 million users were not people, but “bots” – programs that automatically generate content based on an algorithm.

According to BuzzFeed founder, Craig Silverman, during the recent election, “fake news” was more popular than “real news.”  Total Facebook engagement with the top twenty “fake news” election stories was greater than the top twenty “real news” stories.

According to the independent, Pulitzer-prize winning watchdog organization PolitiFact, 70 percent of the U.S. president-elect’s campaign statements were rated as Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire False. And he won!

But it is not just a campaign thing.  Recently we’ve seen Volkswagen claim their diesel engines to be environmentally friendly. But they weren’t. There was the Toshiba executive who said they made an extra $2 billion in earnings. But they didn’t. And then there was Wells Fargo who gave extra credit cards.  Without asking.

Truth isn’t popular. It exposes you to seeing and hearing things you don’t like.

  • That you are not perfect.
  • That you are oftentimes wrong.
  • That you make mistakes.
  • That sometimes you hurt people – maybe many.
  • That whatever it is, most of the time it’s not about you.

We don’t like Truth. So we avoid it. We cover it up. We change the subject. 

We won’t admit to lying.  That would be wrong (lying that is). So we give lying a different name.  We call it “fake news.”  Or the latest, “alternative facts.” 

What are they?  Truthfully?  They are lies.

But don’t despair.

Truth has an annoying way of hanging around. Just when you think you’ve beaten it, killed it and buried it … Truth shows up. Maybe not the next day.  Or the next. But one day.

And at some point, things either are or are not.  No amount of prevarication or mendacity can prevent Truth from having the last word.

I’m betting on truth.  It might lose a battle or two but it always wins the war.

Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of quoting Thomas Carlyle who wrote “No lie can live forever!”

That, I believe, is true.



It can change your brain.

It can make you healthy.

It can make you happy.

But if you buy into gratitude for those reasons, I think you’re missing the point. You may not even be expressing “true” gratitude at all.

Gratitude has been defined as the “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” I like that. Recognizing and returning kindness. We often talk about the former – recognizing. We rarely think of the latter – returning. Gratitude goes beyond acknowledgment. It is an obligation – no, a true desire – to be compassionate towards others.

Today is Thanksgiving Day. One of my favorite holidays. I know there are the banal and commercial elements surrounding Thanksgiving’s origin, propagation and celebration. But let’s set the storefront parade, football games, and Black Friday aside for a moment and think of what it means to be truly thankful.

The beauty of thankfulness is that it is something that everyone can enjoy. From the most popular, affluent and talented to the forgotten, impoverished and plain. Thankfulness is accessible to anyone regardless of origin, condition, and belief. To be sure, gratitude is much more difficult for some than others. Hard for someone in Aleppo to be thankful. Or those who suffer from illness. Or those who have lost jobs, possessions, health, loved ones … perhaps even themselves. But gratitude isn’t comparative. It is not about being thankful that you’re not like the other. It is about being thankful for who you are what others have done for you regardless of station. It is about showing appreciation for others and their acts of kindness both large and small.

I have been blessed beyond merit because I’ve merited little. So thanks. Thanks to all of you out there who have looked past my and others’ faults and have shown grace and kindness.

Thanks to those who’ve suffered through much and still persevere. Thanks for another day to try and the opportunity to do something – even a small thing – that makes things better. Let’s try to be thankful not for the sake of how it might help our brain, our health, or our happiness. But let’s be thankful because it is a proper response to the life we’ve been given.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Today I Prayed.

Church and faith

I went to church to worship today and I prayed.  I prayed for my family. Praying for my family is pretty much a given every day, not just on Sunday. I prayed for the nation. I do that a lot too but not nearly as often.  I prayed for many, many other people and things.

And yes, I prayed for the president-elect. It was an earnest prayer. It was a difficult prayer. It was an open prayer. It was as much about asking God what all this means as it was what I should do about it.

I prayed that the president-elect would not govern the same way he campaigned.

I prayed that, if God was willing, the president-elect would reconsider some of the actions he said he would pursue. Things like. Building the wall. Burning more coal. A travel ban on Muslims. Eliminating access to affordable health insurance. Increasing tax breaks for the affluent.

But most of all I prayed that everyone, particularly the young people out there, would, despite what they may have read and seen regarding Mr. Trump’s supporters, not confuse Republican policies with Jesus’ teachings.

I prayed that people would read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8). I prayed that everyone would know that Jesus taught …

  • That we shouldn’t get all caught up on how much taxes we pay. That God wants us to deal with more important things.  That we should “render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s” and then focus on rendering unto God what is God’s.
  • That the love of money and material things are the thorns that stifle God’s word and choke out the work of the Holy Spirit.  That the love of money is the root of all types of evil. That we should not try to store up treasures on earth, but rather treasures in heaven.
  • That we should love our neighbors and that God wants us to define “neighbors” as Samaritan types (modern-day Muslims?) who worship a different God, believe different things, worship a different way, and are suspect and despised by society.
  • That our focus should be on doing whatever we can to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, minister to the sick (like healthcare), and care for the widows and orphans (even if they come from Syria).
  • That we should not only love our enemies but when folks ask for a shirt, we give them our coat.
  • That the people who are right before God are not the pious religious folks who wear their faith on their sleeves and show up on talk shows and news programs … rather they are the repentant sinners who sit in the back pew, often neglected, begging for God’s mercy. That the truly blessed are people who are humble, meek and poor in spirit.
  • That we should be wary of false prophets who show up saying that they speak in Jesus’ name. That we would know these false prophets by their fruits of their work … the mercy, grace, and sacrifice that they make for others.

Overall, I prayed that people judge Christian practice by the sayings of Jesus, and not the circumstances of an election.

I prayed that people would know that this is what he was talking about when he said that if we follow his commands, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

And with that, I said “Amen.”

May God’s will be done.

Christian faith and the U.S. Presidential Election

Christian argument for trump

We’re at the height (and fortunately the end!) of a very divisive and contentious political campaign.  People who know me, likely know how I will vote. More about that later. 

Mr. Trump has sought the support of notable leaders of evangelical Christian institutions and organizations.  I’ve listened to Jerry Fallwell Jr.  I’ve read Wayne Gruden.  I have watched Ralph Reed and Kenneth Copeland. 

I am a Christian. I respect anyone’s decision as an individual to support and campaign for any candidate, including Mr. Trump. My only ask is this:

  • Campaign for Trump because you believe in his ability to execute sound economic policy.  Because you believe people need a tax brake and deregulation of Wall Street.
  • Campaign for Trump because you believe in his positions on social policy, on abortion and gay marriage, on building a wall, on education.
  • Campaign for Trump because you believe his views on environmental policy, on energy and fossil fuel, that climate change is a fraud.
  • Campaign for Trump because you believe in his ability to execute foreign policy, on dealing with ISIS and terrorism, on dealing with trade partners.
  • Campaign for Trump because you believe his character, professionalism, and leadership is best suited to unite and lead this country.

But for the sake of the Christian church and the faithful, I’d ask that you not suggest that it was Jesus, the Bible, or any tenants of Christian faith that led you or others to support Donald Trump. 

Personally, I cannot reconcile the scriptures and my Christian faith with candidate Trump or the Trump campaign.

  • I believe in a body of Christ that includes right and left, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, white and black, majority and minority. 
  • I believe in a body of Christ that loves mercy, seeks justice, but most of all walks humbly with God.  It is a body of Christ that loves its neighbor as itself. 
  • I believe in a body of Christ that is oriented not toward the healthy, wealthy and well off, but to the ill, the poor, and the disadvantaged – the harlots, the lepers, and yes, even tax collectors.
  • I believe in a body of Christ that is humble, poor in spirit, and merciful.
  • I believe in a body of Christ that has no need for candidates or political parties, just the acceptance of grace and the dedication of service.
  • I believe in a body of Christ that flourishes when it transcends politics and is corrupted when it stoops to it.

Jesus didn’t campaign for candidates. Indeed, Jesus’ sharpest commentary was not for the Roman government or its bureaucrats. His most caustic rebukes weren’t even for his civilian executor Pontius Pilate.   Jesus’ most stinging commentary was for the leaders of the church at the time, most of whom were focused more on rules, laws and regulations and … yes, politics! … than they were of the material and spiritual needs of those they were meant to serve.

I’m a Christian.  Like all Christians, I’m deeply flawed but redeemed through Christ’s sacrifice and God’s grace. So for those of you who are Christians and are voting for Trump, I’m not here to tell or lecture you that this is or is not in line with our faith. A political choice is just that – a political choice.

I can’t reconcile the scriptures and Christian faith with candidate Trump.

I will vote for Hillary Clinton. I dont’ know Hillary Clinton, but I’m fortunate to know many people who do. To a person they have – while recognizing her flaws – say that she is a decent, earnest, hard-working, and faithful public servant. They describe her Christian faith as longstanding and unwavering.

But with that, I’m not going to suggest that my vote is God’s will. I’m not even going to suggest that God “needs” my vote for one candidate or the other.  My God is bigger than that.

My God’s Providence and Dominion will certainly prevail regardless of whether I show up or not on voting day.

But show up I will.

My best friend framed this properly.  He said it was a matter of identifying dependent and independent variables. Is my candidate a function of my faith values? Or do I chose my candidate based on my personal desires and then contort my religious convictions to support that choice?

In the words of President Lincoln, “my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

On Turning 60.


I turned 60 today. Happy birthday me!

And my brother. His name is Steve. We were born on the same day six years apart. He was the first child. I was the last. Perfect bookends. He remains everyone’s big brother. I remain everyone’s little brother. That is one thing that 60 years hasn’t changed.

People say that chronological age doesn’t matter. Once I got north of 50 I got a lot more of those “you’re as young as you feel!” comments. God bless them. But y’know that’s true. Like when I have a sore back after home or yard work. Like when I go to comb my hair and realize that there’s not much there to comb. Not much there to “feel.” But “feeling” isn’t just physical.  I still find most things “amazing!”  I haven’t lost my wonder. My curiosity of things only grows. While I could probably lose a few physical pounds, I haven’t lost an ounce of mirth. So yes, by that measure I’m still quite young.


Big deal?

Not really. Birthdays in general were never a big deal growing up. That came courtesy of being raised by parents of midwestern farmers who grew up in the Great Depression. “Just another day” my Dad would shrug. And he was right. After today there’s the 14th. Then another number. And a day. All those Thursdays and Fridays and Mondays. Months. Seasons. Years. They begin to blend in quickly. Birthdays are a blip. A rain drop in life’s ocean.


Big deal?

Well, sorta. I’m certainly in no danger of having a mid-life crisis. That is now a chronological impossibility. Perhaps a pre-retirement crisis. With each year that passes the whisper of mortality becomes a bit louder. Something to be mindful of. No reason to freak out. Just mindful. Lot of talk about that these days. Mindfulness, that is. Everyone says it is a good thing. Health and culture gurus declare it a medicinal and therapeutic power. If so, then I figure there’s no sin in being mindful of the fact that you are 60 and not 16. Or some other age. People say you shouldn’t dwell on how old you are. Perhaps they are right. Don’t dwell. Be mindful.


Good time to step back and take stock of things.  Birthdays do that. It has been a good ride. A few hills and valleys. Luckily more of the former than the latter. Perhaps not luck at all. I have been blessed. God has been ever patient and forgiving with me. I don’t know why. I’m not better than others. I’m as flawed as the next. I have my issues. God has helped me through them.

And my family? Where do I begin? Sanderijn? My siblings? My children? Their spouses? The nephews and grandchildren? The whole community of friends past and present.  Folks who I haven’t seen for years but who still give me occasional shout outs and words of encouragement.  I write words but think in faces, relationships, shared experiences, deep affection and thankfulness. Just thinking about them and my 60-year-old eyes get watery. They do that more these days. Watery 60-year-old-eyes. There’s a change. I’m good with that.


Good time to think about tomorrow.  Birthdays do that too. I figure it is a sprint to the final. Maybe not a 20-something sprint to the final. As I remember those were fantastically chaotic. They often had the wrong finish line. Or no finish line at all! Perhaps more of a 60-year-old type sprint to the final. Methodical but determined. A sprint with some narrowing. A sprint with some leavening. A sprint interrupted occasionally with a good book, a meaningful conversation, a loving smile. And a sprint where the finish line is clear and bright.

Finish line?  My Juicebar editor tried to take me out of that one. A bit macabre? A downer? No, the finish line for me isn’t a place or a time. The prophet Micah famously wrote that all God requires is for you to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

That, to me, is not a bad finish line. Regardless of how old I am. So we keep going.

As You Go Through Life

For all the lovers of poetry out there. I was rummaging through some old files and came across my father’s favorite. Poem that is. Even though he knew it line-by-line he kept a crumpled copy stuffed away in a bulging leather wallet. Going through our family record I saw an original that he had typed out on an old Remington typewriter. I read it again for the first time. To know this poem is to know my Father. Humble. Direct. Wisdom drawn from experience. Appropriately titled: “As you go through life.”

Don’t look for the flaws as you go through life;
And even when you find them,
It is wise and kind to be somewhat blind
And look for the virtue behind them.
For the cloudiest night has a hint of light
Somewhere in its shadows hiding;
It is better by far to hunt for a star,
Than the spots on the sun abiding.

The current of life runs ever away
To the bosom of God’s great ocean.
Don’t set your force ‘gainst the river’s course
And think to alter its motion.
Don’t waste a curse on the universe –
Remember it lived before you.
Don’t butt at the storm with your puny form,
But bend and let it go o’er you.

The world will never adjust itself
To suit your whims to the letter.
Some things must go wrong your whole life long,
And the sooner you know it the better.
It is folly to fight with the Infinite,
And go under at last in the wrestle;
The wiser man shapes into God’s plan
As water shapes into a vessel.



Recently I spent a day at the Fairfax County Courthouse. Six months ago a couple of young kids in the neighborhood stole my briefcase. I had left it in the car, unlocked. Shame on me. Police found the briefcase bereft of the easily sold electronics.  The police also (eventually) found the two boys. They were being tried in juvenile court.  In Fairfax County victims are subpoenaed to testify. So I came, though I never made it into the courtroom.  The defendants settled before they ever had a trial. Two counts, felony theft.

So I spent the day sitting and watching.

Life plays out hard in Juvenile Court.  There are the defiant and presumably ‘don’t care’ teens that sit stone faced and sullen next to parents and guardians.  There are the anxious adults who lean into conversations across from detectives and lawyers. Then there are children.  The little ones who sit, squirm, fidget and sometime get loud, oblivious to the nature of their surroundings or the consequences of what might happen next.   

Blue collars far outnumber white collars in Juvenile Court. You see uniforms of the working class … maids, gardeners, medical assistants, and construction workers.  But mostly you see moms, anxious and bewildered moms wondering how they got here, what is going to happen to their child, and what, if anything, they can do about it.

The lawyers match their clients.  They wear Burlington Coat Factory suits. They walk in scruffy shoes.  They write with BIC pens. They seem like earnest people.  There are the jaded comments, of course. “Can you believe what this dumb kid did … ? Then this girl got up and …”.  I would not characterize the comments as harmless, but they seemed to betray more befuddlement than condemnation.

Every now and then there’s a nod of respect.  I heard a detective marvel at the ingenuity of two teenagers who were able to dislodge an ATM machine from a small strip mall and haul it home via a stolen golf cart.  “You gotta hand it to them,” he said. There was nodding around the table. 

These are the public defenders and social workers that see the burglaries, the drug deals, and the petty and sometimes serious crimes every day. They’re not the sophisticated crimes of television.  

But most of what you see or hear is the sad stuff. The stupid crimes.  The careless crimes.  The unnecessary crimes.  All the more stupid because they risk the life trajectory of a young teenager.  They are someone’s child.  But that “someone” becomes unclear for a moment. Then things go wrong. So they end up in Juvenile Court.

The Courthouse is a place of anxiety. The atmosphere is one of anticipation. But not the anticipation of victory.  Rather anticipation of a decision that will either provide relief (often temporary) or continued sadness.

It is a place of contrasts. There are those who make the decisions and those who follow and are affected by them.  There are those with authority and those who must submit to that authority.  There are the burly police, the armed guards, the detectives and prosecutors … Then there are the haggard parents, the scared and sometimes insolent children, the bewildered immigrant families.

But most of all, it is a place of consequences. It is a place of harvest. But not the kind we celebrate at Thanksgiving.  Actions have consequences. The courthouse reaps the behaviors that individuals and societies have sowed. It is part justice, part karma. But a better metaphor might be a force of nature. The Courthouse is like gravity. When something is pushed off a ledge or let go, it falls.

People fall too. And when they fall, they end up here.

A Marlowe Christmas

Christmas Presents

We had a wonderful Christmas. Like in many households, we have the common practice of unwrapping one present at a time, then another. Sometimes each unwrapping is punctuated by individualized explanatory gratefulness:

“Oh this is perfect … what I’ve always wanted!”

“Oh how wonderful and beautiful …!”

“Oh my, you shouldn’t have …!”

Sometimes someone will even get out of their seat or chair, step and reach over and give someone a hug and kiss. Tell them “I love you.” Tell them “this means a lot.” But then it soon goes to the next present. And the next. And the next. Then the next.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Then it’s over.

But not with my 2 ½ year-old-grandson Marlowe.

This Christmas he had a small mountain of gifts. The first was a 5” plastic green Tyrannosaurus Rex. It could have come from the Dollar Store but no matter. He didn’t really know who it was from, but that was no matter either.

All Marlowe knew was that it was the most wonderful, fun and fantastic of all gifts ever imaginable!

Any lack of personal gratitude was offset by Marlowe’s perfect and complete enjoyment of this simple piece of wonder

He was thoroughly and perfectly engrossed in the joy of a 5” plastic green Tyrannosaurus Rex who was now – with the help of Marlowe’s inexhaustible imagination – greedily cannibalizing a bowl of sweets, bravely defending himself against attacks from candles and ornaments, and confidently challenging any and all imaginary threats.

Marlowe’s T-Rex held dominion over the Johnson living room coffee table all Christmas morning.

Marlowe was so caught up with the joy and ecstasy of one simple gift, he didn’t seem to need another. The Christmas morning ended with many of Marlowe’s presents still wrapped.

We can learn a lot from Marlowe.

Most of the time we accept gifts. Perhaps we even take the time to express thanks. But before we even have time to enjoy one gift we’re off looking for something else. Looking for another present to unwrap.

Never fully benefitting from the wonder of any one thing, we look to unwrap something new.

We should all be more like Marlowe. When a gift comes we should revel in it. Lose ourselves in it. Forget about “what’s next” and enjoy “what’s there.”

That is the true spirit of Christmas.



Image: Christmas Presents by Ravi Shah (CC license 2.o)

Lessons from Francis

pope francis

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece titled “Explaining Trump.” It was my struggle to understand the success behind Trump’s political communications. With the end of his first visit to the United States, I thought it would be a refreshing alternative to consider communications  lessons from Pope Francis.  Surely if we can learn from “the Donald” then there must be lessons we can learn from “the Holy Father.”

I was able to follow Francis’ visit closely. I was on the south lawn of the White House when Francis was received by President Obama.  I watched his parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.  I watched his appearances before Congress, at the United Nations, at Madison Square Garden.


We can learn a lot of things from Pope Francis. I’ll mention three.


Speak clearly.  Francis was right about his English pronunciation.  It isn’t very good. Awful, really. But that didn’t hide a clarity of purpose.  Francis speaks plainly. His concepts are simple. The primacy of love. The beauty of life. The dignity of humanity. We should help those who need help. We should protect the vulnerable. We should empower the honorable. We should care for each other. And he speaks not just with words but also with deeds. Sleep in a simple room. Ride in a Fiat. Wear comfortable shoes.


We can all learn from this. Business, like life, is difficult. But it isn’t all that complicated. Amidst obfuscation all around us, clarity is refreshing.  Clarity energizes while it soothes. When we speak clearly and simply, people take notice.  They smile. Even more so when your clarity is not just in what you say, but how you live out each day.


Observe intently. Francis is observant. He engages with purposefulness. He sees the small immigrant girl being shuffled away in a parade and calls out to her. He looks into the eyes of a homeless person and then washes his feet. He laughs and jokes with the school children. He reaches out and playfully tousles a young person’s hair. When before a joint session of Congress, Francis said he was not there to “preach”, he was not there to “address,” he was there to “dialogue.” (Which is a very ambitious thing to do with this U.S. Congress!)


We fail to communicate when we fail to observe.  When we are self-absorbed, self-obsessed and otherwise self-occupied we fail to see, understand, and connect with those around us. We all would benefit from less communicating and more dialoguing.


Love recklessly. Finally, Francis is a reminder of the power of passion and love. I find it impossible to separate what Francis says and who Francis is from his passion, enthusiasm and devotion. There is a winsomeness to his heartfelt affection and concern for the “others”. And not just some “others.” All “others.” Francis is the antithesis of targeted communications. When you see him and listen to him you get the sense that no one – regardless of station – is beyond his reach.


We live in a world suffocating from exclusivity. We micro-target ourselves to the point of isolation. By defining our identity so precisely, we lose sense of who we really are.  By appealing to a targeted few, we appeal to no one in general.  We would all do better by rethinking our disdain for the “lowest common denominator.”  Perhaps the lowest common denominator is, in fact, our highest calling.


So there it is.  The next strategic communications plan for the next client.  Speak clearly. Observe intently. Love recklessly. It seems to be working for Francis.