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Inside Public Service: How to play a long game

Between now and August 1st, I’m practicing what I preach by making space to be with the people I love most in the world. I have a vacation responder in place for emails and limited access to Internet and cell reception. And instead of new blog posts, I’ve lined up several great articles from my column on Shasta Scout to share with you.


This story was originally published as part of my monthly Inside Public Service column on Shasta Scout. Would you like to receive free, nonprofit, independent and non-partisan news about Shasta County and beyond? Sign up here.


Here's wishing you spaciousness in your life, however you can find it this summer.


Shasta County’s Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) has undergone tremendous upheaval in the past year. Leadership changes, new mandates, and an ongoing audit are just the tip of the iceberg. What has it been like for staff on the ground?


To find out, I spoke with Charlotte Haverford (not her real name). Like many of the 945 full-time employees at HHSA, Charlotte is mission driven and passionate about helping people live healthier, more productive lives. Every day, she and her colleagues help people prevent or manage health-related issues like diabetes, substance abuse, mental illness, childhood trauma, and burnout, through programs that get us to care for ourselves and to access the support systems we need when things go wrong.


Charlotte came to HHSA with a big vision, one that could make a real difference in the daily lives of thousands of our citizens. But shortly after she started, she came face to face with the reality of working in a county department that’s in a long-term state of upheaval.


“My problem is I get really excited and passionate,” Charlotte told me. “I want to help people who aren’t getting the support that they need. But I can’t. I can’t expect leadership to accept my whole vision right now. The new leadership is restructuring and reorganizing. Management is really focused on directives and protocol. So how do I continue to be just as passionate if the things I am working on may get slashed because they aren’t someone else’s priority? I’m just a low-level line staff. How do I continue to move forward when I’m not a decision maker?”


This issue is so common right now, across industries, across the nation. Inflation is high. Some sectors are experiencing massive layoffs. Others are seeing sudden leadership transitions and shifting organizational priorities. The future feels so uncertain. And of course, there’s always layers and layers of red tape and bureaucracy to contend with. All those factors are so difficult for employees who care deeply about their projects and the impact their work could have on others, but may not have decision-making authority.


In fact, Charlotte has been wondering whether to simply give up on her vision entirely or look for work somewhere that’s more stable.


As Charlotte and I continued to explore her struggle, she said something really interesting: “I think 100% that perhaps a decade in the future, my vision may be possible, even within a government structure. It’s only right now that feels impossible.”


That statement flamed small but bright, a spark of hope within the morass of Charlotte’s frustration and desperation. It reminded me of an idea from the late Dr. James Carse, an author and religious history professor at NYU who theorized that there were two types of games in this world: finite games and infinite games.


Finite games have known players; fixed rules; an agreed-upon goal; winners and losers; and a clear beginning, middle, and end. We play to win. Think basketball, Monopoly, or poker.

Infinite games have a changing cast of players; changing rules; goals that differ person to person, and may change; and no clear beginning, middle, and end. We play to keep playing. Think politics, raising a family, leadership, or the game of life.


Charlotte just wanted to keep playing and make her big vision a reality. Her heart was bought into an infinite game, yet her thoughts were caught up in a win-lose, finite mentality. If she pitched her big idea to the HHSA leadership, then they could say yes or no. She might come out the winner, but given all the uncertainty, more likely she’d be the loser. Western culture tends to emphasize finite games and winning. No wonder she was mistakenly playing the wrong kind of game. What if she framed her dream as an infinite game instead?


I told her, “There’s a long game and a short game, right? I want you to be able to move between those different perspectives. Imagine a future ten years down the line where everything you hope for is possible. What’s the difference if you take that long-term perspective?”


What Charlotte discovered is that framing things on a longer time scale significantly eased the stress. “You know what? This probably can happen. It just takes more time.”


In order to take this reframing even further, I asked Charlotte to imagine a future version of herself, a decade from now, with the benefit of hindsight. The programs she dreamed of are real and happening. She has already seen everything unfold. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I asked, “What advice would Future Charlotte give you, today, right now?”


Future Charlotte, of course, offered wonderful advice and guidance for the Charlotte of today. Things like: focus on what’s right in front of you, give yourself credit for the things that have worked, share your successes to let folks see that it can be done and the impact it can have, and take things one step at a time. Future Charlotte helped her see that big dreams grow slowly over a really long time.


When we see successful people all around us, it’s easy to gloss over all the struggles, failures, and problems that were required before they got there. I shared with Charlotte the story of a forest I recently visited in Hamilton, New Zealand. The forest was full of native trees and plants, alive with the songs of tui and other native birds. One would think the forest had always been there, but as recently as 1960, it was a bare 2.5 acre paddock used for grazing sheep and donkeys.

One man, Dr. Alwyn Seeley, had the dream to restore the native forest and set about planting trees. The first plantings all died. As did the second. It took the next 20 years to create the right ecological conditions for a forest, and another twenty years to begin attracting native birds. Dr. Seeley passed away in 2013, but his forest continues to be maintained by the city and a devoted team of volunteers.


This story helped Charlotte see that a big dream starts with planting lots of seeds and lots of problem solving. In order to create sustainable change, one that lasts even after the person who first dreamed it up is long gone, it takes many small steps over a long, infinite game.


Charlotte and I spent ten minutes brainstorming short-term action steps and seeds to plant right now. Once she had a solid to-do list, she reported, “I feel good. I have tangible steps that still contribute to the end goal. Now I see that if I jump too far ahead, the answer will be “no,” versus if I do these smaller things, there’s a real possibility that the answer could be “yes”. And I think the little steps allow me to develop problem-solving skills, and build the relationships that are going to support and guide me all the way.”


Charlotte was thrilled to realize that even in an uncertain future, progress towards a big vision is still possible.


I checked in with Charlotte six weeks after our initial conversation and she reported that she’s been able to approach work with less stress and frustration. She sees evidence that small steps forward are still progress and she’s realizing those small steps have the potential to contribute to a bigger, better future in the infinite game.


She wrote, “It also helps to remind myself that the success of past visionaries is even more admirable knowing that they have overcome obstacles. Their success was probably different than what they initially imagined, but still just as sweet.”


Read More


Learn more about the infinite game with this fantastic video from Simon Sinek which outlines how to be a leader in an infinite game.


And if you want another example of how to plant many seeds and take things one step at a time to create a big dream, How Not To Land an Oribital Rocket Booster offers a reel of SpaceX launch explosions that vividly and hilariously illustrate Thomas Edison's words of wisdom: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”


Going Further


It really is essential to make space for yourself, especially as a people, passion, and purpose driven leader. If slowing down this summer feels challenging, consider setting aside the last weekend in September to join me, Tutti Taygerly, and other female leaders in gorgeous Mendocino, CA for a truly unforgettable leadership retreat. Apply today.


Applications for my next group coaching program are open and it’s going to be incredible. First, you'll get not just one, but TWO executive coaches to mentor you. Second, we will be focusing on sustaining all 5 aspects of integrated leadership (spaciousness, flow, connection, inner wisdom, outer presence) while helping each member achieve a big goal. Best of all, it ends with a four-day, three-night retreat in Hawaii. Join us.


Finally, don’t miss the rest of this summer series of blog posts, each of which takes you inside a coaching session with me. Subscribe or share with a friend.

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