Minding the gap is a daring strategy. We have to pay attention to the space between where we’re actually standing and where we want to be. More importantly, we have to practice the values that we’re holding out as important in our culture. Minding the gap requires both an embrace of our own vulnerability and cultivation of shame resilience—we’re going to be called upon to show up as leaders and parents and educators in new and uncomfortable ways. We don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with action.


MIND the Gap” first appeared in 1969 on the London Underground as a warning to train passengers to be careful while stepping over the gap between the train door and the station platform. It has since become the name of a band and a movie, and the phrase has been captured on everything from T-shirts to doormats. In our house we have a small, framed “Mind the Gap” postcard that reminds us to pay attention to the space between where we’re standing and where we want to go. Let me explain.


In the business world, there’s an ongoing debate about the relationship between strategy and culture, and the relative importance of each. Just to define the terms, I think of strategy as “the game plan,” or the detailed answer to the question “What do we want to achieve and how are we going to get there?” We all—families, religious groups, project teams, teachers from the kindergarten cluster—have game plans. And we all think about the goals we want to accomplish and the steps we need to take to be successful.

Culture, on the other hand, is less about what we want to achieve and more about who we are. Out of the many complex definitions of culture, including those that weighed down my undergrad sociology textbooks, the one that resonates the most with me is the simplest. As organizational development pioneers Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy explained it: “Culture is the way we do things around here.” I like this definition because it rings true for discussions about all cultures—from the larger culture of scarcity that I write about in the first chapter, to a specific organizational culture, to the culture that defines my family.

Some form of the debate about what’s more important, strategy or culture, bubbles up in every conversation I have with leaders. One camp subscribes to the famous quote often attributed to thought leader Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Other folks believe that pitting one against the other creates a false dichotomy and that we need both. Interestingly, I’ve yet to find a strong argument that strategy is more important than culture. I think everyone agrees in theory that “who we are” is at least as important as “what we want to achieve.”

While some complain that the debate is old, and too chicken-or-the-egg to be helpful, I think it’s a critically relevant discussion for organizations. Maybe more importantly, I think examining these issues can transform families, schools, and communities.

“The way we do things around here,” or culture, is complex. In my experience, I can tell a lot about the culture and values of a group, family, or organization by asking these ten questions:

  1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
  7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
  9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
  10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

In each of the following sections I’ll talk about how these play out in our lives and what specifically I look for, but first I want to talk about where this line of questioning leads us.

As someone who studies culture as a whole, I think the power of these questions is their ability to shed light on the darkest areas of our lives: disconnection, disengagement, and our struggle for worthiness. Not only do these questions help us understand the culture, they surface the discrepancies between “what we say” and “what we do,” or between the values we espouse and the values we practice. My dear friend Charles Kiley uses the term “aspirational values” to describe the elusive list of values that reside in our best intentions, on the wall of our cubical, at the heart of our parenting lectures, or in our company’s vision statement. If we want to isolate the problems and develop transformation strategies, we have to hold our aspirational values up against what I call our practiced values—how we actually live, feel, behave, and think. Are we walking our talk? Answering this can get very uncomfortable.


Here’s my theory: Disengagement is the issue underlying the majority of problems I see in families, schools, communities, and organizations and it takes many forms, including the ones we discussed in the “Armory” chapter. We disengage to protect ourselves from vulnerability, shame, and feeling lost and without purpose. We also disengage when we feel like the people who are leading us—our boss, our teachers, our principal, our clergy, our parents, our politicians—aren’t living up to their end of the social contract.

Politics is a great, albeit painful, example of social contract disengagement. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are making laws that they’re not required to follow or that don’t affect them, they’re engaging in behaviors that would result in most of us getting fired, divorced, or arrested. They’re espousing values that are rarely displayed in their behavior. And just watching them shame and blame each other is degrading for us. They’re not living up to their side of the social contract and voter turnout statistics show that we’re disengaging.

Religion is another example of social contract disengagement. First, disengagement is often the result of leaders not living by the same values they’re preaching. Second, in an uncertain world, we often feel desperate for absolutes. It’s the human response to fear. When religious leaders leverage our fear and need for more certainty by extracting vulnerability from spirituality and turning faith into “compliance and consequences,” rather than teaching and modeling how to wrestle with the unknown and how to embrace mystery, the entire concept of faith is bankrupt on its own terms. Faith minus vulnerability equals politics, or worse, extremism. Spiritual connection and engagement is not built on compliance, it’s the product of love, belonging, and vulnerability.

So, here’s the question: We don’t intentionally create cultures in our families, schools, communities, and organizations that fuel disengagement and disconnection, so how does it happen? Where’s the gap?

The gap starts here: We can’t give people what we don’t have. Who we are matters immeasurably more than what we know or who we want to be.

The space between our practiced values (what we’re actually doing, thinking, and feeling) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think, and feel) is the value gap, or what I call “the disengagement divide.” It’s where we lose our employees, our clients, our students, our teachers, our congregations, and even our own children. We can take big steps—we can even make a running jump to cross the widening value fissures that we face at home, work, and school—but at some point, when that divide broadens to a certain critical degree, we’re goners. That’s why dehumanizing cultures foster the highest levels of disengagement—they create value gaps that actual humans can’t hope to successfully navigate.

Let’s take a look at some common issues that arise in the context of families. I’m using family examples because we’re all part of families. Even if we don’t have children, we were raised by adults. In each case a significant gap has grown between the practiced values and the aspirational values, creating that dangerous disengagement divide.

1. Aspirational values: Honesty and Integrity

Practiced values: Rationalizing and letting things slide
Mom is always telling her kids that honesty and integrity are important, and that stealing and cheating in school won’t be tolerated. As they pile into the car after a long grocery shop, Mom realizes that the cashier didn’t charge her for the sodas in the bottom of the cart. Rather than going back into the store, she shrugs and says, “Wasn’t my fault. They’re making a mint anyway.”

2. Aspirational values: Respect and Accountability

Practiced value: Fast and easy is more important
Dad is always driving home the importance of respect and accountability, but when Bobby intentionally breaks Sammy’s new Transformer, Dad is too busy on his BlackBerry to sit down with the brothers and talk about how they should treat each other’s toys. Instead of insisting that Bobby needs to apologize and make amends, he shrugs his shoulders, thinking, Boys will be boys, and tells them both to go to their rooms.

3. Aspirational values: Gratitude and Respect

Practiced values: Teasing, taking for granted, disrespect
Mom and Dad constantly feel underappreciated, and they’re tired of their children’s disrespectful attitudes. But Mom and Dad themselves yell at each other and call each other names. No one in the house says please or thank you, including the parents. Moreover, Mom and Dad use put-downs with their children and with each other, and everyone routinely teases family members to the point of tears. The problem is that the parents are looking for behaviors, emotions, and thinking patterns that their children have never seen modeled.

4. Aspirational Value: Setting Limits

Practiced Values: Rebellion and cool are important
Julie is seventeen and her younger brother, Austin, is fourteen. Julie and Austin’s parents have a zero-tolerance policy for cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. Unfortunately, that policy isn’t working. Both kids have been caught smoking, and Julie has just been suspended because her teacher found vodka in her water bottle at school. Julie looks at her parents and screams, “You’re such hypocrites! What about those wild parties y’all used to throw in high school? What about that time when Mom went to jail? Y’all thought that was so funny when you told us! You even showed us pictures.”

Now, let’s take a look at the power of aligned values:

1. Aspirational Values: Emotional Connection and Honored Feelings

 Practiced Values: Emotional Connection and Honored Feelings
Mom and Dad have tried to instill and model a “feelings first” ethic in their family. One evening Hunter comes home from basketball practice and is clearly upset. His sophomore year has been tough, and the basketball coach is really riding him. He throws his bag down on the kitchen floor and heads straight upstairs. Mom and Dad are in the kitchen making dinner, and they watch Hunter as he disappears up to his room. Dad turns off the burner, and Mom tells Hunter’s younger brother that they’re going to talk to Hunter and to please give them some time alone with him. They go upstairs together and sit on the edge of his bed. “Your mom and I know these past few weeks have been really hard,” Dad says. “We don’t know exactly how you feel, but we want to know. High school was tough for both of us, and we want to be with you in this.” This was such a great example of minding the gap and cultivating engagement! In the interview the father told me that it made all of them feel very vulnerable and that they were all crying before it was over. He said that sharing his high school struggles with his son really opened the relationship between them.

I want to stress that these examples aren’t fiction; they’re from the data. And, no, we can’t be perfect models all of the time. I know I can’t. But when our practiced values are routinely in conflict with the expectations we set in our culture, disengagement is inevitable. If Mom is exhausted after the grocery shop and drives away without paying once, it might not be a big deal. If “I can get away with it and it’s not my fault” is her norm, she needs to adjust her expectations around her kids’ cheating. If she drives away without paying but then sits her kids down and says, “I should have gone back in and paid for the soda. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was. I’m going back to the store today”—well, that’s incredibly powerful. The lesson here is “I do want to live by my values and it’s okay to be imperfect and make mistakes in this house. We just need to make it right when we can.”

The example about the vodka illustrates a common struggle I hear from parents all of the time. “I was wild,” they say. “I did things I don’t want my kids to do. Should I lie about my escapades?” As a former wild person, I don’t think the issue is whether to lie or not to lie. It’s about what we share and how we share it. First, not everything we do or did is our children’s business. Just as, when they’re adults, not everything they do is our business. So we should examine the motivation for sharing a particular story and let the question about what we’re teaching drive our decision. Second, having an honest talk with our kids about drugs and alcohol, and our experiences with either or both, can be helpful. But framing our numbing or party experiences as cool war stories and placing importance on being rebellious may eventually be at odds with the values we want our children to develop.

Remember the debate about culture and strategy? I think both are important and I think we need daring strategies to develop daring cultures. As these examples of aspirational values versus practiced values demonstrate, if we want to reconnect and reengage, we have to mind the gap.

Minding the gap is a daring strategy. We have to pay attention to the space between where we’re actually standing and where we want to be. More importantly, we have to practice the values that we’re holding out as important in our culture. Minding the gap requires both an embrace of our own vulnerability and cultivation of shame resilience—we’re going to be called upon to show up as leaders and parents and educators in new and uncomfortable ways. We don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with action. We also need to be prepared: The gremlins will be out in full force, as they love to sneak up just when we’re about to step into the arena, be vulnerable, and take some chances.

In the next two chapters, I’m going to use the concepts I’ve introduced here to jump right in and tell you what I think we need to do both to cultivate engagement and to transform the way we parent, educate, and lead. These three questions will guide the following chapters:

  1. How does the culture of “never enough” affect our schools, organizations, and families?
  2. How do we recognize and combat shame at work, school, and home?
  3. What does minding the gap and daring greatly look like in schools, organizations, and families?






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