Together for The Common Good: Interview with Vern Ho

Remember the joy and love in our life as we take risks and continue to grow.
-Vern Ho

Vern Ho was a longtime friend, teacher and colleague. Vern was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1995. I interviewed Vern on October 28, 1995 regarding how his illness was affecting his personal life and work.

Vern passed away January 2, 1996.

Chuck: Can you share a little of what this illness has meant to you?

Vern: Such a dramatic event, it brought to my mind the full meaning of life and death, full meaning of purpose in life, the whole issue of family, relationships, and community.

My mother came to visit one day in the hospital while a friend was visiting. My mother was sitting there while I was in pain. A friend finally decided that while we were waiting for the nurse she’d take some towels and massage me.

I looked at my mother and it was as if she wished to be the one massaging me, but she didn’t know how. That moment symbolized for me the kind of family we had where there was a lot of love but not knowing how to express or communicate it.

Because of that, it was clear to me that I wanted to be much more open and clear about how I express my feelings to other people. I have learned through this illness how to be more congruent with how I feel and how I behave, although it’s not always easy.

Someone said that cancer patients typically are people who know how to give a lot and care for other people but they can’t care for themselves. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. It’s interesting that I would get this disease.

One of the lessons I’m learning at this point is how to care for myself and to love myself as well as other people.

Chuck: How has your outlook on life and work been affected?

Vern: I may not have a lot of time, and I need to be more congruent. I don’ have time to let things slide. If I believe something is important, I need to do it now, and if it’s not important, then don’t bother with it. Be more decisive

Another change is to focus on the present moment. Maybe that is why I can live with the pain and the disease. There is no point looking back and asking, “why didn’t you do this differently, why didn’t you take better care of yourself?”

I find myself saying, “That’s all irrelevant. The point is, where do we go from here?” I do not want to spend whatever time I have left arguing about whether I should or shouldn’t have done certain things. I want to talk about what we’re doing now.

For the last year and a half—for a period before the operation, I sensed I was losing focus in my work. I had to do something different or re-focus my present work.

This has re-focused me for a couple of reasons.

The whole illness is symbolic in that if we don’t pay attention, whether it’s to our bodies, to our organizations, to our cities, to our nations, to our states, things get out of hand. And if we’re not deliberate about our purpose and what it takes to keep the system running, these things like cancer or like any disease take over, and at some point it stops the system, and then and only then do we pay attention

This is one of the most personal reminders I could have. It’s given me a sense of clear purpose; that it is my responsibility, if I am working with an organization and I can see that where they’re headed is going to eventually cripple them or cause a problem, it’s clear that I do the best I can to help them look at the choices they can make. In the end, they can continue the way they are, they make moderate changes or make drastic changes.

The other learning is knowing that I may not have a long time to continue to do what I like to do. It’s pulled together how I work with everybody, I want to have done the correct thing so that if and when I’m not here they have something to build from.

Chuck: Businesses, institutions, society and our environment are going through dramatic changes. Are we acquiescing in our efforts to make these changes healthy ones? What’s the answer?

Vern: Everything is organic. Whether it’s rocks, which may move at a whole different rate, to people, everything is organic so, yes, everything is moving along in some way, and as a result of that, constant change is occurring.

What’s interesting is more common in Western thinking. We try to put on mental notions that we can control what’s going on. I don’t think tribal cultures did this as much.

We believe we have to keep control over the environment. Tribal societies tend to understand that we’re all part of this larger process and go with it.

So how do we deal with this problem? I think one way is we start to live in the moment, embrace, and appreciate what’s going on around us, instead of trying to control it or create mental constructs.Learn to listen to our heart and soul, because if we don’t we will be our own worst enemy.

Chuck: I met a woman recently who at 55 is working for a major airline. She dislikes her job, and she is burned out. She would like to do something else. In spite of her frustration, she decided to stay on until retirement—eight more years.

Vern: Five years, whatever it takes, ten years. But right there is the absurdity. If she really got it, she would live her life right now. The opportunities and the abundance that would come to her would be more then would be gained by hanging on to get her retirement.

Right there is the absurdity that we trick ourselves into. This is why the surgery was a wake-up call. Intellectually, we all go, oh, I’ll deal with it later. I will go see the doctor later when I have time. I’ll live my life after I retire.

And that’s all insanity. Instead of saying, wait a minute, it doesn’t feel good, and I’m going to do this; I’m going to make a change today, we don’t do that, so the only way we do it is wake up one morning and we have a terminal illness, and we go, Oh, now we have a choice. Or the worst-case scenario is we don’t wake up one morning.

We run, and then it’s too late. When do we finally acknowledge the feelings we have felt need to be acted upon and that they’re right instead of saying they’re not right?

So to me, we’ve created a society and we’ve created an environment where it’s wrong to act on your intuition. It’s wrong to be in common sense.

I think, for example, the accident that occurred where a school bus stopped at an intersection in the middle of the railroad tracks and was hit by a train (October 1995). Here was a situation where they’re waiting for the light to turn green, when common sense would have said it doesn’t matter. If you want to get out of the way, you have to move, and so now we’re arguing that the light only allowed two seconds for traffic to move.

And I’m going, you see, we still are doing the insanity. We’re arguing that the light was the problem versus the fact that no one of those individuals exercised common sense given what was happening, but that’s how we are.

Chuck: She is 55 and she’s in the middle of the intersection waiting for the light to turn green.

Vern: Right, and the kids are saying, “The train is coming. Move the bus.” But piled into that is all of her fears that if she does it she’s going to break a law, so far better to have seven children die than to go against the red light.

That is what we have created in ourselves, and that is the danger. That’s what is hurting this entire society. That’s the cancer.

Chuck: So what would you tell the women and the airlines?

Vern: She is an individual and has a choice.

It’s like me. I have a major crisis that occurred. I can try to piece back together my life the way it was before. Two, I can make moderate changes in my life and say, hmm, now that I have some physical restrictions, I need to be a little more thoughtful. Or, three, I can make some radical changes and totally change my thinking, my behavior, my outlook.

What she chooses is fine. That’s up to her.

The airline as an organization has a commitment to providing dependable and safe air service. I can challenge them as much as possible: Don’t lose sight of your mission of providing dependable and safe air service, but is there any way that you can lighten up on how you treat your employees and what you demand of them.

How do we create organizations that are vision-led, energy driven, where there’s a minimum amount of restrictions and regulations but where everybody is clear on what the purpose is and that they do the best they can?

The organization has to be willing to trust its people, and I think 90 percent of the organizations don’t. That’s no different to me from how we treat our bodies. Do we trust our bodies when our bodies say to us “you’re not taking care of me?”

We override that trust. We say no, the body is wrong, and then we take some drugs to override that symptom. That’s how we operate, and that’s what’s scary.

Chuck: We find ways to mask the pain in our bodies. Those pains are powerful messages, and if we don’t hear them, we are going to damage our body.

Vern: I would go farther and say we will feel it. It’s a matter of the intensity of the event that will cause us to feel it.

So if I keep masking the pain every time I have indigestion—at some point I have stomach cancer. Then I feel it, because suddenly it’s gotten to the point I can’t mask it anymore.

So yes, as a society, we will feel it. There is no question in my mind, and all we are doing now is putting off the inevitable, and every administration, every politician, every leader, in my mind, has taken the attitude of “not during my watch; if I can just get through my term.”

My sense is we will experience a major crisis within the next five to eight years, a major crisis that will dramatically reshape the way we live. There’s no way around it. But no one is going to say that. (stated Oct. 28, 1995)

The image I’ve always had in my consulting business is that we as consultants are geared to do the best we can to lay the foundation with those we work with for this change, to do a lot of assisting. We’re almost like a midwife.

That’s the image I’ve had, and that’s what compels me. To me, good consulting is somebody who is also congruent in their own lives and their own values and can clearly and honestly assist others.

Chuck: What can we do to make these changes?

Vern: We have to be honest every day. We have to be willing every day to live our values, to live our beliefs.

Again, for me, with what has happened in the past few months, is it is harder to let things slip by; because one of the things that occurs for me is I don’t know if I will be by this path again.

And so if I see something on the path, a piece of litter, something that just doesn’t fit, I need to attend to it now. I can’t just wait until I come back again someday.

Also, I don’t need to play it safe anymore. What more can happen to me? The only other thing is I could die, so there’s no need to be so safe.

I spent two hours in a meeting recently with quote/unquote, leaders of our community, and I watched these people play it safe. I watched these people go for the safe route, the expedient route, without thinking of the foundations they were laying, without thinking of how this going to play out, and without thinking of what they individually are going to take responsibility for in all this process.

They were simply looking at this as a nice idea; the safe thing to do is let these other people speak for it, even though it may or may not be the best way to go.

So what do we do on a day-to-day basis? If we, at least one time each day, said this is where I’m going to be on this issue, I think we would see some miracles occur.

Instead, I see people going, “how do I say the right thing to make sure I don’t create any controversy so I don’t damage my record?” And the cancer continues.

Chuck: Often in meetings, we find highly skilled communicators throwing communications skills around without any real substance. Rarely do people speak from their heart and soul. I find this concerning.

Vern: Shells, mere shells. There’s nobody home. So that’s what I think is the greatest opportunity people have, is to get out of those shells, to rip off those phony outfits and be honest in our communication.

Don’t hide behind layers and layers of all that protective stuff. To me, there’s nothing more frustrating than for an employee who may be expressing a crisis and they go to someone, and all they get is jargon.

That’s one of the frustrations I have serving in a public body, because when we make public policies we don’t talk about human beings anymore. We talk about entities.

Chuck: In some ways, we seem to be less productive when in a global market we are being asked to become more productive.

Vern: To me it’s part of the unwillingness of us in this country to get our hands dirty.

I’ll use family as an analogy. The first generation works hard and they barely get by. Then the next generation builds on that, and the next generation has more than they ever want.

And what happens is they don’t know how to work.In fact, they perceive it as dirty. But in order for them to keep the work going, they need a number of people who do the work, who know how to work and work well, and so they have to hire this incredible infrastructure.

The trick at that point is whether the descendants of this family know how to integrate and create a harmonious organizational routine. Or will they continue to have disdain for these people to where they’ll lose all their wealth or these people will rise up and destroy them.

This country has gained its influence on the backs of other people and it’s continuing to do so, and unless we step-up to being much more aware of this and learn to manage this relationship better, we will soon be out of favor; we will have lost our position.

I really think that is where we are going, and I think if we talk about crisis, that is another piece that’s going to make the crisis even more intense, and it’s coming, and anybody who looks at that has to realize there’s a whole wave out there that’s coming.

Chuck: Vern, what would you like to focus on in the future?

Vern: One of my dreams is to invite all citizens who currently serve on any board of any organization in the community—utility districts, school districts, transit districts, and cities—and invite them and see who will come to discuss the difficult issues we face. These people, whether they know it or not, are in positions to influence what’s going on.

Another vital area to focus on is developing leaders for the future. Far more important than seeking to fix systems and structures is the development of future leaders who genuinely care about people and society.

Chuck: Is there anything you would like to add before we conclude our discussion?

Vern: My work has been about relationships and community. That is what has been happening to me. It has been very sweet.

Vernon See Chong Ho passed away peacefully on January 2, 1996.

My vision of community is where people from all different walks of life come together for the common good. This is what’s been happening to me.
– Vern Ho

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  1. Chuck: thanks for sharing this inspiring interview! I followed the link you’d left in a comment on a post in Dan Oestreich’s Unfolding Leadership blog.In reading this, I was reminded of the song “Time“, by Pink Floyd, which talks about frittering away time, waiting for someone or something, and the quiet desperation that often results from this pattern.Let’s hope we have the gumption – individually and collectively – to get our hands dirty!

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