Saturday, August 29, 2015

Arthur - Malevolent Muse: the Life of Alma Mahler

Alma Schindler Mahler (1879 – 1964) was to be wed to three of the great creative geniuses of the late 19th and early 20th century – Gustav Mahler (composer/conductor), Walter Gropius (architect), and Franz Werfel (writer). Beyond these three marriages, she also had relationships or affairs with many other men, taking pride in identifying men of promise and inspiring, urging, or taunting them to greatness - at least her diaries reflect this intent. Her life was beyond fascinating, attracting admiration from some and disdain from others but there is no question, she was constantly evolving and searching for her own place in the world.

The author of this biography (2015), Donald Arthur, does not spin a polite story. Characterized variously as superficial, narcissistic, impetuous, sexualized, and anti-Simetic, one might not expect Alma to attract a wide circle of friends; somehow these qualities were overlooked or may even have enticed many men who would be prominent artists. Alma was a survivor, having lost a beloved father, tolerating a disinterested step father (Carl Moll, one of the founders of the Secession movement in Vienna), romanced as a teen by Gustav Klimt (painter), and struggling throughout her life to be satisfied with any lover, no matter how dedicated they were to her.

I was left wondering if Alma’s life might have been different had her ambition been directed at her own creations rather than wrapped up in those she loved. I also wonder if her criticism and abuse of others might have been subdued had the times in which she grew up not been so tolerant of classicism and discrimination. Arthur described Alma as imperious, prone to jealousy, and haughty, all feigned to obscure her own insecurity.

Although Alma was only married to Gustav Mahler from 1901 to his death in 1911, she returned throughout her life to his name in order to command the social position she believed she warranted. Even in her final days in New York City, Leonard Bernstein would invite Alma to performances of Mahler’s symphonic works. Exploiting Mahler’s name and growing prestige while he was still alive, she complained that he did not recognize her musical talent, which by most accounts was modest. Although Mahler is now one of the most widely performed composers in the modern day, he had ups and downs during his years conducting the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan (NYC), and eventually the newly formed New York Philharmonic. The pinnacle - Mahler’s eventual reputation would command an astounding 1.5 million dollars for his last three years in New York City. Gustav Mahler left Alma a rich and prominent widow who would immediately pursue Walter Gropius with whom she had an affair while Gustav was still alive.

Oskar Kokoschka, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Wassily Kandinsky, Arnold Schonberg, Bruno Walter, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Eugene Ormandy, and others were all to encounter Alma Mahler. Their association with this complicated muse would aid some of their careers and others would only brush with the flame that had consumed others. Upon her death in 1964 the Washington Post would publish:
Alma Mahler-Werfel, 85, who was married to, or, by her own admission had love affairs with many of Europe’s great men in the early 1900s, was the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, and was called “the most beautiful woman in Vienna” at the turn of the century.

To have known so many, and influenced them through her social networks, must be counted for better or worse as a peculiar, and sometimes sinister, form of leadership. Alma Schindler Mahler rose to the top of elite circles and was intimate with giants of arts and culture most of us could only fantasize the chance to encounter.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Impact of economic inequality on Millennials

I continue to be fascinated and deeply concerned about the impact of economic inequality - both in the U.S.A. and world-wide. Business Insider looked specifically at Millennials' ability to purchase homes and found one characteristic in common - those purchasing homes had very rich parents who helped them. The article describes in essence three tiers - no, moderate and extreme privilege. Those with no economic privilege take out significant loans to finance their educations while those with moderate privilege attend university at little to no cost to them (scholarship or parents handle it). Once no and moderate wealth Millennials enter the work world, they find that owning a home (which is the dream for most of them) is out of reach as a result of high real estate costs coupled with the down payments required to begin home ownership. Those who qualify as "double lucky" have parents whose wealth affords debt-free education and allows them to launch their children into home ownership as well - this is 9% of the total college-attending Millennial population (which is less than 50% of the total and something less than 4.5% of the Millennial cohort).

The "funnel of privilege" that is described in this article confirms what Picketty and Stiglitz have already written. The difference is that it looks at the population that is entering the most productive periods of their lives and it paints a cloudy scenario for anyone outside the top, top strata of economic privilege. If something is not done to provide broader opportunity, stimulating economic vitality for the future will become even more difficult - an economic environment that pays not only for one's own family and living expenses but may also have to accommodate greater public spending on eroding infrastructure, retirement of their parents, and a flattening world economy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Humility and leadership

A repeated or imbedded theme in my exploration of leadership has been the importance of humility. The reason I've been fascinated with it is that the idea of humility may seem contradictory to many of the public models we see of leadership - the people who seem to seek visibility and iconography through their presumed acts of leadership. What may be confused here is notoreity versus leadership. If someone is visible and known, some people assume they are seeing leadership. I tend to think that, while visibility might come to someone exhibiting real leadership, it is not at all a distinguishing characteristic of those who are successful in leadership. Further, there is a possibility in my mind that those who seek visibility might be some of the more dangerous to follow, primarily because the pursuit of attention is likely to reflect a more deep-seeded insecurity that, when fed with adulation, could become very destructive.

My experiences of observing very simple and powerful leadership has drawn me to look more carefully at this idea of humility. A friend of mine uses the word "proudy" when referring to people who draw attention to themselves. In his culture and religious view, being "proudy" reflects a focus on self and a purpose that undermines the true spirit of leadership. A number of leadership models have emerged over the last 30+ years that suggest the importance of humility in leadership - servant leadership, the social change model, authentic leadership, connective leadership and the very important concerns that have been raised about bad leaders. These and other models help us to understand how a focus on others, both in persona and action, is a promising indicator of those worthy of our trust.

An amazing phenomenon is underway with the emergence of Donald Trump as a candidate for President of the U.S.A. in 2016. His numbers are rising in the polls, attributed by some media to his candor and the public's desire to hear direct and straight messages from their political leaders. While calling it as he sees it may be attractive to some, what Tump is actually saying is far more important. Trump's proclamation that "I'm very rich" and that his driving concern in the race is to reclaim America is very telling - and probably not an indication of humility.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Coelho - The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist has been around for quite some time but, for whatever reason, I just got around to reading the 25th anniversary edition (2014).  That it took me so long to discover The Alchemist is strange because of my previous use of the “Presence” model coupled with other ideas about how important it is to seek one’s own purpose (Coelho’s language is “personal legend”) in life as a way of exhibiting authentic leadership as well as living a fulfilling life. Reading Coelho’s words often felt so familiar that it seemed as if I had read the book before or that I was reading my own words.

The main character in The Alchemist is a shepherd who travels from his home in Andalusia (the region most influenced by Islam when it spread from the Middle East through Northern Africa and across the Mediterranean to Spain) across to Africa and eventually to the Great Pyramids of Egypt, only to return again to where he started in Andalusia. These are places that are familiar to me in culture, language, dress, religion and so many other ways – they are comfortable places with many beautiful people who have led difficult yet fulfilling lives, always striving for better ways to be in the world.

The shepherd boy meets an unassuming man early in the book; the man ends up being a wise king who reappears numerous times throughout the book but in different personages. The wise man challenges what he says is a common belief and repeated lie – that we are all controlled by fate, a power beyond ourselves. The myth of fate is countered by the real truth – that “whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.” Through many difficult and sometimes catastrophic experiences, the boy gains and loses fortunes, finds and loses loves, and encounters fascinating guides along the way. When things don’t go well, the shepherd has to decide if he will let himself be a victim or will rise above the calamity to see himself “as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.” Ultimately, he chooses to be an adventurer and adopts the “language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

If making the choice to pursue our personal legend and adopting a positive outlook is all it takes, why don’t more of us surrender to the potential within? When the shepherd boy finally meets the alchemist in his journey to the Pyramids, the alchemist explains, “People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them… Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

The Alchemist is a short and powerful read. I wish I had read it earlier in life but I guess it’s message has been in my soul all along…

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Harris - International Bank of Bob

Bob Harris was a travel and tourism writer, traveling the world as if he could afford to stay at the luxurious hotels and eat at the fancy restaurants he would visit and then review. All that came to an end when he encountered Dubai. The extreme wealth and privilege, contrasted with the desperate lives of those who built and served the city shocked him into wondering what matters in life. Then it caused him to take a journey to understand the KIVA organization, an organization dedicated to providing opportunity to those who seek economic opportunity but whose prosperity was cut short by the cross-generational and cross-national birth lottery.

Some within the U.S.A. and many outside its borders turn to risky strategies to improve their lives because they love their families. Those who serve as common laborers in places like Dubai sacrifice the most. They are compelled by images of financial gain and they risk everything they have for that chance, often going into great debt to do it and many times risking their health and safety just in the hopes of a better life. They always leave their loved ones back home and end up living away for many years and perhaps an entire adulthood. Although places like Dubai allow for the exploitation of these desperate seekers, Dubai isn’t where the problem started. The root of the problem is the level of poverty and lack of opportunity back in India, Nepal, the Philippines, or elsewhere. That’s why KIVA’s focus has been on providing resources for husbands, wives, and family to stay home and to have access to low-interest loans to create their own businesses.

While other strategies are available to help those in perpetual poverty to have a better life, many (certainly not all) of them are wrapped in a veneer of pity that mostly makes the donors feel good about themselves. The KIVA approach is one that views those who lack economic opportunity as creative, smart, strong, resourceful, and resilient – it recognizes their dignity and worth which is one of the major preconditions to self-sufficiency. KIVA not only provides funding but requires coaching of those who receive loans to help them be successful and it reinforces that every success results in funds returning to the pool to be reallocated to help others. The International Bank of Bob is packed with examples of success from around the world and reflecting the many cultures and religions where poverty has struck. The book also provides honest examples of failure or “over-reach” where some have been too ambitious; it is realistic and does not claim any special truth or cure.

I identified a lot with Harris’ stories, particularly since his journey started in a place with which I am so very familiar, it traversed other places I’ve been, and it ended in Chicago (ACCION) where I now live. It’s strange how a book can so closely mirror your own experience, bringing both greater insight and gravity to your own lived experience. The extremes of wealth found in some places in the world go beyond “any sane human comfort and starts touching lunacy,” as Harris noted early in his book. Is KIVA a way for those who have relative wealth to share their prosperity and alleviate the poverty found in so many, many places? And if it worked, it wouldn’t cost a dollar – only a simple loan that would regenerate itself and eventually be available to others to pursue their own dreams of crossing from poverty to dignity.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

4th of July in America!

On the 4th of July in 2007 I was on a plane most of the day, returning to Dulles International on a Qatar Airways flight after having taken the first step in considering a move to Qatar. I still needed to explore the possibilities with family but it was very clear that the Qatar Foundation opportunity was pretty extraordinary, so extraordinary that I was already leaning toward trying to find a way to make it happen if given an offer. It was kind of crazy because in 2007 all that existed was a handful of staff who had been invited to come on board, a temporary office area, and lots of amazing vision for what student affairs might look like for Education City in Doha, Qatar.

It was a bit surreal returning to the U.S.A. on the 4th of July, especially in a year when the Presidential election was very inflammatory, when bipartisanship was pushing toward a fever pitch, and when (unbeknownst to most) the economy was slipping toward a dangerous cliff. Things were comfortable at Miami and it looked as if I was going to be there for the long haul but, as the months between July and November unfolded, it became infinitely clear that Qatar was the right choice – and it was!

As I reflect on being out of the U.S.A. for 7 years and now being back for the quintessential day that celebrates the principles of America, I hope I’m a better citizen than when I left. Being outside of the U.S.A. exposed me to a level of complexity in the world that I had never grasped before. It exposed me to both the shortcomings and strengths of the U.S.A. and it helped me to understand that acknowledging where we fall short is one of America’s greatest strengths. Many other countries are unable to have spirited debate and maintain tensions that serve many complicated and competing stakeholders. While the contentiousness of American politics can be troubling, we make progress despite the roadblocks.

We went to a pre-4th celebration on the shores of Lake Michigan last night and witnessed thousands reveling in food, music, sports, and friendship. The response to hearing a community symphonic band play patriotic American standards demonstrated a real appreciation for what the 4th means. And the bus we road back to our neighborhood was driven by a delightful driver who engaged those on board in our own songfest. However, the interesting thing was that it was a little harder to find songs that everyone knew than when I was a kid growing up in Boulder, CO, attending the community songfest and fireworks at the Colorado University stadium. In those days, it appeared that everyone knew the words and the sound of thousands singing together is something I’ll never forget.

What’s different about the 4th in the 1950s and 1960s in Boulder and the 4th in 2015 in Chicago? Those with whom we shared the 4th last night were far more diverse than those of years ago, so diverse that sometimes it ‘s hard to find elements of a common culture. My belief is that the greater diversity that is now obvious in America is a strength and, even though somewhat harder to negotiate, it is a strength that will serve America going forward in the 21st century. The key is recognizing and welcoming many voices with different songs, customs, and perspectives, all embracing and striving for an America that not only stands on important democratic principles but lives them as well.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Revisiting expatriate life in Qatar

It has now been over six months since I left Qatar. I thought that I might blog more often to reflect my thoughts as the months unfolded but I’ve reentered relatively easily and have waited for something of significance to blog about. I received a message this morning with a link to a very interesting article by Dane Wisher, an expatriate from the U.S.A. who worked in Qatar for three years and recently repatriated.

Dane’s reflections took me back to many of the thoughts and feelings I had about being in Qatar. Since returning to the U.S.A., I've not really talked to that many people about what I'd done for the last 7 years. Most people don't ask and I don't volunteer. I don't volunteer at least partially because I'm ambivalent about the experience. All the time I was in Qatar I held hopes and dreams that I would be able to contribute something that would be lasting and that would fundamentally change many of the conditions with which I was so uncomfortable.

The author of this article, Dane, was in Qatar in her early career while I was there in late career. The timing of expatriate work makes a lot of difference in what you experience. The most provocative section of the article for me was the following:
Expat employees generally get used to the dissonance between the rhetorical fanfare of the higher-ups and the actual administrative fickleness that plagues local management structures and cripples the abilities of employees to do their jobs. But more than than, as a human being you get used to passing emaciated workers on construction sites on the walk to the Kempinsky or the Four Seasons. You get used to seeing Qatari men browbeat—and sometimes actually beat—South Asian drivers on the side of the road. You grow accustomed to watching workers on break line up in the shade of a single palm tree as the dirt sizzles around them in August. You stop registering the busses with no air-conditioning carrying the laborers to and from their cramped quarters. You stop noting the way the men press their dusty faces out the open windows for air.
The reality of this segment is that the first sentence so clearly and sadly captures my experience. Unfortunately, I fear some might say I was part of "rhetorical fanfare of the higher ups." I actually believed that we were making a difference and I believed that drawing others into seeing the possibilities was better than cursing the darkness. However, I depart from the author on the rest of the paragraph. I never got used to the chasm between the privileged Qatari/expats and the Southeast Asian workers. Reading the words even now brings back deep emotional connections - I see the faces and the yearning of those trying to build a better life. What the article does not address is that at least some proportion of these workers (I suggest significant) have a better life because they went to Qatar; the fact is that the U.S.A. and other Western countries are certainly not opening their doors to help those who are desperate for economic opportunity. The problem of inequality is vast and the worst in the world today is the U.S.A. If you look at the U.S.A. in comparison to the rest of the world, it gets even worse. Because I saw the difference and experienced the tolerance of inequality so profoundly in Qatar, I now see it much more clearly in the U.S.A. Something has to be done and I pray that the shifting political environment in the U.S.A. will result in our being a better country and in the U.S.A. and its citizens understanding our role in the world in different ways. The faces of others will never leave my memory and it is for them that my work is now about trying to bring substantive internationalization to U.S. higher education.

I have written, and continue to write, about the Qatar days. I don't go into the details of the things that made me ambivalent, primarily because I still hold hope that change will eventually come. Becoming cynical about the experience doesn't work for me nor does voicing it help Qatari leaders in their quest to change. The good Qatari who I knew deeply and still admire greatly are attempting to serve their country and bring modernity to its people. The thing that Westerners generally don't get is that being a Qatari leader is extremely volatile, challenging, and potentially dangerous. The pace of change has to be at a rate that the mainstream Qatari citizen will endorse, not as Qatari leaders or Western expats would hope. It is a long, slow and difficult path.