Sunday, January 17, 2016

World-Embracing Leadership webinar on January 21, 2016

ACPA's Commissions on Student Involvement and Global Dimensions of education invited me to offer a webinar on Thursday, January 21, 2016, 11 a.m. Central Standard time (GMT-6). This webinar, titled World-Embracing Leadership, will combine ideas that I've discovered in designing and building leadership programs as well as what I've learned more recently about internationalization. You can register here. After the webinar has concluded, come back here to share your reactions and ideas about what you heard. Cultivating World-Embracing Leadership is critical to our futures and I hope you'll join the conversation.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Ridley - The Rational Optimist

Having always embraced the optimist’s perspective on life, Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010) was a natural for me to read. Ridley, a popular science author who is a Conservative member of the British House of Lords, advocated a perspective that diverges from many of the things I read but I appreciated the depth of his analysis and his challenge to the fear mongering we so often hear.

‘Apocaholics’ (a term credited to Gary Alexander) are authors, speakers, consultants and others who “exploit and profit from the natural pessimism of human nature.” The latest version includes many of the current politicians running for President of the United States. Ridley backs up his criticism of apocaholics with lists of books and campaigns that have predicted calamity that have not materialized. The evidence cited by Ridley indicates that, although there is much that is not right about the world in which we live, significant progress has been made in addressing hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, and economic disparity. The most dangerous implication of apocaholism is that it teaches children that things only get worse which justifies withdrawing and not engaging to make things better. He suggests that instead of retreating into fear and finger pointing, we should strive to martial the emerging revelations of science and technology to resolve the problems we face in the modern day. Ridley asserts that it is precisely because so much progress has been made in improving life for all that the “continuing imperfections of the world places a moral duty on humanity to allow economic evolution to continue,” natural evolution that addresses real problems through effective and competitive economic progress.

Ridley’s assertion that optimism, not pessimism, should drive our thinking is based on the idea of evolutionary innovation that results from exchange and specialization in complex cultures. A very graphic example of how life has changed as a result of specialization and competition among unencumbered actors is what we spend on life necessities. As an example, a British farm in 1790 spent 75% of his wages for food, 10% on clothing and bedding, 6% on housing, 5% on heating, and 4% on light and soap. In 2005, the average British consumer spent in after-tax income 20% on housing, 18% on transportation, 16% on household conveniences, 14% on food, 6% on health care, 5% on entertainment, 4% on clothing, 2% on education, 1% on sundries, and 11% investing to secure future prosperity. What we now spend on life’s essentials has introduced greater diversity, and most would say quality, because specialization, innovation, and trade have exploded in the last 225 years! In a nutshell, “The characteristic signature of prosperity is increasing specialization. The characteristic signature of poverty is a return to self-sufficiency,” and the isolation of possible innovators, producers, and consumers from each other.

While he did not pinpoint when it actually began, Ridley described numerous examples across history and culture when humans began to exchange things with each other, bringing value to high expertise and specialization, which then created an economy, consumer acquisition, and ongoing processes of innovation. “Human beings diversified as consumers and specialized as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better off they have been, are, and will be.” The periods of greatest advance in quality of life were mostly when innovators and entrepreneurs were set free to create. The reason for Ridley’s title is that Rational Optimism “holds that the world will pull out of the current crisis because of the way that markets in goods, services, and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialize honestly for the betterment of all.”

Ridley does not deal with the abuses of the natural market. The question that could be raised is if all the markets now available to us create a better quality of life or if the imbalance in what we pay for certain products and services is justified (i.e. one might ask if an investment of 2% on education and 5% on entertainment will secure a positive future). Ridley also assumes that the economic market is, in essence, democratic, responding to the natural needs of the public. In either an autocratic or oligarchic environment, the needs of the public are manufactured or manipulated and sometimes not in ways that will serve the public good. Regardless of what Ridley does not address, his prediction for the 21st century is very appealing and perhaps plausible – “intelligence will become more and more collective; innovation and order will become more and more bottom-up; work will become more and more specialized, leisure more and more diversified. Large corporations, political parties and government bureaucracies will crumble and fragment…”

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Adeney - Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World

During my work abroad I frequently sought research and publications about the expatriate work experience. With expatriates from many different countries and with a variety of educational backgrounds, one of our biggest concerns at Qatar Foundation was identifying the right people and helping them to adopt a style of intercultural engagement that would be effective. I recently joined a local church reading group that dove into Bernard Adeney’s Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World. Although the book was written by a theologian who was writing for missionaries and others working or serving abroad in faith-based groups, Adeney’s writing shed light on a number of things worth considering in relation to traveling, living, working and ministering abroad.

One of the core challenges with expatriates or visitors from the West is that most are actually much less aware of the world beyond their Western borders although they generally believe they are more aware than everyone else. This lack of understanding then leads to Westerners ignoring how their own cultural perspectives influence their ideas, lifestyles, and ultimate virtue. In cultural settings where degrees of honesty and forthrightness, deference to hierarchy, voicing opposition, or advocating for social justice vary from Western sensibility, the lack of awareness about the origin of these beliefs is particularly important. Effectiveness in another culture starts with humility and curiosity and develops through dialogue and true encounter.

Adeney advocated finding a local cultural advisor as one of the best ways to understand another culture. Authentic cultural understanding offers the opportunity for expatriates/visitors to adopt the truth of her/his host as their own. A beautiful song shared in a sermon given by our church’s South Korean ministerial intern captures this sentiment:
I want my mind to go where your mind goes.
I want my tears to be where your tears drop.
I want my sight to see whom your sight sees.
I want my steps to give compassion to whom you love.
I want to understand your heart, so all my plans may be your plans.
I want to know your heart, so all my life will be a sacrifice for you.
What is interesting about the song is that it could be interpreted as a statement of a believer to his/her God or it could be interpreted as a statement of the relationship one has with a deep and abiding friend, the kind of friendship inspired by appreciation, respect, and faith.

Several cross-cultural communication models were included in Adeney’s book. None of these represented break-through thinking especially by comparison to newer models such as Molinsky’s cultural dexterity approach. He did indicate how important it is for expatriates/visitors to realize that communication and work efficiency are likely to decline in working/visiting abroad. Some expatriates eventually begin to resent the countries and the nationals with whom they work; Adeney explained that this may be the outcome of culture fatigue and may even end up in chronic unhappiness that only gets worse with time.

While much of Adeney’s book deals with theological and religious questions across cultures, the core of his advice is consistent with other research and theories I’ve read as well as reasonably reflective of my own experience. The bottom line to remember is that expatriates/visitors should seek to understand themselves through the eyes of their hosts which will shine a light on “very personal issues of lifestyle and very private matters of finance, family relations and personal integrity” that influence how they are perceived as strangers in another culture.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Malkin - Rethinking Narcissism

I picked up Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad – and Surprising Good – about Feeling Special (2015) primarily because of the emerging research about on-line behavior, specifically the phenomenon of selfies. My bias as I began the book was clearly negative but Malkin’s research, practice as a clinician, and writing offered a much more balanced view.

Essentially, narcissism is a way of making oneself feel special – it’s that simple. Seeking to be ‘special’ is a necessary coping system in a world where we are all seeking a sense of identify and self-worth. Healthy narcissism can lead to being happier, more fulfilled, and more productive in life.

The term narcissism comes from the ancient Greek fable of Echo and Narcissus. In the story, Narcissus is a handsome young man who grows obsessed with his own reflection in the water, so obsessed that he ignores the adoration of others. To punish him, Nemesis condemns Narcissus to a life of unrequited friendship and love. Narcissus was extreme in rebuffing others and this is the kind of narcissism that Malkin identifies as problematic – obsession with oneself to the degree that there is no ability to empathize with others, no understanding of how one’s behavior impacts others, no ability to feel remorse, and a general penchant for manipulation.

Although gregarious narcissists can appear very self-assured and dominant, they are most often covering for the fear that lurks inside. Their bravado is a shield to keep them on their pedestal, on top of the world and feeling special.

Narcissists can pop up among lovers, children, work colleagues, acquaintances and elsewhere. One of the groups that is currently criticized for being narcissistic is Millennials, a characterization that Malkin rejects citing research that they are most often respectful of parents and elders, value marriage and family, self-confident, expressive and open to change – all traits that are very different from the typical narcissist. There is, however, a natural tendency for people under 25 to be more narcissistic, primarily due to youthful ambition and optimism. This temporary narcissism declines naturally with age. Frightening for us all is that a number of psychiatrists are now going public that front-runner Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, suffers from classic narcissism personality disorder.

Malkin’s book has many helpful insights. There is a self-assessment to determine where you are on the scale from echoists, to healthy narcissist, and to extreme, abusive and manipulative narcissist. The book also has chapters related to family, children, co-workers and others, each of which contains tips for spotting narcissists and figuring out what to do to respond to them. Because narcissists often suffer from insecure love and doubts about their own competence, they take out their bad feelings on others through bullying, cruelty, and dismissive gestures. The root of these behaviors is generally an extreme sense of entitlement. Malkin’s advice is to not overreact to narcissists negative behavior but, instead, recognize and nurture behaviors that reflect growing empathy, understanding, and care for others. In the workplace, focusing on the benefits of collaboration and understanding can be a path to discovering a new way of interacting with others. It’s basically a process of nudging the extreme narcissist toward more healthy narcissism that openly acknowledges fears, sadness, loneliness and other softer feelings.

Malkin explains that “anything that takes us further away from authentic relationships is more likely to feed narcissistic addiction. “ Specifically related to social media, spending lots of time viewing others’ profiles and posts can actually damage our own healthy narcissism. As we view how others want us to see them (which generally is all the good and none of the bad stuff), we end up feeling that our life is either average or inadequate, which drives us to post often, change our profile picture, and do other things that are centered on us. Malkin suggests that the best way to control our own and other’s potentially narcissistic urges is to “move from SoMe to SoWe,” meaning that we should seek genuine relationships and seek to find, and be ourselves, the kind of people who share not for purposes of shaping an image but for simply sharing the journey of life. In addition, sharing and pursuing passions that include a focus on caring and concern for others is key, resulting in narcissism that combines passion and compassion.

"At the heart of healthy narcissism is the capacity to love and be loved on a grand scale. People who live in the center of the spectrum don’t always take to the stage, but when they do, they often lift others up with them.”

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Naim - The End of Power

A month after a Russian plane was alleged to have been downed by an ISIS bomb, one day after Lebanon was also bombed, and less than 24 hours after multiple attacks in Paris the pundits will most likely start their tirade of blaming and politicians will begin the exploitation of the tragedy of others for their own advancement. Lest we fall prey to their spin, we need to look for the fuller, historic and contemporary conditions related to these atrocities. I offer no excuses, no blame, but search for understanding and I hope more and more true patriots of all countries will join together in finding solutions.

A book I recently read, The End of Power (Moises Naim, 2013), provided some insights that could be relevant to understanding terrorism and its impact on us all. Naim’s thesis is that the dynamics of power in our world have changed and that the change is irreversible. Whether talking about the power of military, institutions, politics, economics, or other systems, power is less accessible, harder to maintain, and more widely distributed than we’ve experienced in modern history. Naim proposes “that power is shifting from brawn to brains, from north to south, and west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile start-ups, from entrenched dictators to people in town squares and cyberspace.” The dynamic of elusive and changing power has set loose a process of power grabbing and manipulation that denies traditional power-holders the chance to control what is going on around us.

Our current ideas about power being vested in large, influential organizations and in individual leaders and governments came from the industrial era, a time when massification and bureaucracy were seen as the path to prominence, profit, and effectiveness. The End of Power proposes that power is different as a result of revolutions in three areas – more, mobility, and mentality. These three revolutions have resulted from the expansion of access to products and services worldwide (more), movement of people and ideas across borders (mobility), and the fact that now every person and institution is subject to challenge (mentality). These revolutions have broken down the former barriers to power that protected the privilege of the few who previously controlled them. In place of the controlling dictators or bureaucratic systems, the new order is defined by democratic processes, minority and factional groups, regional coalitions, and grass-roots movements.

Today, after Russia, Lebanon, and France have all been attacked by ISIS, we have to understand that believing in battle ships and drones ignores the ubiquitous and seemingly uncontrollable presence and action of violent, dispersed, and stealthful splinter groups. In Naim’s words, “The decay of power has changed the terms and the possibilities of conflict, increasing the influence of small, nonstate, and nontraditional players as the tools have generalized and the costs have tumbled.” Those in business also face a very different competitive world where advantage often goes to a smaller organization that can innovate without the encumbrance of approvals, traditions, and over-attention to the risk of brand. For those concerned with politics, it’s critical to understand that the paralysis observed in the U.S.A. and other “mature” democracies is largely the result of the same dynamics that have undermined power in the military and business – conflicting interests asserting their demands or product without regard for the impact for anyone else.

Naim compels us to name the change we are experiencing, understand its dynamics, and stop bemoaning the loss of privileged power that has trapped many of us in blind alleys. Those who continue to simplify what is going on to elementary levels have to be called out. The terrible simplifiers of our age offer simplistic and uninformed direction that may make us feel good (i.e. “Make America Great Again”) but sets us against each other. These simplifiers also exploit anyone with lower critical thinking insight or those whose identities are wrapped up in being victims. Once we join together in calling out the terrible simplifies, we need to work as citizen patriots to foster trust in each other and in people and systems that need our support.  This is the essence of renewed democracy as more citizens from many different perspectives begin to participate on our own ground rather than the platform offered to us by those who continue to perpetuate a form of power that is proving to be ineffective. “The undeniable positive consequences of the decay of power include freer societies, more elections and options for voters, new platforms for organizing communities, more ideas and possibilities, more investment and trade, and more competition among firms and thus more options for consumers.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

Skills + Experience + Environments = Innovation Capacity

In the 10+ years that I've maintained the Pursuing Leadership blog, I've returned to the issue of fostering innovation many times. I can only assume that my personal experience as a musician and work throughout my career to foster creativity has drawn me to this topic. At a time when most predictions are that innovation is fundamental for individuals, organizations, and countries that seek to successfully negotiate the rough waters of the 21st century, learning to nurture creativity is essential.

Deba Dutta addresses the question of innovation and creativity in the Inside Higher Education piece Educating to Innovate. While Dutta acknowledged that this research is preliminary and mostly reinforces intuitive understanding, the findings indicate three broad areas where attention is required - skills, experiences, and environments. One simple sentence struck me as critical but understated - "our colleges and universities provide transformative experiences, but often outside of the classroom." This important realization, coupled with the kinds of skills identified as important to innovation, provides direction that academic faculty and student development educators can embrace together. As Dutta indicates, "we found that innovators tend to have creativity, curiosity, deep knowledge of a field (invariably more than one), intellectual flexibility and the ability to think outside the box of a defined discipline. But we also found that they are generally risk takers who don't fear failure (although many emphasized that they don't like failure). They also are good at selling ideas -- a crucial skill for raising funds and building a team. Innovation is, after all, teamwork."

It's time to get to work - academic and student affairs together - to create the opportunities and environments that will prepare our students and future leaders to be innovators.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Catmull - Creativity, Inc.; Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration

Steve Jobs, while making his way through throngs of fans at the 79th Annual Academy Awards that would grant “Cars” its best animated feature film award, turned to colleague Ed Catmull, and remarked “What this scene really needs is a Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire.” Irreverent, funny (if you forgive Jobs for cultural insensitivity) and more – it was one of those comments that Jobs would say to a loyal colleague like Ed. And it is this kind of perspective taking that made Jobs so brilliant, visionary, and successful and allowed him to see, even at the Academy Awards, the potential for a greater spectacle.

With a new film coming out about Jobs in late October, I can’t imagine better preparation than Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. (2014) as a way to get a glimpse of how difficult Jobs could be but also how compassionate, creative, and engaging he could be as well.  Creativity, Inc. isn’t about Jobs but about Pixar, the organization he bought from George Lucas, nurtured through difficult times, and ultimately supported all the way to its great successes with Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and others.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more discerning book on the impact of organization climate on creativity and innovation. With innovation very much on the radar for advanced economies that are shifting their focus to services and quality of life, for-profit, not-for-profit, and educational organizations would do well to pay close attention to the story of Pixar – how it came to be, how its founders established the open culture that would support creativity, and how difficult it was to maintain this culture over the long haul.

Catmull and his colleagues founded Pixar with the goal of producing the first ever digitally animated film, a goal that was far beyond his or anyone else’s capability when they started on their journey. They created an organization that was partially about its physical space, one that eventually was characterized as Steve Jobs’ “movie,” but more importantly it was about how Pixar approached problems. As Catmull said about Pixar, “we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

Pixar had a different vision of itself. The staff “realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.” This culture would be characterized by avoiding confining rules, by candor, by assuming equality among all employees, by recognizing and pushing problems down to places where they can be solved,  and by adopting a framework that supports talent and excellence. And this kind of creative culture would be guided by leaders who were humble, recognized what they didn’t know, welcomed risk,  had the ability to suspend habits and impulses that had the potential to obscure their vision, and cultivated constant learning.

Creativity, Inc. brings great hope to those who seek to innovate by offering many practical examples and tips.  As one who sought to bring innovation to higher education in a number of ways (and I still do), I have frequently felt dismissed for seeing things differently than others. I’ve always understood that innovation by its nature is about change and that there will always be resistance to things that are outside the norm. Looking back on some experiences that I viewed as failures is difficult but Catmull helped me find dignity in striving when he said, “creative people discover and realize visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle.” Leaders who want their organizations to be more innovative need to realize that, “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.”