Thursday, August 04, 2016

Medina - Brain Rules

Thinking big and holistic is the only way to tackle questions related to improving the effectiveness of leadership; among the most important influences in leadership is the way we protect, expand, and use our brains. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Medina, 2014) is a quick read and full of insights on how our brains function and how to get the most out of what God has granted to us in this amazing organ. Medina's web site provides a nice introduction as well.

Medina explains that from the earliest biological evidence, brains appear to have evolved to help humans survive in very harsh and changing circumstances. It was essential that the brain assisted us in solving problems, serving us in an unstable outdoor environment, and supporting us in almost constant change and motion. In addition, our human brains developed to uniquely offer us symbolic reasoning that utilized evidence and helped us relate socially to others. These unique characteristics not only allowed us to survive but to thrive. (3% into digital text)

Of the 12 principles Medina identifies, he starts the book by looking at 5 of the most important:
  • Exercise boosts brain power (rule #2)
  • People don’t pay attention to boring things (rule #6)
  • Whether you get enough rest at night affects your mental agility (rule #3)
  • We must repeat to remember (rule #)
  • We are powerful and natural explorers (rule #12)
Medina provided considerable evidence to substantiate these 5 and the rest of the 12 principles. Some of his assertions are already widely embraced. “One of the greatest predictors of successful aging, is the presence or absence of sedentary lifestyle” (8% into digital text) is one and another is that children and adolescents can focus more deeply and for a longer time if they are fit. In relation to sleep, Medina cites another researcher, Peter Tripp, who said that sleep provides the opportunity to dream, which “permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” (12% into digital text) Other sleep-related strategies Medina advocated were afternoon naps and taking the time to sleep on important and complex decisions we face. An aroused psychological state of stress does not have to be negative but it can become debilitating. In particular, sustained high levels of stress can impact our immune system or cause brain damage in areas most important to our success. Even mild stress, especially when it involves high expectation coupled with powerlessness, tends to ‘fog’ our thinking and undermine our effectiveness in responding to challenging circumstances or tough questions.

One of the most interesting points about brain functioning relates to the way the brain processes and stores information. Instead of neat, easily accessible packages of knowledge or experience, our brains break up information, storing it in different areas while also creating links across areas of the brain. Medina used the example of a musician where the motor skills required to play an instrument are in one area of the brain, the intellectual attention required to read musical notes in another, and the emotional insight required to interpret the composer’s intent elsewhere. Cross-brain activity is enhanced for musicians who study and actively play music, which then enhances their integrative capacity for other uses. Some of these other uses include greater ability to see the big picture or the ability to formulate more imaginative solutions to individual or community problems. A final positive outcome of studying and playing music is an increased emotional awareness/intelligence and a greater propensity for prosocial behavior - behavior directed for the good of a group or another individual.

Our brains encode information, initially an act of deliberate consciousness and later in effortless recall; these are examples of explicit (short-term) and implicit/procedural (long-term or consolidated) memory. An aid to driving memory deeper into the brain is to understand the relevance and purpose of the information. Using the example of music again, a pianist learns a complex piece by breaking it into parts, often working on some passages with painstaking detail for effective fingering or other technique; the relevance of complex fingering is that certain hand movements are easier than others and having a predictable and elaborate pattern can also assist in memorization.

Medina closes the book by acknowledging differences among men and women and by advocating for the importance of cultivating curiosity. Returning to the theme of our evolving brains, enhancing our willingness to pursue novel questions and increasing our discernment of innovation solutions becomes more important with humanity’s every step forward.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Geiger - The History of American Higher Education

How leadership capacity is cultivated is one of the central challenges for those who seek to create a vibrant democratic society. Roger Geiger's The History of American Higher Education provides considerable background about how education was used in the early days of America to cultivate leaders and how it has expanded to nurture broader leadership among its citizens in the modern day.

There are a number of commendable attributes of Geiger’s The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II (2015). The two things that are most helpful are 1) that the essence and sequence of the entire book is nicely summarized in the last chapter which is only 13 pages of the total 552 and 2) the book recounts the origins and roots of higher education in ways that reinforce the capacity building role colleges and universities played in building the embryonic democracy and fledgling economy of America. On the second point, this book could be helpful to those presently serving at international higher education sites because it both admonishes and warns through its historic narrative.

There are other histories of American higher education, some of which do a much better job summarizing the breadth of higher education rather than what Geiger does, which is to address the way issues of academic or intellectual insight were cultivated over time. The recounting of intellectual history is important for educators to understand, particularly because this history heavily impacts perspectives and approaches today. However, it would be very unfortunate if readers believed that after reading Geiger’s account they knew the essentials of American higher education history.

One of Geiger’s most important contributions is in summarizing the trends over time that shaped higher education to be what it is today. Starting with the medieval trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and informed by the mental, moral and natural philosophies of Aristotle, early American colleges were intended to prepare ministers and statesmen for public service. These colleges appealed to privileged men and learning took place in intimate encounters of eating, living, and studying together among faculty and students. As Geiger characterized, “The creation of an independent republic, the United States of America, presented the founders with the challenge of defining the nature of its government and the conditions that would allow it to flourish.” (16% into digital text) “…the survival of republics depended on the virtue of their citizens – the capacity of individuals to put the public good – the res publica – above their personal interests. For patriots, education seemed the best means of instilling virtue in the citizenry.” (17% into digital text) The importance of this mission guaranteed that the states would seek some degree of control over their colleges, a commitment grasped regardless of the fact that no public funding had gone into these colleges in the early days.

Early American colleges were all affiliated with one or another of the religious groups that had immigrated to America to find religious freedom and pursue a life in a new and developing land. Because they were among the first institutions in the new country, Geiger prominently profiles the colleges that would eventually be recognized as the “Ivy League.” Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia are noted most often as they established trends, differentiated purposes, and competed for eminence as credible places of learning. Although King’s College (later to be known as Columbia) was founded by powerful Dutch Reform families, it was the first to declare that its doors were open to all Christian believers, and it became the place where the upper ranks of New York society were cultivated. This purpose of entry into the emerging American elites was characteristic of most collegians well into the end of the 19th century and this social advancement was achieved through acquisition of connections, character, circumstances, and individual ability.

American universities were heavily influenced in the early years by the likes of John Adams and George Washington who connected the role of education with cultivating republican government. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a state university (UVa) that offered professional and advanced studies. While the advocacy of such visionaries resulted in a quick start, higher education went through various ups and downs throughout the 19th century, sometimes the result of politics or economic conditions and sometimes more the result of the changing and uncertain role played by colleges. Students themselves also sought to shape their experience, resulting in shifting perceptions of the role of colleges. Particularly in the middle to late 19th century, controlling students’ behavior became increasingly important and this was commonly accomplished by imposing religious fervor and piety on campus. As attendance expanded to include students beyond the privileged elite, the types of institutions to serve them proliferated and resulted in many small colleges sponsored by different religious groups. The dual purposes of liberal education versus preparation for work and career emerged as a tension at this time with some institutions attempting to serve both purposes but others specializing and offering competing approaches.

Geiger’s history documents many important trends that shaped American higher education including how institutions opened to female students, cultural minorities, and students from more humble economic backgrounds. He also cogently summarizes the trends in types of institutions and their purposes over time, including the move from elite education for public service to multifaceted institutions dedicated to liberal education, career preparation, and advancement of knowledge through research. Citing Edwin E. Slosson’s 1910 Great American Universities, Geiger offers three categories of universities that reflect the prominent trends in American higher education – the elite colonial colleges of Columbia, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale – the western state universities of California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, - and, the postbellum new universities of Chicago, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Stanford. (57% of digital text) However, he primarily describes these trends through the lens of faculty and the college president. Reference to the emerging presence and role of Deans of Women and Men as important influencers of campus culture and learning in the late 19th and early 20th century is superficial and fleeting. And, he completely missed the fact that student’s out of class experiences were addressed in increasingly formal and scholarly ways following the American Council on Education’s publication of the “Student Personnel Point of View” in 1937.

Geiger occasionally mentioned Deans in relation to their role in controlling students on behalf of the President.  He gave credit or blame for the growing “collegiate” culture to fraternities and athletics asserting that the “unspoken reality of fraternities was that they attracted students concerned with worldly success and social status.” (38% through digital text) The lack of recognition of the role of the student affairs deans as educators is a significant oversight. In addition, in this reviewer’s perspective the overstatement of the importance of the role of fraternities in shaping campuses neglects the important recognition of the growing focus on learning in and out of the classroom. In fact, Geiger took this lack of recognition to a point of denigration by saying “…college presidents increasingly defended their purpose as forming the ‘whole man.…, a rationalization that disguised the bankruptcy of their educational mission, a surrender of intellect to the ascendant value of the high collegiate era, which enthroned the principal features of manliness.” (62% of digital text) He later acknowledged that this collegiate life “had infused enormous vitality into the student experience. Moreover, it had made college attractive to a far larger population by promising social advancement and productive careers.” (67% of digital text) It is the opinion of this reviewer (and partially supported by Geiger’s text) that the growing importance of higher education in the post World War years was significantly derived from connecting research to the advancement of knowledge, the vitalization of the collegiate experience through in and out of class life, and supported by broadening access to students from all sorts of backgrounds. These three trends are perhaps the most important and distinguishing characteristics of American higher education in the 21st century.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

“I’m always trying to figure out how I fit in the world, which I think I share with 7 billion other people.” This statement by Yo-Yo Ma in the documentary film release, “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the SilkRoad Ensemble” places us all in the same predicament – how do we make sense of human existence and arrive at a place filled with possibility and hope.

This film captures the story of the musicians who joined with Yo-Yo Ma, each bringing their unique musical genius and cultural perspective, to create an eclectic mix of styles and messages. A number of the musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble have compelling stories of separation from loved ones and their native countries. But each, individually and most assuredly collectively, demonstrate that those who attempt to “kill the human spirit” find that “the spirit responds with the revenge of beauty.”

This is a very special film released on June 20, 2016, in select theaters. Do whatever you can to find a theater where it is playing or put it on your “must see” list for the future. It offers deep wisdom about music, culture, and leadership.

Monday, June 06, 2016

The No-Vote Protest

In an increasingly divisive election cycle for the Presidency of the U.S.A. the contentiousness has resulted in some voters saying that, if their candidate is not on the final ticket, they won’t vote at all. A decision to cast no vote undermines the very principles of democracy to which we aspire and is a cop-out that grants a non-vote to another candidate who the voter presumably views as equally unqualified or undesirable.
Why is this meaningful in the context of this blog – Pursuing Leadership? My posts over the last eleven years have all in one way or another attempted to shed light on how we see leadership and how we cultivate it in others and ourselves. The bottom line has been how to improve the quality of leadership we see in all sectors – education, business, politics and all?

I am currently reading The History of American Higher Education (Geiger, 2015) and will complete a review when I am done. One of the things the author documents about colonial and post-Revolution colleges was the need to build the capacity for a growing nation that not only included religious leaders, educators, physicians, lawyers, and eventually business and other vocations but also developed in all the capacity for self-governance. If we think politics is contentious now, do a little reading about the history of the Colonies... Those who established the foundation for democracy struggled and they fell short in many ways. However, they did embrace the broad idea of educating citizens so that they would take responsibility for themselves and would be discerning enough to engage in the difficult political discourse required for them to cast a responsible vote.

For every citizen of the U.S.A. who declines to vote in the 2016 elections, education has either failed us or the individual has copped out of the difficult task of reviewing, understanding, comparing, and endorsing the best available candidate on the ticket. When elections are contentious, there are those who count on more citizens not coming to the polls. The narrower the niche of support any candidate has, the more likely it is that the strategy will be to firm up supporters and work to discourage the fence-sitters or disenchanted from getting involved at all. Not voting for a candidate is a vote in favor of the alternative.

I have attempted to remain non-partisan in this brief comment. It doesn’t matter who you like or dislike or even who confuses you to the point of disillusionment. The process of sorting through our values and determining a best-fit candidate who will surely not represent all your views is a responsibility that each of us must undertake if we are to have even the slightest potential of fulfilling the democratic process that our founders and early educators envisioned.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Grant - Give and Take

Striving for success is defined by some as advancing oneself. Success for others is a means to provide for those we love or a way to make a difference in the world. Most of us strive for success in one way or another and the question is, what is it for us and what are we willing to do to achieve it? Adam Grant’s Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (2013) offers insights on success motivation and how to manage it in others and ourselves so that more can benefit.

Grant starts by reflecting the conventional wisdom that “highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity.” To these he suggests adding a fourth – “how we approach our interactions with other people.”  He proposes three common ways we interact – taking, giving, and matching. When considering success, one of these types falls into both the worst and the best performer categories – the giver. Takers and matchers typically fall somewhere in between the worst and best performers. Givers can fail because they offer too much but they can also achieve great success by supporting and nurturing other people as the givers seek their own objectives.

Give and Take provides numerous examples of the three archetypes of taker, matcher, and giver. One historic example was Abraham Lincoln who, prior to rising to the U.S. Presidency, often contributed to other’s success at his own expense. However, the base of Lincoln’s ultimate long-term achievements was established through generosity that resulted in critical goodwill and trust. Regardless of historic examples like Lincoln or even our lived experience when we look around at those with whom we would most like to live and work, many of us fear exposing our giving character because we fear being judged as weak and na├»ve.  The irony is that it is often those who tend to be dominant and controlling (stereotypical takers) who are often highly submissive when it comes to dealing with superiors or others who they perceive to hold power.

So how would we determine our or other’s inclinations? Takers are relatively easily identified by their self-glorifying and self-absorbed perspectives, often leading to the frequent use of first-person singular pronouns like I, me, mine, my and myself. Matchers can be spotted by the reciprocal (i.e. prid quo pro) expectations they have when dealing with others. Givers offer their assistance and advocate for others without expectation of return and can sometimes be characterized as “pronoid,” or excessively optimistic in their expectations of others. Givers offer their knowledge, advocate for others, and look for ways to help whenever they can.

Can the giver’s pronoid approach to life result in others taking advantage of them? Sure, but the advantage that the giver possesses over takers and matchers is their higher level of sincerity screening, a form of emotional intelligence that allows them to spot those who are out for themselves or striking a deal. The giver can sense the motivation of others and then responds in a giver spirit or as a cautious matcher when the exploitive motivations of others is sensed.

In essence, Grant advocates “otherish” behavior that reflects high concern for our own interests at the same time it demonstrates willingness and interest in other’s achieving their goals as well. Otherish goals can be maximized by joining together with others who seek to make a positive difference in the world, often resulting in networks of uncommon commonality (linkages based on optimal distinctiveness that allow us to fit in and stand out at the same time). The bottom line is that research indicates that givers generally feel better about themselves, receive more support from colleagues, and are engaged in meaningful work and involvements throughout their lives (incidentally, they tend to live longer). Successful givers “get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them.”

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pohl - Making Room

Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Pohl, 1999) began as a slow read but ended up being very compelling. Other readers may believe that Pohl’s ideas are too closely aligned with Christian beliefs and traditions but, from my point of view, all of us can use a bit more hospitality in our lives – both as providers and receivers. Having lived for seven years in an Islamic country in the Middle East, I know that many of the Arab and Islamic world hospitality traditions are very similar to what Pohl advocates.

Pohl starts her book by proposing that the “mystery of life is how often one senses God’s presence in the midst of very ordinary activities.” This mystery certainly confirms my experience and it draws me back to a 2010 post on my blog, “An ordinary Day.” This day in 2010 was one that I will never forget and it demonstrated that hospitality and care can come from very unexpected places and that the truest test of whether hospitality is authentic is that it crosses all sorts of boundaries and it expects nothing in return.

Making Room… looked at the historical precedents of hospitality in ancient times, when strangers depended on the generous help of others in order to survive. She says that the theological origin of this was Old Testament teachings related to Israel’s special relationship with God. Eventually this life-saving hospitality turned to life-giving and sustaining gestures of mutual sharing that revealed the depths of life experience. Pohl proposed that Christian hospitality is distinguished by the fact that it welcomes and serves the least among us without expectation of a benefit to the host. This type of hospitality historically included the three dimensions of 1) expression of respect and recognition, 2) meeting the other’s physical needs, and 3) hosting local and visiting groups of believers.

The hospitality custom eroded over time and resulted in John Wesley reviving the notion as a Christian responsibility in 18th century Europe. This type of hospitality was intended to draw strangers into a family or church household of reciprocal relations and commitments. This revival included treating all people as valued and respected and it often resulted in transformation for individuals, families, and communities.

In the modern day, much of what was previously offered through hospitality has been specialized and offered by designated caregivers rather than as an aspect of the life of all families and communities. The major problem with the professionalization of hospitality is that it results in those needing help being invisible, a condition that can only be corrected by putting ourselves in their position, becoming equally vulnerable and dependent. In fact, some of the “most transformative expressions of hospitality… are associated with hosts who are liminal, marginal, or at the lower end of the social order” itself. Those who have acquired wealth and influence often lose their empathy for those of marginal status, likely resulting in the reinforcement of social distinctions and the perpetuation of systemic injustices.

While the idea of adopting a more hospitable perspective might be daunting, the reality is that it usually emerges in small doses, builds on itself, and nourishes both giver and recipient. True hospitality requires that those who presume to serve accept that they can, and indeed need to be served as well. To expect a return on hospitality is to demean its transforming quality; hospitality comes from a grateful heart but can’t help but come back as a blessing to the host.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

South Africa - beautiful country struggling with its past

We recently traveled to South Africa for a combination of watching our daughter (Darbi) compete in IronMan South Africa as well as do some touring. South Africa was quite the surprise in terms of its natural beauty, history, variety of places to visit, and the nature of its people. We planned on a good visit but the trip far surpassed our expectations.

We started the trip in Capetown and then traveled to De Hoop nature reserve, Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay, Tsitsikamma National Park, and ended our eastern push at Port Elizabeth which is the end of the Garden Route across the southern end of the country.

The coastline is absolutely spectacular in so many places. The picture here is at De Hoop but this kind of vista was repeated many times. One of the biggest surprises was the course for the IronMan. The swim was in the Indian Ocean as the surf crested on Port Elizabeth beach. The bike was on a wonderful stretch of road mostly looking out to the Ocean. The run was on Marine Drive, a stretch of hotels, restaurants, and homes that ran the entire distance of the city of Port Elizabeth. This was the first time I was able to cheer Darbi on at an IronMan competition - an experience that resulted in enhanced appreciation and respect for the sport and Darbi's commitment to it. The sacrifice of IronMan competitors is amazing and the spirit among all was kind, welcoming and a real joy.

After the IronMan we toured Addo Elephant Park where we saw elephants in the wild along with zebra, monkeys, kudu, and other animals native to the area. It was incredible to drive through the park and see the animals completely undisturbed by our presence. Following Addo, we traveled to another beach town, Knysna, and then spent the last of our days in Stellenbosch visiting vineyards, Stellenbosch University, and more Capetown sights.

We struggled a number of times when the legacy of apartheid was so visible in poor housing and obvious separation between the Blacks who are native to South Africa and the White immigrants and visitors. We asked several people about the conditions for Blacks and were told that much of the problem that persists today is the result of immigration from other African countries that do not have the breadth of employment opportunity available in South Africa. The result of the influx of others is sprawling slums and high unemployment for many Blacks. We were also told that numerous efforts have been undertaken to improve education and housing but that change is slow, especially with the current government. Many spoke of their disappointment with the current President of South Africa and the hope is that elections will result in his removal soon.

A number of other pictures are posted in my Picassa albums if you would like to see more of South Africa. The pictures provide a way to remember but the people made a more indelible impact on me - generous, hopeful, welcoming, and eager for a better life. South Africa is a promising country seeking to provide ways for its people to pursue their dreams.