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.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Grant - Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Adam Grant, author of Originals (2016), is described in the forward as an “informed optimist who offers insights and advice about how anyone – at home, at work, in the community – can make the world a better place.” (p. ix) Grant’s perspective complements another book I recently read/reviewed, The RationalOptimist (Ridley, 2010). The two books make good companions in a 21st century environment where innovation is so important.

Sometimes we think of innovation as mastery or expertise. By contrast, Grant invites us into a world where change is nurtured through breadth of perspective. The book is filled with examples of how new ideas bubbled up and became useful and marketable. One example is Warby Parker, a business that offers on-line eyewear. The creators of Warby Parker knew that the typical response to something like the expense of eyewear is resignation – an unwillingness to question, challenge, or do anything to address the problem of prohibitive cost. Although many saw their venture as doomed from the start, the creators found ways to overcome the blocks to the very personal and necessary purchase of eyewear – and doing it on-line for both convenience and cost purposes.

In order to overcome the resignation or acquiescence that discourages taking action, Grant proposes that innovation is borne of curiosity, a vuju de that allows us to see something familiar but with a fresh perspective (p.6). An example of vuju de drawn from social change is the women’s suffrage movement. For decades and generations women had accepted their diminished position in life as “just how it is” but suffrage brought the fresh perspective that the role ascribed to women was simply man-made and that it could be changed.

The problem with cultivating originality is that it is inconvenient – to teachers, peers, bosses, or anyone who prefers the comfort of accepted protocol or routine. Especially when achievement is placed as a high value, originality is thwarted because our desire to succeed encourages us to seek the easy and predictable way of looking good to those around us. Originality doesn’t require extreme risk taking but, instead, a comfort with some doubt that pushes us to work harder and be persistent in creating something that will be successful and lasting. In fact, “The more successful people have been in the past, the worse they perform when they enter a new environment.” (p. 53)

What are the things that are most often associated with people who are original in their thoughts and actions? The first is that they are more involved in the arts – music, sculpting, writing, performing (p. 46). The second characteristic of originals is that they lived abroad for an extended period – not traveled, not short-term study, but lived abroad in a culture very different than their own (p. 48). Originals tend also to be later or last-born children, a result of the impact of sibling rivalry and differences in the ways parents raise later-borns. In an organization setting, originals are people who not only champion new ideas but also they are people who have earned their stripes as being somewhat eccentric and idiosyncratic. A counter-intuitive pattern among originals is that they sometimes procrastinate; strangely enough, procrastinating allows the original to consider a wider range of approaches through daydreaming, questioning, and experimenting. Lastly, originals are more likely to be experimental rather than conceptual innovators, meaning that it isn’t just about the “up in the clouds” ideas but more about trying something, learning from mistakes, and working toward a better solution.

Originals debunks a number of myths about how to make original contributions in a variety of ways – business, social justice, political innovation, and others. That we need originals in the modern day is indisputable; it’s a matter of looking within ourselves to see if we have or can cultivate a perspective that brings that special originality to various problems that yearn for solutions. If any group or organization seeks to support originality, leaders will need to understand that originals or “’shapers’ are independent thinkers; curious, non-conforming, and rebellious” (p. 208).  Rather than leaders succumbing to fear of failure when an original pushes the organization to do something different, realize that “Fear forces you to prepare more rigorously and see potential problems more quickly” (p. 214), an insurance plan that most organizations would love to acquire.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Scott - Rachmaninoff

Why would I post a review of a biography (Scott, Rachmaninoff, 2011) of a prominent 20th century musician on a blog committed to advancing leadership understanding? First, because one of the issues about which I am most concerned today is how to foster creativity, innovation, and originality and second, because creativity and innovation requires the courage to lead.

Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) composed many of the pieces that music listeners most enjoy from the height of late Romanticism. Rachmaninoff’s family name is derived from an Old Russian word, ‘rachmany,’ meaning hospitable, generous, or spendthrift. Growing up outside of Novgorod, Russia, his father abandoned the family when Serge was 10. Already showing promise as a pianist, he was selected to receive the best of training under the guidance of Nicolai Zverev. Noted as extremely independent by his family (his nickname was ‘yasam,’ meaning ‘myself’), he had such perfect recall of music notation that his early teachers decided that he didn’t need to study music theory at all. Rachmaninoff’s great talent would result in some judging him to be lazy but the advocacy of a family member who was a talented musician himself resulted in young Serge studying at the Moscow Conservatory, a place where he would flourish.

Study at the Conservatory resulted in Serge emerging as one of the most talented young musicians in all of Russia, a judgment conferred by Tchaikovsky and other instructors who gave Serge the highest marks ever conferred on a protégé  after his final examinations. Having achieved very early success with the Prelude in C# minor, his Piano Concerto #1, and other compositions, Serge was to face a period of self-doubt and retreat after the failure of his Symphony #1. However, hypnosis broke this unproductive period, bringing us one of Rachmaninoff’s most beloved works in 1902 – Piano Concerto #2 – or the ‘Rach 2’ as some refer to it.

Great fame and notoriety in Russia would lead to performances throughout Europe and, with the German invasion of Russia, Rachmaninoff established residence in cities such as Paris and Dresden. Eventually, the increased opportunity of performance in the U.S.A. and growth of Soviet military/political oppression would cause him to establish residence, and eventually seek citizenship, in the United States. Rachmaninoff pursued an aggressive concert schedule in the U.S.A. during the winter and in Europe for the summer throughout the rest of his career. He played his own piano works and select compositions of others under the batons of such great conductors as Mahler, Stock, Stokowski, Ormandy and others.

Rachmaninoff is a classic example of a person of great talent who struggled with ‘imposter syndrome,’ being periodically driven to isolation and despair by self-doubt. His early success probably made him more vulnerable than most, a result of oscillating back and forth between adoring audiences and caustic critics who would occasionally take him to task. Yet, Rachmaninoff stayed with a style of composing that in the end would result in his being recognized as one of the greatest musical talents of Romanticism and the early 20th century. He stuck to his conviction in his music and he gave himself to others in performances that were often noted as ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. Rachmaninoff acted out of conviction, authenticity, and he became more resilient over time as he realized that acting on his conscience was essential to his artistic genius. These are the attributes that I suspect are central to fostering creativity and innovation in leadership.

The name from which his is derived, ‘Rachmany,’ was prophetic of the way Rachmaninoff would live. He often raised money for his Russian artistic colleagues and performed in benefits to aid Russia during both WWI and WWII. He also spent the fortune he would acquire as the highest paid pianist of his age by purchasing multiple residences in Europe and the U.S.A. The most significant of his residences was the one he designed and built not far from Luzern, Switzerland. This estate, called Senar, would be a ‘little Russia,’ hosting exiled Russians such as Vladimir Horowitz who could no longer comfortably return to their homeland. Senar would provide a home and respite during summers away from concertizing and it would also allow Rachmaninoff to return to composing. Indeed, it brought us one of his most beautiful works, the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” The last thing Rachmaninoff would write before his death on March 28, 1943, was printed in the April 5 Musical Courier:
“I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me. I cannot cast out my musical gods in a moment and bend the knee to new ones. The new kind of music seems to me to come, not from the heart, but from the head.”

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Varty - Cathedral of the Wild

A new colleague recommended Boyd Varty’s Cathedral of the Wild after finding out that I read extensively and particularly enjoy books with a “journey to leadership” perspective. Varty’s book was so aligned with Deeper Learning in Leadership (Roberts, 2007) that it felt like an autobiography deliberately written to complement it. The essence of Deeper Learning in Leadership is all there – the struggle to find purpose in life, leadership as "conviction in action,” and sustaining oneself through presence, flow, and oscillation.

The story of the Varty family is fascinating. With two sons inheriting a large tract of land in the northeast planes of South Africa, the resolve of the family is tested as they try to make ends meet. Ultimately, they survived through many personal and business trials to raise resilient children as well as start a nature reserve movement that has now been adopted in many other areas of Africa. Of his parents as he was growing up, Boyd reflects, “To shelter us where we grew up would have been to fail to prepare us. They walked that line as best they could, and all too often they got it wrong. But in the end we survived all we ever faced, and we came out strong and largely unafraid of life, with the full knowledge of its dangers.” (pp. xiv-xv)

Most of the book is set at Londolozi (Zulu for “protector of all things”), a physical place that required restoration in the beginning and later became where Nelson Mandela would be renewed in spiritual retreat after his release from Robben Island. Of the staff that built and sustain Londolozi, Varty writes, “When men face danger together, they lose the frivolous definitions of the world and simply become people who must work in harmony in order to survive.” (p. 29) Mandela would write in the foreword for I Speak of Africa, “During my long walk to freedom, I had the rare privilege to visit Londolozi. There I saw people of all races living in harmony amidst the beauty that Mother Nature offers.” (p. 105)

Boyd Varty is still a young man who is discovering himself. It is uncanny how he reveals in the story of his family and Londolozi some of the deepest truths I know. The “cathedral” reflects a sacred place where physical and mental challenges are encountered and where unrecognized strengths emerge. At its core, a life worth living is one where “your destiny sings to you,” drawn from the Australian Aboriginal image of a place “where we can fetch the wisdom to guide our days and the medicine for healing.” (p. 167) Varty came to realize through his journey that “we heal stronger at the broken places, but… where the heart is concerned, we also heal more tenderly, more open to the miraculous.” (p. 270)

It is fortuitous that I will be traveling to South Africa in April 2016 and will have an opportunity to see some of what inspired Varty and his family as they sought to restore natural areas and bring the indigenous wildlife of Africa back into balance.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The struggle to understand leadership

A very thoughtful article about our struggle to understand leadership is available from the NYTimes. With the provocative title of "Shut Up and Sit Down," author Joshua Rothman raises questions about the contemporary cases with which we struggle (i.e. Donald Trump) versus the long-term critique provided through the storytelling and scholarly analyses available to us. Rothman concludes his article by writing "A sense of perspective may be among the most critical leadership qualities. For better or worse, however, it's the one we ask our leaders to hide." Interesting observation that sometimes many of us just want an answer and the security it provides rather than leadership that reflects a depth of perspective and engages all of us in the search for more humane and sustainable living.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ahmed - In the Land of Invisible Women

I chose to read Qanta Ahmed’s In the Land of Invisible Women (2008) after seeing her in an interview on CNN not long after the Paris terror attacks in November of 2015. She described the Paris attacks as not only an attack on Paris, the west, and modern society but also an attack on Islam itself. Her Paris insight intrigued me and her book was equally provocative.

Ahmed’s revelations are very candid and go to the core of some of the most important questions related to the role of Islam in countries throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Saudi Arabia is the focus since that is where Ahmed’s 2-year experience as a Muslim, U.S.-trained physician with British passport and Pakistani cultural background took place. One of the most startling realizations I had from reading her book was that, although Saudi Arabia is a long-time diplomatic and trade ally of the U.S., there are numerous conditions imposed on women in particular that are clearly human rights restrictions that the U.S. has yet to acknowledge.

This book was cathartic in many ways, recounting dozens of experiences that I encountered while living in Qatar. Qatar is not nearly as restrictive as Saudi, and the privilege of men in both countries is much freer than for women, but I could definitely identify. Some of the issues Ahmed encountered were having her passport taken away upon entry to the country, living in an expatriate compound, being required to dress in culturally-defined ways (wearing hajab and abbayah for women), and witnessing the extremes of luxury among nationals and privileged expatriates while observing the destitution of others. In Ahmed’s words, “Saudi Arabia was many things to many people: to the rich, a land of boundless wealth; to the poor, a prison of abject poverty; to the expatriate worker, a land of contrasts and inconsistencies, an ever moving labyrinth of contradiction, not wholly one nor wholly the other.”

Ahmed is a faithful Muslim, and her call to the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca would cause her to deepen her faith and to see the goodness of many people she encountered. “The frenzied, fascist supremacy of Wahabiism had simply been washed away by a torrent of truth: the multiracial, spiritually hybrid Muslims now flooding Mecca,” as Ahmed reflected afterward.

Based on the title of Ahmed’s book one might expect to read of disenfranchised and desperate women. To the contrary, she shared numerous stories of strong, bright, beautiful and hospitable Saudi and expatriate women. These stories were particularly compelling and conveyed an unrecognized resource that is contributing to the changes underway in Saudi and many other Muslim countries.

The saddest stories recounted by Ahmed were those involving extremely careless and dangerous exploits with fast cars and SUVs, abused wives and children brought to the emergency room, and “repressed, inhibited men” who were like men in other countries but who chafed as “the strain of their leashes wore thin.” She described the Saudi man she would come to love as, “impassive, a Saudi sphinx, something in which I had learned he was masterfully practiced. Positions of authority in the Kingdom demanded an inhuman ability to conceal one’s authentic opinions.”

Although Ahmed’s time in the Kingdom was short, her love impossible to enact, and the intellectual and spiritual tensions many, she could see that things are changing. Curiosity is required of anyone who seeks to understand Islamic societies, the Middle East, or other developing countries. The bottom line for Ahmed – “Alhumdullilah, we have every thing in the Kingdom we need to solve our own problems. We just have to have courage.”