Friday, September 23, 2016

Doris Kearns Goodwin interviews U.S. President Barack Obama

Vanity Fair ran a remarkable article on September 21, 2016, Doris Kearns Goodwin's interview of U.S. President Barack Obama. This is a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand leadership in the modern age. Beginning with President Obama's fascination with the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, moving through reflections on the personalities and impact of several other U.S. Presidents, and ending with reflections on his own accomplishments and unrealized aspirations, the interview reveals a lot about the internal struggles of a world leader. President Obama proposed that ambition is a driving force for many in their youth but that there is a moment of truth when something beyond one's self emerges that then becomes the source of motivation and endurance for difficult roles such as the president of a nation state. Adversity is often the source of awakening to "this is me." President Obama's youth presented challenges that shaped his early life but no one could question that he has faced many challenges during his two terms. With great humility, President Obama does not attempt to claim any uniqueness or profound impact but, instead, suggests that it is up to the American people and historians such as Goodwin to determine how he will be judged. Thank you, Mr. President and Dr. Goodwin for allowing us to sit with you in a profoundly revealing conversation!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Khalilzad - The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, my journey through a turbulent world

Zalmay Khalilzad was first Ambassador from the U.S.A. to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, and eventually to the United Nations. I picked up his book, The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey through a Turbulent World, because I continue to struggle with how to cultivate peace and prosperity throughout the Middle East and Arab, Israeli, and Persian worlds. As a native Afghan, naturalized citizen of the U.S.A., and Muslim, his views deserve careful attention.

Khalilzad is balanced in his portrayal of almost all those individuals he notes in his book, although readers should understand his cultural context and life experience in order to understand the perspective he offers. As an example, his portrayal of George W. Bush, the U.S.A. President with whom he worked most closely, recounts Bush’s deep interest in understanding what was going on in the Middle East, his support of Khalilzad in proposing sometimes unpopular strategies, but in the end bemoaning Bush’s lack of follow-through with the nation building strategies Khalilzad believed were necessary to move forward. Khalilzad’s analyses of Bush and other politicians recognized the diverging pressures of inward (within nation) and outward (interaction and diplomacy with other nations) forces that sometimes cause heads of state to appear inconsistent and unpredictable. The key learning from these analyses were that, when seeking to understand the actions of presidents and prime ministers, it is critical to understand to which audience the politician is attempting to appeal.

The first two-thirds of the book recounted Khalilzad’s childhood in Afghanistan, coming to the U.S.A. as a foreign exchange student in 1966, returning in 1974 For graduate study at the University of Chicago, and on through his diplomatic career progression. There is no question that Khalilzad is worldly in his view and he is very committed to democratization anywhere in the world where opportunity presents itself. Thus, he favors intervention rather than staying distant from conflicts in other parts of the world and he is not reticent about destabilizing bad heads of state and working toward regime change. Taken in this context, Khalilzad’s recounting of the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraqi are revealing; the errors he asserts are primarily of not engaging deeply enough and not staying long enough to finish the regime change and nation building in each of these cases. Khalilzad’s reflections reinforce that factionalization among countries and religious groups requires deep understanding but can ultimately be tamed through diplomacy that includes both reconstruction/nation building as well as provision of security forces.

Specifically in relation to Iraq but also relevant to his experience in Afghanistan, Khalilzad identified the following lessons: 
  • Do not assume that local politics will take care of themselves in the aftermath of regime change.
  • Geopolitical vacuums are dangerous things.
  • Foster conditions that bring out the better instincts of local leaders.
  • Exercise presidential command.
  • Pursue political and security efforts in tandem. (77% through digital text)

In particular, changing course during the process of destabilization and regime change is not a good thing and doing so has cost the U.S.A. considerable credibility and trust in a number of places around the world.

Khalilzad identified several trends he believes represent a threat to the U.S.A.: “the collapse of order in many developing countries; the rise of terrorism and extremism; Europe’s triple crises of a loss of confidence in Brussels, threats from Putin’s Russia, and the conflicts of the greater Middle East; and the Chinese push for regional hegemony.” (83% through digital text) He goes on to say that the worst strategy for the U.S.A. to pursue now is to retreat from the world; Iraq and Syria offer examples of where staying at a distance can cause greater problems than more active involvement. He indicates that the U.S.A. should promote a regional balance of power in the Middle East and should avoid taking sides on the sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Khalilzad also sees the U.S.A. as an unusual immigrant country that continues to reinvent itself through experimentation and innovation, a characteristic that contrasts with many other countries and cultures that “see problems as permanent and solutions as the inevitable start of new problems.” (86% into digital text)

As I concluded Envoy, Khalilzad authored an article for Politico Magazine, “’We misled you:’ How the Saudis are coming clean on funding terrorism,” The article describes Saudi Arabia’s support for Islamist splinter groups as a way to initially defeat Egypt’s Nasser from unifying the Arab/Islamic world and then used later to support extremist views in order to resist Russia’s growing influence in places like Afghanistan. Admitting that their strategy had metastasized into a monster that could destroy them, Saudi officials couldn’t own up to their role when questions about the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.A. were raised. Why would Saudi Arabia now want to come forward? There is new and youthful leadership who know that they have to transform the nation in order to survive; in Khalilzad’s words, “Riyadh views modernization as the vehicle through which the Saudi state, at long last, con confront and defeat extremism, foster a dynamic private sector and master the looming economic challenges” it now faces. While Khalilzad recognized that there are many challenges ahead, he portrayed the changing Saudi approach as one that could allow them to regain status as a Middle East regional power and a model for how to move forward in many other conflict areas.

We can only hope but Khalilzad’s informed perspective at least provides a rationale for why hope is warranted.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Quran and Bible on Grounding and Striving in Leadership


I encountered one of those moments of truth recently. My wife and I were attending our community Methodist church on a Sunday morning when one of the staff came to me to ask that I read the scripture for the day. I agreed to read Luke 14:1,7-14, which is "When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. 'When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don't take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you 'Give your seat to this person.' Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the last important place..."

Reflecting later on this verse and looking back at my experience in Qatar, I sent a message to a Muslim colleague whose opinion I value a great deal. I asked specifically if the Quran has a similar verse. He responded that the closest thing he could think of was "Do not strut about in the land for you can neither cleave the earth nor attain the height of the mountains."

Both of these references admonish us to exercise humility and my own view is that leadership is one of the areas in which we should most seek to demonstrate humility. The Biblical reference indicates that to be presumptuous in presenting oneself as more important than others risks embarrassment while the Quran advocates humility, “Do not strut…,” because we then can neither keep our feet on the ground nor transcend the confines of our earthly role if we do.

So, how do we exercise humility yet strive to make a difference through our leadership? It seems that experience as well as the best of what is being written about leadership these days recommends avoiding any appearance of superiority or unwillingness to hear other’s perspective – staying grounded in the reality of other’s and our own experience. In addition, it seems that striving to make a difference should not be done for its own sake but for the difference it makes in the world – to attain the height of the mountains.

There are also a few more words that close the Biblical text in Luke - "Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, 'When you host a lunch or dinner, don't invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. and you will be blessed because they can't repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.'"

The combination of the Quran and Bible are again instructive. When we strive to make a difference through leadership, seeking to help our friends and family can be good but doing so results in immediate reward in kind and in the moment. By contrast, striving to make a difference for those who are most in need and cannot and never will repay will result in a reward of a different kind – not to be returned, perhaps invisible, but elevating both the other and ourselves to the height of mountains.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Foer - Moonwalkin with Einstein

As aging continues its irreversible path, I look at many things about life that give me satisfaction – physical well being, emotional resilience, and intellectual capacity in particular. Like many baby-boomers, I work to stay on top of my game as much as possible and part of that is studying issues that relate to preventing decline. Memory is one of those areas where I feel most vulnerable.

My search for staying intellectually alive led me to pick up Joshua Foer’s Moonwalkin with Einstein (2011). Foer was a journalist who started research on memory and ended up getting caught up in memory competition, ultimately winning the U.S.A Memory Championship.

Memory used to be much more important in the days before written word became common and particularly before we relied so much on documentation in writing, schedules, and reminders of various sorts. Educated individuals used to have to memorize because there was no way to easily get back to information other than through one’s own recall. The problem with recall is that our brains store memory of information and experiences in all sorts of places, often dispersing pieces of the same memory in different portions of the brain. Thus, when attempting to recall, our brains execute a search function for the missing pieces we need, sometimes successfully and other times not. The key for trained mental athletes is to actually exploit the brain’s natural inclination to break memory up by creating ways to recall what they want by relating it to a visual memory. Many of the mental athletes about whom Foer wrote use “memory palaces” or complex pictures of familiar environments on which they “hang” the information they want to remember. This technique demonstrates how we remember a detail or fact in the context of something more memorable. Repetition of the memory obviously reduces the chances that it will slip into portions of the brain where its recall can no longer be accessed.

Some practically useful tips related to memory enhancement include that we don’t remember well when we are fatigued or stressed. Song is one of the most effective structuring devices to reinforce learning; that’s why children often learn their alphabet with the song, “A,B,C,D,E,F,G… now I’ve learned my A,B,Cs, won’t you come along and sing with me.” You heard the melody in your head, did you not? Another tip is that, the less we are focused on repetitive tasks, the more we are able to concentrate on acquiring new knowledge. Thus, an accompanying memory strategy is to allow habitual things to move to automatic recall; stop trying to do them better – just let it happen. By contrast, if we want to become highly proficient, as in performing music, practice should evolve to automatic recall while at the same time maintaining conscious control of what you are doing. Honing the ability to pay attention, exercising consciousness control, and seeking to think connectively across multiple experiences and domains then provides the foundation for creativity or invention.

Foer’s ultimate conclusion through his study and competition in memory contests was that all the tricks of memory are overrated on the criteria of practical use. Even though he learned how to train himself to remember the names and details of new acquaintances, he found that in daily application the effort it required to do this was simply not worth it. If we want to remember more, Foer concluded that we should concentrate on acquiring the discipline of paying attention and on making connections throughout our life experiences that scaffold ideas and insights for future potential relevance and use. In Foer’s words, “…there is something to be said for the value of not merely passing through the world, but also making some effort to capture it – if only because in trying to capture it, one gets in the habit of noticing, and appreciating.”

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.