Friday, February 16, 2018

Isaacson - Leonardo da Vinci


Leonardo da Vinci (Isaacson, 2017) is a deep analytic study of the historical figure who defines the “Renaissance Man” of the 15th century and sets a standard for genius with which few of us would argue. With no formal education, Leonardo set out to explore various fields of knowledge from engineering and architecture to painting and sculpture. As he matured he began to explore “received” knowledge, but always by combining theory, experience/experiment, and handed-down knowledge.

Leonardo’s prodigious intellect led him to pursue opportunity from Florence to Milan to Rome and back again and brought him into contact with the most influential aristocrats, sponsors, and other artists of the era. The great thing about Isaacson’s book is that it starts with a list of the characters included throughout the book and a timeline of Leonardo’s life; both are extremely helpful when the reader gets lost in the details of his inexhaustible curiosity. And it is this curiosity about so many things that, in the end, is the mark of his genius. “With a passion that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology, water flows, and weaponry” (Introduction). This curiosity was coupled with an ability to make connections across disciplines that triggered imagination and innovation in all his endeavors.

Image result for vitruvian man -LeonardoLeonardo was not privileged. He was the illegitimate child of Piero da Vinci, with whom he stayed connected while spending most of his childhood in the care of his grandfather and uncle. Illegitimacy was not an impediment at the time and was seen as allowing a free-spirited and imaginative lifestyle. Leonardo’s homosexuality was also relatively accepted and allowed him to have relationships, dress, and conduct himself in ways that were freeing and unconventional. Having spent his earliest days in the small town of Vinci, Leonardo blossomed under the Medici family in the artistic and commercial center of Florence. His early training in sculpture caused Leonardo to study the mathematical proportions of the human figure in ways that had never been considered before. This obsession with mathematical relations is best captured in the famous sketch of “Vitruvian Man” with circle, triangle, and square defining the proportions and placement of the perfect human figure. Isaacson reveals in the text that this sketch not only captures perfect proportion but represented a “metaphor of Renaissance humanism: the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the earth” (Loc 2382, Chapter 8). This connection between man and the cosmos would lead to the architectural cross configuration of temples and cathedrals throughout the world. His interest in harmonic ratios and proportions were evidenced not only in anatomy but also in other sciences, art, and music; he believed these ratios were an essential quality of what we recognize as beauty.

Although Leonardo produced many artistic and scientific analyses and projects, his evolving and spontaneous curiosity left many unfinished. Urban planner, designer of military weaponry and musical instruments, producer of pageants, and many other things, Leonardo is probably most noted for his critical innovations in painting. He is credited with innovating both the sfumato (a word derived from “smoke” in Italian) approach, characterized by blurred outlines and dark/soft colors that allow for a natural blending of forms, as well as chiaroscuro (dark shadows with striking illumination); these innovations portray the subject in ways more like the eye sees most objects. The list of paintings of greatest note include; Ginevra de’ Benci, Adoration of the Magi, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, Lady with an Ermine, La Belle Berronniere, The Last Supper (in which he explored innovations in perspective), Leda and the Swan, Salvator Mundi, Saint John the Baptist, and the Mona Lisa. Leonardo started the Mona Lisa portrait in 1503 but he regularly revised and improved it through the end of his lifetime (1519); the Mona Lisa is viewed by many as the epitome of Leonardo’s attention to fine detail and artistry.

Isaacson gleaned several lessons from Leonardo’s life that we might emulate in order to be more creative and innovative (Chapter 33, Conclusion): be curious, relentlessly curious; seek knowledge for its own sake; retain a childlike sense of wonder; observe; start with the details; see things unseen; go down rabbit holes; get distracted; respect facts; procrastinate; let the perfect be the enemy of the good; think visually; avoid silos; let your reach exceed your grasp; indulge fantasy; create for yourself, not just for patrons; collaborate; make lists; take notes, on paper; and be open to mystery.  After acknowledging the tediousness of the research for the book and his own limitations to be as curious as his subject, Isaacson comments at the end of the introduction of this fascinating book, “But I did learn from Leonardo how a desire to marvel about the world that we encounter each day can make each moment of our lives richer.” Good advice for those of us in the 21st century seeking to imagine and innovate our way to a better world.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Chile - culture and politics

As a life-long student of leadership, I can’t help diving into questions about how different countries and cultures view leadership when I travel. My recent first experience in traveling to Chile opened my mind to a beautiful country, people, and complicated history.

I traveled to Chile as the guest of Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile as a speaker for the Latin American Summit on Education. I stayed for a full week in the old Bohemian section of Santiago – Barrio Lastarria – a convenient location to the Summit site and an amazing center for blending culture, food, art, and humanity.

Chile’s history includes indigenous peoples throughout the country. Chile is the longest country on Earth with a coastline that extends 4,270 km (2,653 miles). The Andes mountains separate it from Peru and Argentina who have contested the present land borders through numerous wars in the past. The beautiful natural area of Patagonia is at the far southern tip of the country.

The Spanish colonized Chile when Conquistadors pushed south from Peru in 1535. Valparaiso was founded in 1536 and Santiago was established in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia. Valparaiso, a multicultural center with seaman from many countries and social origins is known as the city where “everyone has a window on the sea” because of how the houses cantilever out from the steep hillsides surrounding the bay (see picture to right). Valparaiso was a vibrant center of trade as ships rounded the tip of South American all the way until 1914 when the Panama Canal opened and left Valparaiso bereft of traffic.


The political history of Chile includes a long and stable history of presidential and then parliamentary rule. The end of the previous oligarchies came with the rise of more liberal and socialist forces over several decades, eventually resulting in the election of Salvador Allende in 1970. Allende delivered on his socialist campaign agenda and disenfranchised the economic elite of Chile, which then spurred the U.S.A.-backed military take-over by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. A statue of Allende still stands among the central government buildings of Santiago, a reminder of the socialist period and the subsequent vicious dictatorship of Pinochet. These years (1970-73 with Allende and 1973-89 with Pinochet) resulted in lasting ambivalence about the military, police, and the role of public dissent. One of the most revered intellectuals from this period is  Pablo Neruda whose home in Valparaiso (picture to left) I had the chance to visit.


One of the results of Spanish colonization is that 70% of Chileans are Catholic. There was no separation between the church and state until 1925. The separation in 1925 reflected the growing number of immigrants from many countries around the world, particularly from Europe and Palestine during and after WWII. Although the U.S.A. often portrays itself as one of the most diverse and inclusive countries in the world, the evidence of Chilean diversity is quite visible, even in terms of religion. The most notable contemporary symbol of religious inclusivity was the opening in 2016 of the Bahai Temple at the foot of the Andes (pictured here).

The Mapuche indigenous people (and other tribal groups) are important today. They have been traditionally marginalized and now protest and even threaten terrorist acts to make their dissatisfaction known. The Mapuche and others like them have been underserved and are now the lower socio-economic strata of Chilean society; these groups are part of the challenge for educators as well as business and governmental professionals who strive to have Chile engage as a 21st century international economy.

Reflecting on the historical context and current conditions of Chile, a fascinating blend of issues comes into focus regarding how leadership is viewed and embraced: 1) lasting impact of colonialism that established a clear hierarchy but one that deserved to be questioned, 2) tight and lasting bonds of family and tribe, 3) practical embrace of other cultures/religions based on the necessity of finding solutions to broad problems, 4) ambivalence about authoritative leading – whether for socialism or any form of government, 5) fear of public dissent turning to violence and terrorism, 6) recognition of the need to take risks and support for those who do.

Discovering Chile was a revelation for me and one that I regret not pursuing long ago. Americans are increasingly traveling, conducting business, and pursuing educational exchange with Chile and other Latin American countries but the public conversation about building relations and capacity is neglected in comparison to other areas of the world. I intend to continue to study, learn, and deepen my appreciation for the country and people of Chile.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Rosenberg - Nonviolent Communication

The effectiveness of leadership depends on numerous skills that vary in their importance across different situations. Communication is always on of the list and learning how to be effective by not raising defenses or imposing one’s will in leadership is a great asset. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: a language of life (2015) offers ideas about improving communication that are straightforward, with repetition of the principles in examples, which lock them into the reader’s thinking.

Deepak Chopra’s forward to the book references the nonviolent movement in India called Ahimsa, an idea originating from Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful protests against the British. Ahimsa involves both action and consciousness, traits Chopra attributed to the way Rosenberg lived his life. There is a level of selfless awareness when we are able to feel one with nature, art, or music and it is this kind of peace that allows for a connection through compassion, even in situations involving conflict. This compassion is the foundation of nonviolent communication.

Nonviolent communication (the NVC model) involves four components; 1) observe what is actually happening in a situation without judgment, 2) state how we feel when we observe this action, 3) say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have about it, and 4) communicate the actions we request in order to make things better.

Rosenberg goes into much greater detail on what prohibits or helps to achieve honest and empathic communication. Moralistic judgments alienate by conveying a sense that something is right or wrong, compares things as better or worse, and also denies the shared responsibility that occurs in poor communication. Communicating through demand prohibits compassion. By contrast, the emotional liberation of being authentic in our communication allows us to respond to the needs of others out of compassion, something that becomes fulfilling both for us and the other person. Requests for concrete actions also help by avoiding vague, abstract, or ambiguous language. Empathy is then a result of respectful understanding of what others are experiencing, in effect getting into the mind and soul of the other person.

One might think that nonviolent communication would only be useful in mildly uncomfortable situations but Rosenberg indicates that NVC is most important when we are most distraught. He writes, “If we are truly angry, we would want a much more powerful way to fully express ourselves.” He asserts that NVC is a more powerful way to communicate our displeasure and move toward resolution for others and ourselves. Ultimately, the NVC process nurtures mutual concern and respect that honors the other person’s needs while helping both to realize their interdependence in the disagreement. Rosenberg reflects that this is the essence of Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship where two individuals express themselves vulnerably and authentically, thus creating a deeper bond.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Corbett - You must change your life: The story of Maria Ranier Rilke and Auguste Rodin

Rachel Corbett’s book, You Must Change Your Life (2016), is a detailed biography of the shared artistic journey of Rainer Maria Rilke and August Rodin. While the biographical background of these very different artists is fascinating, the most compelling aspect of the book for me is the light it sheds on the idea of empathy. The popular use of empathy is primarily in counseling and psychology. However, according to Corbett’s analysis, “What we understand today as the capacity to feel the emotions of others is a concept that originated in the philosophy of art, to explain why certain paintings or sculptures move people.” (p. ix)

Rilke and Rodin struggled in their early artistic journeys, as many artists do. They experienced difficult childhoods, troubling times as they came of age, and disillusionment in striving for artistic fulfillment. The great thing for those who appreciate their art is that their tribulations allowed them to delve into their hearts, resulting in creative insight and genius that distinguished them from others.

Rilke began his adult years in Prague but moved to Munich, believing it was the intellectual center of Europe at the time. The Munich Secession of 1892 began five years before Gustav Klimt started the movement in Vienna. The dominant philosophical tradition in German-speaking countries was the study of how individuals functioned within broader societies – phenomenology. While phenomenology and psychoanalysis began to flourish, the study of art (aesthetics) emerged along side these disciplines. The combination of these three disciplines was used to explain what makes something a work of art, leading to the idea that a viewer was an artist as well as the creator when ‘einfuhlung’ (feeling into or empathy) allowed the viewer to literally get inside the art. Psychologists (including Freud) then turned this German art history notion into what is now recognized as empathy, or the ability to relate to or understand another person.

Rodin’s early sculptures were not well received. The first to be embraced was The Age of Bronze and it struck such a chord that the French government purchased a version of it for the city of Paris. This purchase came with a second commission to design the entrance for the new Museum of Decorative Arts; this commission would become Rodin’s life-long work, The Gates of Hell. A version of the sculpture for which Rodin is most noted, The Thinker, was incorporated into The Gates of Hell. The Gates of Hell depicts people absorbed in a “nightmare of their own passions. Love was war, desire undid reason. To him, hell had nothing to do with justice; punishment was the condition of the living.” (p. 51) Ultimately, it was Rodin’s own gallery at the 1900 Exposition Universelle (which the Eiffel Tower dominated) that brought him to unquestioned prominence as an artist, admired for his ability to portray the rough humanness of his subjects.

Rilke and Roudin were introduced by two women who were artists as well. Paula Becker, a former sculpture student of Rodin’s, and Clara Westhoff invited Rilke to join them at the German artists’ colony, Worpswede. Westhoff and Rilke became lovers and were later married, a decision that sidetracked Westhoff’s ambitions as a writer in similar ways that Rodin overshadowed Becker as her teacher/mentor. Rilke’s characterization of marriage was, “I consider this to be the highest task of the union of two people; that each one should keep watch over the solitude of the other.” (p. 72) As Rodin’s protégé and Westhoff’s dear friend, it was Becker who introduced Rilke to Rodin, eventually resulting in Rilke authoring a biography of the great sculptor. The introduction and study for the biography resulted in a period of deep connection between Rodin and Rilke, one which engendered in Rilke a belief that art emerged only through sacrifice and hard work. This was fundamental to Rilke’s literary works, which were informed by “einsehen,” a process going beneath the surface to the heart and deep emotional connection.

For those who want to more deeply understand the amazing artistic revolution of late 19th and early 20th century Paris, Corbett’s book is a treasure. Rodin and Rilke were associated with most of the Parisian intellectual and artistic elite of the day, many of whom congregated, or lived at, the Hotel Biron (now the Musee Rodin Museum in Paris). Corbett’s reflections also track the tempestuous relationship of the two artistic geniuses who sometimes connected deeply and at other times feuded and sought distance from each other. They lived at a time when art was representational yet mystical, providing those who view or read their work a glimpse both into themselves and others. Both men were ravaged by their own genius but it is unlikely either would have wanted it another way. Indeed, when Rilke considered psychotherapy with Freud, a colleague urged “that the risk that analysis posed to his creativity was too great. It might well chase out the angels along with the demons.” (p. 239)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Is the era of management over?

Leadership scholars often debate the difference between management and leadership. Some scholars become offended by the implicit (or not so implicit) message that management is focused on routine, control, and maintenance of the status quo while leadership tackles the more important concerns of unleashing human potential, addressing questions without a clear solution, and leading humanity forward through creativity and innovation.

The World Economic Forum takes the debate to another level by raising the question, "Is the era of management over?" The title reflects some hyperbole but the changing, complex, and flat world which we now inhabit is leaving far fewer opportunities for just management. Even the simple questions these days seem to take on much wider implication when the issues on the table have ripple effects that extend far beyond the immediate environment.

In an interesting and corollary article on investing in leadership, the responsibility of organization leadership is seen as building culture so that all "think, dream and act like a leader. It's about taking initiative and being unwavering in one's positive and constructive influence on her organization's attitude, excellence and outcomes."

I'm with those who see an increasingly narrow niche for management and call for greater attention and use of real leadership in a 21st century interconnected world.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Failure in leadership learning - the Trump Team

One of the more significant perplexities to the dysfunction in U.S. politics today is how the people who have become the disruptors of the Trump Team got where they are. Knowing Trump’s proclivity to family and other forms of loyalty, it is no surprise that most of those close to Trump have demonstrated fierce dedication to spinning the President’s story and to denying various things that Trump has done in full view of the public. The question that has haunted me as an educator is, “How could so many presumably well educated people have so little conscience, ethical standard, or regard for the common good?”

Although many things contribute to who we are, including everything from family to various forms of socialization, educators often claim that their institutions are significant in shaping intellectual acuity, critical thinking, values, and leadership. The Trump Team, both former and continuing, attended a select few elite private universities that are commonly assumed to produce the highest caliber of employees or public servants:
    ·      Donald Trump – University of Pennsylvania
    ·      Donald Trump, Jr. – University of Pennsylvania
    ·      Ivanka Trump – University of Pennsylvania
    ·      Eric Trump – Georgetown University
    ·      Steve Bannon (now gone) – Harvard University
    ·      Anthony Scaramucci (now gone) – Harvard University
    ·      Jared Kushner – Harvard University
    ·      Steven Mnuchin – Yale University
    ·      Stephen Miller – Duke University
Two other spokespeople from whom we hear a lot (Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders) or previously served Trump (Sean Spicer) attended less prestigious private institutions. The institutions attended by the first nine of the Trump Team are commonly regarded as representing the gold standard of higher education yet one has to ponder how graduates of these institutions could do what they are now doing – supporting “fake news” claims, denying occurrences that the public has seen with their own eyes, and deconstructing the institutions of democracy on which we count to keep U.S. and other citizens of the world safe, healthy, sheltered/fed, and productive.

A defense of these elite institutions of learning could be that 100% quality control and desired impact can never be guaranteed. However, how could five elite institutions collectively graduate nine individuals who are so profoundly aligned with an agenda that undermines the common good? Granted, these great institutions are open to various political perspectives and they do not attempt to inculcate a specific ideology or belief system. However, in the particular case of the Trump Team, not only do we observe a specific niched political ideology, we see a team that regularly contradicts the espoused broad aims of higher education itself; they lack critical thinking, self-understanding, awareness and appreciation of the rights and needs of others, and they denigrate those who oppose or embrace alternative views.

Higher education in general, and especially the elite examples of Penn, Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Georgetown, has failed the Trump Team and the citizens of the U.S. What are we to do as citizens who count on these institutions and perhaps more importantly, what are we to do as educators to learn from these failures?

As a career higher education administrator and someone who sought to contribute to the private benefit and public good by teaching about and writing on leadership, I take the failure that we observe very personally. Scholars such as Jean Lipman-Blumen and Barbara Kellerman cautioned about bad leadership, Kellerman also warned of the failures of the leadership education industry, and Ronald Heifetz offered evidence that the restoration of trust in leadership is the most compelling challenge we face today. Building on their work and reflecting on what we could contribute to education that might make a difference now, four questions come to mind that higher education and leadership educators must explore:

  • How are students’ and graduates’ views of leadership and the privileges/responsibilities that it carries being influenced by the educational experiences we offer?
  • How could those enabled by privileged education be more deeply confronted and challenged in their learning experiences so that it would be impossible for them to deny truth and implement policies that harm others?
  • How could the cumulative and interconnected knowledge of academic disciplines be leveraged to resolve complex world problems that will improve the human condition?  
  • Have graduates acquired an understanding of their responsibility as critical followers/constituents and are they encouraged to see their own deeper potential in leadership?
There are certainly more questions that could be asked at this important nexus of our public lives but these would be a good place to start. We face in the Trump Team a very real and profound failure of higher education in general and elite education more specifically. It’s time that higher education renew the commitment to deliver on its claims to transform individuals and contribute to the betterment of society. These nine Trump Team examples are too prominent to ignore and they cannot be dismissed as unfortunate ‘slippage’ in the critical process of higher learning and leadership cultivation.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Loss and return

Two of the greatest challenges of human existence are loss and return. I hadn’t thought about these bookends to the human experience until I attended a recent piano recital of Raffi Besalyan and was introduced through his selections to the angst of loss and return. The recital combined pieces composed by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Babajanian, among others. I was so taken by the intimate performance that I purchased a CD entitled The Return as we were leaving the hall.

The Return includes only Rachmaninoff (Russian) and Babajanian’s (Armenian) compositions. The connection between the two composers and The Return is that both were pianists/composers who were exiled from their home countries. Rachmaninoff was a renowned performer and late Russian Romantic composer who left his native land in 1917 as the Bolskevik Revolution unfolded; he spent the rest of his life in Europe and the U.S. Babajanian left Armenia to study piano in Moscow in 1938 where he cultivated an affinity for the late Romantic sounds of the great 19th and early 20th century Russians; Babajanian’s style thus incorporates the plaintiff melodies that characterize eastern European and Middle Eastern music but in a Romantic spirit.

The Return is a beautiful album, superbly recorded and produced. The selections draw one to reflect on places lost and the desire to return. The work after which the CD is named is Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, Op. 32,No. 10, in “B Minor.” Although Rachmaninoff generally avoided explicit reference in his compositions to other art forms or programmatic ideas, Rachmaninoff confided to Benno Moiseiwitsch (a fellow pianist who often performed Rachmaninoff’s works) that the painting by Arnold Bocklin (1887) pictured here, was the inspiration for the Prelude. Both The Return CD and The Homecoming capture the angst of losing one’s country and knowing that one may never be able to return.

Babajanian’s “Melody” reflects the same loss and yearning that is heard in Rachmaninoff’s Prelude. One cannot help but hear the sadness of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-17 when 1.5 million Armenians were murdered and many more displaced. Many Armenians fled to Lebanon, a place of diaspora not only for Armenians but also for Palestinians, and now Syrians. Palestinian activist and legendary Oud musician, MarcelKhalife, captures the loss of all these groups who seem always to be in search of a new home. Khalife was a neighbor when I lived in Qatar and I saw him numerous times in concert; the outpouring of the displaced and the solidarity of those who supported their cause was always overwhelming.

Loss and yearning to return are part of human existence. National or cultural diaspora may be caused by religious or political persecution; at other times it is the result of desperation in providing for one’s family. The tide of diaspora has not retreated in the 21st century with Syrian and Rohingya refugees of Myanmar being the most visible at the moment. The tragedy is that those who seek asylum for whatever reason often face continued marginalization in their new surroundings. Dislocation isn’t the only origin of loss; it may also result from making life choices that are different than others in our families or communities. The point is that most human beings have experienced loss at least to some degree; this shared experience should encourage us to seek to understand other’s life experience and history before we form a judgment about who they/we are.

If you haven’t already, go back and take the links to the music in this post. It will take a few minutes but take the time now to experience this great music as it helps you get in touch with loss and return. Cultivate compassion for yourself and for others who endure far more than you/we do.