Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Gladwell - David and Goliath

I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books so jumped into another - David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). While the premise of the book was appealing, it wasn’t new and didn’t reflect the counter-intuitive sensibility that Gladwell’s earlier books offered. However, the premise, that little guys can succeed if they don’t succumb to playing the game the “big guys” do, is one that those interested in empowering leadership will want to support.

The book started by reinterpreting the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Instead of the threatening Goliath that is typically conjured in our imaginations, Gladwell’s Goliath is a lumbering figure, burdened with confining armor, and led by hand because his vision is so poor he can’t find his own way. Goliath the giant is not only disadvantaged by his size and awkwardness but faced a formidable opponent in David, the youthful and excellent marksman with a sling-shot capable of piercing a scull as effectively as a bullet. Goliath didn’t have a chance as David approached him in the valley between the armies of the Philistines and Israelites!

Gladwell’s retelling of David and Goliath, and several other examples throughout history, proposed that many of the things that appear to make others strong may actually be points of weakness. This reality was frighteningly confirmed by the political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft who analyzed warfare between big and little states and found that, when weaker sides fight with unconventional tactics, the weaker parties prevailed in approximately 2/3 of the conflicts. He cited T.E. Lawrence (the subject of Lawrence in Arabia that I recently read) as one example among many where the weaker party won by using unconventional tactics.

Gladwell’s thesis partially relied on the “inverted U” principle, one that suggested that strategies that work in one setting might not work in another. Applied to school performance, some educators believe that lower class size results in improved student success. However, he cited research suggesting that, while school performance improves as class size goes down to the mid-20s, it actually declines if class size falls below the 20 students to 1 teacher ratio. At the university level, the common belief that student performance improves in highly select institutions is contradicted by the fact that strong performers (above average) actually have less positive experiences in elite universities rather than in places where good performers are allowed to blossom among other students of similar ability and motivation.

The other important principle that Gladwell advocated through explanation of cases all the way from Londoners’ survival during the WWII Nazi Blitz to the success of entrepreneurs with learning disabilities to U.S. civil rights advocates’ defeat of Southern resistance in the 1950s and 1960s was that, for many individuals, facing and conquering a challenge resulted in greater strength, creativity, hard work, and exhilaration in tackling other challenges. A quote that captured the idea is “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”

All in all, the “take away” lessons from Gladwell’s David and Goliath were; a) what appears as strength may be a weakness ready to be exploited, b) an effective strategy in one setting could be useless in another (or, more is not always better), and c) being the underdog can cultivate strength that will make you a champion in other circumstances. Cap these three off with d) the fact that the abuse of power by people with apparent superior power can lead to the demise of their legitimacy as well as foster greater defiance, and we have a recipe for a very different kind of world than one controlled by Goliaths.

As other reviews I’ve read in The Independent, NY Times, New Republic, and Wall Street Journal indicate, the lessons Gladwell illuminates are not new and they actually reflect perspectives that many of his readers already embrace. Gladwell’s trick is spinning the stories so readers see themselves as championing unconventional views while selling one more book for Gladwell and his publishers.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rusbridger - Play it again

Play it again is Alan Rusbridger’s revelatory account of how he simultaneously disciplined himself to become a better pianist while managing the very difficult job of serving as editor of the Guardian newspaper (UK). Rusbridger’s discoveries about discipline and artistic expression in music were interspersed with the unfolding Julius Assange and Wikileaks story as well as the News of the World's (now defunct Murdoch tabloid) cell phone hacking and bribery of public officials scandal; both of these could have been stories on their own. Play it again will captivate musicians and journalists but the detail Rusbridger includes on both of these topics may not be of as much interest to others. For those interested in leadership, there are plenty of lessons about how people interact, how aspiration shapes our experience, and how the pursuit of art can be critical to managing the stressful challenges of leadership.

Rusbridger described his journey of renewing his piano skills as one of discovering glowing embers under grey ashes. He had training in his youth but did not take himself seriously enough to achieve the level of skill that he wanted. Mid-life reconsideration drew him back to attempt to recapture his musical ability and take it further. While he might have done it through other pieces, Rusbridger attempted to master one of the more difficult piano pieces in the entire keyboard repertoire – Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. Jumping to the end of the story, after almost eighteen months of practice, Rusbridger was able to competently play the Ballade for a small assemblage of friends, an experience that ended up being profoundly affirming. It also convinced him that we can always learn, sometimes more effectively than we think, and that there is just as much purpose for amateur pianists (those who perform for the love of music) to be diligent and careful as there is for professionals. In fact, Rusbridger suggested, and other musicians confirmed, that skilled amateurs may actually be able to “reach” their listeners as well or better than professionals.

Rusbridger didn’t only renew his commitment to practicing piano, he built a music studio onto his home and furnished it with the prize of all professional or serious amateur pianists – a Steinway grand. As he pursued his lessons, he identified several important principles for those who wish to play artistically. For all pianists, discipline is absolutely essential but this technical ability has to be complemented by musicality, or the ability to interpret and bring the story of each piece of music to life. Beyond musicality, the other challenges that aging musicians often encounter are finger speed and dexterity, and then memory.

In relation to memory, Rusbridger provided fascinating scientific details, details that helped to describe both the challenges and successes I’ve encountered in mastering specific compositions. The problem with more complicated pieces of music is that the notes either come so fast or the span of your hands across the keyboard is so wide that you have trouble glancing at the manuscript to keep track of where you are. The only answer to this is memorization or at least enough recall of the notes that you can play while only glancing at the printed music as a reminder. Rusbridger provided incredible relief to those of us who are aging when he shared the process of locking musical pieces into procedural memory, ready for artistic and natural access as long as the distractions around us (work, family, health), or the anxiety and fear (enabled by episodic memory) of performance, do not come in the way. The answer which will from hereafter free me to play – both technically and musically – is to complete the hard work of analysis, identifying the nuance of a piece and fingering it in ways that help me to master and remember it, and then play the music for the art of expression and with any audience (if there is one) only incidental to the moment of creation.

Rusbridger’s book struck so many common chords (pun intended) for me. Living in Qatar has exacted many very difficult sacrifices for my family and me. Although it has been great to live abroad, being away from family has been very difficult, especially after Darbi left. My embers under the grey ashes ahve been sparked by the discipline of playing piano every morning before work and for many hours on weekends. The dedication and discipline of adulthood has allowed me, like Rusbridger, to incorporate expressing myself artistically through the piano in ways that are now deeply gratifying. Rusbridger captured the essence of amateur musicianship by quoting Charles Cooke's Playing the piano for pleasure, “Too many students study music with the view to becoming great virtuosi, but the place of music in the life of the amateur pianist should be, as I see it, important but not all-important; a source of pleasure in the work done and in the results achieved.”

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aslan - Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan stirs up controversy and reflection in his latest book, “Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.” I finished this book just before the 2013 Christmas holiday and I have to admit that many of Aslan’s assertions haunted me throughout the season. His purpose in “Zealot” might most simply be characterized as tackling the inconsistencies among Biblical writers and the historical records of Jesus of Nazareth, concluding in the end that Jesus of Nazareth was more a zealot than anything else.

Much of Aslan’s analysis critiqued the role of the Jewish leaders, especially their deference to Roman dominance during the times of Jesus. He described religious leaders who perceived themselves as exceptional in all ways, based on the commandments of Yahweh of old, and committed to maintaining order and devotion among their people. There were multiple claims to being the Messiah of the Jewish people, a claim equivalent to challenging the authority of Rome. And, the label “King of the Jews” was also recognized to be a threat to the order maintained by the Jewish leaders. In Aslan’s words, “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities.”

Aslan indicated that one of the reasons that the Bible differs from historical records is that the various authors of New Testament texts were less concerned about recording the facts than they were of revealing the truths about Jesus’ witness. He commented, “There is more accumulated historical evidence confirming Jesus’s miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha.” Magic was widespread in Jesus’s time but the imposters who used it did so to impress and to gain favor and financial benefit. Jesus was documented to have done real miracles and he never asked for anything in return. In fact, the miracles attributed to Jesus were usually not intended as an end in themselves but were used to demonstrate a lesson that Jesus sought to teach. Jesus was not interested in having stories of his miracles touted among others – he actively discouraged his disciples from telling others but this only led to more people proclaiming the mystery of Jesus’s actions. Those who knew Jesus and observed his miracles were themselves martyred, one after another, for their unwillingness to disavow the miracles they saw.

James, brother of Jesus, was the de facto leader of Christianity after Jesus’s death and resurrection. However, the writings of James are often relegated to lower status than the other Gospels. Why? Because his message was more for the Jews, and with a zealous commitment to the teachings of the Torah, rather than to what the other apostles of the time advocated. In particular, Peter and Paul were central as the voice of Christianity in Rome, taking the message to the gentiles, which was perceived to be a more important objective at that time. Aslan proposed that neither Jesus nor James would have expected Christianity to become a separate religious group from Judaism.

The concluding pages of "Zealot" provided a compelling picture of a prophet who made an amazing statement in his own time, although not terribly different from many of the martyrs of that day. Aslan characterized Jesus as a product of his time, who challenged everything, including both Roman and Jewish leaders, and he asserted that subsequent believers in Jesus as the Messiah in many ways scrubbed the image too clean, seeking to portray a Jesus more often mild, passive, and compliant; this passive Jesus was constructed by other writers to be more comfortable to the many gentiles who were being drawn to the new religion of Christianity. The Jesus portrayed by Aslan was courageous, defiant, and subversive, the latter being the ultimate “crime” for which he would be crucified. Jesus was a threat to the political order of the time who, by challenging authorities, became a zealous activist for all those who were subjugated and oppressed. In his final reflections, Aslan concludes his historical analysis with, “Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Brown - Boys in the Boat

Capturing the bonding and development of the 1936 University of Washington 8-man crew team who won the Berlin Olympics, Boys in the Boat not only portrays a fascinating high-water point for sports in a difficult time, but it also analyzes what it takes to be a team, as well as the personal journey that many endure in life on their way to greatness.

My daughter, Darbi, was a rower during her undergraduate study at Carnegie Mellon. We went to a number, although not all, of her regattas, giving me a personal glimpse of the dedication of her team, the discipline, and endurance required by this sport. However, Brown’s description of the 1936 Olympic team moved my appreciation to an entirely different level. Honestly, rowing is perhaps one of the finest models for true transforming leadership that exists. It is a sport that requires absolute personal dedication and striving complemented by an extraordinary team that allows for all members to contribute their best to the collective effort. Any individual attempting to pull beyond his/her weight will upset the balance as quickly as any individual who falls below the potential of his/her fellows. In rowing terminology, the “swing” of the boat is an effortless, powerful, and exhilarating moment when the team is unstoppable.

Although there are 9 members to 8-man shells (adding the coxswain), and each of the members of the 1936 crew team was described in some detail, it is Joe Rantz who is the central figure in Brown’s book. Joe grew up in extremely modest circumstances, spending part of his youth in a mining town and the rest in a rural environment. He was abandoned by his father who, after Joe’s mother died, married another woman who refused to have Joe in the household. Thus, Joe grew up having to fend for himself and believing that he could never trust anyone else to care for him. Fortunately for Joe, rather than allowing neglect to result in his undoing, he pushed back in his striving to make a living and to eventually attend the University of Washington. Even while attending college, he was marginalized and ridiculed because of having to work, wearing thread-bear clothing, and not being able to join in the social experiences that were common to other students.

Joe’s struggle to achieve self-worth drove him to pursue rowing, even when for a period after his first successful year on the team, he was reduced to a less-competitive boat. Over his years on the UW crew team, the coach found 8 additional men of humble background who were able to be selfless enough to perform at their peak while still making sure others could do the same. This within a sport that is sometimes characterized as one of the most elitist of all. All of the Washington rowers who made it to be a part of the 1936 Olympics were disadvantaged by the Great Depression, by family circumstances, or misgivings about themselves. But the growing self-knowledge of crew members, coupled with respect for each other, allowed them to become one of the greatest 8-man rowing teams of all time.

The historical context for the 1936 Olympics was that Hitler was on the rise, and chose to host the Olympics as a way of staging the appearance of a progressive, modern, and tolerant country. Figures such as Goebbels, the propaganda master-mind behind Hitler, were dedicated to creating an image that would convince the world that Germany was something it was not. The Olympic teams from the United States was lucky to go at all, considering a significant boycott move. By attending, they managed to counter the deference to the Third Reich through refusing to dip the American flag during the parade of nations and most of all through their performance as athletes. The final race of the 8-man shells was manipulated by German officials to favor the German and Italian shells but this only increased the resolve of the U.S.A. tem to beat the odds and finish first.

Boys in the Boat is a touching portrayal of very common people who rise to greatness. It captures what aspiration is all about and stands as a reassurance that hard work, humility, and perseverance pay off both in personal accomplishment and in quality of life.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Diamond - Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel is typical of his other books – engaging and exploring novel views of society, culture, and how humanity has evolved over time. It starts with a very simple question posed during a walk on the beach in New Guinea. Yali, a local politician, had initiated a conversation with Jared that eventually led to the question of why white people had been so much more successful in bringing cargo to New Guinea than New Guinea had been in creating its own cargo. The entire book unfolds from this simple question – why have certain societies advanced further and faster than others?

Through historical research as well as modern comparisons, Diamond asserts that, most likely, the differences in developmental progress across cultures are less about the innate capability of the people than the environmental circumstances that shaped their experience. The bottom line is that the succession from hunter-gatherers to farmers to organized groups with sophisticated institutions is the process through which any culture emerges. And, the conditions that stimulated each step along the way can either speed or slow the development.

The emergence of civilization is recognized as having come from the Fertile Crescent – but why? Diamond’s analysis is that it was the result of a rich and diverse environment of both plant and animal life. The conditions were just right to allow for a proliferation of species that would be useful to humans. First the animals would serve as food and eventually the natural plants would be domesticated to yield better and greater quantities of food to satisfy a growing population. Thus, food contributed to increased population and increased population required advances in food production. And, this growth required complex organizations and specialists to make it all work.

The increased populations supported by domestication of key animals and plants led to both human adaptations and technology advancements that then gave those in populous areas superiority over others. Animal domestication had one of the most powerful influences through the transfer of germs from other animals to humans. As various animals became commonplace in villages, humans encountered diseases to which they had to adapt, thus gradually equipping them with natural defenses not part of more primitive societies. The pattern of explorers coming to distant lands and killing the indigenous inhabitants of the new land as much through disease as aggression is repeated throughout history. Food was the first advantage and then germs became the determining force for advanced groups to conquer others.

Another natural advantage, first to the Fertile Crescent and then to other cultures of Eurasia, is simply latitude. Tracing the evolution of cultures, it is clear that the most advanced early cultures spread from Mesopotamia to the east and west. But why not east and west? Because the narrower band of latitude going from east to west in Eurasia allowed for plant life and improvements and agricultural technology to spread across the continent rather than up and down the continents with north south orientations such as Africa or the Americas – north to south required greater adaptation and thus the diffusion of plant species was much lower than in east to west environments. Additionally, the latitudes from Mesopotamia over to the Mediterranean zone afforded greater variation in altitudes and topography, resulting in greater diversification within the rich band and long growing seasons typical of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean.

The superiority in food production continued to result in advancement of culture through the creation of writing and tabulation. In order to trade among the ever-increasing complexity of villages and communities, there had to be a way to record, thus the beginning of notation of various sorts. Notation then resulted in better communication and the creation of political organizations which could then explore and move out in conquest of others. This all resulted in an autocatalytic process that snow-balled and sped up over time, resulting in ever-increasing advantage to dominant cultures that then began to overtake, either through germs or warfare, and annihilate simpler and less-advanced cultures. Perhaps most unfortunate of all, advancing societies with complex organizations and governments resorted to religious beliefs to justify their growing dominance. If a society perceived itself superior to others by virtue of technology, and justified its status as granted from God, it was then easy to move to dominate and control other societies that were perceived as lesser, ignorant or backward. This perceived superiority also served as the justification for taking natural resources and wealth from others, again adding even more to the superiority of the advanced group.

Attempting to apply Diamond’s ideas of how technology, organization, language and culture advance in the modern day, it is only natural to ask what are the determining factors that might impact the welfare of our current most advanced societies? In Diamond’s words, “what is the best way to organize human groups, organizations, and businesses so as to maximize productivity, creativity, innovation, and wealth?” His answer is through the very processes that allowed earlier cultures to thrive – diversification and diffusion and the principle of optimal fragmentation; with these principles in operation, “innovation proceeds most rapidly in a society with some optimal intermediate degree of fragmentation: a too-unified society is at a disadvantage, and so is a too-fragmented society.” The question is how to achieve and maintain that optimal fragmentation. Perhaps through fostering good institutions that cultivate diverse perspectives while maintaining balance “through rule of law, enforcement of contracts, protection of private property rights, lack of corruption, low frequency of assassinations, openness to trade and to flow of capital, incentives for investment,” and more. And to add another to the list from my own vision of advanced societies – justice and equity.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Scharmer and Kaufer - Leading from the emerging future

Otto Scharmer’s new book (co-authored with Kaufer) uses many of the same ideas he has espoused in previous writing. Leading from the emerging future is different primarily in its efforts to advocate a way to a future that will create global well-being, or as he terms it, a “gross national happiness” rather than “gross domestic product” measure. In GNH, the outcome would be “genuine human beings, realizing their full and true potential, caring for others – including other species – ecologically literate, contemplative as well as analytical in their understanding of the world, free of greed and without excessive desires; knowing, understanding, and appreciating completely that they are not separate from the natural world and from others.”

The Gross National Happiness index (GNH) would challenge business dominated environments where business interests supersede all other sectors – civil, social, media, government. How? By creating broad entrepreneurial capacities that serve the real needs of communities rather than the private interests of those out simply to make a profit. The infrastructures required would include:

• Enabling spaces: innovation happens in nurturing places

• Key challenges: challenges are the raw material for all learning

• Sensing mechanisms that allow people to see themselves as part of a bigger picture

• Capacity-building mechanisms

• Capital

• Technology

• Community: a global web of mentors, partners, and entrepreneurs who collectively create prototypes for society

Scharmer asserted that the blind spot that holds us back in striving for connectedness and common purpose is that we assume that mainstream economic thought is real and that it is a foundation that cannot be challenged. This is in the face of $190 trillion in U.S.A. assets sitting in wait for highly profitable investment while the real economy and social sector have no way to access the necessary resources to make a positive impact. “The primary leadership challenge today is the fact that our economic reality is shaped by globally interdependent eco-systems, while institutional leaders, by and large, operate with an organizational ego-system awareness.”

I have always found Otto’s ideas visionary and stretching far beyond the current reality that most people can see. Leading from the emerging future offers thought-provoking questions and challenges and evidence through numerous examples that leadership focused on something other than monetary gain is evident in more organizations and communities than we realize.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Confident in yourself but humble enough to think beyond yourself

One of the most important responsibilities of leadership is to inspire vision and hope.  This video of Her Highness Sheikha Moza talking about Qatar, education, and building human resources is as inspiring as it gets.  Qatar truly is a small lab exploring solutions that could be a model for the rest of the world.  "It is like music to my ears; I can see this mosaic coming together to create a beautiful picture," as she says in the closing moments of this clip.

This testimony to aspiration and vision is calling many people to Qatar now.  Six years ago, when I first came here, the vision was there but the evidence was only just emerging.  Now there is plenty of evidence but it is still Her Highness who inspires those of us who seek to help fulfill a vision of a small country with big ambition.