Friday, December 02, 2016

Palmer - Healing the Heart of Democracy

Parker Palmer closes his book Healing the heart of democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit (2011) with a quote from Reinhold Neibuhr that captures the essence of his message:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

Palmer wrote Healing… before the U.S.A. election of 2016; however, the concerns he raised have become even more evident this last year. Palmer’s view is that in order to make the Constitutional assurance of “We the People…” work, we need to speak to those beyond “our own” and we must cease to demonize those who have ideas different than ours. Examples of the struggles Abraham Lincoln faced leading up to and during the Civil War are offered throughout the book, providing contextualization that puts our own times in perspective. The rights of diverse others was a central disagreement of the Civil War and it appears that diversity has again driven a wedge between us.

Hope in our future can be recaptured by recognizing the mutual heartbreak of a government that doesn’t work and of communities divided by class and culture. “When we hold suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them.” (p. 22) The relative stagnation of the U.S. economy is clearly a source of much of the heartbreak that many citizens share. “When material progress falters… people become more jealous of their status relative to others” (p. 64); the jealousy then results in scapegoating others instead of working to problem solving our way to a more prosperous community.

There is no question that we experience tension, discomfort, and distrust with people who are different from us; however, there are benefits to diversity if we are able to hold it in a way that results in creativity, openness to each other, new ideas, and new courses of action. Unfortunately, one of the most significant barriers to our being able to open to each other’s ideas is the individualistic pursuit of wealth and power. Although individualism was one of the things that helped immigrants as they came to North America, it now pushes us away from each other and weakens our sense of shared community. This erosion of community through individualistic pursuit also has the more negative potential of making us vulnerable to despots who exploit our differences. The antidote is that our government was designed to help us embrace differences of opinion and to use the resulting tension to generate an active body politic.

Palmer proposes five habits of the heart that he believes can restore our sense of community and protect our democracy. The first thing is that we should recognize that we’re in this together. The second habit is that we must develop an appreciation for the value of others. The third is that we must cultivate the ability to hold tension in creative ways. Fourth, we must generate personal voice and agency. Finally, we should strengthen our capacity to create community. All five of these habits must be cultivated with chutzpah (knowing we have a voice and using it) and humility (accepting that truth is always partial and we should listen to others). These habits can be expressed in many places but educational institutions and religious organizations are two places where they are most effectively nurtured. In order for education and religious organizations to be useful, they cannot hold our society’s problems at arm’s length but must engage fully and personally to develop the empathy and willingness to act in ways that protect the present and future of our democracy.

Palmer’s optimist views have contributed much food for thought for those of us committed to a creating a better and more equitable world. His views are also realistic and have been documented in communities of hope where healing is underway. His historical and contemporary analyses of these places led him to discern four stages that are key in the process – “deciding to live ‘divided no more,’ forming communities of congruence, going public with a vision, and transforming the system of punishment and reward.” (p. 189)

Monday, November 14, 2016

Goss - Bolero: The Life of Maurice Ravel

My love of Ravels’ compositions goes all the way back to age 10 when I broke my arm and my mother bought a “stereo” (equivalent to what would be today’s boom box or ipod) to entertain me until I could go back to practicing piano. Along with the stereo, one of my first purchases was a recording of Ravel’s famous Bolero; I listened to it until the grooves wore out. Now I play two of Ravel’s most beloved compositions on piano, Pavane pour une Infante defunte and the Adagio Assai from his Piano Concerto in G.

Reading Bolero: The life of Maurice Ravel  (M. Goss, 1940) introduced new insights that now bring deeper meaning and enhanced interpretation to his compositions. Ravel is fascinating as a study in leadership as well, particularly because his kind of leadership was one that often goes unrecognized – simple, convicted, and pursued with little regard for influence. He made music because he had to (“comme unpommier fait ses pommes”) instead of for the purpose of advancing himself or making money.

Ravel’s father was Swiss and his mother from the Basque region of Spain. His unique love of Basque culture led to a career-long fascination with rhythm and dance. This, combined with a tendency to obscure emotion behind a film of artistic restraint, came to be recognized as quintessentially French.

Numerous other composers influenced Ravel yet he remained unique. Chabrier provided inspiration for the Pavane pour une Infante defunte, the first of Ravel’s compositions to be widely embraced. Its delicate and unwavering rhythm depicts a princess dancing the Pavane at court and becoming so obsessed with its beauty that she loses all interest in anything else. His most influential teacher was Faure and contemporaries included the likes of Debussy, Satie, Massenet, Saint-Saens, de Falla, and Stravinsky (one of Ravel’s closest life-long friends). He also interacted with many of the impressionist painters (Verlaine, Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas) of the early 20th century.

Many of Ravel’s compositions drew sharp disapproval from critics and the public but made him a celebrity among his young artist comrades. He composed in many different styles with one period focusing exclusively on ballet and a later period incorporating elements of jazz. After visiting America he reported that “American people have developed a distinct national personality by combining different races into a united whole” which resulted in “two distinct characteristics: underlying pathos… plus a hidden yearning for an ideal which Americans hardly understand.” (62% through digital text)

Ravel composed Bolero only a short time after returning from his concert tour to America. Its pulsating beat never varied when Ravel conducted it in concert and it is this constant forward movement, drawing the listener to an eventual dramatic key modulation and explosive conclusion, that made the piece so intoxicating. Another of Ravel’s last compositions, the Piano Concerto in G, incorporates a similar rhythmic pulse in the middle movement (Adagio Assai) that supports a tender and elegant melody. The pace and persistence of each of these compositions creates a captivating quality much like the short life of this eccentric composer with the Basque heart and restrained French sensibility.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Khanna - Connectography

I read and review a lot of books, some are great, others are alright, and a few are barely worth the effort. Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilizations by Parag Khanna (2016) is a must read particularly in a time when governments and their leaders are searching for understanding about the future.

Khanna has recorded for TED Talks where he describes a world that should be understood more in terms of connections and trade than how we have seen it in geography and maps. His proposition is that connectivity will transform our world; geographic boundaries, protected by governments and military defense, will become irrelevant.

Informed by extensive travel and an amazing network of colleagues around the world (see “Acknowledgments”), Khanna describes a hopeful future where military superiority and wars will cease to be a threat, replaced by supply chain and trade agreements that world leaders dare not violate if they want to survive. Khanna, by contrast to many who deplore the mass urbanization unfolding around the world, sees cities as the way to deal with environmental degradation and income inequality.

“As the lines that connect us supersede the borders that divide us, functional geography is becoming more important than political geography.” (7% through digital text) Khanna predicts that nations will have little power in comparison to cities that broker supply chains and trade at will, carefully managing the flow (resources, goods, capital, technology, people, data, and ideas) and friction (borders, conflict, sanctions, distance, and regulation) within their purview. This world of evolving and permeable boundaries, is more effectively leveraged through engagement than containment.

Tug-of-war for resources, innovation, products and services is the new paradigm that Khanna says successful cultures must embrace. Within this tug-of-war the most important goal is securing talent; whether grown through education and training or acquired through immigration from other areas of the world, the boundaries should be taken down rather then erected. That is not to say that immigration can be totally thrown open but it does call for modification of immigration processes and numbers so that talented people who seek opportunity can flow to whatever place helps them achieve the goals they have for themselves and their families. When and if migrant workers “are sent back, they should be armed with skills and money to stabilize their own countries to eventually diminish the urge to migrate.” (73% through digital text) Perhaps the solution in the 21st century is to issue “global passports” that are carried by those who move and work from country to country and city to city, effectively undoing the “punitive effects of the accident of birth.”

With 60% of Americans now believing that the “American Dream” is out of their reach, 40% of young adults 18 to 24 see themselves working outside of U.S.A. boundaries at some point in their future (26% through digital text). This is a startling change in American’s view of their future and it is one that, in itself, will help the country become more connected and therefore influential. It is these expatriate and traveling diplomats who offer the new face of America abroad. New York, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Fancisco, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta have been important to the U.S.A. but to these “homes” the global cities of London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, and Dubai will be added. Infrastructure development will increasingly be central to the success of any city that wants to be included among the global supply, talent, and innovation centers. Simplistic calls to “bring jobs back to America” fail to recognize that the more jobs and wealth that emerge elsewhere, the more there are those who can afford to buy innovations that originate in the knowledge economy of the U.S.A. where banking, insurance, software programming, consulting, design, architecture, accounting, legal affairs, health care and education are so lucrative. These innovation industries can thrive in special economic zones (SEZs) placed around the world, providing more opportunity to build connectivity while bringing mutual benefit to all.

According to Khanna’s predictions, “Connectivity is destiny” and those individuals, businesses, and countries that do not embrace this reality are at risk. In his concluding paragraph, Khanna advocates, “We need a more borderless world because we can’t afford destructive territorial conflict, because correcting the mismatch of people and resources can unlock incredible human and economic potential, because so few states provide sufficient welfare for their citizens, and because so many billions have yet to fully benefit from globalization.”

Khanna is showing up regularly in Facebook posts and other media. One New York Times article proposes a new map of America based on the trends identified in Connectography. Khanna’s message is worth careful consideration, especially in the context of political strife emerging all around the world and most graphically demonstrated in the 2016 U.S.A. Presidential contest. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

An Other World - Block, Brueggemann & McKnight

An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture (Block, Brueggemann & McKnight, 2016) proposes that the competitive economic and resource-scarce world that is reflected in much of life’s experience is being replaced by a covenantal world characterized by neighborly beliefs.

The free market consumer ideology that the authors believe is dying assumes scarcity of resources, that certainty and perfection are achievable, that acquisitiveness and privatization are essential, and that institutions are required to maintain this ordered culture. The emerging covenantal world is based on the neighborly beliefs of abundance, mystery, fallibility, and the common good. The consumer and globalized culture which dominated much of the 19th and 20th centuries violated neighborly values and perpetuated privilege, competition, self-interest, entitlement, and surplus (unused) resources. By contrast, a new covenantal culture would result in more even distribution of resources and would reduce the obsession to acquire more than we need. The covenantal community requires that individual well-being be reunderstood by paying greater attention to the well-being of the whole community.

The authors view urbanization as one of the primary causes for the loss of community, partly due to the complex systems and empire that has to be maintained as a support to consumerism. This urbanized world lacks a sense of community, of knowing each other, and it ignores the potential of a connection to God. They trace the class system that has emerged and the organizations that support it to a “myth of individual development.” The empire that perpetuates our disconnection from each other is supported by everything from schools to aloof elites who are blind to the social and economic conditions that impact other’s lives. Additional factors that sustain our disconnected life experience include mobility and isolation, unproductive wealth, and the violence that accompanies them.

The alternative the authors propose is to accept an “invitation to covenantal justice, a call to create a more just or equitable world based on covenant.” This covenant is what many would see as a commitment to the common good. And this common good can be achieved by recognizing the abundance of our community gifts and sharing the resources we need. The signposts of such a covenantal community are sharing time, food, and silence. Rather than observing time as a quantity to be managed, covenantal time involves measuring the depth of time – what did we do with time to make meaning and create common good? Rather than seeing food as something to hoard, food should be viewed as coming from nature and therefore freely shared. Rather than viewing silence as a void or absence, it should be seen as a companion to mystery – a place allowing for reflection, discernment and deeper understanding.

In the postscript, the authors express their intent in writing this book, “to shrink the market as the primary means of cultural identity, schools as the sole source of learning, systems as the source of care, price as the measure of value, productivity as the basis of being.” All in all, such propositions sound attractive but the few examples the authors provide offer little certitude of dramatic change, especially in a near term view. An Other Kingdom was more a primer for reflection on the state of our civilization and world’s future than a roadmap to how to make it happen.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Relating music, leadership and cultural intelligence - Part Five of Five sequential posts

As many of us discover in our maturing days, there are repeating and often deepening themes throughout life’s experiences. Musicleadership, and cultural intelligence have been areas of constant discovery in my life. They will continue to be fascinations for me as I seek to learn more. Through my journey thus far, I have gained insights from the confluence of discoveries in each area which include:
  • Find areas in your life that fascinate you, remain open to learning about them, and transfer ideas discovered in one area to others.
  • Brain function research guides us in realizing where we are in our learning, especially related to the discomfort we have in learning new things and the growing freedom we have when acquired learning is incorporated into who we are.
  • When learning something new, pick the pieces apart, analyzing different issues for patterns that can illuminate how the pieces fit together and how approaches in one area can be adapted to another.
  • Once we achieve some degree of authenticity (comfort) in who we are, keep both an explicit awareness of what you are doing running at the same time you act out of your natural core.
  • Find the place that allows you to be “at home” with new knowledge and to express your true self in using it.
  • Remember that you are not the center but simply an instrument of conveyance for something that goes beyond and is bigger than you.
Music, leadership and culture can each be seen as special areas of expertise and therefore things that we should only engage if we have high expertise. What’s wrong with that view? Seeing them as matters of expertise and performance takes away the opportunity for all of us to enjoy being involved, living fully, and offering all that we have. Seeing music, leadership and cultural interaction as part of who we are but not about us can be freeing. The bottom line is that music used to be something shared in private salons and living rooms and now it is celebrated more on the concert stage. Leadership used to be a shared responsibility in communities seeking mutuality in order to survive and now it is viewed all too often as the purview of select elites. Cultural interaction used to be about how to connect with someone of another tribe and now it is viewed more as an obstacle to overcome in business or political negotiations. What I am advocating is that music, leadership, and cultural interaction, as well as many other areas, can and should become topics/experiences of mutual exploration rather than audience observation and evaluation.

Some final points that I’ve realized through these successive posts, expressed in musical terms but generalizable to leadership and culture as well, may be helpful:
  • Starting from scratch can be terrifying – fear of the unknown is intimidating.
  • The hard parts require greater discipline to learn but they often become our best passages.
  • Hidden and subtle themes are often the most interesting.
  • Concentrate on where the arc of the long phrase goes rather than just the short interludes.
  • Masterful performance is a combination of restraint (careful control) and reckless abandon.
  • Focus on the art and not the audience.
In some ways, these understandings have likely been part of my worldview for some time. However, the explicit recognition of them helps me to hold certain assumptions about what I am doing that keep me on track. The last point, “It is the art that should be the focus and not the audience,” has been a struggle for me. Even now, I can write these words but I know that in relation to playing piano I still pay too much attention to the audience. I am coming back to this challenge and will have an opportunity in November 2016 to test this assumption at the International Association of Leadership conference in Atlanta. I’ve been invited to play background music as conference attendees take their seats at two of the keynote programs. Practicing a number of Rachmaninoff pieces for the last several years, the program I intend to play traces his compositions from the first when he was only 18 years old (middle movement of the Piano Concerto #1) up to one of his final masterpieces (18th variation of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini). As I practice, I am often transported to a place that is outside of myself and concentrates only on my giving voice to this great music. My goal is to go to this place regardless of who is in the room in Atlanta.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Culture - Part Four of Five sequential posts

My artistic struggle is that I can play piano very well for myself, my wife, and family. When it comes to playing “for” others, anxiety is my worst enemy. Anxiety has a powerful ability to derail procedural memory. When I performed publicly as a youth, I remember sitting down at the piano to perform a piece by memory, and then not even knowing how the piece started or how to figure it out. The anxiety froze my procedural memory and the only way out was to try to relax, visualize the explicit aspects of the music in order to get started, and then hope that the procedural memory would comfortably kick in for the rest of the piece. If I was not able to get back on track through memory, I would ask to see my sheet music for a refresher and then dive in. Such experiences are terrifying and I’ve had my share…

Again, applying to leadership and culture, I believe we can freeze up when we face an anxiety producing setting. The only difference is that in leadership and culture, some of us (myself included) feel we have to proceed, faking it along the way and hoping that others don’t recognize. As you can see in this comparison, you couldn’t get away with faking it on the piano. However, when we freeze in leadership or cultural interaction, many of us just blunder ahead rather than saying, “You know, I really don’t know where to start. Can you give me a little help in understanding what to do?”

Increasing cultural proficiency starts with a realization that we all have unique ways of living and interacting with others matched with curiosity about how other’s ways work for them. Living in Qatar for seven years offered the opportunity to interact across very different cultures on a regular basis. In the early days of being there, and privileged by the belief that I was expected to bring my perspective and expertise, I made many blunders. Fortunately, colleagues would comment good-naturedly that “You are so American.” At first I didn’t understand what that meant but I gradually overcame my own blindness to see the details of how others interacted with each other. I eventually came to adopt a habit of reading each encounter I had with a cultural lens, reflecting with, “What is the same or different about this encounter and what must I do if I want to “connect” with the other person?

An example of seeking to “connect” more effectively can be found in determining whether to speak up or stand down in cross-cultural interactions. Many Americans and some from other “Western” cultural backgrounds place great value on speaking one’s mind and forthrightly offering our perspectives. This view is related to lots of things, among them are individualism, assertiveness, and a belief in the value of freedom of speech. Other cultures, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, view speaking up as potentially disrespectful of others, self-oriented, or inviting scrutiny that could reveal imperfection. The natural tendency of an American, regardless of cultural context, would likely be to speak up quickly and directly. Unfortunately, this can result in others being unresponsive to what might have been otherwise a very helpful idea. A choice to stand down, listen to others first, recognize the value of other’s contributions, and then offer an enhancing perspective would most likely be much better received.

What many refer to as “culture shock” is in essence “freezing up” in the face of the anxiety of being in a cultural context that we do not understand. In that moment, we face a realization that something is not working and we don’t know where to turn. I am not sure it applies to all cultures, but my experience in Qatar was filled with gracious hosts who were more than happy to help me in those “freezing up” moments and I grew to know that I could always turn to one of them to say, “I really don’t know where to start. Can you give me a little help in understanding what to do?”

Molinsky’s (2013) cultural dexterity model is very helpful when thinking about how to establish authentic communication and appreciation across cultures. His view is to know one’s own cultural inclinations, seek to understand that of others, and adapt (without compromising the essence) your own style in order to be able to relate effectively with others. There is striking confirmation across learning music, leadership, and culture – study carefully and deeply, understand the bits and pieces, keep an eye on both the small and big picture, seek authenticity, and find a place that represents being “at home” that allows you to perform at your best.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Leadership - Part Three of Five sequential posts

Like music, when we engage in leadership, things may seem very disjoint and cacophonous but a deeper dive and growing familiarity reveals patterns that increase our understanding. It is patience and discipline in the analysis of both music and leadership that ultimately leads to greater success.

Leadership is thought by many people to be something that others do – not me. Our times, with advancing quality and length of life around the world, require a broader number of us to engage in leadership. All one has to do is look around to recognize that many of those who presume to “lead” are nearly incapable of leadership and that there are others with such deep humility that they would never accept that they offer leadership on a regular basis. My belief is that we need both more humility among “leaders” as well as audacity that invites others into leadership.

Learning about leadership can start through experience or through study, and ideally both. It is something that requires a depth of reflection and analysis much like the approach to learning a new piece of music – analysis, identification of patterns, and seeing both the immediate and big picture. Having been a formal student of leadership from 1976 to this day, I continue to read actively, observe others carefully, and reflect on my own experience to understand it. And it is almost always the deeper experiences, sometimes my own failure, that stimulate the greatest insight. Approaching leadership with a discerning eye that identifies patterns, hidden dynamics, similarities/dissimilarities to other experiences, and balances both small and big implications is almost always more successful than just forging ahead.

Working within a framework of critical analysis and discipline, we can achieve great artistry that embraces the nature of the question we seek to master, either a piece of music or a challenge in leadership. This artistry then becomes the ‘at home’ of who we are when we are our best selves in leadership – approaching the situation as nuanced, unique, and ripe with opportunity to make a difference. This authentic place is based on our acting out of our natural tendencies tempered with the awareness of our surrounding environment and its dynamics.