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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Music - Part Two of Five sequential posts

In looking at the way we learn music, leadership, and culture I want to begin with how our brains function. In Alan Rusbridger’s Play it Again a very important distinction is made between explicit and procedural memory. Explicit memory is brain capacity that is used when we encounter and attempt to master something new. Depending on the complexity of the topic or skill, the process of establishing explicit memory may take a significant amount of time and effort. Gradually as we begin to incorporate the new understanding into our natural thinking, the brain function moves to procedural memory. Procedural memory is something that can be recalled automatically, seemingly without effort or focus.

Learning a piece of music is one of the easiest illustrations to use regarding explicit and procedural memory. When learning a piece, I work very hard to read the notes, observe the dynamics, and do as much as I can to recreate the composer’s intent. During this phase, the music doesn’t “sing” because it is stiff and mechanical. As all the technical aspects are gradually mastered, playing a piece becomes more natural and musical. It is at this stage that brain functioning is shifting from explicit to procedural memory. A startling moment can occur during this phase as I get caught up in the music, enjoying a truly artistic moment; then all of a sudden, I don’t know what the next notes or phrase should be and the result is a train wreck. The way to avoid the train wreck is to seek to hold some explicit awareness of what I am doing in the moment while letting go of the technical details – freeing the full artistic expression that is possible when I am caught up in the music.

One of my favorite composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff, was recognized as one of the 20th century's greatest composers, conductors, and pianists. Rachmaninoff is known for his great melodies and I enjoy playing his compositions because they have very complicated chords, runs, rhythms, and interplay of both hands. This requires me to pick the piece apart, analyzing different sections of his compositions for patterns that can help me see how the work fits together and how approaches in one section can be adapted to another. As the sameness and variation within and across pieces becomes clear through repetition, the music becomes more familiar, comfortable, and "at home."

It is the "at home" point that the music and I become one in the same - with my reading and playing the music serving only as a conduit for what is written in a manuscript. "Arriving at home" allows for a piece of music to have a unique interpretation that is only mine. I shape the phrases, change the tempo, emphasize a note or chord and the way I do it is likely never to be repeated by anyone else. It is in the "at home" stage that full expression is possible and it is frequently accompanied with a physiological reaction in me; I get chills up my spine and all over my body when I find expression in the music and achieve just the touch that the composer intended as well. So, the piece is played with integrity to the composer yet finds distinctive expression through me.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Experimentalism and empiricism - Part One of Five sequential posts

I’m an experientialist rather than an empiricist. My career and personal life have offered untold opportunity to learn from my encounters. The problem was that, as many in the world, the luxury of taking time out to conduct an empirical analysis of what was happening and why just never emerged. I have, however, learned that the experientialist perspective has a lot of value and this perspective deepens and perhaps gains greater validity as we mature. This is the realization that draws me to undertake a series of blog posts that will connect three major themes in my life – music, leadership, and culture.

Especially in an age where the voices of youth are marginalized and sometimes not taken seriously, I do not equate my advancing age with any deeper realization in life. Anyone can and should own realizations when sufficient time has been taken to dig into our experiences in search for deeper meanings and connections. In an age of complexity greater than any we have experienced before, I strive to use all the critical thinking, comparative perspective, and cross-disciplinary thinking I can muster. Even with a lot of work, the result will be inadequate but I’m striving for “good enough” to be of benefit to any reader and/or me searching to understand.

The realizations I intend to explore reflect three life priorities for me - music, leadership, and culture. Ultimately, the series will be a journey in the discovery of embracing and utilizing my strengths – which I understand to be connective thinking, relational appreciation, big-picture attention, and artistic insight and expression. These are my gifts for better or worse. They have worked for me at many times in my life. On other occasions, these gifts have either been unappreciated or denigrated by others who saw little value in what I had to offer. This is one of the lessons I believe is so important to all of us as growing, developing human beings – don’t deny who you are just because someone else doesn’t embrace your essence or is threatened by it. Temper your response, hold your ground, and do what you can to maintain your uniqueness while still accommodating to individuals and environments where you find yourself. If you finally conclude that a particular environment is hostile, get out as soon as possible!

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!