Sunday, September 27, 2015

Catmull - Creativity, Inc.; Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration

Steve Jobs, while making his way through throngs of fans at the 79th Annual Academy Awards that would grant “Cars” its best animated feature film award, turned to colleague Ed Catmull, and remarked “What this scene really needs is a Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire.” Irreverent, funny (if you forgive Jobs for cultural insensitivity) and more – it was one of those comments that Jobs would say to a loyal colleague like Ed. And it is this kind of perspective taking that made Jobs so brilliant, visionary, and successful and allowed him to see, even at the Academy Awards, the potential for a greater spectacle.

With a new film coming out about Jobs in late October, I can’t imagine better preparation than Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. (2014) as a way to get a glimpse of how difficult Jobs could be but also how compassionate, creative, and engaging he could be as well.  Creativity, Inc. isn’t about Jobs but about Pixar, the organization he bought from George Lucas, nurtured through difficult times, and ultimately supported all the way to its great successes with Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and others.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more discerning book on the impact of organization climate on creativity and innovation. With innovation very much on the radar for advanced economies that are shifting their focus to services and quality of life, for-profit, not-for-profit, and educational organizations would do well to pay close attention to the story of Pixar – how it came to be, how its founders established the open culture that would support creativity, and how difficult it was to maintain this culture over the long haul.

Catmull and his colleagues founded Pixar with the goal of producing the first ever digitally animated film, a goal that was far beyond his or anyone else’s capability when they started on their journey. They created an organization that was partially about its physical space, one that eventually was characterized as Steve Jobs’ “movie,” but more importantly it was about how Pixar approached problems. As Catmull said about Pixar, “we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

Pixar had a different vision of itself. The staff “realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.” This culture would be characterized by avoiding confining rules, by candor, by assuming equality among all employees, by recognizing and pushing problems down to places where they can be solved,  and by adopting a framework that supports talent and excellence. And this kind of creative culture would be guided by leaders who were humble, recognized what they didn’t know, welcomed risk,  had the ability to suspend habits and impulses that had the potential to obscure their vision, and cultivated constant learning.

Creativity, Inc. brings great hope to those who seek to innovate by offering many practical examples and tips.  As one who sought to bring innovation to higher education in a number of ways (and I still do), I have frequently felt dismissed for seeing things differently than others. I’ve always understood that innovation by its nature is about change and that there will always be resistance to things that are outside the norm. Looking back on some experiences that I viewed as failures is difficult but Catmull helped me find dignity in striving when he said, “creative people discover and realize visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle.” Leaders who want their organizations to be more innovative need to realize that, “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.”

Monday, September 21, 2015

I knew Jake...

The accidental death of 34 year old Jake Brewer seems distant but so very close. I chanced to meet him at a conference 10 years ago, when I was just beginning to share ideas that eventually became the foundation for Deeper Learning in Leadership. In ways characterized by media in covering his life, I have rarely met someone with as much compassion and energy. I didn't know Jake well but connected and followed his meteoric rise to service. He is the personification of DLL and proof that presence, flow, and oscillation are keys to positive leadership.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Chicago - haven for retirement

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial on "Why you shouldn't retire to Chicago" took a humorous approach to pitching why Chicago is exactly the opposite - a great place to retire. As someone who isn't ready to hang it up - physically, intellectually, culturally - I had significant ambivalence about what retirement would look like. Thank goodness we chose to follow our kids to Chicago, wanting to be close to them as they started parenting but also believing that Chicago had the right combination of opportunities to make sure that we maintained an interesting and active life.

With this being the first full summer I've spent in Chicago, it's hard to believe how spectacular the weather has been and how busy we have stayed. Temps have remained at very reasonable levels and periodic rain has freshened the days and kept gardens pristine all summer. This has provided lots of opportunity to exercise outside, go to Lake Michigan beaches, and enjoy picnics at a concert or in our very own backyard. Entertaining Reese (our grand-daughter) is not difficult as you can see from her laughter as Aunt Darbi and Steve (Dad) teach her how to have fun in the water.

This post is not intended to invite one-upmanship of any type. It is simply to share the advantages of living in a city like Chicago when you have more time and freedom to do things you want to do. The "city" choice is one that many baby-boomers are more often making, evidenced by the many "grey hairs" we see at places we visit or events we attend. Whether it is the incredible museums (Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History, Cultural Center), art galleries (Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art), architecture (Chicago Architecture Foundation boat, bus, and walking tours to both 19th/20th century skyscrapers and contemporary buildings), Botanical Gardens, dance (Joffrey Ballet, Auditorium Theater), music (classical, jazz and pop readily available at venues such as Ravinia Festival, Symphony Hall, Pritzker Plaza), cultural neighborhoods or fun and trendy restaurants, there 's more to see in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs than anyone would be able to absorb in a lifetime.

These videos provide just a sampling of the musical life we've enjoyed this summer. The first is a Big Band performance at the Chicago Botanical Gardens:

Then there was the Ravinia Festival; we saw everything from Lady Gaga to the Chicago Symphony to the Piano Guys:


And the Chicago Jazz Festival at Grant Park (where we also saw a number of other performances) introduced us to a variety of jazz styles that helped us expand our musical horizon:

And, the last of the summer season outdoor concerts for us... Stars of Lyric Opera at Grant Park - here in the duet from Verdi's La Traviata:

Besides partaking of a vibrant and active city's cultural scene, Chicago offers reality. There are certainly issues of marginalized groups, poverty, or sub-standard housing that any city has. The thing that retirement allows us to do is to actually engage in trying to make a difference on these issues. The church we've joined is actively involved in children's and adult ministries, music, food pantry for those in need, and many other service/philanthropy initiatives. It's such a privilege to benefit from where you live while giving back at a time in life when we actually have the freedom to enjoy it.

The summer is coming to an end but the fall and winter will be easy to endure while remembering what a great summer we've had in our new home town. The fireworks began our summer and end this post - let there be more!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Zakaria - In Defense of a Liberal Education

One of the ongoing debates in higher education is whether or not liberal education is relevant in the modern day. Part of the problem is that liberal education comes with the baggage of privilege; one of the hallmarks of elite education in the 19th and early 20th century (which is maintained today) is that liberal learning was essential for those who came from privileged families where practical competencies and skills were not required in order to have a life of gainful employment and purpose.

Coming from an unexpected place, a young man who came to the U.S.A. as an international student from India where practical education (i.e. engineering, medicine, business) is the compelling (and sometimes only) goal of families, Fareed Zakaria provides the background of how his family came to accept his older brother’s study at Harvard and Fareed’s at Yale. Not only were Fareed and his brother bucking the family expectation of lucrative career preparation, they were pursuing education in America where, from an Indian family perspective, youth became disrespectful and disconnected as a result of the liberality of their learning and living environment.

Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) provided some background about liberal education over time and in the U.S.A., making the particular point that liberal education is both practical and philosophical. He also made the point that liberal education is often coupled with other experiences that take learning outside of the classroom. He quoted Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard historian, who wrote, “Book learning alone might be got by lectures and reading; but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted.” This mouthful, while antiquated in terminology, is hard to beat in terms of describing the holistic learning environment that research has found to be most powerful and that student development educators work so hard to create.

The challenge that Zakaria ultimately addresses by example is the perception among many that liberal education is just for elite, privileged individuals who have the luxury to study subjects that cannot possibly be relevant to most hard-working middle class students who attend mainstream public higher education  institutions. He challenges this perception with the example of the liberal arts and sciences model established in partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Zakaria characterizes the plan as radical and innovative in restoring “sciences to its fundamental place in an undergraduate’s education. It abolishes departments, seeing them as silos that inhibit cross-fertilization, interdisciplinary works, and synergy.” Like the Harvard curriculum idealized by Morison, the Yale-NUS liberal arts and sciences model includes “projects outside the classroom, in the belief that a ‘work’ component teaches valuable lessons that learning from a book cannot” and it adds to the body of knowledge that has been at the core of U.S.A. liberal education by restoring science to its proper place, combining core with open exploration, and incorporating knowledge of new countries and cultures as a central, rather than a peripheral, component of education.

I genuinely got excited about the type of learning advocated by Zakaria and hope that the 2011 Yale-NUS model of liberal arts and sciences takes off in Singapore and in other areas of the world where new ways of learning are being explored. This new kind of learning will be transformative in the way it combines various aspects of the student experience with math, science, and other subjects at the same time it focuses on the ultimate objective of fostering creativity, imagination, and innovation.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Arthur - Malevolent Muse: the Life of Alma Mahler

Alma Schindler Mahler (1879 – 1964) was to be wed to three of the great creative geniuses of the late 19th and early 20th century – Gustav Mahler (composer/conductor), Walter Gropius (architect), and Franz Werfel (writer). Beyond these three marriages, she also had relationships or affairs with many other men, taking pride in identifying men of promise and inspiring, urging, or taunting them to greatness - at least her diaries reflect this intent. Her life was beyond fascinating, attracting admiration from some and disdain from others but there is no question, she was constantly evolving and searching for her own place in the world.

The author of this biography (2015), Donald Arthur, does not spin a polite story. Characterized variously as superficial, narcissistic, impetuous, sexualized, and anti-Simetic, one might not expect Alma to attract a wide circle of friends; somehow these qualities were overlooked or may even have enticed many men who would be prominent artists. Alma was a survivor, having lost a beloved father, tolerating a disinterested step father (Carl Moll, one of the founders of the Secession movement in Vienna), romanced as a teen by Gustav Klimt (painter), and struggling throughout her life to be satisfied with any lover, no matter how dedicated they were to her.

I was left wondering if Alma’s life might have been different had her ambition been directed at her own creations rather than wrapped up in those she loved. I also wonder if her criticism and abuse of others might have been subdued had the times in which she grew up not been so tolerant of classicism and discrimination. Arthur described Alma as imperious, prone to jealousy, and haughty, all feigned to obscure her own insecurity.

Although Alma was only married to Gustav Mahler from 1901 to his death in 1911, she returned throughout her life to his name in order to command the social position she believed she warranted. Even in her final days in New York City, Leonard Bernstein would invite Alma to performances of Mahler’s symphonic works. Exploiting Mahler’s name and growing prestige while he was still alive, she complained that he did not recognize her musical talent, which by most accounts was modest. Although Mahler is now one of the most widely performed composers in the modern day, he had ups and downs during his years conducting the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan (NYC), and eventually the newly formed New York Philharmonic. The pinnacle - Mahler’s eventual reputation would command an astounding 1.5 million dollars for his last three years in New York City. Gustav Mahler left Alma a rich and prominent widow who would immediately pursue Walter Gropius with whom she had an affair while Gustav was still alive.

Oskar Kokoschka, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Wassily Kandinsky, Arnold Schonberg, Bruno Walter, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Eugene Ormandy, and others were all to encounter Alma Mahler. Their association with this complicated muse would aid some of their careers and others would only brush with the flame that had consumed others. Upon her death in 1964 the Washington Post would publish:
Alma Mahler-Werfel, 85, who was married to, or, by her own admission had love affairs with many of Europe’s great men in the early 1900s, was the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, and was called “the most beautiful woman in Vienna” at the turn of the century.

To have known so many, and influenced them through her social networks, must be counted for better or worse as a peculiar, and sometimes sinister, form of leadership. Alma Schindler Mahler rose to the top of elite circles and was intimate with giants of arts and culture most of us could only fantasize the chance to encounter.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Impact of economic inequality on Millennials

I continue to be fascinated and deeply concerned about the impact of economic inequality - both in the U.S.A. and world-wide. Business Insider looked specifically at Millennials' ability to purchase homes and found one characteristic in common - those purchasing homes had very rich parents who helped them. The article describes in essence three tiers - no, moderate and extreme privilege. Those with no economic privilege take out significant loans to finance their educations while those with moderate privilege attend university at little to no cost to them (scholarship or parents handle it). Once no and moderate wealth Millennials enter the work world, they find that owning a home (which is the dream for most of them) is out of reach as a result of high real estate costs coupled with the down payments required to begin home ownership. Those who qualify as "double lucky" have parents whose wealth affords debt-free education and allows them to launch their children into home ownership as well - this is 9% of the total college-attending Millennial population (which is less than 50% of the total and something less than 4.5% of the Millennial cohort).

The "funnel of privilege" that is described in this article confirms what Picketty and Stiglitz have already written. The difference is that it looks at the population that is entering the most productive periods of their lives and it paints a cloudy scenario for anyone outside the top, top strata of economic privilege. If something is not done to provide broader opportunity, stimulating economic vitality for the future will become even more difficult - an economic environment that pays not only for one's own family and living expenses but may also have to accommodate greater public spending on eroding infrastructure, retirement of their parents, and a flattening world economy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Humility and leadership

A repeated or imbedded theme in my exploration of leadership has been the importance of humility. The reason I've been fascinated with it is that the idea of humility may seem contradictory to many of the public models we see of leadership - the people who seem to seek visibility and iconography through their presumed acts of leadership. What may be confused here is notoreity versus leadership. If someone is visible and known, some people assume they are seeing leadership. I tend to think that, while visibility might come to someone exhibiting real leadership, it is not at all a distinguishing characteristic of those who are successful in leadership. Further, there is a possibility in my mind that those who seek visibility might be some of the more dangerous to follow, primarily because the pursuit of attention is likely to reflect a more deep-seeded insecurity that, when fed with adulation, could become very destructive.

My experiences of observing very simple and powerful leadership has drawn me to look more carefully at this idea of humility. A friend of mine uses the word "proudy" when referring to people who draw attention to themselves. In his culture and religious view, being "proudy" reflects a focus on self and a purpose that undermines the true spirit of leadership. A number of leadership models have emerged over the last 30+ years that suggest the importance of humility in leadership - servant leadership, the social change model, authentic leadership, connective leadership and the very important concerns that have been raised about bad leaders. These and other models help us to understand how a focus on others, both in persona and action, is a promising indicator of those worthy of our trust.

An amazing phenomenon is underway with the emergence of Donald Trump as a candidate for President of the U.S.A. in 2016. His numbers are rising in the polls, attributed by some media to his candor and the public's desire to hear direct and straight messages from their political leaders. While calling it as he sees it may be attractive to some, what Tump is actually saying is far more important. Trump's proclamation that "I'm very rich" and that his driving concern in the race is to reclaim America is very telling - and probably not an indication of humility.