Sunday, December 02, 2012

O'Hara - more perspective on the Last of the Donkey Pilgrims

O'Hara's book really is one of my favorites.  It is a great introduction to the language, culture, politics and geography of Ireland.  Now having completed the book, I'm beginning to imagine the itinerary for Diane and me to visit - insh'allah in 2014.  We have both had a yearning to connect with our roots in much the same way O'Hara did.  I doubt we'll be walking with a donkey and cart but we are certainly going to do more than a superficial tourism experience.

There were several ideas that O'Hara dropped as pearls of wisdom in his text.  Without going into great detail, I offer a couple of thought provoking quotes and encourage you to ponder:
And God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. (p. 203)
What a great pity, I sighed, for kids to be brought up in a land stained with bloodshed, their minds sullied by senseless murder and occupying forces of men and metal.  How many simple joys are lost to mistrust?  How many dreams never realized?  How immeasurable their lifelong loss?  (p. 252)
Maybe, just maybe, the secret of life is to trust without provision or fore-thought.  Could trust be the simple truth that would make the world spin in harmony?  (p. 292)
In answering a question about why Kevin could live in Ireland:
The people, for starters.  It seems that every third person I meet could become a lifelong friend.  But mostly, I feel I'm a better person here, probably because I'm surrounded by so many good people.  There's a cultural undertow in America that can drown the best of one's intentions.  (p. 380)
And, nearing the end (and beginning) of his journey:
Here I am, twenty miles from Rattigan's, and despite all that might await me there, there's a part of me that wants this journey to linger on.  Once I step foot into the pub, I'm afraid my house of cards will topple and I'll be left to face my own familiar self again.  For eight months I've been blessed by this journey God has provided me.  But now I face the unenviable task of returning home, where I might forget the valuable lessons I've learned on these roads.  (p. 415)
And, relating a story of a boy's nightmare shared by a friend:
Weren't you the lucky lad to survive such an ordeal, and more lucky still, for from this day to your last, ye'll always have a story to tell.  (p. 422)
Kevin reunited with his wife, brother, friends and all the Irish kin who cheered him along his journey on Christmas Eve.  Missie was the real star that night as she was proudly ushered into Rattigan's for her first bucket of Guinness.  Kevin's journey took 25 years to bring to press but it surely gave him many stories to tell in the meantime.  I can only hope that my journey to Qatar has made me a better person, has brought me closer to humanity, and that I'll be blessed to have survived and "from this day to my last, have a story to tell..."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

O'Hara - Last of the Donkey Pilgrims: A Man's Journey through Ireland

“And the only path through the flames, I could see now, is simple human kindness, not overwrought passions and notions of self-sacrifice.” (O’Hara, Last of the Donkey Pilgrims, p. 276) Kevin O’Hara’s concluding sentence of the chapter on his passage through Belfast is hauntingly simple and captured both his experience and mine through so many of the cultural encounters and leadership discoveries I’ve had over the last 7 years.

O’Hara is an American who in 1979 decided to explore his cultural roots by undertaking a walk – 1,800 miles – around the coast of Ireland. Not just a walk by himself but in the way a “tinker” would have long ago – with a donkey and cart. O’Hara discovered so many things about himself and about the nature of humanity. Encounter after encounter confirmed the essential goodness and hospitality of all those on his path, even at a time when the conflict between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland was still very volatile.

As a Catholic Irish-American, a distinction shared with John F. Kennedy, O’Hara’s most difficult moment on his journey ‘round Ireland was dealing with his own fears as he entered the outskirts of Belfast. The “Time of Troubles” was a very frightening reality in 1979 so O’Hara’s trepidation was not entirely unfounded. The coincidence of Pope John Paul’s visit to Dublin on the same day that O’Hara passed through Belfast only added to the sense of doom, doom that had O’Hara fantasizing his own martyrdom in the crowded streets that day. As he left Belfast behind, O’Hara realized that the “path of flames” was only in his mind. He had been helped by numerous strangers, as he had been throughout Ireland.  This help came in response to the simplicity of his mode of travel (walking his donkey and cart) and his willingness to treat all those he would encounter with respect and anticipating a positive response.

Even though O’Hara’s travels in Ireland were very different in form and place than the travels I’ve undertaken or encounters I’ve had in my work in Qatar, I have to admit that on occasion I’ve also had fantasies of my own “path of flames.” Looking back in my blog posts, I vividly remember my first venture away from Luxembourg in November 2005 when I was lost negotiating train routes to Switzerland. That day in November I had many trepidations which were unfounded, a pattern I have repeated, but with less and less frequency as I’ve traveled more. The journeys I’ve taken have sometimes been to other places but more often these journeys have simply been when I responded to a person on my path.

There seem to be many examples of the “path of flames” these days and I wonder if the simple wisdom expressed by O’Hara might help negotiate them. Race and class in America, conservative and liberal ideology, Israel and Palestine, and many more examples are not easy to fix but I wonder if some engaged in negotiating these differences might be more successful if they (we) shifted their (our) awareness to the reality of simple human kindness.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Thurman - I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you

I recently attended the 2012 International Leadership Association meeting in Denver.  There were several good things about it - two being particular highlights that added to my ongoing journey in discovering/understanding leadership.

The first highlight event was Ambassador James Joseph's keynote.  Interestingly enough, just before going into the auditorium where he would speak, one of my former students from Miami walked up to greet me. Seeing Jeff Zimmerman again blew me away as he is now a full-fledged Ph.D. and a faculty member in organization behavior at Northern Kentucky University.  Jeff was involved in LeaderShape and the Scholar Leader program while we were both at Miami and it was great to reconnect with him and to discover that we have continued to grow in the similarity of our own intellectual interests, particularly related to expatriate work.

Jeff and I sat beside each other to listen to Ambassador James Joseph speak.  One particular statement by Joseph that struck me in powerful ways was, "I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you," a quote attributed to Howard Thurman, a mentor to Martin Luther Kind, Jr.  While Joseph's keynote at ILA isn't available on-line yet, the text from a similar speech given at another conference in October 2012 includes the same quote and more context for its meaning.  The thing that was fascinating is that, as I continued to listen to Joseph speak, I turned to Jeff and said that I bet that Joseph was a Yale Divinity graduate because he sounded so much like my deceased step-father, Dr. John L. Peters.  Sure enough, a few minutes after I said this to Jeff, Joseph commented about his days at Yale Divinity School.  It was utterly amazing to be able to hear the words of John through this other great living witness to the importance of interfaith work that affirms the connection across all cultures.

The second highlight of ILA was seeing Barbara Kellerman offer remarks about her newly released book, The End of Leadership.  I always enjoy following Barbara's ideas and find her views most provocative.  This time (and I haven't read it yet) she raises the question of why the rise of leadership studies over the last 30 years hasn't contributed to the improvement of leadership.  After all, it seems that the rise of leadership scholarship has, indeed, been synchronous with the fall of all forms of leadership in government, business, theology, and elsewhere.  Barbara's views are always thought-provoking.  They are not cynical but they do push us to think of what we are doing and to seek deeper understanding of the things we advocate.

All in all, the ILA meeting was good as a way to reconnect with valued colleagues (i.e. Anne Magnan, Susan Komives, and others) and to renew my career-long exploration of leadership questions.  I wonder if there will ever be a point at which I will cease to be fascinated by the perplexing conundrum that is leadership - probably not...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ivan Mestrovic - Artist and Croatian patriot

I picked up Ivan Mestrovic: The Making of a Master at the Mestrovic Museum in Zagreb. It was our last day in Croatia and I had already become an enthusiast of his work as a result of visiting the Mestrovic Museum in Split as well as having seen numerous other examples of his sculptures in our travels. Maria Mestrovic’s (daughter) provided a beautiful story of Ivan Mestrovic’s development as an artist, placing his massive contribution to 20th century sculpture in the context of his love for his country and the deep religious convictions that inspired so many of his works.

The first encounter with Mestrovic was during our first days in Zagreb. We found one of his earliest (1905) sculptures in front of the Croatian national theater. After encountering “The Fountain of Life” (picture to left) we were eager to see the Mestrovic Museum in Split that served first as the Mestrovic family home and was later donated to serve as a museum. The Mestrovic Museum in Split is an amazing environment – quiet, serene and conducive to viewing Mestrovic’s magnificent sculptures in a complementary and natural setting overlooking the Adriatic sea.

Just below the Mestrovic ville on the hillside overlooking the sea, is another of Mestrovic's great contributions to art - a restored 16th century summer house was converted to the Crikvine - Kastilac.  It is in the chapel that Mestrovic's lifetime work is housed.  The picture to the right is of the wooden sculpture of the Crucifixion and around the room on either side of the altar are 28 wood reliefs depicting the birth and life of Jesus.  The theme of religious expression recurred throughout Mestrovic's life but the Crikvine is the most personal of all his creations.

Mestrovic’s early works were influenced by the Secession movement as it emerged in Vienna in the early 20th century. However, his real genius was more fully recognized when Mestrovic and the aging master August Rodin established a friendship and mutual admiration for each other’s works. Besides Rodin’s influence on Mestrovic, one of the most fascinating aspects of Mestrovic’s art is its influence in the U.S.A., and particularly in Chicago, our home in the U.S.A. The monumental Indians on horseback in Grant Park were commissioned and installed in 1928 for a total sum of $150,000. Film clips from the period show Grant Park in the early stages of what has now become the incredible public gathering space of Millennium Park.

As one of the most famed artists of Croatian ancestry, Mestrovic was frequently courted by royalty or aspiring political leaders who sought to exploit his popularity as a patriot to advance their political purposes. Although Mestrovic attempted to stay above politics there were times when he simply could not remain aloof from the strife in his own land. In one example, his hope that the Serbs would bring unity to the region was dashed when he realized that, after being victimized themselves, they were willing and even eager to persecute other cultural and religious groups – particularly the many Muslims of Kosovo and Macedonia. Dominance by the Habsburgs, Italy, Germany, and eventually the forces of communism brought great anguish to Mestrovic and his family. After a period of imprisonment, he eventually fled to America in 1947, where he first served as a faculty member at Syracuse University and then at the University of Notre Dame. He continued to be highly productive during his years in America, the result of which is the presence of his work in most of the great museums in the country as well as in private galleries and many other objects of public sculpture.

On the closing day of our Croatian tour, we made the point of taking a bus back into Zagreb specifically to visit the other Mestrovic home that has been turned into a museum. This museum had more works by Mestrovic than even the Split home/museum and it was nestled among the many other buildings and homes in the old upper town of Zagreb.

The wiki site for Mestrovic is very helpful and, if you are interested, it is worth a browse. I was very drawn to Mestrovic’s work and look forward to visiting the many places throughout the world where his works are on display.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hanieh - Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States

I continue to explore literature that will help me understand the dynamics of work in Qatar and the Arabian Gulf. This is out of my own curiosity plus a desire to find reading that will help other colleagues who come here to adjust, serve, and thrive. Adam Hanieh’s Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (2011) is my new nomination for essential reading. The book provides thick and detailed description of the historical background that preceded the establishment of the Gulf Sheikdoms and the political and economic conditions that shaped their founding and now their growing influence around the world. Reading Hanieh’s analysis and the implications they have for those who work in GCC countries, as well as others around the world, will result in a much more informed way of relating to the region. The book has many, many details that are far beyond comment in this post. I will offer a couple of enticements…

Let me begin by referencing a very important point of how the Gulf region emerged as it has. The Arabian Gulf has been deeply shaped by Western influences. The Brits shaped Gulf dynamics by pursuing policies to “divide-and-rule through a series of treaties signed with all the Gulf sheikhdoms from 1820-1945” (p. 6) which forbid the Sheiks “from entering negotiations with any foreign power other than the British, and preventing them from building up their naval power.” “Through the treaties, Britain blocked any move toward internal unity between the seven sheikhdoms, which were unable to negotiate with each other without British mediation,… setting themselves (i.e. Britain) up as an external referent and power broker.” (p.7) After British economic and military decline in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States began a gradual process of influencing the Gulf by offering alternative military protection and by nurturing business partnerships through exploration for, and eventual extraction of, oil and gas (p. 53). The British are still very present in the Gulf but the U.S.A. has gained in force as it emerged as the largest economy and consumer of petroleum products. The irony is that, as prosperity in the Gulf increased and as Americans sought ever greater luxury in an overly optimistic and indebted economy, Saudi Arabia in particular became one of the U.S.A.’s most significant investors and a securer of growing debt burden. The economic symbiosis between the U.S.A. and Gulf states must be recognized in order to understand that in the long run the Gulf states are really very dependable supporters of economic, and sometimes foreign, policy of the U.S.A. (pp. 44-45). There are differences to be sure but the long-term economic benefit of all depends on maintaining a relationship.

Another very important point that Hanieh makes is that the Gulf states are “rentier” economies and political entities. By in large, the Gulf fortunes are tied to its natural resources instead of to any meaningful production. The vast amount of wealth accumulated by the governments is not derived from taxes or any other revenue sources other than fees paid to exploit its natural resources. And, because the governments are controlled by monarchs, the petrodollars that come to the government are distributed to the citizens in ways to make sure that loyalty to the government is protected, even though the distribution of wealth is uneven and favors elites who are employed in government or construction/merchant industries. Then is it any surprise that one of the best ways to continue the economic benefit to the region, in addition to wealth coming from oil/gas revenues, is by continuing to expand major construction projects and to foster a consumerist environment where “shopping” is truly the local pastime and major form of entertainment?

In addition to offering robust individual wealth to support consumerism among Gulf residents, the exploding economy of the region has given rise to both individual and governmental investment in many other credit-worthy places around the world. McKinsey Global estimates, “the value of foreign assets held by the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) could increase by 77 percent to around the $3.8 trillion range if oil prices remain at the $70 level of early 2010… If oil rises to around $100 by 2013 and there is a stronger global recovery, GCC foreign assets could reach $5.7 trillion, an increase of over 160 percent from 2008 levels and exceeding China’s foreign assets by around $1 trillion” (p. 182). In other words, while China may have the largest population, financing of the world economy will come equally or more from the Arabian Gulf. The relations between Gulf states and East Asia are also important in trade and human dynamics. Asia is becoming ever more important as consumers (i.e. Japan and other’s growing dependence on liquid natural gas coming from Qatar) and they are also capturing an increasing share of construction projects (i.e. South Korean firms won a quarter of all projects in the Middle East in 2008, p. 183). While big contracts flow from the GCC to the East, cheap labor flows from poorer Southeast Asian countries to the GCC in profound and sometimes erratic ways. Prior to the 2008 global economic crisis, 85 percent of the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan and 60 percent of Filipino overseas workers were placed in the GCC. When the GCC economies contracted, one of the easiest ways to trim was to “transfer the worst impacts of the crisis onto migrant labor and – by extension – the surrounding region” (p. 178) by sending hundreds of thousands of these workers back to their native countries. The result was increasing unemployment in Southeast Asia and the evaporation of the monthly remittances for families in these countries. As trade, consumer, and natural resource exchange evolves in Asia, Hanieh predicts that the GCC will perhaps become the “nodal point linking East and West” as they “work to provide the necessary flows of energy to all sectors of the global economy” (p. 185).

Both the good and bad news is that the relationship between GCC states and the U.S.A. in both economic and military terms seems unlikely to shift in any fundamental ways in the immediate future. It is clear, however, that China (as well as Russia) may exploit conflicts in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Palestine (p. 186) in order to undermine U.S. hegemony. This is all too graphically demonstrated in the current crisis in Syria that has emerged subsequent to the publication of Hanieh’s book. The point is that the role the U.S.A. chooses to play in every one of these countries could tip the scale to the East. My own perspective is that the economic, educational, and cultural ties that the U.S.A. is fostering are equally as important as previous military ties and that, indeed, the military involvement must become ever more subtle and nuanced.

My purpose in this post is very practical and straight-forward. The dynamics described by Hanieh don’t necessarily make me happy or more comfortable. Understanding that the political and economic conditions that we face today are the result of generations of politicians and business people who set this stage is crucial if we are to escape the na├»ve finger-pointing, accusations, and retrenchment that some of the pundits advocate. The U.S.A, U.K, and GCC are part of globalized systems that cannot be put back into the box. Although not everything is to our liking as “Westerners,” it would pay to look at the current circumstances more fully and that a multitude of strategies be placed on the table to work through to a positive end. Marginalization and criticism must be replaced with compassion that sees the broader, and sometimes peripheral, perspectives of others. And something more than power, whether economic or military, has to be contemplated in the solutions we consider.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Leadership in times of anarchy - Esther Lloyd Jones

My dear colleague Susan Komives is in the process of sorting through her files and periodically sends me pieces in which she knows I would have interest.  The latest was a scanned copy of a mimeographed speech Dr. Esther Lloyd-Jones delivered to the Florida College Personnel Association in the Fall of 1967.  The title was "Morality:  New? The Same? Changing," the text covering a variety of issues related to the emerging student unrest that was sweeping U.S.A. campuses as a result of civil rights, the Viet Nam War, and the infamous hippy generation.

Esther's speaking and writing frequently advocated the importance of community as an essential part of students' university experience.  This dedication to community stood in contrast to the rising influence of individual psychology and the profound impact of specialization in scholarly communities.  And, the ideas ring as true in today's contentious political and academic settings as I suspect they did in 1967:

We dare not let moral anarchy develop further, but no one great leader is going to emerge today to give us the answers.  The only way out that I can see is to develop a great concerned, informed disciplined center – a center made up of those who have cultivated their understanding about the moral problems that beset us – a center made up of younger and older human beings all working together to analyze, understand, reach decisions, and act in concert.  A center willing to listen to dissenters.
Moral anarchy - what's that?  Is it a time when the perceived moral imperatives of various splinter groups result in the crumbling of any sense of shared destiny?  Is it a place where protectionism has begun to trump the general welfare of others and society in general?

Perhaps "moral anarchy" sounds too strident an alarm, especially when some would prefer to think of simply an age that has become very, very complicated.  Regardless if your belief is that we are experiencing anarchy or extreme complexity, Esther's proposal is for shared leadership and membership that is informed, invites dissent, and focused on mobilizing action for positive change.  Not a bad proposal for the many local, regional, and international conflicts we face today...

Friday, June 29, 2012

Maitland - Wilfred Thesiger; The Life of the Great Explorer

Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, ‘Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life.’ No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate climate can match. (Maitland, 2006, p. 377)
Quoted from Wilfred Thesiger’s own prologue to Arabian Sands, this statement characterizes so much with which I identified in Alexander Maitland’s Wilfred Thesiger; The life of the great explorer (2006). This biography is essential, and wonderfully nostalgic, reading for anyone who has been deeply touched by the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula or seeks to understand their character.

Thesiger was an eccentric Brit who traveled throughout Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and into near Asia. Many of the places he traveled are places I’ve had a chance to visit so his descriptions, references to familiar phrases, and habits of the peoples throughout this area are very familiar to me, evoking almost a sense of “home.” While there might be some aspects of Thesiger’s depictions that seem somewhat stereotypical, he deeply identified with the people throughout the Arab-influenced regions of Northern Africa and Asia and he did much to dignify their lives through reports he made to the British Royal Geographic Society, articles, books, and thirty-eight thousand negatives of photographs he took that capture the landscapes and people of the region. Many of his photographs are available on-line and they are well worth a browse. A couple of sites are the Pitt River Museum collection in Oxford, UK, and another is a BBC piece that includes Thesiger’s own commentary and several of his pictures.

Thesiger’s first successful book, Arabian Sands, captured the very powerful experience of crossing the “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian Peninsula, the most desolate, difficult, dry, and extreme portion of the desert lands in this area of the world. He always traveled with guides or porters from the local area and he frequently befriended them in ways that allowed them to maintain contact over many years. Thesiger established credibility by being respectful of the local customs, by frequently dressing in regional attire, and by bringing medical assistance that, even as an untrained novice, were revolutionary in helping the people along his paths of travel. He was an extremely hearty individual; European’s who knew or traveled with him on occasion and native peoples all revered his ability to endure harsh conditions, little food and water, and extremes of hot and cold temperatures. He was not privileged by birth, although his grandfather and father served in military and diplomatic roles in Northern Africa during a time when this was quite exotic. He tasted the intrigue of travel and discovery as a young boy and sought to replicate these experiences throughout a long and active life.

Extremely fond of the nomads and villagers he encountered throughout the southern portion of the Arabian Peninsula, he wrote in Arabian Sands, “There I lived among tribes who claimed descent from Ishmael, and listened to old men who spoke of events which had occurred a thousand years ago as if they had happened in their own youth. I went there with a belief in my own racial superiority, but in their tents I felt like an uncouth, inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialist world.” (p. 232) This kind of respect accorded to others resulted in natives throughout the lands he explored coining names reflecting high praise – the Bedu of Abu Dhabi who befriended Thesiger called themselves “Umbarak’s men” (umbarak meaning ‘Blessed of God’) and the Samburu youth of Kenya called themselves ‘mzee juu’s boys’ (mzee juu meaning ‘top elder’).

I will definitely include on future reading lists one or all of Thesiger’s own major books – Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs, or the Life of My Choice. He was extremely influential during the days of his active exploration and in his elder years leading up to his death in August of 2003 at the age of 93. His striving to know humanity reflected in many ways a 19th century explorer mentality yet some of his reflections about the impact of technology on various aspects of our lives today are very contemporary. He also advocated an understanding of the Arab world and sympathized with the plight of colonialism’s impact on their lifestyles and the eventual political strife that plagues the region even today. He was evidently like many British explorers in the early 20th century who sympathized with Arabs on Palestine, once writing, “with the virtual connivance of Britain and America, they were to be driven from their homeland or subjected to the intolerable rule of the Israelis, who claimed the right to a country from which they had been expelled two thousand years earlier. Seldom can a greater wrong have been inflicted on an innocent people with such general approbation, and the seeds of such catastrophic and widespread hatred been sown with so much complacency.” (p. 251)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Brokaw - The Time of Our Lives

I watched Tom Brokaw, long-time and respected news commentator, being interviewed by John Stewart a couple of months ago about his new book, The Time of Our Lives (2011). The interview was interesting enough that I chose to pick up the book on my last return trip from the U.S.A. to Qatar. It is a modest book, yet it still has some merit as a reflection of an elder statesman on what he sees as the promise of recapturing the “American Dream.” While clearly focused on America, some of the issues may be relevant in other national contexts where citizens are striving to achieve a higher quality and standard of living.

Brokaw covers everything from world politics (particularly the Arab Spring) to the breakdown of education in the U.S.A. to the exploitation of capitalism that startled us into reflecting on what we are doing. In essence, he suggests that America has lost its way from an earlier day of citizens striving to do their best while serving the greater good of a complex and multicultural society. The shared vision and patriotism that served America so well in the early 20th century has, in Brokaw’s estimation, eroded into a situation where, and quoting the champion of civic leadership John Gardner, “leaders in all segments of our society today… are rewarded for a single-minded pursuit of the interests of their group. They are rewarded for doing battle, not compromising” for the good of all (p. 24).

In addressing faltering educational achievement in the U.S.A., Brokaw noted that not only is there a disparity in earnings between college and high school-educated adults but that there is also a chasm of optimism – those with more education earn more and have greater confidence that they can achieve their dreams while those without education and consequential lower earnings potential exhibit despair over their status in life. The facts are that higher educated individuals (a minimum of a college degree) have half the divorce rate, half the obesity incidence, half the smoking rate, and they vote twice as often as others with lower education (p. 85). But it isn’t just that those with college educations do better, it is the type of education they receive that matters most. In comparing the style of college education in the U.S.A. to the rising interest in education in China, Brokaw quotes a study by Simon and Cao that concluded, “Chinese universities have become technique focused… Rote learning, in which students who can answer questions in classrooms may not be able to solve and manage real life problems” (p. 70). Engagement with real problems and taking responsibility for one’s learning is a distinctive quality of American education that perhaps China doesn’t even know it is missing.

Brokaw’s proposal for recapturing the American Dream is to invest more in education, reverse the rising debt young people take on to acquire their degrees, and then create ways for citizens to reinvest themselves in the welfare of others. He provides several examples of young wealthy Americans who have given portions of their wealth away in order to start not-for-profit organizations to serve others. He recommends that an expanded service core be created that requires all young people to sacrifice in service to their country, rather than only asking the poor among young adults to risk their lives in military service. Finally, he proposes that American business take a careful look at its purposes – is it only creating balance sheets that result in quick and ephemeral gain or should the role of business be to create sustainable performance dedicated to a wider purpose?

Brokaw spends the concluding pages of the book reflecting with nostalgia on the relationship he had with his parents and what he seeks to instill in the hearts of his grandchildren. He proposes that perhaps one of the most promising opportunities for the “Great Generation” and “Boomers” is to engage with their children and grandchildren, to encourage a return to the values that they’ve seen make a difference in America, and to return themselves to more modest and service-based living.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Chua - Day of Empire

Day of Empire (Amy Chua, 2007) is an analysis of the great empires of history and what allowed them to have a pervasive impact in their time and what ultimately led to their demise. Chua’s proposition is that the same attribute that brought them to such prominence was also the Achilles heel that brought their end – openness and incorporation of many different cultures.

Chua very carefully defines “empire” as those societies that had colossal power that was preeminent in the known world of their time. The empires she recognized were the Persian Empire of Cyrus and Alexander, the Romans, China’s Tang Dynasty, Genghis Khan’s Mongols, the Dutch, British, and late 20th century America. Missing from the list are Spain, Portugal, the Mughals and Hapsburgs, specifically because none of these were unrivaled powers in their times. The great empires were uniquely able in their early days to envelop other cultures, to invite their contributions, and to build a sense of shared destiny among their peoples. She indicates “… in every case tolerance was indispensable to the achievement of hegemony. Just as strikingly, the decline of empire has repeatedly coincided with intolerance, xenophobia, and calls for racial, religious, or ethnic ‘purity.’” (p. xxi)

In the case of the Roman empire, Chua notes that the great tolerance of Rome as it spread was a necessary condition to expansion. However, this tolerance also led to some of its territories, particularly in the east and north, maintaining their own relatively independent social order. This autonomy allowed for a growing resistance to Roman rule and the crumbling of any shared commitment to the welfare of the empire. While the Persian, Roman, Mongol, and British empires emerged through expansionist economic and political motivations, the Dutch and American cases unfolded when other people came to them. Holland was a very small country and had few citizens before it became the refuge for many Jews and Muslims fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. America was mysterious, a risk, and a harsh frontier that became the home to hearty frontier seekers escaping religious persecution and economic hardship. Because the Dutch and Americans welcomed these fleeing masses, both of their empires drew talent, ability, motivation and dedication from its newly arrived citizens.

Day of Empire was published in 2007 and preceded the changes that have taken place in the last five years. In fact, questions she raises about whether or not the U.S.A. should continue to exercise globe-shaping influence seem odd in today’s flatter global economy. Chua commented, “the ironic result of the United States’ ‘democratic world dominance’ has been rampant, raging anti-Americanism.” (p. 328) American products and culture are widely embraced yet those who seem so eager to adopt American ways resist its political and military domination. She said, “… the United States would be better off following the formula that served it so well for more than two hundred years. America pulled away from all its rivals by turning itself into a magnet for the world’s most energetic and enterprising…” (p. 335) Comforting to those who worry about its emerging prominence, Chua believes China is not likely to exercise anything close to “empire.” Her perspective is that China has never been able to incorporate other cultural groups and perspectives, something that its neighbor to the south, India, has repeatedly been able to do. Thus, the suggestion is that the United States may be able to define a new kind of role, influential while not unilaterally dominant, when it is balanced by India, a country whose citizens are among the most positive in the world in their views of America and its people.

The lessons of Day of Empire are important for a variety of reasons – individual, governmental, and global. If individual leaders are unable to affirm diverse perspectives and contributors to their cause and if nations harbor notions of superiority that deny other cultures a place, then the global community will suffer. However, if leaders and governments can find a way to avoid intolerance and hatred among their diverse stakeholders, then a future of prominence and prosperity may be possible. While Chua's book focuses on the United States, there are other nations throughout the world that would likely be interested in enhancing their presence; the advice Chua offers about welcoming others and making sure all benefit according to their contribution is sound advice for any nation that hopes to prosper in the 21st century.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Females excel in all categories of leadership

Interesting study in Harvard Business Review about how females compare to males in leadership. While this is important in North American settings, it may be even more critical in emerging economies where female students tend to be more committed to their education than their male counterparts. If female students are becoming the best education, and if they tend to exhibit the attributes of good leadership, we should have a great future -- as long as they are allowed access.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Essential Rumi (translated by Barks, 1995) and Have a Little Faith (Albom, 2009)

Two books I read back-to-back – Have a Little Faith (Albom, 2009) and The Essential Rumi (Barks, 1995) – related in fascinating ways to each other. The combination of them offered insights on the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Suffism (a small subsect of Islam, recognized by some, but not all, Muslims). These books allowed me to continue to explore my own faith in the context of different faiths that I’ve encountered over the years.

Beginning with Suffism, it is a unique perspective that focuses on contemplation as a way of pursuing religious enlightenment. Rumi is the Suffi mystic whose writings are frequently quoted by philosophers across time and culture. A popularized aspect of one of Suffism’s practices is the dance of the “Dervish.” The “Swirling Dervish” is recognized as part of Turkish culture but frequently not seen as a religious observance. Dervish means “doorway” and takes this name because those who do the dance become so entranced that they become “an empty place where human and divine can meet.” (p. 277) In verse, Rumi describes the times when we should dance:
Dance when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free. (p. 281)

Have a Little Faith weaves the lives of two individuals, one a Rabbi (nicknamed “the Reb”) at Albom’s community synagogue, and the other (Henry) a recovering drug addict and ex-convict who founded the “I am my brother’s keeper” shelter in downtown Detroit. The “Reb’s” request that Albom deliver his eulogy at his funeral kicks off the book. The succeeding chapters recount the years following as Albom became increasingly aware of the depth of the man he had taken for granted as a youth. Alternating interludes describe Henry’s struggles with his addictions, being unjustly convicted of murder, and eventually released from jail to start a new life. These two men, different in their religion, virtue, and life circumstances end up being not so different in the ultimate meaning of their lives through the grace of uncompromising service to their fellow human beings. And, by seeking to serve others, both find the peace that allows them to “sleep in a storm.” As the “Reb” so eloquently professed in a 1975 sermon:
My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our faith, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of ‘I could have, I should have.’ We can sleep in a storm. And when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.

The “Reb” and Henry had very different theologies and congregations yet Albom could see that they were driven by the same God, one who is merciful, loving, and sacrificing. Why is it, then, that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions haggle and sometimes even wage war to establish supremacy over each other? The Reb’s response, based on recognizing and affirming the differences among religions:
Well, you can look at it this way. Would you want the world to all look alike? The genius of life is its variety. Even in our own faith, we have questions and answers, interpretations, debates. In Christianity, in Catholicism, in other faiths, the same thing – debates, interpretations. That is the beauty. It’s like being a musician. If you found the note, and you kept hitting that note all the time, you would go nuts. It’s the blending of the different notes that makes the music. (p. 160)

I couldn’t help but think back to one of my earlier posts on Karen Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2011) as I reflected on what I learned from Rumi’s and Albom’s writings:
The seventh step, “how little we know,” encouraged curiosity in understanding others as a way to increase compassion. As she explained, so often we have our own pre-determined view of others and, instead of allowing ourselves to absorb new information and insight, we judge others in order to substantiate our own bias. She bemoaned that there is a certain mystery about others’ ways of thinking and living that is turned to sacrilege as we attempt to “pluck out” the point we wish to use to serve our own agenda. (p. 127)

Ultimately, one of Rumi’s poems, “The Howling Necessity: Cry Out in Your Weakness,” addresses the “how little we know” and offers hope in the story of a man who has lost his will to pray and dreams of an encounter with Khidr, the guide of souls :
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Isaacson - Profiles in Leadership

Walter Isaacson’s Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness (2010) does not reference the extensive body of leadership research and theory. However, through astute historical analyses of the individuals profiled in this book, it brings many very important issues about leadership to light.

The profiles are primarily highly visible public figures who had positions of authority that allowed them to exert leadership. The other cases were exceptional cases where, by sheer force of will, the individuals were able to exert influence that pushed important issues forward in history. The public figures included the likes of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, and Robert Kennedy. The exceptional cases included Charles Finney, Chief Joseph, W.E.B. DuBois, Wendell Willkie, and Pauli Murray. What I particularly liked about the book is that it was realistic; it identified failures in leadership as much as it focused on successes. Even in cases where history generally paints a positive picture, figures like Franklin Roosevelt were described as having both shortcomings and triumphs. In the case of Dwight Eisenhower, he is described as someone with immense potential for greatness following his successes as a commander in WWII but who failed in moral leadership when he ignored issues of discrimination and racism that affected the very men and women on whom he counted as soldiers.

There are so many jewels in this book that it is extremely difficult to pick only a select couple of examples to illustrate the wisdom of these historical analyses. Choosing two who actually opposed each other in the world of American politics will have to suffice – one is Franklin Roosevelt and the other is Wendell Willkie who sought the GOP nomination to run against Roosevelt. Franklin Roosevelt faced the challenge of restoration after economic collapse and a world war that he wanted to avoid. When “New Deal” policies came under question at the end of Roosevelt’s first term, he grew increasingly bold in his criticism of those who resisted his attempts to rescue the economy by saying that “…all my old enemies… monopoly, speculation, reckless banking… war profiteering” were undermining his efforts to create an economic recovery. Going further, he said, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred… I would like to have it said of my first Administration that the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match…” Roosevelt went on to win two more terms as President of the United States.

Wendell Willkie, businessman turned politician, was most significant for his contribution in authoring, along with Irita Van Doren, One World (1943). One of the most widely read books of the day, it addressed the increasing isolationism that was emerging at the time. Walter Lippmann praised it as “one of the hardest blows ever struck against the intellectual and moral isolationism of the American people.” Willkie was dedicated to engagement with the world in ways that recognized the negative repercussions of colonialism saying:
If we had left the olive groves and the cotton fields and the oil wells of this region alone, we might not have had to worry… But we have not left them alone. We have sent our ideas and our ideals,… our engineers and our businessmen, and our pilots and our soldiers into the Middle East; and we cannot escape the result… If we fail to help reform, the result will be of necessity either the complete withdrawal of outside powers with a complete loss of democratic influence or complete military occupation and control of the countries by those outside powers. (p. 256)

The previous reference to conditions in the Middle East are quite remarkable for 1943 and they are frighteningly predictive of the continued struggles of the Middle East.

In the conclusion of the chapter on Pauli Murray, an early champion of the American civil rights movement who was one of the first to use Ghandi’s methods of non-violent resistance, Glenda Gilmore (chapter author) sums up the key issue of transforming public leadership when she wrote:
Leaders aren’t just the few famous people who dominate the news or find their place in history books. They don’t always represent the majority. They aren’t always popular. They don’t always win, and they aren’t always remembered. Leaders such as Pauli Murray, brave and obscure men and women who act on their convictions even though they fail time and time again, sometimes change the course of history. (p. 280)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Salibi - A House of Many Mansions

I've continued to read a lot about the Arab world during my residence in Qatar. It has been a tremendous help in understanding local and contemporary issues, even though much of what I've read has been history. My most recent read was given to me by a Lebanese colleague - Kamal Salibi's A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (1998/2011).

"Reconsidered" is a very important point in the Salibi book because his purpose in retelling the Lebanese history is to counter what the author believes has been a somewhat fanciful history used to justify particular political perspectives. "Many mansions" is also a very important point as Salibi tells the story of so many different people coming and going from the geographic area of Lebanon over time. He traces the origin of the peoples of Lebanon back to tribal groups who came from Yemen, who became the Phoenicians, and then were mixed with more modern cultural groups such as the Druzes, Maronites, and even those encroaching down from what we now recognize as Syria. Because of Lebanon's advanced practices and proficiency in trade, it became a crossroads which was very attractive to any national, cultural, or religious group that wanted to dominate the region.

While the comings and goings of different cultural groups contributed to the tense blend that is now Lebanon, the most divisive moment came when the British broke their promise to Arabs to allow them national independence in their historical homelands and, instead,
"partitioned this Arab Territory with the French, and committed themselves to hand over a particularly precious part of it, namely Palestine, to the Jews." (p. 29)
This moment contributed to the growing belief and dynamic of Arab nationalism, an ideal that Salibi asserts was flawed from the start.
"While there was much that could be said for Arabism as a valid national ideal, most of the Arabs who adopted it were tribal or quasitribal communities of different kinds, and also of different religions and sects, who had not undergone uniform social and civic development." (p. 52)
This diversity of perspective within Arabism was exploited by outside forces from the West as well as from inside the Arab community within Lebanon to achieve various political benefits, an issue which continues to plague Lebanon to the current day.

One of Salibi's most interesting conclusions is that Lebanon in many ways represents the dilemma of the broader Arab world. It survives with a delicate balance of many cultural and religious perspectives; accepting a less romanticized version of what Lebanon has been, and is, will be essential to its future.
"What Arab nationalism, which is a phenomenon of the last hundred years, continues to propose and promote as Arab national history is no less fictionalized than the history of Lebanon. It has succeeded in deluding the general run of the Arabs into believing that the political unity they had once experienced under Islam was in fact an Arab national unity." (p. 218)

In essence, Lebanon's complicated past is much like the broader Arab world; recognizing the lack of true unity of both will hopefully lead to the West ceasing the practice of throwing all Arab peoples into one category and it will allow Arabs to work toward shared purposes while affirming the essential differences which will most likely remain for all time. This realization, and accepting it not as defeat but release to reality can come to fruition if all accept that no guilt for lack of unity need be asserted or sustained. In Salibi's words,
"No Arab country today need feel any guilt about accepting its actual existence as a wilful or unwilful departure from an Arab national historical norm. It is only when the Arabs succeed in ridding themselves of the highly idealized Arab nationalist vision of their past that they will be able to live together in the modern Arab world." (p. 231)