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...