Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aslan - Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan stirs up controversy and reflection in his latest book, “Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.” I finished this book just before the 2013 Christmas holiday and I have to admit that many of Aslan’s assertions haunted me throughout the season. His purpose in “Zealot” might most simply be characterized as tackling the inconsistencies among Biblical writers and the historical records of Jesus of Nazareth, concluding in the end that Jesus of Nazareth was more a zealot than anything else.

Much of Aslan’s analysis critiqued the role of the Jewish leaders, especially their deference to Roman dominance during the times of Jesus. He described religious leaders who perceived themselves as exceptional in all ways, based on the commandments of Yahweh of old, and committed to maintaining order and devotion among their people. There were multiple claims to being the Messiah of the Jewish people, a claim equivalent to challenging the authority of Rome. And, the label “King of the Jews” was also recognized to be a threat to the order maintained by the Jewish leaders. In Aslan’s words, “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities.”

Aslan indicated that one of the reasons that the Bible differs from historical records is that the various authors of New Testament texts were less concerned about recording the facts than they were of revealing the truths about Jesus’ witness. He commented, “There is more accumulated historical evidence confirming Jesus’s miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha.” Magic was widespread in Jesus’s time but the imposters who used it did so to impress and to gain favor and financial benefit. Jesus was documented to have done real miracles and he never asked for anything in return. In fact, the miracles attributed to Jesus were usually not intended as an end in themselves but were used to demonstrate a lesson that Jesus sought to teach. Jesus was not interested in having stories of his miracles touted among others – he actively discouraged his disciples from telling others but this only led to more people proclaiming the mystery of Jesus’s actions. Those who knew Jesus and observed his miracles were themselves martyred, one after another, for their unwillingness to disavow the miracles they saw.

James, brother of Jesus, was the de facto leader of Christianity after Jesus’s death and resurrection. However, the writings of James are often relegated to lower status than the other Gospels. Why? Because his message was more for the Jews, and with a zealous commitment to the teachings of the Torah, rather than to what the other apostles of the time advocated. In particular, Peter and Paul were central as the voice of Christianity in Rome, taking the message to the gentiles, which was perceived to be a more important objective at that time. Aslan proposed that neither Jesus nor James would have expected Christianity to become a separate religious group from Judaism.

The concluding pages of "Zealot" provided a compelling picture of a prophet who made an amazing statement in his own time, although not terribly different from many of the martyrs of that day. Aslan characterized Jesus as a product of his time, who challenged everything, including both Roman and Jewish leaders, and he asserted that subsequent believers in Jesus as the Messiah in many ways scrubbed the image too clean, seeking to portray a Jesus more often mild, passive, and compliant; this passive Jesus was constructed by other writers to be more comfortable to the many gentiles who were being drawn to the new religion of Christianity. The Jesus portrayed by Aslan was courageous, defiant, and subversive, the latter being the ultimate “crime” for which he would be crucified. Jesus was a threat to the political order of the time who, by challenging authorities, became a zealous activist for all those who were subjugated and oppressed. In his final reflections, Aslan concludes his historical analysis with, “Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Brown - Boys in the Boat

Capturing the bonding and development of the 1936 University of Washington 8-man crew team who won the Berlin Olympics, Boys in the Boat not only portrays a fascinating high-water point for sports in a difficult time, but it also analyzes what it takes to be a team, as well as the personal journey that many endure in life on their way to greatness.

My daughter, Darbi, was a rower during her undergraduate study at Carnegie Mellon. We went to a number, although not all, of her regattas, giving me a personal glimpse of the dedication of her team, the discipline, and endurance required by this sport. However, Brown’s description of the 1936 Olympic team moved my appreciation to an entirely different level. Honestly, rowing is perhaps one of the finest models for true transforming leadership that exists. It is a sport that requires absolute personal dedication and striving complemented by an extraordinary team that allows for all members to contribute their best to the collective effort. Any individual attempting to pull beyond his/her weight will upset the balance as quickly as any individual who falls below the potential of his/her fellows. In rowing terminology, the “swing” of the boat is an effortless, powerful, and exhilarating moment when the team is unstoppable.

Although there are 9 members to 8-man shells (adding the coxswain), and each of the members of the 1936 crew team was described in some detail, it is Joe Rantz who is the central figure in Brown’s book. Joe grew up in extremely modest circumstances, spending part of his youth in a mining town and the rest in a rural environment. He was abandoned by his father who, after Joe’s mother died, married another woman who refused to have Joe in the household. Thus, Joe grew up having to fend for himself and believing that he could never trust anyone else to care for him. Fortunately for Joe, rather than allowing neglect to result in his undoing, he pushed back in his striving to make a living and to eventually attend the University of Washington. Even while attending college, he was marginalized and ridiculed because of having to work, wearing thread-bear clothing, and not being able to join in the social experiences that were common to other students.

Joe’s struggle to achieve self-worth drove him to pursue rowing, even when for a period after his first successful year on the team, he was reduced to a less-competitive boat. Over his years on the UW crew team, the coach found 8 additional men of humble background who were able to be selfless enough to perform at their peak while still making sure others could do the same. This within a sport that is sometimes characterized as one of the most elitist of all. All of the Washington rowers who made it to be a part of the 1936 Olympics were disadvantaged by the Great Depression, by family circumstances, or misgivings about themselves. But the growing self-knowledge of crew members, coupled with respect for each other, allowed them to become one of the greatest 8-man rowing teams of all time.

The historical context for the 1936 Olympics was that Hitler was on the rise, and chose to host the Olympics as a way of staging the appearance of a progressive, modern, and tolerant country. Figures such as Goebbels, the propaganda master-mind behind Hitler, were dedicated to creating an image that would convince the world that Germany was something it was not. The Olympic teams from the United States was lucky to go at all, considering a significant boycott move. By attending, they managed to counter the deference to the Third Reich through refusing to dip the American flag during the parade of nations and most of all through their performance as athletes. The final race of the 8-man shells was manipulated by German officials to favor the German and Italian shells but this only increased the resolve of the U.S.A. tem to beat the odds and finish first.

Boys in the Boat is a touching portrayal of very common people who rise to greatness. It captures what aspiration is all about and stands as a reassurance that hard work, humility, and perseverance pay off both in personal accomplishment and in quality of life.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Diamond - Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel is typical of his other books – engaging and exploring novel views of society, culture, and how humanity has evolved over time. It starts with a very simple question posed during a walk on the beach in New Guinea. Yali, a local politician, had initiated a conversation with Jared that eventually led to the question of why white people had been so much more successful in bringing cargo to New Guinea than New Guinea had been in creating its own cargo. The entire book unfolds from this simple question – why have certain societies advanced further and faster than others?

Through historical research as well as modern comparisons, Diamond asserts that, most likely, the differences in developmental progress across cultures are less about the innate capability of the people than the environmental circumstances that shaped their experience. The bottom line is that the succession from hunter-gatherers to farmers to organized groups with sophisticated institutions is the process through which any culture emerges. And, the conditions that stimulated each step along the way can either speed or slow the development.

The emergence of civilization is recognized as having come from the Fertile Crescent – but why? Diamond’s analysis is that it was the result of a rich and diverse environment of both plant and animal life. The conditions were just right to allow for a proliferation of species that would be useful to humans. First the animals would serve as food and eventually the natural plants would be domesticated to yield better and greater quantities of food to satisfy a growing population. Thus, food contributed to increased population and increased population required advances in food production. And, this growth required complex organizations and specialists to make it all work.

The increased populations supported by domestication of key animals and plants led to both human adaptations and technology advancements that then gave those in populous areas superiority over others. Animal domestication had one of the most powerful influences through the transfer of germs from other animals to humans. As various animals became commonplace in villages, humans encountered diseases to which they had to adapt, thus gradually equipping them with natural defenses not part of more primitive societies. The pattern of explorers coming to distant lands and killing the indigenous inhabitants of the new land as much through disease as aggression is repeated throughout history. Food was the first advantage and then germs became the determining force for advanced groups to conquer others.

Another natural advantage, first to the Fertile Crescent and then to other cultures of Eurasia, is simply latitude. Tracing the evolution of cultures, it is clear that the most advanced early cultures spread from Mesopotamia to the east and west. But why not east and west? Because the narrower band of latitude going from east to west in Eurasia allowed for plant life and improvements and agricultural technology to spread across the continent rather than up and down the continents with north south orientations such as Africa or the Americas – north to south required greater adaptation and thus the diffusion of plant species was much lower than in east to west environments. Additionally, the latitudes from Mesopotamia over to the Mediterranean zone afforded greater variation in altitudes and topography, resulting in greater diversification within the rich band and long growing seasons typical of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean.

The superiority in food production continued to result in advancement of culture through the creation of writing and tabulation. In order to trade among the ever-increasing complexity of villages and communities, there had to be a way to record, thus the beginning of notation of various sorts. Notation then resulted in better communication and the creation of political organizations which could then explore and move out in conquest of others. This all resulted in an autocatalytic process that snow-balled and sped up over time, resulting in ever-increasing advantage to dominant cultures that then began to overtake, either through germs or warfare, and annihilate simpler and less-advanced cultures. Perhaps most unfortunate of all, advancing societies with complex organizations and governments resorted to religious beliefs to justify their growing dominance. If a society perceived itself superior to others by virtue of technology, and justified its status as granted from God, it was then easy to move to dominate and control other societies that were perceived as lesser, ignorant or backward. This perceived superiority also served as the justification for taking natural resources and wealth from others, again adding even more to the superiority of the advanced group.

Attempting to apply Diamond’s ideas of how technology, organization, language and culture advance in the modern day, it is only natural to ask what are the determining factors that might impact the welfare of our current most advanced societies? In Diamond’s words, “what is the best way to organize human groups, organizations, and businesses so as to maximize productivity, creativity, innovation, and wealth?” His answer is through the very processes that allowed earlier cultures to thrive – diversification and diffusion and the principle of optimal fragmentation; with these principles in operation, “innovation proceeds most rapidly in a society with some optimal intermediate degree of fragmentation: a too-unified society is at a disadvantage, and so is a too-fragmented society.” The question is how to achieve and maintain that optimal fragmentation. Perhaps through fostering good institutions that cultivate diverse perspectives while maintaining balance “through rule of law, enforcement of contracts, protection of private property rights, lack of corruption, low frequency of assassinations, openness to trade and to flow of capital, incentives for investment,” and more. And to add another to the list from my own vision of advanced societies – justice and equity.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Scharmer and Kaufer - Leading from the emerging future

Otto Scharmer’s new book (co-authored with Kaufer) uses many of the same ideas he has espoused in previous writing. Leading from the emerging future is different primarily in its efforts to advocate a way to a future that will create global well-being, or as he terms it, a “gross national happiness” rather than “gross domestic product” measure. In GNH, the outcome would be “genuine human beings, realizing their full and true potential, caring for others – including other species – ecologically literate, contemplative as well as analytical in their understanding of the world, free of greed and without excessive desires; knowing, understanding, and appreciating completely that they are not separate from the natural world and from others.”

The Gross National Happiness index (GNH) would challenge business dominated environments where business interests supersede all other sectors – civil, social, media, government. How? By creating broad entrepreneurial capacities that serve the real needs of communities rather than the private interests of those out simply to make a profit. The infrastructures required would include:

• Enabling spaces: innovation happens in nurturing places

• Key challenges: challenges are the raw material for all learning

• Sensing mechanisms that allow people to see themselves as part of a bigger picture

• Capacity-building mechanisms

• Capital

• Technology

• Community: a global web of mentors, partners, and entrepreneurs who collectively create prototypes for society

Scharmer asserted that the blind spot that holds us back in striving for connectedness and common purpose is that we assume that mainstream economic thought is real and that it is a foundation that cannot be challenged. This is in the face of $190 trillion in U.S.A. assets sitting in wait for highly profitable investment while the real economy and social sector have no way to access the necessary resources to make a positive impact. “The primary leadership challenge today is the fact that our economic reality is shaped by globally interdependent eco-systems, while institutional leaders, by and large, operate with an organizational ego-system awareness.”

I have always found Otto’s ideas visionary and stretching far beyond the current reality that most people can see. Leading from the emerging future offers thought-provoking questions and challenges and evidence through numerous examples that leadership focused on something other than monetary gain is evident in more organizations and communities than we realize.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Confident in yourself but humble enough to think beyond yourself

One of the most important responsibilities of leadership is to inspire vision and hope.  This video of Her Highness Sheikha Moza talking about Qatar, education, and building human resources is as inspiring as it gets.  Qatar truly is a small lab exploring solutions that could be a model for the rest of the world.  "It is like music to my ears; I can see this mosaic coming together to create a beautiful picture," as she says in the closing moments of this clip.

This testimony to aspiration and vision is calling many people to Qatar now.  Six years ago, when I first came here, the vision was there but the evidence was only just emerging.  Now there is plenty of evidence but it is still Her Highness who inspires those of us who seek to help fulfill a vision of a small country with big ambition.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The "light" lunch

It is a beautiful day in Doha so I decided to jump on the campus shuttle to ride across campus to check out office availability in one of our academic buildings – looking for offices for future graduate faculty in our Hamad bin Khalifa University programs. Coupling the office reconnaissance with a stop for lunch at the dining room in our new residence halls resulted in a chance encounter I’ll not soon forget. After picking up my salad and a couple of slices of pizza, I saw a former student and a couple of friends and invited myself to join them for a “light” lunch.

Four people – a woman of Palestinian/Egyptian background, a male from Bangladesh, a male from Afghanistan, and me – the aging American educator. There was an awkward moment of not knowing if they should continue their conversation and then one took the risk – “We were just talking about why some people behave in ways that are completely opposite to who they are. Why do you think this happens?” My first reaction was, “Is this what you usually talk about over a light lunch?” The reply – “Yes, lots of times.” We proceeded through a wonderful conversation of emotional intelligence, why bad leaders get away with their antics, public relations, whether social media is real or if it is fake, and finally a comparison among Fox News, CNN, and Al-Jazeera “news.” The comparison concluded that the first two are ever more frequently veering toward “entertainment” rather than news, with even the likes of Anderson Cooper now offering roundtables where the participants talk on top of each other, interrupt, and treat one another with such disrespect that it shakes your faith in humanity. Al-Jazeera appears to be doing quite a bit better for the moment in actually covering the news rather than recreating pundit-dominated talk shows.

The conversation ended in exploring humility and authenticity as traits to cultivate in ourselves and to discern when determining if those we encounter can be trusted. These are 20-something individuals of three different nationalities, drawn together through their work and in the depth of their character. And, they are young people who, while extraordinary in many ways, are not that different from many young people who are graduating from our universities in Qatar. The stirrings of conflict among many Middle Eastern and Asian countries are disturbing; give me a “light” lunch any day to renew my faith in achieving the impossible!

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Reprise - Your brain on arts

A previous post, "Your Brain on Music," analyzed how music impacts brain functioning.  A new study of honors students at Michigcan State University document the Impact of the arts on children's learning and success.  Although based on a select and highly talented sample, the report indicates that the exagerated impact is so great that exposure and study of the arts for broader populations is likely.

In an age when innovation and creativity is so important, it seems like an important time to reflect on why parents might want to take the iphones and ipads away and return to some discipline of the arts - music, painting, pottery, poetry, photography - anything active and requiring the participant to create.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Anderson - Lawrence IN Arabia

"Lawrence IN Arabia: War deceit, imperial folly and the making of the Modern Middle East" is about the famous young Brit, TE Lawrence, who took up the cause of Arabs in establishing a pan-Arab nation during World War I. It is also an incredible compilation of the deceit of Great Britain, paired with France as its ally, to manipulate the Arab tribes of the Middle East into pushing the Turks (Ottomans) out of the region in order to control German and Ottoman expansion. The sad truth that this book portrays is that the deceit perpetrated by Great Britain is largely why the region has suffered from religious, tribal, and national disputes ever since.

Lawrence OF Arabia made its debut and drew great attention in the 1962 Hollywood movie but it portrayed little of the detail covered by Anderson. As Anderson's title conveys, “war deceit and imperial folly,” he was not kind to Great Britain, based substantially on T.E. Lawrence’s own distaste for his country’s military elite, a disdain that led Lawrence to remark, “British generals often gave away in stupidity what they had gained in ignorance.” Although Lawrence’s critical importance to Great Britain earned him military rank and considerable notoriety, he was so derisive of Great Britain’s bungling and dishonest treatment of the Arabs that he refused King George’s private investiture of the Victoria Cross to him in 1918.

"Lawrence in Arabia" utilized many resources, including Lawrence’s own "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and numerous letters and reports he filed. In addition, the memoires and records of several very prominent figures who were central to WWI maneuvers in the Middle East contribute to substantiating Anderson’s case. Some of those who were most notable include; Djemal Pasha, brutal Ottoman military leader responsible for the slaughter of Armenians and many others; William Yale (yes, of the family) whose lost family fortune brought him to explore for oil on Standard Oil’s behalf and then to serve as America’s only informant about the Middle East during WWI; Curt Prufer, German military hard-liner who attempted to draw the Arabs to the German/Ottoman side in the destruction of the Suez Canal and later joined Hitler’s Nazis in seeking their revenge for the stab in the back they believed they endured at the conclusion of WWI; Aaron Aaronsohn, agronomist who turned Palestine into a fertile region for agriculture, creator of Jewish spy networks, and whose ardent Zionism ultimately marginalized him from other more moderate advocates for a Jewish state; and Mark Sykes, hustler and co-author of one of the 21st century’s most debilitating documents - the Sykes-Picot Agreement - which betrayed the Arab cause in deference to Britain and France’s intent to maintain control in the Middle East (it was ultimately the Balfour Declaration that would follow and bring Great Britain into full complicity with the Zionist cause). Sykes would be described by Lawrence as “a man who could gain a hearing from his reckless ideas by virtue of his pedigree and the breezy confidence with which he voices them.”

Lawrence’s journey to celebrated hero of his time and later in movies was rooted in a romantic fascination with medieval times which was deepened through archeological exploration in Carchemish that introduced him to the hospitality and warmth of Arabs. These experiences cultivated a profound level of respect and eagerness to help the Arab tribes that, up until WWI, had been so disconnected that most military leaders viewed them as inconsequential. His view was not that of the “white man’s burden of civilizing others” but instead it was one of understanding and appreciating the Arabs and adapting strategies and expectations of them accordingly. This was especially important in light of the general Arab suspicion of Great Britain, and other Western powers, who were known to exploit, undermine, and leave little of value to those subjected to colonialism. It was ultimately Lawrence’s strategic insights for a flexible Arab force “drifting about like a gas” that destroyed the railroads used by the Ottomans in the Hejaz that would result in his being revered among Arabs, and tolerated by the British who knew Lawrence as an unruly, but singularly informed, sort. Lawrence’s ability to acutely observe and put into words what he saw was one of the things that insured his great prominence, and "Lawrence in Arabia" is peppered with Lawrence's colorful quotes.

Although there were many a sad turn of affairs in Lawrence’s heroic and epoch political and military story, the saddest were enveloped in the dying embers of imperial aspiration that brought the Prime Ministers of Britain and France together in the 1918 Paris Peace Conference to propose that they be granted dominion of the entire Middle East. That proposal denied and reversed agreements made with the Arabs to establish an Arab state that would include most of the land mass that the unified Arabs were able to capture in their repeated defeats of the Ottomans. More sadly, the 1918 Paris Peace Conference refused to consider the proposal brokered by Lawrence between British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann (who would become Israel’s first President) and Faisal ibn Hussein (leader of the Arab coalition) to establish a combined Arab-Jewish state in Palestine. This final deceit has, in Anderson’s eyes, contributed to a modern day Arab perspective that tends “to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms. This culture of opposition has been manipulated – indeed, feverishly nurtured by generations of Arab dictators intent on channeling their people’s anger away from their own misrule in favor of external threat.” (Epilogue)

Other reviews are much more skeptical about what I have posted here.  The serious reader will want to explore multiple perspectives of T.E. Lawrence's life, especially as his exploits might relate to current circumstances that exist in the Middle East.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hosseini - And the Mountains Echoed

Not exactly a book about leadership, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed is a beautiful book about human striving and resilience. Beginning in Afghanistan and moving through Europe and U.S.A., it charts the lives of a brother and sister who were separated as children when their father sold the daughter to a wealthy Afghan woman in Kabul. The Afghan woman, Nila Wahdati, is an illustrious socialite and poet in the days before Afghanistan became torn by war, invasion, and internal strife. Because she is non-traditional, she is looked up to by some and down on by others and her unhappy marriage and inability to conceive children herself causes her to seek fulfillment in acquiring Pari from a small, remote village of Afghanistan. Pari was too young to remember her early childhood and the brother (Abdullah) who loved her so much, but throughout her life Pari felt an emptiness that was unexplainable.

The title of the book derives from a story that Pari and Abdullah’s father told them as children about an evil div who periodically stole children from a village. Unknown to the villagers, the div was removing the children from poverty and strife only to be cherished and nurtured by the div in a distant and wonderful place. This story, and the anguish felt by a father in the story who sacrifices his son to the div in order to save the village and his family, is a tragic premonition of what Pari’s father did when he sold her to the adoptive mother, Nila. The father ended the story of the div posing the conundrum for a father contemplating giving his own child away – would it only be a “A coward who would see them all die rather than burden his own conscience?” Indeed, after Pari’s father sold her to Nila Wahdati, he lived a life burdened with sadness and regret.

The story continued with Nila and Pari staying in Kabul with Mr. Wahdati for only a short while until he fell ill, then moving to Paris where Pari’s life evolves into one of opportunity. Pari’s uncle Nabi (who secured the sale of Pari to the Wahdati’s) remained with Mr. Wahdati for the rest of his life, serving him and tolerating the ambivalence that was at the core of their relationship. Ultimately, Pari’s move from the Afghan village to Kabul, Kabul to Paris, placed her in environments in which she found purpose and an improved quality of life. However, the emptiness remained and eventually led Pari to seek out her brother.

Pari and Abdullah were reunited after the brother had advanced so far in his dementia that he denied she existed when Pari finally tracked him down in the U.S.A. After fifty-eight years of first not knowing and eventually seeking to find Abdulla, Pari reflected, “I remember almost nothing about him. What I remember, it is not his face or his voice. Only that in my life something has been missing always. Something good. Something…" In the end, Abdullah’s daughter and caretaker found a box in a closet labeled to "Pari” and gave it to her, upon which Pari finally resolved the emptiness in her life experience by recapturing something to treasure from the relationship with Abdullah.

Hosseni’s story is fictional but it reflects many of the struggles I’ve observed in my time in Qatar – wrenching struggles of separating families in order to survive, unfulfilled relationships restricted by repressive convention, mystery about one’s family and circumstances inflicted to protect reputation or prevent the transparent realization of lives shaped by forces that cannot be controlled. More than anything, And the Mountains Echoed reminded me of one of the lessons I’ve learned to treasure – withholding judgment in order to understand another’s journey.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

James Conlon (Ravinia Music Festival Conductor) on education

I've enjoyed my first summer living in Chicago, primarily because Chicago is such an amazing city for cultural arts.  We've gone to Grant Park free concerts, Ravinia Festival concerts, gone to the Art Institute of Chicago and many other things.  I am so impressed by the vision of Chicago and its many contributors and one of the most important is James Conlon, summer conductor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the Ravinia Festival.

In the program notes for the concerts we've attended, he commented on the importance of music for its own sake - not just for providing career opportunity for young musicians.  As I read the quote below, I couldn't help but think of the importance of classical music, and education, for its own sake:

"I am familiar with the charge that we should not be encouraging young people to play classical music because there are no employment opportunities, or at least fewer than there were.  I vehemently oppose this view on all levels, philosophical, moral and artistic.  First of all, art is art.  It is an end in itself; it is not a means to find a job.  One becomes an artist, in the best of cases, because of an existential inability to do otherwise.  In recent decades education in general has taken a turn, in my opinion, for the worse, with the full endorsement that education's ultimate purpose is to find a job.  Finding the right profession or vocation should be a byproduct, and a very important one, of education.  The opposite view, taken to absurd exaggeration, would imply that everyone should simply go to vocational schools, the earlier the better.  I think this is in opposition to every broad educational principle that has made America great.  I believe our ideal is and should be to rear an educated citizenry, with broad knowledge and, almost more importantly, a thirst and desire to continue educating one's mind for a lifetime."

Just interchange art and education and it works either way from my perspective.  This is at the core of learning about leadership - learning to thrive on the pursuit of knowledge and expression of one's deepest self.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Harvard Business Review 10 Must Reads on Leadership

Published in 2011, the HBR's 10 Must Reads on Leadership pulls together some of my favorite articles as well as adds others that are sure to be of historic significance in the leadership studies field.  With authors like Daniel Goleman, Peter Drucker, Ron Heifetz and Don Laurie, Warren Bennis, Jim Collins, Peter Senge and others, the collection does not disappoint.

This collection is also good in that it doesn't claim any shared perspective; it reflects the best thinking of the respective authors, each of which poses interesting perspectives whether or not you agree.  A couple of gems from my view are:
  1. John Kotter (in What Leaders Really Do) critiqued the management by objectives and ISO advocates by saying that today's organizations are over-managed and under-led.  In Kotter's words, managers "embrace long-term planning as a panacea for their lack of direction and inability to adapt to an increasingly competitive and dynamic business environment." (p. 46)
  2. Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones (in Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?) proposed a different way of leading that includes selectively showing weaknesses, relying on intuition, managing with tough empathy, and revealing differences.  Their proposition - leading with these attributes will attract others to follow you.
  3. Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas (in Crucibles of Leadership) reflected that many leaders have encountered some dramatic or crucible moment that forever changed the way they saw the world.  A particularly poignant example was that of Vernon Jordan, lawyer and former presidential advisor, whose crucible was in service to former Atlanta mayor, Robert F. Maddox.  Instead of being defeated by Maddox's pejorative assumptions and derision about his being able to read, Jordan reflected in his own later writing, "His half-mocking, half-serious comments about my education were the death rattle of his culture.  When he saw that I was... crafting a life for myself that would make me a man in... ways he thought of as being a man, he was deeply unnerved." (p. 105)
This HBR collection is definitely worth a read and worth keeping on hand when perplexed by questions that students of leadership face every day.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Cane - Quiet

Susan Cane challenges what she calls the “cult of personality” of the modern era, a period of time when major importance has been placed on the way we appear, are perceived, and attract attention to ourselves through extroverted behaviors. Her analysis in Quiet (2012) is that we acquired the bias toward extroversion as a result of the exuberance of the 19th and early 20th century, a time when character was of greatest importance. Gradually, the U.S.A. (and perhaps other Western-influenced settings) shifted to value the way things appear over the substance of what they are. Most notable influencers in the direction of the “cult of personality” were the popular movements spawned by Dale Carnegie and Toastmaster groups. Perhaps this bias was only natural for an emerging nation of frontiersmen whose very DNA descended from hearty immigrants who were comfortable enough with risk to travel great distances and endure significant hardship only to have a chance at a better life. In contrast to the extroverted “cult of personality” that dominates so many of our current actions, Cane proposes that there is great value to introversion and she encourages a return to greater balance in valuing both the extrovert and introvert in and among us.

The first example that Cane used to urge that we honor introversion was Rosa Parks, described as “… small in stature. They said she was ‘timid and shy’ but had ‘the courage of a lion.’” (4%) The image one gets, which was evidently quite real, was of a woman who was so unassuming that, when she acted, her courage became so obvious that others had to recognize it and this is precisely why she had so much power as an introvert. In the cult of personality environment, introversion is characterized as overly sensitive, too serious, and shy to the point of discomfort. By contrast to this deficit perspective, Cane proposes a view of introversion characterized by listening to others, thinking things through before acting, and enjoying substantial rather than superficial engagement with others. Or, in another term, instead of being shy, introverts are simply portrayed as preferring environments that are not overstimulating (6%).

Contemporary examples of over-extroversion are offered in the personages of Tony Robbins and the dominant personality types so prevalent in some of the top MBA programs in the U.S.A. (i.e. Harvard in Cane’s analysis). She observed that the spin far outweighed the substance of those she interviewed among the ranks of Harvard elites. But, she offered hope for broadening the view of who counts by exploring the influence of social media where it is no longer necessary to demand the floor through extroverted behavior in order to speak your piece.

Besides advocating for introverts across a variety of groups and environments, Cane drew attention to specific sub-groups that tended to be more introverted as a result of cultural expectation. Specifically, Asian and Asian Americans were identified as frequently brushed over for lack of extroversion or gregariousness. For cultures that are more collectivist, seeking to stand out and bringing attention to oneself is a negative attribute; as an example, Asian students may offer their contribution meticulously and quietly and then Western students take the credit when the group reports or papers are submitted. Rather than viewing individuals or groups that are more inclined to introversion as deficient, Cane provided fascinating evidence of the value introverts bring. One example was in a Berkeley study conducted in the 1950s and 1960s where researchers analyzed the personalities of creative people and found that they “tended to be socially poised introverts.” (23%) Another study of violinists at an elite Music Academy in Berlin found that those who excelled were those who spent excessive hours practicing in solitude. Having myself spent many hours in solitude practicing piano, I know the benefit of focused attention completely separated from human contact; I have also come to recognize that my inability to separate myself from the social contact typical of an extroverted type in my youth probably cost me a career in music. The bottom line of these studies on creativity is that, if an organization has creative types, they should be allowed, even encouraged, to work alone when the object of their work is to be creative (which contradicts much of the popular advice about creativity coming from group interaction).

One of the unfortunate repercussions of there being many undervalued creative and reflective types seeking to survive in an extroverted world is that studies have found that they are much more susceptible to social and speaking anxiety and broader anxiety disorder in general (which is a complex interaction of psychology and physiology). Cane’s analysis is that anxiety among introverts is not about dysfunction but about a world dominated by extroverted expectations which just doesn’t work for those who are innately or culturally more introverted. In order to overcome this struggle, Cane lifts up those who were (or are) introverted and make a difference in our world – Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama. These individuals have to work to overcome the potentially stifling impact of introversion through finding others who struggle as well, desensitization to anxiety-producing situations, and through doing things that they love. There’s nothing like the antidote of passion to help one overcome anxiety (remember Rosa Parks?). Given the opportunity to be themselves, introverts bring incredible gifts to the world of sensitivity, empathy, creativity, persistence and compassion. And, perhaps we need to be a bit more cautious about extroverts whose package may bring higher risk than one might think – overconfidence unmatched by greater ability, imposition of their views on others, not listening deeply and openly, and rushing to conclusions and taking credit. The point is not to lift up or denigrate introversion or extroversion but to seek appreciation and balance, adopting a “Free Trait” (58%) approach where one can choose between what is natural and what is challenging but worth doing in order to accomplish a goal.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Diamond - The World until Yesterday

(I’m beginning a new era in my reading as a result of a family birthday present – a kindle. So, now I can download my books for easier reading. However, when I quote I’ll only reference the % of the book completed for page citations.)

Jared Diamond’s life among the native peoples of Papau New Guinea provided a great backdrop from which to explore the attributes of traditional societies that might have merit in the modern day. The point he makes is not that we should attempt to turn back the clock but that we should look at the positive attributes of traditional societies and consider how their strengths might add to the quality of contemporary life for all.
When we consider that 96% of the subjects studied in the top journals of psychology in 2008 lived in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democrat) societies, thus establishing the perceived world-wide standard of how human beings function, is it not possible, and even likely, that we are missing qualities of the many other people who do not inhabit these WEIRD environments? WEIRD societies are based on the concept of a nation state when many of the people of the world are organized in bands, tribes, chiefdoms, or other emerging organization types. Diamond explores how traditional societies look at space, handle disputes, engage in war, how they view childhood and old age, danger, religion, language diversity, and health. Diamond commented at the end of his introduction (8%) that, “those of us who have grown up in modern state societies, modern conditions of life are so pervasive, and so taken for granted, that it’s hard for us to notice the fundamental differences of traditional societies during short visits to them.” When Diamond returned to live in LA after immersing himself in New Guinea, he was deeply struck by the differences between WEIRD environments and those of many societies around the world. And, he recognized the potential merit of adopting/adapting some of the approaches of these traditional cultures.
Diamond writes in vivid detail from his own experience in New Guinea and he broadens from his own experience by referring to numerous other anthropological and archeological studies of traditional cultures. The details of his analyses are fascinating and enjoyable to read and come down to several recommendations in his Epilogue. When looking at traditional practices that would have merit in modern times:
  • Instead of assuming that modern technology holds the answer for rearing children, might we look at traditional practices that encourage strong family bonds and natural development of youth toward adult responsibility?
  • Instead of insisting on shared nation-state languages, might we encourage bi and multi-lingual practices that preserve languages and nurture cultural pride?
  • Instead of blithely accepting the risks of the modern day, might we consider what things place us at repeated risk and adopt select constructive paranoia for these situations?
  • Instead of withdrawing from inter-faith dialogue, might we curiously delve into understanding each other’s religious views related to the search for satisfying explanations of ultimate questions about the physical world, dealing with anxiety and stress, and the need to make sense of death?
  • Instead of pushing more fast food to the developing world, might we explore how nutrition varies by cultural group and what can be done to reduce health problems that are the result of mass production and availability of food?
  • Instead of marginalizing elders, might we consider approaches to extend their working life and engage them in advising and coaching others with less experience?
  • Instead of relying on modern adversarial judicial practices, might we consider using systems based on informal mediation, emotional clearance, and reestablishment of relationships in disputes?
The bottom line of Diamond’s book is perhaps a quote from one of his American friends, “Life in Africa is materially poor and socially/emotionally rich, while U.S. life is materially rich and socially/emotionally poor.” (87%) Perhaps a critical look at the mix of benefits across cultures could create wellness and a good life for all.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Not to forget what life in Qatar was like...

The experience of living and working in Qatar has become very normal for me after 5+ years.  So normal that I sometimes forget how extraordinary it has been, and continues to be.  I want to remember and one of the best ways to do that is blog.

I had a pretty amazing 24 hours in terms of encounters with people from around the world between Wednesday and Thursday afternoons of this last week.
  • It started with seeing a Cornell medical student from Egypt that I hadn't seen for a while in the fitness room.  I congratulated him for receiving the outstanding student worker award the previous night.  After my congrats, he posed, "I know you're very busy but would you be willing to have coffee sometime?"  The humility of this guy is amazing, considering that he is a top student plus works probably 15-20 hours per week why wouldn't I welcome the opportunity to have coffee with him?
  • The next encounter was seeing another guy in the fitness room who is of Palestinian background but has lived in Qatar most of his life.  He's a big guy, marginal English, but we always exchange greetings and encouragement.  I dazzled him with a little Arabic when I left and his face lit up with pride.
  • Then I went to a Georgetown debate on the question of whether or not China's rise in the world economy and politics would end American hegemony.  Pretty esoteric debate, but informative.  The most interesting part was talking with 3 Chinese guys at the reception afterward.
  • What a surprise to see one of the Chinese guys the next morning as I was driving into work.  I offered him a ride to Georgetown which provided the opportunity to exchange business cards and begin a dialogue about comparison of educational practices, and especially student development work, between China and the U.S.A.
  • Later in the morning, I met with one of the young male Qatari staff.  He's a bright guy but has a tendency to go with the flow.  However, on this particular day he expressed concern to me about some of the work assignments he had recently had.  This was a wonderful opportunity to start a conversation with him about what he really likes to do and how he needs to hone his focus so that he can establish a career path that he enjoys.
  • After work, I went to the fitness room for a full workout with my Filipino trainer.  There I saw the typical array of Qatari, Pakistani, India, Syrian, and other nationalities I usually see but one particular encounter was absolutely wonderful.  A South African student who works out regularly noticed that one of the Nepali staff who cleans the facility was trying to use some of the equipment.  Noticing that the Nepali didn't know how to operate it, he offered him some help in the most gracious and egalitarian way you can imagine.
I went home after working out, stopping by Papa John's (ironic that I would eat American fast food) for a satisfyingly indulgent large pizza.  I went home to eat dinner, call Diane, and settle in for the weekend.  In a world so incredibly small and where we are all intertwined in our welfare, isn't amazing that in one day I have the privilege of engaging with people from so many places around the world?  Doha is truly a cross-roads of the future!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shadid - House of Stone: A memoir of home, family, and a lost Middle East

Having covered the tumultuous changes underway throughout the Middle East and Arab/Islamic world in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, providing a picture of both the tragedy and possibility of change, Anthony Shadid lost his life covering Syria in 2012. But before his death he would take a break to get in touch with his Lebanese heritage, ultimately leading to the restoration of his great-grandfather’s Mans of Stone in the village of Marjayoun, far above the bustling city of Beirut. Shadid’s discovery of his roots and of himself, fortunately are preserved in the memoirs of the time of his transformation in House of Stone (2012).

During my time in the Middle East I’ve continued to read anything that will inform me about the history, culture, and struggles of the region. House of Stone was one of the most memorable and enlightening. Shadid used Arabic language liberally (always translating when he first introduced a word or phrase), interspersed historical references from the Shadid family’s move to America in the 19th century, and included stories of the political strife and civil wars that have so deeply undermined his home (in Arabic - bayt) time and time again. These stories and reflections taught me as much as any book I’ve read about the sorrow of dashed dreams amongst impossible, and deeply engrained, conflict.

The strife in Lebanon has resulted from a legacy of the Ottomans, complicated by the interventions of Europe, and stirred by the religious differences that in its early days were a strength to its people. Providing an example of his distant relative Hana Shadid who, as a Maronite Christian, chanted the Muslim call to prayer heard throughout Marjayoun, Shadad advocated for the natural tolerance and respect that once existed for all who sought God. This kind of tolerance was the foundation for a community whose riches were in its relationships and the natural beauty of a place described through his grandmother’s eyes when she returned to her family’s home in mid-20th century:

This time she saw the vistas for which the country was fabled – the turquoise Mediterranean as she approached the port of Sidon; the cliffs of Jezzine, carpeted in pine forests, vineyards, and orchards; the clumps of almond trees that cascaded down the hills of the Litani Valley. She paused at the panorama under the sentry of Beaufort Castle, sheer, inhospitable slopes plunging toward the river’s churning waters – a sweeping view beautiful in its severity, like the face of a proud old man bearing the hardship he has endured.
In the Afterword of Shadid’s book written by his widow, Nada Bakri comments, “Anthony writes that his great-grandfather ‘must have longed for and been haunted by what he had barely touched but not had the chance to savor.’” Shadid was able to savor the restoration of the family home only briefly before Lebanon would be thrown back into civil war in 2008. As the Syrian crisis continues unabated, Lebanon is again bursting from within as it attempts to provide “bayt” for refugees exiled from their homes. The repeated story of longing for a better life but never quite being able to grasp it is far too common in this region of the world.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fulbright - The Arrogance of Power

Dean Wilcox of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies commented in the Preface of The Arrogance of Power (Fulbright, 1966), “He (Senator Fulbright) rightly points out that many great empires in the past have collapsed because their leaders did not have the wisdom and the good judgment to use their power wisely and well.” (p. ix) Further, “We have now reached that historical point, however, ‘at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it.’” (p. x)

Fulbright made many points in The Arrogance of Power that fascinated me, especially considering the foreign affairs dynamics the world now faces. One of the points he raised was about revolution – how it occurred and how we might expect to experience revolutions today. Fulbright suggested that having not experienced true revolution since the original American Revolution and later the Civil War, Americans didn’t really understand the sequence of conditions that brought revolution. He identified the historical pattern that revolutions tended “to be preceded by the demoralization of traditional ruling classes…, whose very moderation makes them unable to cope with the violence which they themselves may have unleashed, then by the rule of extremists, whose extremism degenerates into terror and who then are displaced by more practical men who bring the society back to normalcy and routine.” (p. 74) Understanding this sequence may help to explain, and even console, those who are wary of 21st century revolutions.

The corollary between the dynamics of the U.S.A. being involved around the world (Caribbean, East Asia, Berlin) in 1966 to defend against the encroachment of communism is prophetic of 2013 with the U.S.A. being involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East in order to defend against Islamic fundamentalism. Both reflect an ongoing pattern among American politicians and military of labeling an ideology as threatening to democracy and then attacking it. Using Fulbright’s description of communism, substitute “ Islam” to explore the dynamics we possibly see today - “Far from being unified in a design for world conquest, the communist countries are deeply divided among themselves, with widely varying foreign policies and widely varying concepts of their own national interests. .. If we accept the premise that it is aggression rather than communism which endangers us, then it follows that the existence of a strong communist state which poses a barrier to the expansion of an aggressive communist power may be more desirable from the viewpoint of American interests than a weak non-communist state whose very weakness forms a vacuum which invites conquest or subversion.” (p. 81) Fulbright’s point was that at the time the U.S.A. feared anything related to communism and mistakenly fought everything that suggested a communist influence when it would likely have been better to accept various diverse communist states that were independent and held control against the potential of a more enveloping communist global power.

How America slipped into being the world’s policeman is described in the example of Viet Nam and other military interventions from the mid-20th century. Fulbright’s analysis was that America teetered ambivalently in its politics and it demonstrated a lack of confidence and security in its own goodness. He repeatedly called forth the images of Lincoln and Roosevelt (Theodore) as the respective examples of humanism and puritanism that characterized the swings of America’s engagement in the world saying, “America is a great and powerful and fundamentally decent nation; we know it – or ought to – and the world knows it. At times, however, we act as though we did not believe in our own greatness; we act as though our prestige as a great nation were constantly at issue, constantly in danger of being irretrievably lost, as if our greatness were something that had endlessly to be repurchased, requiring unending exertions to prove to the world that we are indeed an important and powerful nation.” (p. 198) In his closing paragraph, Fulbright called forth the advice of John Quincy Adams that America should be “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” (p. 258)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hastings - All Hell Let Loose

Either I wasn’t listening in America history in high school or my teachers were telling a different story about WWII than I just read in Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 (2011). Hailed “unquestionably the best single-volume history of the war ever written,” it integrated many personal stories told or written by those who survived or in some cases died during the war years. It also told a story much more complex than I had ever known and much more influential in its impact on the relations between so many countries throughout the 20th century.

It took a while to get through the 748 pages but it was well worth it. One of the most overwhelming messages about WWII is the incredible, and differential, sacrifice required of some countries over others during the exhaustingly long period of the war. I had always known that America was reluctant to enter the war until dragged in by Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor. I had not realized that, even after engaging, it sacrificed far fewer of its soldiers to the conflict. Of the estimated 60 million people to die through WWII, 2.69 million Japanese, 6.9 million German, 6 million Jews, 27 million Russian, 15 million Chinese, and on down to the 449,00 British and 418,500 Americans would perish through combat, death camps, starvation, or as bystanders to combat. Any death is tragic but the proportion who paid among the Russians and Chinese resulted in bitter feelings among the Allied governments and led to compromises in territorial allocation after the war that would create many of the political complications of the 20th century and beyond.

The British were the most vilified of all the groups involved in the war (interesting in the context of the currently popular dramatic series, “Downton Abbey”). The British Channel protected them from the direct assaults that had to be endured by other countries throughout continental Europe. The British were also perceived by other military forces to be incompetent, arrogant, bunglers who cared more about their own egos than they did about the welfare of those they were supposed to protect. They were especially negligent in relation to their former colony, India, subjecting Indians to racism and harsh treatment even as they engaged in military service alongside their former oppressors. America fared better but was still characterized as too accommodating, ignoring alarming evidence about Hitler’s rise, and sometimes seeking the glory of visible conquest rather than defending the dug-out trenches of Europe. Ultimately, the Americans were crucial in winning the war through the sheer might of their industrial machine, even though a number of strategic errors on their part likely prolonged the war or resulted in needless sacrifice of lives.

The history books and public opinion are, of course, most critical of Germany and secondarily of Japan. Both committed atrocities against their own people while maiming, raping, and killing any of those who would oppose them. Unfortunately, the Allies in some cases followed suit as WWII came to a close and civilians were rendered vulnerable to the overwhelming power of the military forces that would come to free them from the oppression of Nazism and Fascism.

Hitler’s response to the “Jewish Problem” stands today as the most obscene example of genocide in all of history. Pity that there were many others throughout the world whose prejudice emboldened Hitler’s fanatical final solution. And pity that guilt and remorse about the complicity that so many felt after WWII led to partitioning of lands that would create ongoing conflict throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Particularly devastating was the establishment of Israel on the ancestral lands of Palestine, an act that set up one of the longest standing and divisive issues between the Western and Arab worlds.