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.