Sunday, December 28, 2014

The "C" between "B" and "D"

I’ve spent the weeks since returning to the U.S. acclimating and preparing for the Christmas holiday with family. With our holiday drawing to a close, Diane and I attended the Trinity United Methodist Church in Wilmette for what would be the last of the Advent and Christmas observances earlier today. The message was provided by an intern from China who contrasted Asian cultural perspectives based on Budism with those of the West. The point he made was that Budism views life as a constant unfolding circle of experiences while Western culture, significantly shaped by Christianity, is more linear – birth, life, death and the promise of a life after death that varies according to the theological view of the Christian. He advised that Christian faith calls believers to reflect carefully on the “C” between “B” and “D,” “C” being the choices one makes between “B” (birth) and “D” (death).

It struck me that the message of paying careful attention to our choices is central to the idea of advent - a time of preparation. Islam has an equivalent concept in the month of Ramadan that culminates in the Hajj pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca for those who can make the trip. A wonderful PBS documentary captured the journey of a group of Muslim pilgrims from Boston, reflecting the struggles of spiritual reflection that are such an important part of the Hajj journey. Advent and Hajj provide the opportunity for a very profound experience if the time is used to prepare, to reflect, to grow in patience and self-understanding, and to ultimately connect with God.

The close of the holiday season and the return to life’s routine is in some ways a sad time. However, the most important loss is perhaps ceasing the intentional preparation for what we intend to do. Paying attention to what I intend to do takes on greater importance tomorrow more than perhaps any time thus far in my life. Because all my time has been focused on Advent and the preparation for Christmas over the last six weeks, I hadn’t really thought about how important the choices I will make in the coming days will be. For the first time since starting my career in 1973, I have broader choices to make about how to use my time. Sure, we have choices in our work and careers but in some ways the choices we make outside of our work are the most important decisions we face.

Qatar taught me many things about the worth and dignity of all people, about sacrifice, and about hope in the face of challenging odds. There were so many people I encountered who were in Qatar because they had no other choice in order to feed their families. More often than not, these friends made a choice for hope and constantly had a positive outlook that was humbling. I cherish these memories and look forward to making choices to contribute to those around me here in Chicago and for those who are scattered across so many other nations who are striving for opportunity.

I will strive to live by the lesson of Advent this year, of my return to the U.S., and of the message we heard at church today – intentional preparation for spiritual encounter, for career, and for service to others requires being aware of the constant choices we have to make.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Repatriation - one week later

It seems strange to know that I've been back in the U.S. for a full week now. Strange because it feels as if I've been here forever but also strange because the experience of living in Qatar is always on my mind. The unnerving part of this strangeness is that I frequently catch myself thinking that I will return to Doha. Simple things like buying something at a store and immediately wanting to make sure we take delivery before I have to return. And then I realize I'm not returning. Besides these moments of realization, I've been very busy settling back into our home, taking delivery of my shipment, and placing things around our home that were part of my life in Doha.

I've actually been surprised throughout the last week that I've had relatively few moments of remorse about leaving Doha. I assume it is because I was so excited to get home to be with Diane and the rest of the family. What I miss most about Doha are the people with who I interacted on a daily basis. Everyone from my work colleagues to security staff, cleaning staff, trainers and workout friends in the fitness room - I miss them all and have moments when I simply long to see them and exchange good wishes.

The funniest part of my return occurred the first night back. I went to bed early after the 14+ hour flight and woke up at 1:30 a.m Chicago time. My mind was racing on all sorts of things from work-related, to acclimating to Chicago, to things I wanted to do. Obviously, 1:30 a.m. was not a time that I could ask Diane to get up to talk or for me to go to the piano for a little practice. I knew I couldn't get back to sleep so I decided to start a list of things on my mind. Well, seven pages of hand-written notes later, I had a full list of tasks I want to dive into, ways I want to influence U.S. higher education, places I want to go, and volunteer/enrichment activities I want to pursue in retirement. After Diane got up 5 hours later, she asked me what I had been doing. What exploded from me was a bit overwhelming and later when I described the scene to Devin (oldest daughter) she commented that maybe I should consider taking my foot off the accelerator!

I plan to keep track of how things unfold over the next weeks and months through my blog. Understanding the process of repatriating is as important as understanding how expatriate choose to work abroad and how they engage the experience. Thus far, repatriation and reverse culture shock seem to be less of a hurdle than I anticipated.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

One week left

Over the last couple of months I began the logistical and emotional journey of repatriating to the U.S. after seven years in Qatar. Since this isn’t only a journey to a different place but a journey to a different way of being, I haven’t really known what to expect. As of this last weekend, the logistics are pretty much in place – had a garage sale, sold the car and piano, and completed the preparation for shipping my belongings. I still have the processes of cancelling my residence permit, clearing my ville, arranging bank closure, and a couple of other things but the week is manageable.

The emotional journey has been a mix of everyday life coupled with occasional moments where I suddenly react, “Oh, this is the last…” Because I am so excited about being back with my family, the idea of not seeing some of my friends and colleagues here has not been bad but I anticipate that, as the time nears, I am likely to struggle.

An odd emotional moment occurred in bidding farewell to my piano on this last Friday morning. I had to leave early to participate in a student leadership development desert challenge so I left my ville key with the family who bought the piano, allowing them to pick up the piano whenever they could. As I was waiting to be picked up at 7:30 a.m., I played several Rachmaninoff pieces, ending with the Rachmaninoff Prelude IV, Op. 23, No. 4. The Prelude IV was the first piece I picked up when I began to get serious about practicing again so it has a special meaning to me as the invitation to what has been a rediscovery of music in my life.

The Prelude IV, Op. 23, No. 4 concludes with a last crescendo from pianissimo to mezzo forte, a silent (and in my interpretation prolonged) pause, and a very simple a-major 7th chord resolving into d-major. My body reacts to this final phrase by gradually releasing a deep and long breath as the last crescendo rises. Then my body automatically draws in a quick a renewing breath in the pause and then releases a final exhale as the final two chords resolve quietly in a never- ending and peaceful silence. The notes and the entire experience of breathing with the music are a relief to my body and my heart. I hope that the little piano that gave me so much pleasure understood what I was saying…

I have been so privileged to work in Qatar, to discover worlds I never imagined, and to rediscover music as a central part of my life. Many, many years ago I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist but the pressure of performance made me too nervous to play my best when performing for others; thus, I moved to higher education. The journey of higher education has been incredible and fulfilling, ending with this last crescendo in Qatar. Perhaps, I’ll have a last crescendo with music when I return to be with Diane, the girls, our sons-in-law, and little Reese…

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reeves - Brookings Institute paper on the American dream

Analysis and concern over the impact of the growing disparity of opportunity and income in the U.S. is addressed in Reeve's Brookings Institute paper.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Maximizing participation - in all ways

Pursuing leadership is about understanding leadership from a variety of perspectives.  Lately I've become more curious, and concerned, about economic and political leadership because of what I fear is a dangerous trend of growing privilege held by few and maintained/exaggerated by an oligarchy of political influence.  Before pointing any fingers, I own that I am privileged by comparison to many in the world.  I also want to assert that there isn't anything wrong with wealth, as long as it came deservedly to those who work hard, innovate, and contribute to the public good while privately benefiting from their effort.  It is isolated and protectionist wealth that concerns me.

Nick Hanauer refers to himself as a plutocrat who was lucky by birth, experience, and opportunity.  And he warns his fellow plutocrats that "trickle-down economics" never has, nor will, work and that maximizing participation for those who are not part of the plutocracy is the only way to create sustainable prosperity for all. He's the one who is advocating for an increase in minimum wage so that more people can have the means to spend into an economy that can grow.  He owns that he makes 1,000 times the average worker and then makes the logical assertion that there is no way he could spend all he has.  The only way to increase economic vitality is to spread wealth, rather than holding it and using it in ways that exacts "rent" from those who are not so privileged.

Responses to Nick Hanauer's TED talk have been mixed, with one criticism in Forbes being very strong.  The claim is that Hanauer's analysis is shallow and more about taxation than economic participation.  It's probably worth reviewing both perspectives.

I plan to come back to this topic after finishing Joseph Stiglitz' The Price of Inequality.  Stiglitz makes many of the same points as Nick Hanauer but with more evidence.  Once I finish my reading, I'll again post my thoughts on maximizing participation as a critical and necessary part of economic and political leadership in today's world.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Morgan - Lost History

I was so enthused after reading Michael Morgan's Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists (2007) that I searched for other reviews to make sure I wasn't missing something - I didn't so I heartily encourage readers to dig in for an introduction to a different view of Islam than is perpetuated in most contemporary media.  Morgan provided meticulous and authoritative documentation in this resource for those who want to understand Islam, its emergence, history, and movement throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

Each major segment of the book is introduced with a contemporary (21st century) story and then reflects back to the historical period related to that example.  The first example of this was in Chapter 1, “Rome’s children.”  The contemporary context was a family outing in Tours, in the Loire Valley of France.  The family, originally Moroccan and now living in France, had no idea that Tours was the site where much of the Muslim world’s technology advantage was transferred to Europe.  An early settlement in Roman Gaul, Tours was where Christian forces, led by Charles Martel, encountered the highly developed organization and technology of advancing Muslim military forces.  Against all odds, the Christian forces persevered and were the beneficiaries of Muslims leaving their devices and armaments behind as they fled in the night.  These abandoned resources would first be adopted in the military but would also spur other technology advances never before seen in Europe.

One of the most revealing aspects of Lost History is its tracking of the various groups within Islam.  Particularly of interest in this time of conflict between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq, Morgan traces the slaughter of the Umayyad (predecessor of Sunni) Caliphate in Damascus at the hands of the Abbasid (predecessor of Shiite) Caliphate which would result in Damascus being abandoned and the Umayyad starting their great center for learning and culture in Cordoba, Spain, and the Abbasids doing the same in Baghdad.  The Umayyad legacy will include support of the Christians of Spain who would become the linguists translating Latin, Greek and Hebrew classics into Arabic as well Jews fleeing Visigoth persecution who would become the traders and financiers for their Muslim protectors.

The twists and turns that resulted in shifting centers for the Muslim world ultimately may have contributed to the advancement of Islamic learning and innovation.  Even though the conflicts destroyed many things, each time conflict arose, new centers emerged as knowledge and inquiry unfolded in mathematics, astronomy, geography, music, and medicine.  The revival of Lost History that Morgan recounts documents that much of the base on which European advancement was built was derived from the major centers of learning and advancement of the Muslim world.  The only thing that obscured this contribution was the Anglicization of names that Europeans could not pronounce, denying the real benefactors their rightful place in intellectual history.

Although Lost History charts many conflicts and battles both within Islam as well as across other religions (most notably Judaism and Christianity), there have been multiple voices within Islam that declared the importance of inter-faith understanding and cooperation, including the Prophet Muhammad himself.  Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, declared in mid-13th century (page 243):
In the adorations and benedictions of righteous men
The praises of all the prophets are kneaded together,
All their praises are mingled into one stream,
All the vessels are emptied into one ewer.
Because He that is praised is, in fact, only One.
In this respect all religions are only one religion.
Because all praises are directed toward God’s Light,
These various forms and figures are borrowed from it.

The last chapter, “Enlightened Leadership,” is particularly poignant in advocating a view of leadership that most leadership educators today would quickly endorse.  It gives credit for the many advancements in knowledge and understanding throughout the period so heavily influenced by Islam to a vision of leadership based on “democratic behavior, consensus building, conflict resolution and responsiveness to public opinion.” (page 254)  Abu Bakr, the first Caliph to follow the Prophet Muhammad, left a legacy of “humility, compromise, incorruptibility, and a dedication to charity and public welfare” (page 255) that would shape the faithful practice of Islam for the 7th century as well as today.

Lost History was not only an informative read but it stimulated deep hope that Islam’s future will unfold to embrace the intellectual vigor, commitment to peaceful coexistence, and humble leadership that have echoed among its Muslim brothers and sisters over the ages.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Kellerman - The End of Leadership

“while the leadership industry has been thriving – growing and prospering beyond anyone’s early imaginings – leaders by and large are performing poorly, worse in many ways than before, miserably disappointing in any case to those among us who once believed the experts held the keys to the kingdom.”  A pretty sobering assessment of the impact of the work of educators, consultants, coaches, and institutions which over the last 40 years dedicated considerable time and resources to leadership learning.  Is Kellerman on target in her End of Leadership (2012) or was the book intended as provocation for serious questions that will improve the field?

Kellerman’s perspective isn’t only about the ineffectiveness of leadership programs but it is also about disillusionment with government and business, the academy and in the professions, and even religion.  As a result of failures in leadership in so many areas, the esteem in which leaders used to be held has eroded and for some evaporated.  “Power and influence have continued to devolve from the top down – those at the top having less power and influence; those in the middle and at the bottom having more.  For their part, followers, ordinary people, have an expanded sense of entitlement – demanding more and giving less.”  The point – focusing on the heroic role of leader is not effective, or practical, in the 21st century and the importance of followers, or collaborators, has become much more important – especially as an antidote to bad leadership.

I have been a great fan of Kellerman’s work and have cited her widely in my writing, especially in Deeper Learning in Leadership.  I embrace her perspective as a challenge that all need to hear.  Her recommendations include, “the leadership industry must, at a minimum, make four changes.  It must end the leader-centrism that constricts the conversation.  It must transcend the situational specifics that make it so myopic.  It must subject itself to critical analysis.  And it must reflect the object of its affection – change with the changing times.”  Things aren’t good and we appear not to be making progress in cultivating good leadership and followership.  However, I wish she had included reference in The End of Leadership to the work of student affairs educators who, in many ways, have embraced the values and perspective she advocates from the very beginning of their work in leadership learning. 

The omission of student affairs as part of the “leadership industry” may be a good thing considering Kellerman’s critique.  However, the student affairs programs deserve both the same recognition and critique that Kellerman delivered to the rest of the industry.  Kellerman has been aware of student affairs at least from 1998 forward when she chaired and  I attended the first conference of what would eventually become the International Leadership Association.  The first conference was focused on the scholarship of leadership; it was very exciting but I made the point to Kellerman at the close of the meeting that there was an entire cadre of student affairs staff who had been involved in leadership learning for quite some time.  She was very responsive and asked me if I would help to draw them into the organization.  I was delighted at her response and proceeded to tap the network of student affairs people to get them involved the next year.  The influx of student affairs people the next year boosted the attendance and led to the creation of the “Leadership Educator” interest group that has provided the structure for member involvement since that time.

The End of Leadership is a compelling and eye-opening indictment that 40+ years of leadership learning efforts in all sectors has failed!  All those who are interested in leadership and followership should heed Kellerman’s provocative critique and should double-down to make certain that these efforts are worthy of both critique and accolade.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Molinsky - Global Dexterity

Although intended as a resource for expatriate workers, Molinsky’s Global Dexterity (2013) proposes a model that can be used for a variety of purposes – understanding the cultural differences among international students, affirming colleagues whose way of interacting is shaped by their family culture, or navigating cross-border educational initiatives.  Molinsky’s approach is based on his own fascination with the expatriate worker experience as well as research, consulting and coaching he has done to help workers in foreign settings acquire the adaptive responses to allow them to be effective.  The “global dexterity” model is not a developmental sequence of growing understanding, as some other cultural development models propose; instead it is a very intuitively understandable model that allows the “foreigner” to diagnose an environment, discern what is different about the new environment, and find an adaptive approach that maintains the guest’s authenticity and values while increasing the potential of being effective in a “different” place.  As an expatriate worker with a short experience in Europe and a longer period in Qatar, I found the model very useful in reflecting on the various cultures I have encountered.

The “global dexterity” model has a six-dimensional framework that includes; directness, enthusiasm, formality, assertiveness, self-promotion, and personal disclosure.  While there are certainly other clues one might use to understand another culture, including low/high context, physical space and power/SES consciousness, the six dimensions are very revealing.  The diagnosis stage using the model involves determining if the culture one is visiting is high or low on each of the six dimensions.  As just one example from the Arab world using the first dimension of directness, Westerners (particularly Americans) tend to be very direct in their communication, making statements or making requests in very specific and direct ways.  So, if someone had something you liked, an American would say, “I really like that – I wish I could have one like it.” The statement was direct but, in America, the other person would not likely offer it as a gift.  By contrast in the Arab world, indirectness is valued, most often as a way of avoiding embarrassing or putting the other in a difficult place.  So instead of being so direct in offering a compliment, the world “mish’Allah,” which means “God has blessed you with this,” always follows the compliment.  The reason - if one doesn’t say mish’Allah, the other person is culturally obligated to give it to you.  This is a form of indirectness that is highly valued.  Indeed, gifts are part of the culture of hospitality and visitors are often overwhelmed by these gestures.  However, the gifts are to be given freely and generously without any expectation of return.

The dilemma that Molinsky explains is that there are three core psychological challenges as foreigners attempt to adapt to a different cultural environment.  The first is authenticity, the second, competence, and the third resentment.  When trying to modify one’s behavior, even when we know we might be more effective if we adapted, the new behaviors don’t initially feel authentic, sometime they are delivered in clumsy ways, and some people just plain resent having to adapt.  These psychological obstacles have to be overcome in order to adapt in ways that will allow one to have dexterity in adapting to other cultures.

Molinsky’s book is deceivingly simple, most likely as a way to appeal to a wider audience beyond academics.  However, the reader should not be lulled into thinking this is a pop-psych book without substance.  The author has degrees from Columbia and Harvard but does not make his academic credentials the central feature of his credibility.  Global Dexterity stands on its own, with a heuristic model that can be very helpful, tools to use for analysis, many examples, and recommendations for how to walk the path of becoming a person of global dexterity.  His last piece of advice - “customizing your perceptions around cultural adaptation is quite simple: embrace the new culture’s logic.  Don’t just change how you behave: change how you think.”  From my experience, truer words have seldom been uttered when seeking to be a more effective global citizen.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Goodwin - Bully Pulpit

Double-biography, political history, leadership study, romance and the struggle of progressive journalism and governance all wrapped into one.  Doris Kearns Goodwin hits it out of the ballpark with Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.

As a renowned author and scholar of the American Presidency, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest presidential study is of two presidents who were great friends and colleagues before they served as successive Presidents.  Teddy Roosevelt was fascinating for his courage as an American aristocratic who turned away from his conservative roots and colleagues to champion his “Square Deal.”  This progressivism was spawned by the extreme gap between rich and poor arising from the Industrial Revolution.  Roosevelt had observed the rise of the likes of J.P. Morgan, Nelson Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and others who gobbled up the wealth emerging from America’s innovations and new productivity.  Faced with the conservatism of the dominant Republican machine of the day, one purchased by special interest elites, he fashioned a new kind of presidency – one that relied on going to the people for moral authority by engaging the media, particularly McClure’s Magazine, to “muckrake” the misdeeds of the rich and powerful.  Hearty by comparison to all those who preceded and succeeded him, he was loved by the public for his honesty, decisiveness, willingness to challenge the dominant conservative message, and dedicated to serving the common man.

While I knew more about Roosevelt before starting this book, I grew to respect Taft for many of the positive things he achieved.  He was the first Governor General of the Philippines and was profoundly influential in establishing its government after the Spanish-American War of 1899.  As President, he was also extremely effective as an executive engaging with legislators to pass important legislation.  He was one of the most likable of American Presidents, although his struggle with weight control is more often noted than his affable personality.  His wife, Nellie, much more socially and politically ambitious than Edith Roosevelt, was a great partner, establishing cultural programs in the U.S.A. (founding the Cincinnati Symphony) and the Philippines and creating Potomac Park and the legendary cherry blossoms that remain today.  Unfortunately, she was devastated by multiple strokes that prohibited her from fully engaging during the formative, and more difficult, years of Taft’s Presidency.  Ultimately, Taft’s dream, and most likely his most effective service in leadership, was when he was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during the subsequent Harding Presidential years.

So popular as President that he considered, and the public perhaps wanted him to pursue, a third term, Roosevelt demurred and threw his full support to his close and trusted colleague, William Howard Taft.  Embarking on a year-long safari immediately after leaving the Presidency, Roosevelt returned to an adoring populace who loved the substance and image of Teddy, a man with a ballooning ego that would be his undoing.  Once in office, William Howard Taft attempted to sustain the Roosevelt legacy of progressivism but struggled to advocate a new role for government that would still retain the essential elements of constitutional law.  This tension ultimately resulted in Taft making decisions that his mentor began to question and eventually openly challenged.  In some ways the most illuminating portion of Bully Pulpit was the period when Roosevelt came out against Taft and ultimately ran against him when Taft sought his second term.  As a reader who had grown to like the Roosevelt character very much, I was saddened by seeing an ego grow so big that Roosevelt was literally willing to risk everything – his popularity, legacy, dignity and ultimately one of the best true friends he had ever had – William Howard Taft.  The period of the Roosevelt/Taft story when Roosevelt broke from the Republican Party to form the Bull Moose Party is profoundly sad in its impact on both men.  It’s hard to determine which is sadder – the loss of the progressive movement or the destruction of a deep friendship.

Regardless of the turmoil between these two Presidents, first deep and then divided friends, the progressive politics of Roosevelt and Taft would “continue to influence American politics for years to come,” with passage of the progressive income tax, popular election of senators, and women’s right to vote unfolding as part of their legacy.  In the final pages, I found myself cheering along with the diners at the Blackstone Hotel who witnessed the historic restoration of the Roosevelt/Taft friendship when Taft  crossed the room to a small table by the corner window exclaiming, “Theodore!  I am glad to see you.”  A journalist who witnessed it said, “recognizing the significance of the meeting, the chamber erupted into applause” so raucous that it could be heard in the hotel lobby.

Bully Pulpit should be read by any serious student of leadership.  It captures courage, bravado, conviction, folly, loyalty, sacrifice, steadiness, disgrace, forgiveness and much more.  Goodwin provides wonderful illustrations of the best and worst of leadership and all of it is portrayed with the compassion of an author who fully grasps the crucible of leadership.  After drawing so much insight from this wonderful book, I am left with only one question – the question of timing.  When I reflect on Goodwin’s choice to publish Bully Pulpit now, I can’t help but wonder if her intent was to shed light on America’s recent plunge and slow recovery from economic chaos borne of exploitive economic practices that are so similar to the conditions of the early 20th century.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dyja - The Third Coast

Chicago has an amazing history, one justifying the term used by Thomas Dyja for the title of his book The Third Coast. Chicago is equally important to any of the other big and notable cities of America’s east or west coasts. Among its many distinctions are its architecture, cultural neighborhoods, arts institutions, music (blues, soul, and classical), and institutions created by iconic personalities (Kroc, Oprah, Hefner, Alinsky, Disney).

The more I read the more I see relationships among the things I read and other experiences I’ve had in life. In the case of The Third Coast, I was amazed to find references to the significant role John Dewey played when he and Robert Maynard Hutchins were battling over educational purposes/philosophy at the University of Chicago. Dewey’s early academic career was spent as the founder of its philosophy department, although he moved on to Columbia University for his more formative years. With his focus on pragmatism and direct experience, Dewey’s views quickly took hold in Chicago and influenced other disciplines, including architecture. However, it was Hutchins’ vision for the University, one advocated by the industrial era giant John D. Rockefeller, which had probably the greatest immediate impact. The University of Chicago, with its imposing Gothic architecture, was classically disconnected from its surrounding community from its early days. This “standing apart” would come to exemplify the Ivory Tower metaphor so often used in relation to broader higher education.

I was further amazed by reference to Walter Gropius who, along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, so heavily influenced Chicago architecture in mid-20th century. Gropius was a German architect and head of the Harvard University architecture program and credited with founding modern architecture, a style unique at the time for its simplicity, integration of multiple artistic perspectives, and reliance on studio team work. Many of the buildings in Chicago reflect the sensibility of modernism that now distinguishes its skyline. One missed opportunity was Walter Gropius’ 1922 proposed design for the Chicago Tribune building. Had this design been accepted rather than the neo-Gothic design proposed by Raymond Hood (designer of Rockefeller Center in NYC), Chicago might have looked quite different. Hood’s design was subsequently heavily criticized for its departure from the emerging Chicago-School that characterizes much of Chicago’s current skyline. A fascinating sidebar about Gropius was that he married Alma Mahler after Gustav Mahler’s death in 1911.

One of Chicago’s greatest contributions resulted from its being a haven for Blacks fleeing the oppression of racism in the South. Chicago had its own Black Renaissance (mirroring Harlem of NYC) of literary and musical figures. The music of Tommy Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and Muddy Waters profoundly influenced popular music in mid-20th century. Unfortunate that Chicago didn’t protect “Bronzeville,” home of the Mecca apartments that were replaced during the urban regeneration advocated by the city’s elites.

Of course Richard J. Daley is referenced throughout many sections of The Third Coast; credited with both building Chicago during critical years of growth as well as for the machine politics that would serve special interests, and result in Chicago’s other popular name - the “Windy City.” Other personalities had an impact on media through the Chicago TV method, shows like Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, the Dave Garroway Show, Studs Terkel, and Ebony Magazine.

I’m only beginning to know Chicago and The Third Coast is perhaps not the most positive way to get acquainted. However, the book provides incredible thick history that will help me be a more informed citizen. Dyja’s pride in his work and Chicago as a city is reflected in the closing pages.  "The city survived, and in many ways it thrives - today it stands as one of the world's most powerful markets, competing with London, Paris, and Hong Kong, and its theater and architecture are the nation's finest, its tech business growing, its chefs renowned.  Neighborhoods have been reclaimed and gentrified by the grandchildren of those who abandoned them."

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Gladwell - David and Goliath

I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books so jumped into another - David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). While the premise of the book was appealing, it wasn’t new and didn’t reflect the counter-intuitive sensibility that Gladwell’s earlier books offered. However, the premise, that little guys can succeed if they don’t succumb to playing the game the “big guys” do, is one that those interested in empowering leadership will want to support.

The book started by reinterpreting the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Instead of the threatening Goliath that is typically conjured in our imaginations, Gladwell’s Goliath is a lumbering figure, burdened with confining armor, and led by hand because his vision is so poor he can’t find his own way. Goliath the giant is not only disadvantaged by his size and awkwardness but faced a formidable opponent in David, the youthful and excellent marksman with a sling-shot capable of piercing a scull as effectively as a bullet. Goliath didn’t have a chance as David approached him in the valley between the armies of the Philistines and Israelites!

Gladwell’s retelling of David and Goliath, and several other examples throughout history, proposed that many of the things that appear to make others strong may actually be points of weakness. This reality was frighteningly confirmed by the political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft who analyzed warfare between big and little states and found that, when weaker sides fight with unconventional tactics, the weaker parties prevailed in approximately 2/3 of the conflicts. He cited T.E. Lawrence (the subject of Lawrence in Arabia that I recently read) as one example among many where the weaker party won by using unconventional tactics.

Gladwell’s thesis partially relied on the “inverted U” principle, one that suggested that strategies that work in one setting might not work in another. Applied to school performance, some educators believe that lower class size results in improved student success. However, he cited research suggesting that, while school performance improves as class size goes down to the mid-20s, it actually declines if class size falls below the 20 students to 1 teacher ratio. At the university level, the common belief that student performance improves in highly select institutions is contradicted by the fact that strong performers (above average) actually have less positive experiences in elite universities rather than in places where good performers are allowed to blossom among other students of similar ability and motivation.

The other important principle that Gladwell advocated through explanation of cases all the way from Londoners’ survival during the WWII Nazi Blitz to the success of entrepreneurs with learning disabilities to U.S. civil rights advocates’ defeat of Southern resistance in the 1950s and 1960s was that, for many individuals, facing and conquering a challenge resulted in greater strength, creativity, hard work, and exhilaration in tackling other challenges. A quote that captured the idea is “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”

All in all, the “take away” lessons from Gladwell’s David and Goliath were; a) what appears as strength may be a weakness ready to be exploited, b) an effective strategy in one setting could be useless in another (or, more is not always better), and c) being the underdog can cultivate strength that will make you a champion in other circumstances. Cap these three off with d) the fact that the abuse of power by people with apparent superior power can lead to the demise of their legitimacy as well as foster greater defiance, and we have a recipe for a very different kind of world than one controlled by Goliaths.

As other reviews I’ve read in The Independent, NY Times, New Republic, and Wall Street Journal indicate, the lessons Gladwell illuminates are not new and they actually reflect perspectives that many of his readers already embrace. Gladwell’s trick is spinning the stories so readers see themselves as championing unconventional views while selling one more book for Gladwell and his publishers.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rusbridger - Play it again

Play it again is Alan Rusbridger’s revelatory account of how he simultaneously disciplined himself to become a better pianist while managing the very difficult job of serving as editor of the Guardian newspaper (UK). Rusbridger’s discoveries about discipline and artistic expression in music were interspersed with the unfolding Julius Assange and Wikileaks story as well as the News of the World's (now defunct Murdoch tabloid) cell phone hacking and bribery of public officials scandal; both of these could have been stories on their own. Play it again will captivate musicians and journalists but the detail Rusbridger includes on both of these topics may not be of as much interest to others. For those interested in leadership, there are plenty of lessons about how people interact, how aspiration shapes our experience, and how the pursuit of art can be critical to managing the stressful challenges of leadership.

Rusbridger described his journey of renewing his piano skills as one of discovering glowing embers under grey ashes. He had training in his youth but did not take himself seriously enough to achieve the level of skill that he wanted. Mid-life reconsideration drew him back to attempt to recapture his musical ability and take it further. While he might have done it through other pieces, Rusbridger attempted to master one of the more difficult piano pieces in the entire keyboard repertoire – Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. Jumping to the end of the story, after almost eighteen months of practice, Rusbridger was able to competently play the Ballade for a small assemblage of friends, an experience that ended up being profoundly affirming. It also convinced him that we can always learn, sometimes more effectively than we think, and that there is just as much purpose for amateur pianists (those who perform for the love of music) to be diligent and careful as there is for professionals. In fact, Rusbridger suggested, and other musicians confirmed, that skilled amateurs may actually be able to “reach” their listeners as well or better than professionals.

Rusbridger didn’t only renew his commitment to practicing piano, he built a music studio onto his home and furnished it with the prize of all professional or serious amateur pianists – a Steinway grand. As he pursued his lessons, he identified several important principles for those who wish to play artistically. For all pianists, discipline is absolutely essential but this technical ability has to be complemented by musicality, or the ability to interpret and bring the story of each piece of music to life. Beyond musicality, the other challenges that aging musicians often encounter are finger speed and dexterity, and then memory.

In relation to memory, Rusbridger provided fascinating scientific details, details that helped to describe both the challenges and successes I’ve encountered in mastering specific compositions. The problem with more complicated pieces of music is that the notes either come so fast or the span of your hands across the keyboard is so wide that you have trouble glancing at the manuscript to keep track of where you are. The only answer to this is memorization or at least enough recall of the notes that you can play while only glancing at the printed music as a reminder. Rusbridger provided incredible relief to those of us who are aging when he shared the process of locking musical pieces into procedural memory, ready for artistic and natural access as long as the distractions around us (work, family, health), or the anxiety and fear (enabled by episodic memory) of performance, do not come in the way. The answer which will from hereafter free me to play – both technically and musically – is to complete the hard work of analysis, identifying the nuance of a piece and fingering it in ways that help me to master and remember it, and then play the music for the art of expression and with any audience (if there is one) only incidental to the moment of creation.

Rusbridger’s book struck so many common chords (pun intended) for me. Living in Qatar has exacted many very difficult sacrifices for my family and me. Although it has been great to live abroad, being away from family has been very difficult, especially after Darbi left. My embers under the grey ashes ahve been sparked by the discipline of playing piano every morning before work and for many hours on weekends. The dedication and discipline of adulthood has allowed me, like Rusbridger, to incorporate expressing myself artistically through the piano in ways that are now deeply gratifying. Rusbridger captured the essence of amateur musicianship by quoting Charles Cooke's Playing the piano for pleasure, “Too many students study music with the view to becoming great virtuosi, but the place of music in the life of the amateur pianist should be, as I see it, important but not all-important; a source of pleasure in the work done and in the results achieved.”