Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Adeney - Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World

During my work abroad I frequently sought research and publications about the expatriate work experience. With expatriates from many different countries and with a variety of educational backgrounds, one of our biggest concerns at Qatar Foundation was identifying the right people and helping them to adopt a style of intercultural engagement that would be effective. I recently joined a local church reading group that dove into Bernard Adeney’s Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World. Although the book was written by a theologian who was writing for missionaries and others working or serving abroad in faith-based groups, Adeney’s writing shed light on a number of things worth considering in relation to traveling, living, working and ministering abroad.

One of the core challenges with expatriates or visitors from the West is that most are actually much less aware of the world beyond their Western borders although they generally believe they are more aware than everyone else. This lack of understanding then leads to Westerners ignoring how their own cultural perspectives influence their ideas, lifestyles, and ultimate virtue. In cultural settings where degrees of honesty and forthrightness, deference to hierarchy, voicing opposition, or advocating for social justice vary from Western sensibility, the lack of awareness about the origin of these beliefs is particularly important. Effectiveness in another culture starts with humility and curiosity and develops through dialogue and true encounter.

Adeney advocated finding a local cultural advisor as one of the best ways to understand another culture. Authentic cultural understanding offers the opportunity for expatriates/visitors to adopt the truth of her/his host as their own. A beautiful song shared in a sermon given by our church’s South Korean ministerial intern captures this sentiment:
I want my mind to go where your mind goes.
I want my tears to be where your tears drop.
I want my sight to see whom your sight sees.
I want my steps to give compassion to whom you love.
I want to understand your heart, so all my plans may be your plans.
I want to know your heart, so all my life will be a sacrifice for you.
What is interesting about the song is that it could be interpreted as a statement of a believer to his/her God or it could be interpreted as a statement of the relationship one has with a deep and abiding friend, the kind of friendship inspired by appreciation, respect, and faith.

Several cross-cultural communication models were included in Adeney’s book. None of these represented break-through thinking especially by comparison to newer models such as Molinsky’s cultural dexterity approach. He did indicate how important it is for expatriates/visitors to realize that communication and work efficiency are likely to decline in working/visiting abroad. Some expatriates eventually begin to resent the countries and the nationals with whom they work; Adeney explained that this may be the outcome of culture fatigue and may even end up in chronic unhappiness that only gets worse with time.

While much of Adeney’s book deals with theological and religious questions across cultures, the core of his advice is consistent with other research and theories I’ve read as well as reasonably reflective of my own experience. The bottom line to remember is that expatriates/visitors should seek to understand themselves through the eyes of their hosts which will shine a light on “very personal issues of lifestyle and very private matters of finance, family relations and personal integrity” that influence how they are perceived as strangers in another culture.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Malkin - Rethinking Narcissism

I picked up Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad – and Surprising Good – about Feeling Special (2015) primarily because of the emerging research about on-line behavior, specifically the phenomenon of selfies. My bias as I began the book was clearly negative but Malkin’s research, practice as a clinician, and writing offered a much more balanced view.

Essentially, narcissism is a way of making oneself feel special – it’s that simple. Seeking to be ‘special’ is a necessary coping system in a world where we are all seeking a sense of identify and self-worth. Healthy narcissism can lead to being happier, more fulfilled, and more productive in life.

The term narcissism comes from the ancient Greek fable of Echo and Narcissus. In the story, Narcissus is a handsome young man who grows obsessed with his own reflection in the water, so obsessed that he ignores the adoration of others. To punish him, Nemesis condemns Narcissus to a life of unrequited friendship and love. Narcissus was extreme in rebuffing others and this is the kind of narcissism that Malkin identifies as problematic – obsession with oneself to the degree that there is no ability to empathize with others, no understanding of how one’s behavior impacts others, no ability to feel remorse, and a general penchant for manipulation.

Although gregarious narcissists can appear very self-assured and dominant, they are most often covering for the fear that lurks inside. Their bravado is a shield to keep them on their pedestal, on top of the world and feeling special.

Narcissists can pop up among lovers, children, work colleagues, acquaintances and elsewhere. One of the groups that is currently criticized for being narcissistic is Millennials, a characterization that Malkin rejects citing research that they are most often respectful of parents and elders, value marriage and family, self-confident, expressive and open to change – all traits that are very different from the typical narcissist. There is, however, a natural tendency for people under 25 to be more narcissistic, primarily due to youthful ambition and optimism. This temporary narcissism declines naturally with age. Frightening for us all is that a number of psychiatrists are now going public that front-runner Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, suffers from classic narcissism personality disorder.

Malkin’s book has many helpful insights. There is a self-assessment to determine where you are on the scale from echoists, to healthy narcissist, and to extreme, abusive and manipulative narcissist. The book also has chapters related to family, children, co-workers and others, each of which contains tips for spotting narcissists and figuring out what to do to respond to them. Because narcissists often suffer from insecure love and doubts about their own competence, they take out their bad feelings on others through bullying, cruelty, and dismissive gestures. The root of these behaviors is generally an extreme sense of entitlement. Malkin’s advice is to not overreact to narcissists negative behavior but, instead, recognize and nurture behaviors that reflect growing empathy, understanding, and care for others. In the workplace, focusing on the benefits of collaboration and understanding can be a path to discovering a new way of interacting with others. It’s basically a process of nudging the extreme narcissist toward more healthy narcissism that openly acknowledges fears, sadness, loneliness and other softer feelings.

Malkin explains that “anything that takes us further away from authentic relationships is more likely to feed narcissistic addiction. “ Specifically related to social media, spending lots of time viewing others’ profiles and posts can actually damage our own healthy narcissism. As we view how others want us to see them (which generally is all the good and none of the bad stuff), we end up feeling that our life is either average or inadequate, which drives us to post often, change our profile picture, and do other things that are centered on us. Malkin suggests that the best way to control our own and other’s potentially narcissistic urges is to “move from SoMe to SoWe,” meaning that we should seek genuine relationships and seek to find, and be ourselves, the kind of people who share not for purposes of shaping an image but for simply sharing the journey of life. In addition, sharing and pursuing passions that include a focus on caring and concern for others is key, resulting in narcissism that combines passion and compassion.

"At the heart of healthy narcissism is the capacity to love and be loved on a grand scale. People who live in the center of the spectrum don’t always take to the stage, but when they do, they often lift others up with them.”

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Naim - The End of Power

A month after a Russian plane was alleged to have been downed by an ISIS bomb, one day after Lebanon was also bombed, and less than 24 hours after multiple attacks in Paris the pundits will most likely start their tirade of blaming and politicians will begin the exploitation of the tragedy of others for their own advancement. Lest we fall prey to their spin, we need to look for the fuller, historic and contemporary conditions related to these atrocities. I offer no excuses, no blame, but search for understanding and I hope more and more true patriots of all countries will join together in finding solutions.

A book I recently read, The End of Power (Moises Naim, 2013), provided some insights that could be relevant to understanding terrorism and its impact on us all. Naim’s thesis is that the dynamics of power in our world have changed and that the change is irreversible. Whether talking about the power of military, institutions, politics, economics, or other systems, power is less accessible, harder to maintain, and more widely distributed than we’ve experienced in modern history. Naim proposes “that power is shifting from brawn to brains, from north to south, and west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile start-ups, from entrenched dictators to people in town squares and cyberspace.” The dynamic of elusive and changing power has set loose a process of power grabbing and manipulation that denies traditional power-holders the chance to control what is going on around us.

Our current ideas about power being vested in large, influential organizations and in individual leaders and governments came from the industrial era, a time when massification and bureaucracy were seen as the path to prominence, profit, and effectiveness. The End of Power proposes that power is different as a result of revolutions in three areas – more, mobility, and mentality. These three revolutions have resulted from the expansion of access to products and services worldwide (more), movement of people and ideas across borders (mobility), and the fact that now every person and institution is subject to challenge (mentality). These revolutions have broken down the former barriers to power that protected the privilege of the few who previously controlled them. In place of the controlling dictators or bureaucratic systems, the new order is defined by democratic processes, minority and factional groups, regional coalitions, and grass-roots movements.

Today, after Russia, Lebanon, and France have all been attacked by ISIS, we have to understand that believing in battle ships and drones ignores the ubiquitous and seemingly uncontrollable presence and action of violent, dispersed, and stealthful splinter groups. In Naim’s words, “The decay of power has changed the terms and the possibilities of conflict, increasing the influence of small, nonstate, and nontraditional players as the tools have generalized and the costs have tumbled.” Those in business also face a very different competitive world where advantage often goes to a smaller organization that can innovate without the encumbrance of approvals, traditions, and over-attention to the risk of brand. For those concerned with politics, it’s critical to understand that the paralysis observed in the U.S.A. and other “mature” democracies is largely the result of the same dynamics that have undermined power in the military and business – conflicting interests asserting their demands or product without regard for the impact for anyone else.

Naim compels us to name the change we are experiencing, understand its dynamics, and stop bemoaning the loss of privileged power that has trapped many of us in blind alleys. Those who continue to simplify what is going on to elementary levels have to be called out. The terrible simplifiers of our age offer simplistic and uninformed direction that may make us feel good (i.e. “Make America Great Again”) but sets us against each other. These simplifiers also exploit anyone with lower critical thinking insight or those whose identities are wrapped up in being victims. Once we join together in calling out the terrible simplifies, we need to work as citizen patriots to foster trust in each other and in people and systems that need our support.  This is the essence of renewed democracy as more citizens from many different perspectives begin to participate on our own ground rather than the platform offered to us by those who continue to perpetuate a form of power that is proving to be ineffective. “The undeniable positive consequences of the decay of power include freer societies, more elections and options for voters, new platforms for organizing communities, more ideas and possibilities, more investment and trade, and more competition among firms and thus more options for consumers.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

Skills + Experience + Environments = Innovation Capacity

In the 10+ years that I've maintained the Pursuing Leadership blog, I've returned to the issue of fostering innovation many times. I can only assume that my personal experience as a musician and work throughout my career to foster creativity has drawn me to this topic. At a time when most predictions are that innovation is fundamental for individuals, organizations, and countries that seek to successfully negotiate the rough waters of the 21st century, learning to nurture creativity is essential.

Deba Dutta addresses the question of innovation and creativity in the Inside Higher Education piece Educating to Innovate. While Dutta acknowledged that this research is preliminary and mostly reinforces intuitive understanding, the findings indicate three broad areas where attention is required - skills, experiences, and environments. One simple sentence struck me as critical but understated - "our colleges and universities provide transformative experiences, but often outside of the classroom." This important realization, coupled with the kinds of skills identified as important to innovation, provides direction that academic faculty and student development educators can embrace together. As Dutta indicates, "we found that innovators tend to have creativity, curiosity, deep knowledge of a field (invariably more than one), intellectual flexibility and the ability to think outside the box of a defined discipline. But we also found that they are generally risk takers who don't fear failure (although many emphasized that they don't like failure). They also are good at selling ideas -- a crucial skill for raising funds and building a team. Innovation is, after all, teamwork."

It's time to get to work - academic and student affairs together - to create the opportunities and environments that will prepare our students and future leaders to be innovators.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Catmull - Creativity, Inc.; Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration

Steve Jobs, while making his way through throngs of fans at the 79th Annual Academy Awards that would grant “Cars” its best animated feature film award, turned to colleague Ed Catmull, and remarked “What this scene really needs is a Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire.” Irreverent, funny (if you forgive Jobs for cultural insensitivity) and more – it was one of those comments that Jobs would say to a loyal colleague like Ed. And it is this kind of perspective taking that made Jobs so brilliant, visionary, and successful and allowed him to see, even at the Academy Awards, the potential for a greater spectacle.

With a new film coming out about Jobs in late October, I can’t imagine better preparation than Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. (2014) as a way to get a glimpse of how difficult Jobs could be but also how compassionate, creative, and engaging he could be as well.  Creativity, Inc. isn’t about Jobs but about Pixar, the organization he bought from George Lucas, nurtured through difficult times, and ultimately supported all the way to its great successes with Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and others.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more discerning book on the impact of organization climate on creativity and innovation. With innovation very much on the radar for advanced economies that are shifting their focus to services and quality of life, for-profit, not-for-profit, and educational organizations would do well to pay close attention to the story of Pixar – how it came to be, how its founders established the open culture that would support creativity, and how difficult it was to maintain this culture over the long haul.

Catmull and his colleagues founded Pixar with the goal of producing the first ever digitally animated film, a goal that was far beyond his or anyone else’s capability when they started on their journey. They created an organization that was partially about its physical space, one that eventually was characterized as Steve Jobs’ “movie,” but more importantly it was about how Pixar approached problems. As Catmull said about Pixar, “we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

Pixar had a different vision of itself. The staff “realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.” This culture would be characterized by avoiding confining rules, by candor, by assuming equality among all employees, by recognizing and pushing problems down to places where they can be solved,  and by adopting a framework that supports talent and excellence. And this kind of creative culture would be guided by leaders who were humble, recognized what they didn’t know, welcomed risk,  had the ability to suspend habits and impulses that had the potential to obscure their vision, and cultivated constant learning.

Creativity, Inc. brings great hope to those who seek to innovate by offering many practical examples and tips.  As one who sought to bring innovation to higher education in a number of ways (and I still do), I have frequently felt dismissed for seeing things differently than others. I’ve always understood that innovation by its nature is about change and that there will always be resistance to things that are outside the norm. Looking back on some experiences that I viewed as failures is difficult but Catmull helped me find dignity in striving when he said, “creative people discover and realize visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle.” Leaders who want their organizations to be more innovative need to realize that, “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.”

Monday, September 21, 2015

I knew Jake...

The accidental death of 34 year old Jake Brewer seems distant but so very close. I chanced to meet him at a conference 10 years ago, when I was just beginning to share ideas that eventually became the foundation for Deeper Learning in Leadership. In ways characterized by media in covering his life, I have rarely met someone with as much compassion and energy. I didn't know Jake well but connected and followed his meteoric rise to service. He is the personification of DLL and proof that presence, flow, and oscillation are keys to positive leadership.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Chicago - haven for retirement

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial on "Why you shouldn't retire to Chicago" took a humorous approach to pitching why Chicago is exactly the opposite - a great place to retire. As someone who isn't ready to hang it up - physically, intellectually, culturally - I had significant ambivalence about what retirement would look like. Thank goodness we chose to follow our kids to Chicago, wanting to be close to them as they started parenting but also believing that Chicago had the right combination of opportunities to make sure that we maintained an interesting and active life.

With this being the first full summer I've spent in Chicago, it's hard to believe how spectacular the weather has been and how busy we have stayed. Temps have remained at very reasonable levels and periodic rain has freshened the days and kept gardens pristine all summer. This has provided lots of opportunity to exercise outside, go to Lake Michigan beaches, and enjoy picnics at a concert or in our very own backyard. Entertaining Reese (our grand-daughter) is not difficult as you can see from her laughter as Aunt Darbi and Steve (Dad) teach her how to have fun in the water.

This post is not intended to invite one-upmanship of any type. It is simply to share the advantages of living in a city like Chicago when you have more time and freedom to do things you want to do. The "city" choice is one that many baby-boomers are more often making, evidenced by the many "grey hairs" we see at places we visit or events we attend. Whether it is the incredible museums (Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History, Cultural Center), art galleries (Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art), architecture (Chicago Architecture Foundation boat, bus, and walking tours to both 19th/20th century skyscrapers and contemporary buildings), Botanical Gardens, dance (Joffrey Ballet, Auditorium Theater), music (classical, jazz and pop readily available at venues such as Ravinia Festival, Symphony Hall, Pritzker Plaza), cultural neighborhoods or fun and trendy restaurants, there 's more to see in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs than anyone would be able to absorb in a lifetime.

These videos provide just a sampling of the musical life we've enjoyed this summer. The first is a Big Band performance at the Chicago Botanical Gardens:

Then there was the Ravinia Festival; we saw everything from Lady Gaga to the Chicago Symphony to the Piano Guys:

And the Chicago Jazz Festival at Grant Park (where we also saw a number of other performances) introduced us to a variety of jazz styles that helped us expand our musical horizon:

And, the last of the summer season outdoor concerts for us... Stars of Lyric Opera at Grant Park - here in the duet from Verdi's La Traviata:

Besides partaking of a vibrant and active city's cultural scene, Chicago offers reality. There are certainly issues of marginalized groups, poverty, or sub-standard housing that any city has. The thing that retirement allows us to do is to actually engage in trying to make a difference on these issues. The church we've joined is actively involved in children's and adult ministries, music, food pantry for those in need, and many other service/philanthropy initiatives. It's such a privilege to benefit from where you live while giving back at a time in life when we actually have the freedom to enjoy it.

The summer is coming to an end but the fall and winter will be easy to endure while remembering what a great summer we've had in our new home town. The fireworks began our summer and end this post - let there be more!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Zakaria - In Defense of a Liberal Education

One of the ongoing debates in higher education is whether or not liberal education is relevant in the modern day. Part of the problem is that liberal education comes with the baggage of privilege; one of the hallmarks of elite education in the 19th and early 20th century (which is maintained today) is that liberal learning was essential for those who came from privileged families where practical competencies and skills were not required in order to have a life of gainful employment and purpose.

Coming from an unexpected place, a young man who came to the U.S.A. as an international student from India where practical education (i.e. engineering, medicine, business) is the compelling (and sometimes only) goal of families, Fareed Zakaria provides the background of how his family came to accept his older brother’s study at Harvard and Fareed’s at Yale. Not only were Fareed and his brother bucking the family expectation of lucrative career preparation, they were pursuing education in America where, from an Indian family perspective, youth became disrespectful and disconnected as a result of the liberality of their learning and living environment.

Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) provided some background about liberal education over time and in the U.S.A., making the particular point that liberal education is both practical and philosophical. He also made the point that liberal education is often coupled with other experiences that take learning outside of the classroom. He quoted Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard historian, who wrote, “Book learning alone might be got by lectures and reading; but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted.” This mouthful, while antiquated in terminology, is hard to beat in terms of describing the holistic learning environment that research has found to be most powerful and that student development educators work so hard to create.

The challenge that Zakaria ultimately addresses by example is the perception among many that liberal education is just for elite, privileged individuals who have the luxury to study subjects that cannot possibly be relevant to most hard-working middle class students who attend mainstream public higher education  institutions. He challenges this perception with the example of the liberal arts and sciences model established in partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Zakaria characterizes the plan as radical and innovative in restoring “sciences to its fundamental place in an undergraduate’s education. It abolishes departments, seeing them as silos that inhibit cross-fertilization, interdisciplinary works, and synergy.” Like the Harvard curriculum idealized by Morison, the Yale-NUS liberal arts and sciences model includes “projects outside the classroom, in the belief that a ‘work’ component teaches valuable lessons that learning from a book cannot” and it adds to the body of knowledge that has been at the core of U.S.A. liberal education by restoring science to its proper place, combining core with open exploration, and incorporating knowledge of new countries and cultures as a central, rather than a peripheral, component of education.

I genuinely got excited about the type of learning advocated by Zakaria and hope that the 2011 Yale-NUS model of liberal arts and sciences takes off in Singapore and in other areas of the world where new ways of learning are being explored. This new kind of learning will be transformative in the way it combines various aspects of the student experience with math, science, and other subjects at the same time it focuses on the ultimate objective of fostering creativity, imagination, and innovation.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Arthur - Malevolent Muse: the Life of Alma Mahler

Alma Schindler Mahler (1879 – 1964) was to be wed to three of the great creative geniuses of the late 19th and early 20th century – Gustav Mahler (composer/conductor), Walter Gropius (architect), and Franz Werfel (writer). Beyond these three marriages, she also had relationships or affairs with many other men, taking pride in identifying men of promise and inspiring, urging, or taunting them to greatness - at least her diaries reflect this intent. Her life was beyond fascinating, attracting admiration from some and disdain from others but there is no question, she was constantly evolving and searching for her own place in the world.

The author of this biography (2015), Donald Arthur, does not spin a polite story. Characterized variously as superficial, narcissistic, impetuous, sexualized, and anti-Simetic, one might not expect Alma to attract a wide circle of friends; somehow these qualities were overlooked or may even have enticed many men who would be prominent artists. Alma was a survivor, having lost a beloved father, tolerating a disinterested step father (Carl Moll, one of the founders of the Secession movement in Vienna), romanced as a teen by Gustav Klimt (painter), and struggling throughout her life to be satisfied with any lover, no matter how dedicated they were to her.

I was left wondering if Alma’s life might have been different had her ambition been directed at her own creations rather than wrapped up in those she loved. I also wonder if her criticism and abuse of others might have been subdued had the times in which she grew up not been so tolerant of classicism and discrimination. Arthur described Alma as imperious, prone to jealousy, and haughty, all feigned to obscure her own insecurity.

Although Alma was only married to Gustav Mahler from 1901 to his death in 1911, she returned throughout her life to his name in order to command the social position she believed she warranted. Even in her final days in New York City, Leonard Bernstein would invite Alma to performances of Mahler’s symphonic works. Exploiting Mahler’s name and growing prestige while he was still alive, she complained that he did not recognize her musical talent, which by most accounts was modest. Although Mahler is now one of the most widely performed composers in the modern day, he had ups and downs during his years conducting the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan (NYC), and eventually the newly formed New York Philharmonic. The pinnacle - Mahler’s eventual reputation would command an astounding 1.5 million dollars for his last three years in New York City. Gustav Mahler left Alma a rich and prominent widow who would immediately pursue Walter Gropius with whom she had an affair while Gustav was still alive.

Oskar Kokoschka, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Wassily Kandinsky, Arnold Schonberg, Bruno Walter, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Eugene Ormandy, and others were all to encounter Alma Mahler. Their association with this complicated muse would aid some of their careers and others would only brush with the flame that had consumed others. Upon her death in 1964 the Washington Post would publish:
Alma Mahler-Werfel, 85, who was married to, or, by her own admission had love affairs with many of Europe’s great men in the early 1900s, was the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, and was called “the most beautiful woman in Vienna” at the turn of the century.

To have known so many, and influenced them through her social networks, must be counted for better or worse as a peculiar, and sometimes sinister, form of leadership. Alma Schindler Mahler rose to the top of elite circles and was intimate with giants of arts and culture most of us could only fantasize the chance to encounter.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Impact of economic inequality on Millennials

I continue to be fascinated and deeply concerned about the impact of economic inequality - both in the U.S.A. and world-wide. Business Insider looked specifically at Millennials' ability to purchase homes and found one characteristic in common - those purchasing homes had very rich parents who helped them. The article describes in essence three tiers - no, moderate and extreme privilege. Those with no economic privilege take out significant loans to finance their educations while those with moderate privilege attend university at little to no cost to them (scholarship or parents handle it). Once no and moderate wealth Millennials enter the work world, they find that owning a home (which is the dream for most of them) is out of reach as a result of high real estate costs coupled with the down payments required to begin home ownership. Those who qualify as "double lucky" have parents whose wealth affords debt-free education and allows them to launch their children into home ownership as well - this is 9% of the total college-attending Millennial population (which is less than 50% of the total and something less than 4.5% of the Millennial cohort).

The "funnel of privilege" that is described in this article confirms what Picketty and Stiglitz have already written. The difference is that it looks at the population that is entering the most productive periods of their lives and it paints a cloudy scenario for anyone outside the top, top strata of economic privilege. If something is not done to provide broader opportunity, stimulating economic vitality for the future will become even more difficult - an economic environment that pays not only for one's own family and living expenses but may also have to accommodate greater public spending on eroding infrastructure, retirement of their parents, and a flattening world economy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Humility and leadership

A repeated or imbedded theme in my exploration of leadership has been the importance of humility. The reason I've been fascinated with it is that the idea of humility may seem contradictory to many of the public models we see of leadership - the people who seem to seek visibility and iconography through their presumed acts of leadership. What may be confused here is notoreity versus leadership. If someone is visible and known, some people assume they are seeing leadership. I tend to think that, while visibility might come to someone exhibiting real leadership, it is not at all a distinguishing characteristic of those who are successful in leadership. Further, there is a possibility in my mind that those who seek visibility might be some of the more dangerous to follow, primarily because the pursuit of attention is likely to reflect a more deep-seeded insecurity that, when fed with adulation, could become very destructive.

My experiences of observing very simple and powerful leadership has drawn me to look more carefully at this idea of humility. A friend of mine uses the word "proudy" when referring to people who draw attention to themselves. In his culture and religious view, being "proudy" reflects a focus on self and a purpose that undermines the true spirit of leadership. A number of leadership models have emerged over the last 30+ years that suggest the importance of humility in leadership - servant leadership, the social change model, authentic leadership, connective leadership and the very important concerns that have been raised about bad leaders. These and other models help us to understand how a focus on others, both in persona and action, is a promising indicator of those worthy of our trust.

An amazing phenomenon is underway with the emergence of Donald Trump as a candidate for President of the U.S.A. in 2016. His numbers are rising in the polls, attributed by some media to his candor and the public's desire to hear direct and straight messages from their political leaders. While calling it as he sees it may be attractive to some, what Tump is actually saying is far more important. Trump's proclamation that "I'm very rich" and that his driving concern in the race is to reclaim America is very telling - and probably not an indication of humility.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Coelho - The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist has been around for quite some time but, for whatever reason, I just got around to reading the 25th anniversary edition (2014).  That it took me so long to discover The Alchemist is strange because of my previous use of the “Presence” model coupled with other ideas about how important it is to seek one’s own purpose (Coelho’s language is “personal legend”) in life as a way of exhibiting authentic leadership as well as living a fulfilling life. Reading Coelho’s words often felt so familiar that it seemed as if I had read the book before or that I was reading my own words.

The main character in The Alchemist is a shepherd who travels from his home in Andalusia (the region most influenced by Islam when it spread from the Middle East through Northern Africa and across the Mediterranean to Spain) across to Africa and eventually to the Great Pyramids of Egypt, only to return again to where he started in Andalusia. These are places that are familiar to me in culture, language, dress, religion and so many other ways – they are comfortable places with many beautiful people who have led difficult yet fulfilling lives, always striving for better ways to be in the world.

The shepherd boy meets an unassuming man early in the book; the man ends up being a wise king who reappears numerous times throughout the book but in different personages. The wise man challenges what he says is a common belief and repeated lie – that we are all controlled by fate, a power beyond ourselves. The myth of fate is countered by the real truth – that “whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.” Through many difficult and sometimes catastrophic experiences, the boy gains and loses fortunes, finds and loses loves, and encounters fascinating guides along the way. When things don’t go well, the shepherd has to decide if he will let himself be a victim or will rise above the calamity to see himself “as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.” Ultimately, he chooses to be an adventurer and adopts the “language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

If making the choice to pursue our personal legend and adopting a positive outlook is all it takes, why don’t more of us surrender to the potential within? When the shepherd boy finally meets the alchemist in his journey to the Pyramids, the alchemist explains, “People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them… Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

The Alchemist is a short and powerful read. I wish I had read it earlier in life but I guess it’s message has been in my soul all along…

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Harris - International Bank of Bob

Bob Harris was a travel and tourism writer, traveling the world as if he could afford to stay at the luxurious hotels and eat at the fancy restaurants he would visit and then review. All that came to an end when he encountered Dubai. The extreme wealth and privilege, contrasted with the desperate lives of those who built and served the city shocked him into wondering what matters in life. Then it caused him to take a journey to understand the KIVA organization, an organization dedicated to providing opportunity to those who seek economic opportunity but whose prosperity was cut short by the cross-generational and cross-national birth lottery.

Some within the U.S.A. and many outside its borders turn to risky strategies to improve their lives because they love their families. Those who serve as common laborers in places like Dubai sacrifice the most. They are compelled by images of financial gain and they risk everything they have for that chance, often going into great debt to do it and many times risking their health and safety just in the hopes of a better life. They always leave their loved ones back home and end up living away for many years and perhaps an entire adulthood. Although places like Dubai allow for the exploitation of these desperate seekers, Dubai isn’t where the problem started. The root of the problem is the level of poverty and lack of opportunity back in India, Nepal, the Philippines, or elsewhere. That’s why KIVA’s focus has been on providing resources for husbands, wives, and family to stay home and to have access to low-interest loans to create their own businesses.

While other strategies are available to help those in perpetual poverty to have a better life, many (certainly not all) of them are wrapped in a veneer of pity that mostly makes the donors feel good about themselves. The KIVA approach is one that views those who lack economic opportunity as creative, smart, strong, resourceful, and resilient – it recognizes their dignity and worth which is one of the major preconditions to self-sufficiency. KIVA not only provides funding but requires coaching of those who receive loans to help them be successful and it reinforces that every success results in funds returning to the pool to be reallocated to help others. The International Bank of Bob is packed with examples of success from around the world and reflecting the many cultures and religions where poverty has struck. The book also provides honest examples of failure or “over-reach” where some have been too ambitious; it is realistic and does not claim any special truth or cure.

I identified a lot with Harris’ stories, particularly since his journey started in a place with which I am so very familiar, it traversed other places I’ve been, and it ended in Chicago (ACCION) where I now live. It’s strange how a book can so closely mirror your own experience, bringing both greater insight and gravity to your own lived experience. The extremes of wealth found in some places in the world go beyond “any sane human comfort and starts touching lunacy,” as Harris noted early in his book. Is KIVA a way for those who have relative wealth to share their prosperity and alleviate the poverty found in so many, many places? And if it worked, it wouldn’t cost a dollar – only a simple loan that would regenerate itself and eventually be available to others to pursue their own dreams of crossing from poverty to dignity.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

4th of July in America!

On the 4th of July in 2007 I was on a plane most of the day, returning to Dulles International on a Qatar Airways flight after having taken the first step in considering a move to Qatar. I still needed to explore the possibilities with family but it was very clear that the Qatar Foundation opportunity was pretty extraordinary, so extraordinary that I was already leaning toward trying to find a way to make it happen if given an offer. It was kind of crazy because in 2007 all that existed was a handful of staff who had been invited to come on board, a temporary office area, and lots of amazing vision for what student affairs might look like for Education City in Doha, Qatar.

It was a bit surreal returning to the U.S.A. on the 4th of July, especially in a year when the Presidential election was very inflammatory, when bipartisanship was pushing toward a fever pitch, and when (unbeknownst to most) the economy was slipping toward a dangerous cliff. Things were comfortable at Miami and it looked as if I was going to be there for the long haul but, as the months between July and November unfolded, it became infinitely clear that Qatar was the right choice – and it was!

As I reflect on being out of the U.S.A. for 7 years and now being back for the quintessential day that celebrates the principles of America, I hope I’m a better citizen than when I left. Being outside of the U.S.A. exposed me to a level of complexity in the world that I had never grasped before. It exposed me to both the shortcomings and strengths of the U.S.A. and it helped me to understand that acknowledging where we fall short is one of America’s greatest strengths. Many other countries are unable to have spirited debate and maintain tensions that serve many complicated and competing stakeholders. While the contentiousness of American politics can be troubling, we make progress despite the roadblocks.

We went to a pre-4th celebration on the shores of Lake Michigan last night and witnessed thousands reveling in food, music, sports, and friendship. The response to hearing a community symphonic band play patriotic American standards demonstrated a real appreciation for what the 4th means. And the bus we road back to our neighborhood was driven by a delightful driver who engaged those on board in our own songfest. However, the interesting thing was that it was a little harder to find songs that everyone knew than when I was a kid growing up in Boulder, CO, attending the community songfest and fireworks at the Colorado University stadium. In those days, it appeared that everyone knew the words and the sound of thousands singing together is something I’ll never forget.

What’s different about the 4th in the 1950s and 1960s in Boulder and the 4th in 2015 in Chicago? Those with whom we shared the 4th last night were far more diverse than those of years ago, so diverse that sometimes it ‘s hard to find elements of a common culture. My belief is that the greater diversity that is now obvious in America is a strength and, even though somewhat harder to negotiate, it is a strength that will serve America going forward in the 21st century. The key is recognizing and welcoming many voices with different songs, customs, and perspectives, all embracing and striving for an America that not only stands on important democratic principles but lives them as well.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Revisiting expatriate life in Qatar

It has now been over six months since I left Qatar. I thought that I might blog more often to reflect my thoughts as the months unfolded but I’ve reentered relatively easily and have waited for something of significance to blog about. I received a message this morning with a link to a very interesting article by Dane Wisher, an expatriate from the U.S.A. who worked in Qatar for three years and recently repatriated.

Dane’s reflections took me back to many of the thoughts and feelings I had about being in Qatar. Since returning to the U.S.A., I've not really talked to that many people about what I'd done for the last 7 years. Most people don't ask and I don't volunteer. I don't volunteer at least partially because I'm ambivalent about the experience. All the time I was in Qatar I held hopes and dreams that I would be able to contribute something that would be lasting and that would fundamentally change many of the conditions with which I was so uncomfortable.

The author of this article, Dane, was in Qatar in her early career while I was there in late career. The timing of expatriate work makes a lot of difference in what you experience. The most provocative section of the article for me was the following:
Expat employees generally get used to the dissonance between the rhetorical fanfare of the higher-ups and the actual administrative fickleness that plagues local management structures and cripples the abilities of employees to do their jobs. But more than than, as a human being you get used to passing emaciated workers on construction sites on the walk to the Kempinsky or the Four Seasons. You get used to seeing Qatari men browbeat—and sometimes actually beat—South Asian drivers on the side of the road. You grow accustomed to watching workers on break line up in the shade of a single palm tree as the dirt sizzles around them in August. You stop registering the busses with no air-conditioning carrying the laborers to and from their cramped quarters. You stop noting the way the men press their dusty faces out the open windows for air.
The reality of this segment is that the first sentence so clearly and sadly captures my experience. Unfortunately, I fear some might say I was part of "rhetorical fanfare of the higher ups." I actually believed that we were making a difference and I believed that drawing others into seeing the possibilities was better than cursing the darkness. However, I depart from the author on the rest of the paragraph. I never got used to the chasm between the privileged Qatari/expats and the Southeast Asian workers. Reading the words even now brings back deep emotional connections - I see the faces and the yearning of those trying to build a better life. What the article does not address is that at least some proportion of these workers (I suggest significant) have a better life because they went to Qatar; the fact is that the U.S.A. and other Western countries are certainly not opening their doors to help those who are desperate for economic opportunity. The problem of inequality is vast and the worst in the world today is the U.S.A. If you look at the U.S.A. in comparison to the rest of the world, it gets even worse. Because I saw the difference and experienced the tolerance of inequality so profoundly in Qatar, I now see it much more clearly in the U.S.A. Something has to be done and I pray that the shifting political environment in the U.S.A. will result in our being a better country and in the U.S.A. and its citizens understanding our role in the world in different ways. The faces of others will never leave my memory and it is for them that my work is now about trying to bring substantive internationalization to U.S. higher education.

I have written, and continue to write, about the Qatar days. I don't go into the details of the things that made me ambivalent, primarily because I still hold hope that change will eventually come. Becoming cynical about the experience doesn't work for me nor does voicing it help Qatari leaders in their quest to change. The good Qatari who I knew deeply and still admire greatly are attempting to serve their country and bring modernity to its people. The thing that Westerners generally don't get is that being a Qatari leader is extremely volatile, challenging, and potentially dangerous. The pace of change has to be at a rate that the mainstream Qatari citizen will endorse, not as Qatari leaders or Western expats would hope. It is a long, slow and difficult path.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Diamond - Collapse

The good news of Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2011) is that no generation in human history has had more information available to it about how other societies and cultures failed to meet the crises of their days. The bad news is that leaders in societies across time and culture have often sought only to make sure that their elites or family were the last to survive while the broader society faltered and ultimately collapsed. Daimond’s hope, and I assume ours as well, is that contemporary societies will recognize the challenges we face and deal with them in ways that protect us all.

Diamond identified eight factors that placed societies at risk over history; deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people. The weight of each of these variables has varied across the cultures he analyzed but the pattern of past collapses has generally involved population growth that led to intensified focus on food production, expanded farming that became increasingly unproductive, and continuing pursuit of unsustainable practices that ultimately destroyed the living conditions required to support the population. Some societies dwindled and died where they were while others moved on to another place to begin the cycle all over.

To these eight natural conditions, Diamond added several new factors that he asserts are impacting current societies – human caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of all the photosynthetic capacity of the planet. The human complicators include the presence of hostile neighbors, decreased support from previously friendly neighbors, and the response of the society to the problems it has encountered. Diamond noted both societies that have negotiated difficult circumstances and survived as well as other societies that did not.

At the core of most of the societal failures there has been a conflict in values – either conflict among sub-groups within a society or conflict between what was valued and the reality that those values did not work. The latter dynamic has been particularly interesting in the examples of European societies that failed because they did not heed and respect native cultures they encountered as they expanded their reach throughout the world. The ability to recognize the value tension, and adjust as necessary was the key to success. The challenge that has never loomed so ominously before is that previous societies could fail and only their populations suffered the consequence. In today’s world, the potential for failure has moved to a much grander scale – even when one society attempts to shift its own failures to another society, the shifts are only temporary solutions that eventually wreak havoc for all. The other crushing reality is that first-world economies have already overutilized resources and damaged the natural environment and now are trying to push more austere consumption off on developing economies; those in these other places see the hypocrisy of encouraging restraint when they, themselves, were unwilling to change their ways to reduce the negative impact on our shared eco-system.

The bottom line is that the complications we face around the globe require leadership – and a particularly courageous kind. The leadership required to negotiate the conditions that have caused other societies over history to collapse will anticipate growing problems and will take bold steps to address the problems before they reach catastrophic levels. As Diamond says, “Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule for acting before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary.” This kind of leadership is essential if we are to avoid the reality that conflicts across contemporary societies may well result in very unpleasant outcomes “such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.”