Friday, December 02, 2016

Palmer - Healing the Heart of Democracy

Parker Palmer closes his book Healing the heart of democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit (2011) with a quote from Reinhold Neibuhr that captures the essence of his message:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

Palmer wrote Healing… before the U.S.A. election of 2016; however, the concerns he raised have become even more evident this last year. Palmer’s view is that in order to make the Constitutional assurance of “We the People…” work, we need to speak to those beyond “our own” and we must cease to demonize those who have ideas different than ours. Examples of the struggles Abraham Lincoln faced leading up to and during the Civil War are offered throughout the book, providing contextualization that puts our own times in perspective. The rights of diverse others was a central disagreement of the Civil War and it appears that diversity has again driven a wedge between us.

Hope in our future can be recaptured by recognizing the mutual heartbreak of a government that doesn’t work and of communities divided by class and culture. “When we hold suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them.” (p. 22) The relative stagnation of the U.S. economy is clearly a source of much of the heartbreak that many citizens share. “When material progress falters… people become more jealous of their status relative to others” (p. 64); the jealousy then results in scapegoating others instead of working to problem solving our way to a more prosperous community.

There is no question that we experience tension, discomfort, and distrust with people who are different from us; however, there are benefits to diversity if we are able to hold it in a way that results in creativity, openness to each other, new ideas, and new courses of action. Unfortunately, one of the most significant barriers to our being able to open to each other’s ideas is the individualistic pursuit of wealth and power. Although individualism was one of the things that helped immigrants as they came to North America, it now pushes us away from each other and weakens our sense of shared community. This erosion of community through individualistic pursuit also has the more negative potential of making us vulnerable to despots who exploit our differences. The antidote is that our government was designed to help us embrace differences of opinion and to use the resulting tension to generate an active body politic.

Palmer proposes five habits of the heart that he believes can restore our sense of community and protect our democracy. The first thing is that we should recognize that we’re in this together. The second habit is that we must develop an appreciation for the value of others. The third is that we must cultivate the ability to hold tension in creative ways. Fourth, we must generate personal voice and agency. Finally, we should strengthen our capacity to create community. All five of these habits must be cultivated with chutzpah (knowing we have a voice and using it) and humility (accepting that truth is always partial and we should listen to others). These habits can be expressed in many places but educational institutions and religious organizations are two places where they are most effectively nurtured. In order for education and religious organizations to be useful, they cannot hold our society’s problems at arm’s length but must engage fully and personally to develop the empathy and willingness to act in ways that protect the present and future of our democracy.

Palmer’s optimist views have contributed much food for thought for those of us committed to a creating a better and more equitable world. His views are also realistic and have been documented in communities of hope where healing is underway. His historical and contemporary analyses of these places led him to discern four stages that are key in the process – “deciding to live ‘divided no more,’ forming communities of congruence, going public with a vision, and transforming the system of punishment and reward.” (p. 189)

Monday, November 14, 2016

Goss - Bolero: The Life of Maurice Ravel

My love of Ravels’ compositions goes all the way back to age 10 when I broke my arm and my mother bought a “stereo” (equivalent to what would be today’s boom box or ipod) to entertain me until I could go back to practicing piano. Along with the stereo, one of my first purchases was a recording of Ravel’s famous Bolero; I listened to it until the grooves wore out. Now I play two of Ravel’s most beloved compositions on piano, Pavane pour une Infante defunte and the Adagio Assai from his Piano Concerto in G.

Reading Bolero: The life of Maurice Ravel  (M. Goss, 1940) introduced new insights that now bring deeper meaning and enhanced interpretation to his compositions. Ravel is fascinating as a study in leadership as well, particularly because his kind of leadership was one that often goes unrecognized – simple, convicted, and pursued with little regard for influence. He made music because he had to (“comme unpommier fait ses pommes”) instead of for the purpose of advancing himself or making money.

Ravel’s father was Swiss and his mother from the Basque region of Spain. His unique love of Basque culture led to a career-long fascination with rhythm and dance. This, combined with a tendency to obscure emotion behind a film of artistic restraint, came to be recognized as quintessentially French.

Numerous other composers influenced Ravel yet he remained unique. Chabrier provided inspiration for the Pavane pour une Infante defunte, the first of Ravel’s compositions to be widely embraced. Its delicate and unwavering rhythm depicts a princess dancing the Pavane at court and becoming so obsessed with its beauty that she loses all interest in anything else. His most influential teacher was Faure and contemporaries included the likes of Debussy, Satie, Massenet, Saint-Saens, de Falla, and Stravinsky (one of Ravel’s closest life-long friends). He also interacted with many of the impressionist painters (Verlaine, Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas) of the early 20th century.

Many of Ravel’s compositions drew sharp disapproval from critics and the public but made him a celebrity among his young artist comrades. He composed in many different styles with one period focusing exclusively on ballet and a later period incorporating elements of jazz. After visiting America he reported that “American people have developed a distinct national personality by combining different races into a united whole” which resulted in “two distinct characteristics: underlying pathos… plus a hidden yearning for an ideal which Americans hardly understand.” (62% through digital text)

Ravel composed Bolero only a short time after returning from his concert tour to America. Its pulsating beat never varied when Ravel conducted it in concert and it is this constant forward movement, drawing the listener to an eventual dramatic key modulation and explosive conclusion, that made the piece so intoxicating. Another of Ravel’s last compositions, the Piano Concerto in G, incorporates a similar rhythmic pulse in the middle movement (Adagio Assai) that supports a tender and elegant melody. The pace and persistence of each of these compositions creates a captivating quality much like the short life of this eccentric composer with the Basque heart and restrained French sensibility.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Khanna - Connectography

I read and review a lot of books, some are great, others are alright, and a few are barely worth the effort. Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilizations by Parag Khanna (2016) is a must read particularly in a time when governments and their leaders are searching for understanding about the future.

Khanna has recorded for TED Talks where he describes a world that should be understood more in terms of connections and trade than how we have seen it in geography and maps. His proposition is that connectivity will transform our world; geographic boundaries, protected by governments and military defense, will become irrelevant.

Informed by extensive travel and an amazing network of colleagues around the world (see “Acknowledgments”), Khanna describes a hopeful future where military superiority and wars will cease to be a threat, replaced by supply chain and trade agreements that world leaders dare not violate if they want to survive. Khanna, by contrast to many who deplore the mass urbanization unfolding around the world, sees cities as the way to deal with environmental degradation and income inequality.

“As the lines that connect us supersede the borders that divide us, functional geography is becoming more important than political geography.” (7% through digital text) Khanna predicts that nations will have little power in comparison to cities that broker supply chains and trade at will, carefully managing the flow (resources, goods, capital, technology, people, data, and ideas) and friction (borders, conflict, sanctions, distance, and regulation) within their purview. This world of evolving and permeable boundaries, is more effectively leveraged through engagement than containment.

Tug-of-war for resources, innovation, products and services is the new paradigm that Khanna says successful cultures must embrace. Within this tug-of-war the most important goal is securing talent; whether grown through education and training or acquired through immigration from other areas of the world, the boundaries should be taken down rather then erected. That is not to say that immigration can be totally thrown open but it does call for modification of immigration processes and numbers so that talented people who seek opportunity can flow to whatever place helps them achieve the goals they have for themselves and their families. When and if migrant workers “are sent back, they should be armed with skills and money to stabilize their own countries to eventually diminish the urge to migrate.” (73% through digital text) Perhaps the solution in the 21st century is to issue “global passports” that are carried by those who move and work from country to country and city to city, effectively undoing the “punitive effects of the accident of birth.”

With 60% of Americans now believing that the “American Dream” is out of their reach, 40% of young adults 18 to 24 see themselves working outside of U.S.A. boundaries at some point in their future (26% through digital text). This is a startling change in American’s view of their future and it is one that, in itself, will help the country become more connected and therefore influential. It is these expatriate and traveling diplomats who offer the new face of America abroad. New York, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Fancisco, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta have been important to the U.S.A. but to these “homes” the global cities of London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, and Dubai will be added. Infrastructure development will increasingly be central to the success of any city that wants to be included among the global supply, talent, and innovation centers. Simplistic calls to “bring jobs back to America” fail to recognize that the more jobs and wealth that emerge elsewhere, the more there are those who can afford to buy innovations that originate in the knowledge economy of the U.S.A. where banking, insurance, software programming, consulting, design, architecture, accounting, legal affairs, health care and education are so lucrative. These innovation industries can thrive in special economic zones (SEZs) placed around the world, providing more opportunity to build connectivity while bringing mutual benefit to all.

According to Khanna’s predictions, “Connectivity is destiny” and those individuals, businesses, and countries that do not embrace this reality are at risk. In his concluding paragraph, Khanna advocates, “We need a more borderless world because we can’t afford destructive territorial conflict, because correcting the mismatch of people and resources can unlock incredible human and economic potential, because so few states provide sufficient welfare for their citizens, and because so many billions have yet to fully benefit from globalization.”

Khanna is showing up regularly in Facebook posts and other media. One New York Times article proposes a new map of America based on the trends identified in Connectography. Khanna’s message is worth careful consideration, especially in the context of political strife emerging all around the world and most graphically demonstrated in the 2016 U.S.A. Presidential contest. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

An Other World - Block, Brueggemann & McKnight

An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture (Block, Brueggemann & McKnight, 2016) proposes that the competitive economic and resource-scarce world that is reflected in much of life’s experience is being replaced by a covenantal world characterized by neighborly beliefs.

The free market consumer ideology that the authors believe is dying assumes scarcity of resources, that certainty and perfection are achievable, that acquisitiveness and privatization are essential, and that institutions are required to maintain this ordered culture. The emerging covenantal world is based on the neighborly beliefs of abundance, mystery, fallibility, and the common good. The consumer and globalized culture which dominated much of the 19th and 20th centuries violated neighborly values and perpetuated privilege, competition, self-interest, entitlement, and surplus (unused) resources. By contrast, a new covenantal culture would result in more even distribution of resources and would reduce the obsession to acquire more than we need. The covenantal community requires that individual well-being be reunderstood by paying greater attention to the well-being of the whole community.

The authors view urbanization as one of the primary causes for the loss of community, partly due to the complex systems and empire that has to be maintained as a support to consumerism. This urbanized world lacks a sense of community, of knowing each other, and it ignores the potential of a connection to God. They trace the class system that has emerged and the organizations that support it to a “myth of individual development.” The empire that perpetuates our disconnection from each other is supported by everything from schools to aloof elites who are blind to the social and economic conditions that impact other’s lives. Additional factors that sustain our disconnected life experience include mobility and isolation, unproductive wealth, and the violence that accompanies them.

The alternative the authors propose is to accept an “invitation to covenantal justice, a call to create a more just or equitable world based on covenant.” This covenant is what many would see as a commitment to the common good. And this common good can be achieved by recognizing the abundance of our community gifts and sharing the resources we need. The signposts of such a covenantal community are sharing time, food, and silence. Rather than observing time as a quantity to be managed, covenantal time involves measuring the depth of time – what did we do with time to make meaning and create common good? Rather than seeing food as something to hoard, food should be viewed as coming from nature and therefore freely shared. Rather than viewing silence as a void or absence, it should be seen as a companion to mystery – a place allowing for reflection, discernment and deeper understanding.

In the postscript, the authors express their intent in writing this book, “to shrink the market as the primary means of cultural identity, schools as the sole source of learning, systems as the source of care, price as the measure of value, productivity as the basis of being.” All in all, such propositions sound attractive but the few examples the authors provide offer little certitude of dramatic change, especially in a near term view. An Other Kingdom was more a primer for reflection on the state of our civilization and world’s future than a roadmap to how to make it happen.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Relating music, leadership and cultural intelligence - Part Five of Five sequential posts

As many of us discover in our maturing days, there are repeating and often deepening themes throughout life’s experiences. Musicleadership, and cultural intelligence have been areas of constant discovery in my life. They will continue to be fascinations for me as I seek to learn more. Through my journey thus far, I have gained insights from the confluence of discoveries in each area which include:
  • Find areas in your life that fascinate you, remain open to learning about them, and transfer ideas discovered in one area to others.
  • Brain function research guides us in realizing where we are in our learning, especially related to the discomfort we have in learning new things and the growing freedom we have when acquired learning is incorporated into who we are.
  • When learning something new, pick the pieces apart, analyzing different issues for patterns that can illuminate how the pieces fit together and how approaches in one area can be adapted to another.
  • Once we achieve some degree of authenticity (comfort) in who we are, keep both an explicit awareness of what you are doing running at the same time you act out of your natural core.
  • Find the place that allows you to be “at home” with new knowledge and to express your true self in using it.
  • Remember that you are not the center but simply an instrument of conveyance for something that goes beyond and is bigger than you.
Music, leadership and culture can each be seen as special areas of expertise and therefore things that we should only engage if we have high expertise. What’s wrong with that view? Seeing them as matters of expertise and performance takes away the opportunity for all of us to enjoy being involved, living fully, and offering all that we have. Seeing music, leadership and cultural interaction as part of who we are but not about us can be freeing. The bottom line is that music used to be something shared in private salons and living rooms and now it is celebrated more on the concert stage. Leadership used to be a shared responsibility in communities seeking mutuality in order to survive and now it is viewed all too often as the purview of select elites. Cultural interaction used to be about how to connect with someone of another tribe and now it is viewed more as an obstacle to overcome in business or political negotiations. What I am advocating is that music, leadership, and cultural interaction, as well as many other areas, can and should become topics/experiences of mutual exploration rather than audience observation and evaluation.

Some final points that I’ve realized through these successive posts, expressed in musical terms but generalizable to leadership and culture as well, may be helpful:
  • Starting from scratch can be terrifying – fear of the unknown is intimidating.
  • The hard parts require greater discipline to learn but they often become our best passages.
  • Hidden and subtle themes are often the most interesting.
  • Concentrate on where the arc of the long phrase goes rather than just the short interludes.
  • Masterful performance is a combination of restraint (careful control) and reckless abandon.
  • Focus on the art and not the audience.
In some ways, these understandings have likely been part of my worldview for some time. However, the explicit recognition of them helps me to hold certain assumptions about what I am doing that keep me on track. The last point, “It is the art that should be the focus and not the audience,” has been a struggle for me. Even now, I can write these words but I know that in relation to playing piano I still pay too much attention to the audience. I am coming back to this challenge and will have an opportunity in November 2016 to test this assumption at the International Association of Leadership conference in Atlanta. I’ve been invited to play background music as conference attendees take their seats at two of the keynote programs. Practicing a number of Rachmaninoff pieces for the last several years, the program I intend to play traces his compositions from the first when he was only 18 years old (middle movement of the Piano Concerto #1) up to one of his final masterpieces (18th variation of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini). As I practice, I am often transported to a place that is outside of myself and concentrates only on my giving voice to this great music. My goal is to go to this place regardless of who is in the room in Atlanta.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Culture - Part Four of Five sequential posts

My artistic struggle is that I can play piano very well for myself, my wife, and family. When it comes to playing “for” others, anxiety is my worst enemy. Anxiety has a powerful ability to derail procedural memory. When I performed publicly as a youth, I remember sitting down at the piano to perform a piece by memory, and then not even knowing how the piece started or how to figure it out. The anxiety froze my procedural memory and the only way out was to try to relax, visualize the explicit aspects of the music in order to get started, and then hope that the procedural memory would comfortably kick in for the rest of the piece. If I was not able to get back on track through memory, I would ask to see my sheet music for a refresher and then dive in. Such experiences are terrifying and I’ve had my share…

Again, applying to leadership and culture, I believe we can freeze up when we face an anxiety producing setting. The only difference is that in leadership and culture, some of us (myself included) feel we have to proceed, faking it along the way and hoping that others don’t recognize. As you can see in this comparison, you couldn’t get away with faking it on the piano. However, when we freeze in leadership or cultural interaction, many of us just blunder ahead rather than saying, “You know, I really don’t know where to start. Can you give me a little help in understanding what to do?”

Increasing cultural proficiency starts with a realization that we all have unique ways of living and interacting with others matched with curiosity about how other’s ways work for them. Living in Qatar for seven years offered the opportunity to interact across very different cultures on a regular basis. In the early days of being there, and privileged by the belief that I was expected to bring my perspective and expertise, I made many blunders. Fortunately, colleagues would comment good-naturedly that “You are so American.” At first I didn’t understand what that meant but I gradually overcame my own blindness to see the details of how others interacted with each other. I eventually came to adopt a habit of reading each encounter I had with a cultural lens, reflecting with, “What is the same or different about this encounter and what must I do if I want to “connect” with the other person?

An example of seeking to “connect” more effectively can be found in determining whether to speak up or stand down in cross-cultural interactions. Many Americans and some from other “Western” cultural backgrounds place great value on speaking one’s mind and forthrightly offering our perspectives. This view is related to lots of things, among them are individualism, assertiveness, and a belief in the value of freedom of speech. Other cultures, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, view speaking up as potentially disrespectful of others, self-oriented, or inviting scrutiny that could reveal imperfection. The natural tendency of an American, regardless of cultural context, would likely be to speak up quickly and directly. Unfortunately, this can result in others being unresponsive to what might have been otherwise a very helpful idea. A choice to stand down, listen to others first, recognize the value of other’s contributions, and then offer an enhancing perspective would most likely be much better received.

What many refer to as “culture shock” is in essence “freezing up” in the face of the anxiety of being in a cultural context that we do not understand. In that moment, we face a realization that something is not working and we don’t know where to turn. I am not sure it applies to all cultures, but my experience in Qatar was filled with gracious hosts who were more than happy to help me in those “freezing up” moments and I grew to know that I could always turn to one of them to say, “I really don’t know where to start. Can you give me a little help in understanding what to do?”

Molinsky’s (2013) cultural dexterity model is very helpful when thinking about how to establish authentic communication and appreciation across cultures. His view is to know one’s own cultural inclinations, seek to understand that of others, and adapt (without compromising the essence) your own style in order to be able to relate effectively with others. There is striking confirmation across learning music, leadership, and culture – study carefully and deeply, understand the bits and pieces, keep an eye on both the small and big picture, seek authenticity, and find a place that represents being “at home” that allows you to perform at your best.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Leadership - Part Three of Five sequential posts

Like music, when we engage in leadership, things may seem very disjoint and cacophonous but a deeper dive and growing familiarity reveals patterns that increase our understanding. It is patience and discipline in the analysis of both music and leadership that ultimately leads to greater success.

Leadership is thought by many people to be something that others do – not me. Our times, with advancing quality and length of life around the world, require a broader number of us to engage in leadership. All one has to do is look around to recognize that many of those who presume to “lead” are nearly incapable of leadership and that there are others with such deep humility that they would never accept that they offer leadership on a regular basis. My belief is that we need both more humility among “leaders” as well as audacity that invites others into leadership.

Learning about leadership can start through experience or through study, and ideally both. It is something that requires a depth of reflection and analysis much like the approach to learning a new piece of music – analysis, identification of patterns, and seeing both the immediate and big picture. Having been a formal student of leadership from 1976 to this day, I continue to read actively, observe others carefully, and reflect on my own experience to understand it. And it is almost always the deeper experiences, sometimes my own failure, that stimulate the greatest insight. Approaching leadership with a discerning eye that identifies patterns, hidden dynamics, similarities/dissimilarities to other experiences, and balances both small and big implications is almost always more successful than just forging ahead.

Working within a framework of critical analysis and discipline, we can achieve great artistry that embraces the nature of the question we seek to master, either a piece of music or a challenge in leadership. This artistry then becomes the ‘at home’ of who we are when we are our best selves in leadership – approaching the situation as nuanced, unique, and ripe with opportunity to make a difference. This authentic place is based on our acting out of our natural tendencies tempered with the awareness of our surrounding environment and its dynamics.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Music - Part Two of Five sequential posts

In looking at the way we learn music, leadership, and culture I want to begin with how our brains function. In Alan Rusbridger’s Play it Again a very important distinction is made between explicit and procedural memory. Explicit memory is brain capacity that is used when we encounter and attempt to master something new. Depending on the complexity of the topic or skill, the process of establishing explicit memory may take a significant amount of time and effort. Gradually as we begin to incorporate the new understanding into our natural thinking, the brain function moves to procedural memory. Procedural memory is something that can be recalled automatically, seemingly without effort or focus.

Learning a piece of music is one of the easiest illustrations to use regarding explicit and procedural memory. When learning a piece, I work very hard to read the notes, observe the dynamics, and do as much as I can to recreate the composer’s intent. During this phase, the music doesn’t “sing” because it is stiff and mechanical. As all the technical aspects are gradually mastered, playing a piece becomes more natural and musical. It is at this stage that brain functioning is shifting from explicit to procedural memory. A startling moment can occur during this phase as I get caught up in the music, enjoying a truly artistic moment; then all of a sudden, I don’t know what the next notes or phrase should be and the result is a train wreck. The way to avoid the train wreck is to seek to hold some explicit awareness of what I am doing in the moment while letting go of the technical details – freeing the full artistic expression that is possible when I am caught up in the music.

One of my favorite composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff, was recognized as one of the 20th century's greatest composers, conductors, and pianists. Rachmaninoff is known for his great melodies and I enjoy playing his compositions because they have very complicated chords, runs, rhythms, and interplay of both hands. This requires me to pick the piece apart, analyzing different sections of his compositions for patterns that can help me see how the work fits together and how approaches in one section can be adapted to another. As the sameness and variation within and across pieces becomes clear through repetition, the music becomes more familiar, comfortable, and "at home."

It is the "at home" point that the music and I become one in the same - with my reading and playing the music serving only as a conduit for what is written in a manuscript. "Arriving at home" allows for a piece of music to have a unique interpretation that is only mine. I shape the phrases, change the tempo, emphasize a note or chord and the way I do it is likely never to be repeated by anyone else. It is in the "at home" stage that full expression is possible and it is frequently accompanied with a physiological reaction in me; I get chills up my spine and all over my body when I find expression in the music and achieve just the touch that the composer intended as well. So, the piece is played with integrity to the composer yet finds distinctive expression through me.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Experimentalism and empiricism - Part One of Five sequential posts

I’m an experientialist rather than an empiricist. My career and personal life have offered untold opportunity to learn from my encounters. The problem was that, as many in the world, the luxury of taking time out to conduct an empirical analysis of what was happening and why just never emerged. I have, however, learned that the experientialist perspective has a lot of value and this perspective deepens and perhaps gains greater validity as we mature. This is the realization that draws me to undertake a series of blog posts that will connect three major themes in my life – music, leadership, and culture.

Especially in an age where the voices of youth are marginalized and sometimes not taken seriously, I do not equate my advancing age with any deeper realization in life. Anyone can and should own realizations when sufficient time has been taken to dig into our experiences in search for deeper meanings and connections. In an age of complexity greater than any we have experienced before, I strive to use all the critical thinking, comparative perspective, and cross-disciplinary thinking I can muster. Even with a lot of work, the result will be inadequate but I’m striving for “good enough” to be of benefit to any reader and/or me searching to understand.

The realizations I intend to explore reflect three life priorities for me - music, leadership, and culture. Ultimately, the series will be a journey in the discovery of embracing and utilizing my strengths – which I understand to be connective thinking, relational appreciation, big-picture attention, and artistic insight and expression. These are my gifts for better or worse. They have worked for me at many times in my life. On other occasions, these gifts have either been unappreciated or denigrated by others who saw little value in what I had to offer. This is one of the lessons I believe is so important to all of us as growing, developing human beings – don’t deny who you are just because someone else doesn’t embrace your essence or is threatened by it. Temper your response, hold your ground, and do what you can to maintain your uniqueness while still accommodating to individuals and environments where you find yourself. If you finally conclude that a particular environment is hostile, get out as soon as possible!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Doris Kearns Goodwin interviews U.S. President Barack Obama

Vanity Fair ran a remarkable article on September 21, 2016, Doris Kearns Goodwin's interview of U.S. President Barack Obama. This is a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand leadership in the modern age. Beginning with President Obama's fascination with the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, moving through reflections on the personalities and impact of several other U.S. Presidents, and ending with reflections on his own accomplishments and unrealized aspirations, the interview reveals a lot about the internal struggles of a world leader. President Obama proposed that ambition is a driving force for many in their youth but that there is a moment of truth when something beyond one's self emerges that then becomes the source of motivation and endurance for difficult roles such as the president of a nation state. Adversity is often the source of awakening to "this is me." President Obama's youth presented challenges that shaped his early life but no one could question that he has faced many challenges during his two terms. With great humility, President Obama does not attempt to claim any uniqueness or profound impact but, instead, suggests that it is up to the American people and historians such as Goodwin to determine how he will be judged. Thank you, Mr. President and Dr. Goodwin for allowing us to sit with you in a profoundly revealing conversation!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Khalilzad - The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, my journey through a turbulent world

Zalmay Khalilzad was first Ambassador from the U.S.A. to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, and eventually to the United Nations. I picked up his book, The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey through a Turbulent World, because I continue to struggle with how to cultivate peace and prosperity throughout the Middle East and Arab, Israeli, and Persian worlds. As a native Afghan, naturalized citizen of the U.S.A., and Muslim, his views deserve careful attention.

Khalilzad is balanced in his portrayal of almost all those individuals he notes in his book, although readers should understand his cultural context and life experience in order to understand the perspective he offers. As an example, his portrayal of George W. Bush, the U.S.A. President with whom he worked most closely, recounts Bush’s deep interest in understanding what was going on in the Middle East, his support of Khalilzad in proposing sometimes unpopular strategies, but in the end bemoaning Bush’s lack of follow-through with the nation building strategies Khalilzad believed were necessary to move forward. Khalilzad’s analyses of Bush and other politicians recognized the diverging pressures of inward (within nation) and outward (interaction and diplomacy with other nations) forces that sometimes cause heads of state to appear inconsistent and unpredictable. The key learning from these analyses were that, when seeking to understand the actions of presidents and prime ministers, it is critical to understand to which audience the politician is attempting to appeal.

The first two-thirds of the book recounted Khalilzad’s childhood in Afghanistan, coming to the U.S.A. as a foreign exchange student in 1966, returning in 1974 For graduate study at the University of Chicago, and on through his diplomatic career progression. There is no question that Khalilzad is worldly in his view and he is very committed to democratization anywhere in the world where opportunity presents itself. Thus, he favors intervention rather than staying distant from conflicts in other parts of the world and he is not reticent about destabilizing bad heads of state and working toward regime change. Taken in this context, Khalilzad’s recounting of the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraqi are revealing; the errors he asserts are primarily of not engaging deeply enough and not staying long enough to finish the regime change and nation building in each of these cases. Khalilzad’s reflections reinforce that factionalization among countries and religious groups requires deep understanding but can ultimately be tamed through diplomacy that includes both reconstruction/nation building as well as provision of security forces.

Specifically in relation to Iraq but also relevant to his experience in Afghanistan, Khalilzad identified the following lessons: 
  • Do not assume that local politics will take care of themselves in the aftermath of regime change.
  • Geopolitical vacuums are dangerous things.
  • Foster conditions that bring out the better instincts of local leaders.
  • Exercise presidential command.
  • Pursue political and security efforts in tandem. (77% through digital text)

In particular, changing course during the process of destabilization and regime change is not a good thing and doing so has cost the U.S.A. considerable credibility and trust in a number of places around the world.

Khalilzad identified several trends he believes represent a threat to the U.S.A.: “the collapse of order in many developing countries; the rise of terrorism and extremism; Europe’s triple crises of a loss of confidence in Brussels, threats from Putin’s Russia, and the conflicts of the greater Middle East; and the Chinese push for regional hegemony.” (83% through digital text) He goes on to say that the worst strategy for the U.S.A. to pursue now is to retreat from the world; Iraq and Syria offer examples of where staying at a distance can cause greater problems than more active involvement. He indicates that the U.S.A. should promote a regional balance of power in the Middle East and should avoid taking sides on the sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Khalilzad also sees the U.S.A. as an unusual immigrant country that continues to reinvent itself through experimentation and innovation, a characteristic that contrasts with many other countries and cultures that “see problems as permanent and solutions as the inevitable start of new problems.” (86% into digital text)

As I concluded Envoy, Khalilzad authored an article for Politico Magazine, “’We misled you:’ How the Saudis are coming clean on funding terrorism,” The article describes Saudi Arabia’s support for Islamist splinter groups as a way to initially defeat Egypt’s Nasser from unifying the Arab/Islamic world and then used later to support extremist views in order to resist Russia’s growing influence in places like Afghanistan. Admitting that their strategy had metastasized into a monster that could destroy them, Saudi officials couldn’t own up to their role when questions about the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.A. were raised. Why would Saudi Arabia now want to come forward? There is new and youthful leadership who know that they have to transform the nation in order to survive; in Khalilzad’s words, “Riyadh views modernization as the vehicle through which the Saudi state, at long last, con confront and defeat extremism, foster a dynamic private sector and master the looming economic challenges” it now faces. While Khalilzad recognized that there are many challenges ahead, he portrayed the changing Saudi approach as one that could allow them to regain status as a Middle East regional power and a model for how to move forward in many other conflict areas.

We can only hope but Khalilzad’s informed perspective at least provides a rationale for why hope is warranted.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Quran and Bible on Grounding and Striving in Leadership

I encountered one of those moments of truth recently. My wife and I were attending our community Methodist church on a Sunday morning when one of the staff came to me to ask that I read the scripture for the day. I agreed to read Luke 14:1,7-14, which is "When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. 'When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don't take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you 'Give your seat to this person.' Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the last important place..."

Reflecting later on this verse and looking back at my experience in Qatar, I sent a message to a Muslim colleague whose opinion I value a great deal. I asked specifically if the Quran has a similar verse. He responded that the closest thing he could think of was "Do not strut about in the land for you can neither cleave the earth nor attain the height of the mountains."

Both of these references admonish us to exercise humility and my own view is that leadership is one of the areas in which we should most seek to demonstrate humility. The Biblical reference indicates that to be presumptuous in presenting oneself as more important than others risks embarrassment while the Quran advocates humility, “Do not strut…,” because we then can neither keep our feet on the ground nor transcend the confines of our earthly role if we do.

So, how do we exercise humility yet strive to make a difference through our leadership? It seems that experience as well as the best of what is being written about leadership these days recommends avoiding any appearance of superiority or unwillingness to hear other’s perspective – staying grounded in the reality of other’s and our own experience. In addition, it seems that striving to make a difference should not be done for its own sake but for the difference it makes in the world – to attain the height of the mountains.

There are also a few more words that close the Biblical text in Luke - "Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, 'When you host a lunch or dinner, don't invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. and you will be blessed because they can't repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.'"

The combination of the Quran and Bible are again instructive. When we strive to make a difference through leadership, seeking to help our friends and family can be good but doing so results in immediate reward in kind and in the moment. By contrast, striving to make a difference for those who are most in need and cannot and never will repay will result in a reward of a different kind – not to be returned, perhaps invisible, but elevating both the other and ourselves to the height of mountains.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Foer - Moonwalkin with Einstein

As aging continues its irreversible path, I look at many things about life that give me satisfaction – physical well being, emotional resilience, and intellectual capacity in particular. Like many baby-boomers, I work to stay on top of my game as much as possible and part of that is studying issues that relate to preventing decline. Memory is one of those areas where I feel most vulnerable.

My search for staying intellectually alive led me to pick up Joshua Foer’s Moonwalkin with Einstein (2011). Foer was a journalist who started research on memory and ended up getting caught up in memory competition, ultimately winning the U.S.A Memory Championship.

Memory used to be much more important in the days before written word became common and particularly before we relied so much on documentation in writing, schedules, and reminders of various sorts. Educated individuals used to have to memorize because there was no way to easily get back to information other than through one’s own recall. The problem with recall is that our brains store memory of information and experiences in all sorts of places, often dispersing pieces of the same memory in different portions of the brain. Thus, when attempting to recall, our brains execute a search function for the missing pieces we need, sometimes successfully and other times not. The key for trained mental athletes is to actually exploit the brain’s natural inclination to break memory up by creating ways to recall what they want by relating it to a visual memory. Many of the mental athletes about whom Foer wrote use “memory palaces” or complex pictures of familiar environments on which they “hang” the information they want to remember. This technique demonstrates how we remember a detail or fact in the context of something more memorable. Repetition of the memory obviously reduces the chances that it will slip into portions of the brain where its recall can no longer be accessed.

Some practically useful tips related to memory enhancement include that we don’t remember well when we are fatigued or stressed. Song is one of the most effective structuring devices to reinforce learning; that’s why children often learn their alphabet with the song, “A,B,C,D,E,F,G… now I’ve learned my A,B,Cs, won’t you come along and sing with me.” You heard the melody in your head, did you not? Another tip is that, the less we are focused on repetitive tasks, the more we are able to concentrate on acquiring new knowledge. Thus, an accompanying memory strategy is to allow habitual things to move to automatic recall; stop trying to do them better – just let it happen. By contrast, if we want to become highly proficient, as in performing music, practice should evolve to automatic recall while at the same time maintaining conscious control of what you are doing. Honing the ability to pay attention, exercising consciousness control, and seeking to think connectively across multiple experiences and domains then provides the foundation for creativity or invention.

Foer’s ultimate conclusion through his study and competition in memory contests was that all the tricks of memory are overrated on the criteria of practical use. Even though he learned how to train himself to remember the names and details of new acquaintances, he found that in daily application the effort it required to do this was simply not worth it. If we want to remember more, Foer concluded that we should concentrate on acquiring the discipline of paying attention and on making connections throughout our life experiences that scaffold ideas and insights for future potential relevance and use. In Foer’s words, “…there is something to be said for the value of not merely passing through the world, but also making some effort to capture it – if only because in trying to capture it, one gets in the habit of noticing, and appreciating.”

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Medina - Brain Rules

Thinking big and holistic is the only way to tackle questions related to improving the effectiveness of leadership; among the most important influences in leadership is the way we protect, expand, and use our brains. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Medina, 2014) is a quick read and full of insights on how our brains function and how to get the most out of what God has granted to us in this amazing organ. Medina's web site provides a nice introduction as well.

Medina explains that from the earliest biological evidence, brains appear to have evolved to help humans survive in very harsh and changing circumstances. It was essential that the brain assisted us in solving problems, serving us in an unstable outdoor environment, and supporting us in almost constant change and motion. In addition, our human brains developed to uniquely offer us symbolic reasoning that utilized evidence and helped us relate socially to others. These unique characteristics not only allowed us to survive but to thrive. (3% into digital text)

Of the 12 principles Medina identifies, he starts the book by looking at 5 of the most important:
  • Exercise boosts brain power (rule #2)
  • People don’t pay attention to boring things (rule #6)
  • Whether you get enough rest at night affects your mental agility (rule #3)
  • We must repeat to remember (rule #)
  • We are powerful and natural explorers (rule #12)
Medina provided considerable evidence to substantiate these 5 and the rest of the 12 principles. Some of his assertions are already widely embraced. “One of the greatest predictors of successful aging, is the presence or absence of sedentary lifestyle” (8% into digital text) is one and another is that children and adolescents can focus more deeply and for a longer time if they are fit. In relation to sleep, Medina cites another researcher, Peter Tripp, who said that sleep provides the opportunity to dream, which “permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” (12% into digital text) Other sleep-related strategies Medina advocated were afternoon naps and taking the time to sleep on important and complex decisions we face. An aroused psychological state of stress does not have to be negative but it can become debilitating. In particular, sustained high levels of stress can impact our immune system or cause brain damage in areas most important to our success. Even mild stress, especially when it involves high expectation coupled with powerlessness, tends to ‘fog’ our thinking and undermine our effectiveness in responding to challenging circumstances or tough questions.

One of the most interesting points about brain functioning relates to the way the brain processes and stores information. Instead of neat, easily accessible packages of knowledge or experience, our brains break up information, storing it in different areas while also creating links across areas of the brain. Medina used the example of a musician where the motor skills required to play an instrument are in one area of the brain, the intellectual attention required to read musical notes in another, and the emotional insight required to interpret the composer’s intent elsewhere. Cross-brain activity is enhanced for musicians who study and actively play music, which then enhances their integrative capacity for other uses. Some of these other uses include greater ability to see the big picture or the ability to formulate more imaginative solutions to individual or community problems. A final positive outcome of studying and playing music is an increased emotional awareness/intelligence and a greater propensity for prosocial behavior - behavior directed for the good of a group or another individual.

Our brains encode information, initially an act of deliberate consciousness and later in effortless recall; these are examples of explicit (short-term) and implicit/procedural (long-term or consolidated) memory. An aid to driving memory deeper into the brain is to understand the relevance and purpose of the information. Using the example of music again, a pianist learns a complex piece by breaking it into parts, often working on some passages with painstaking detail for effective fingering or other technique; the relevance of complex fingering is that certain hand movements are easier than others and having a predictable and elaborate pattern can also assist in memorization.

Medina closes the book by acknowledging differences among men and women and by advocating for the importance of cultivating curiosity. Returning to the theme of our evolving brains, enhancing our willingness to pursue novel questions and increasing our discernment of innovation solutions becomes more important with humanity’s every step forward.