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.