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.