Lost Horizon - New Frontier

Mt Holmes - YNP

During the 19th century as pioneers moved West, they went with a purpose in mind. They had a vision for a better life on the frontier. The open spaces and freedom of the frontier were a place of opportunity.

Near the close of the century, historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his famous essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, noted that the 1890 Census claimed that the free and open land in the country had been sufficiently settled that there was no longer an identifiable "frontier line."  Turner wrote,

"This brief official statement marks the closing of a great history movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.

Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape to meet changing conditions. The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled  to adapt themselves to changes of an expanding people - to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each areas of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life."

Just as Turner evoked, over a century ago, a belief in the American people to meet changing conditions, so today we are confronted with a world of changing conditions that demand that we change. One of the questions that rises from this perspective is ...

"Whether American institutions are still able "to adapt themselves to changes of an expanding people?".

If the 19th century was the century where the frontier of free land was eclipsed, then the 20th century was the century where the frontier of economic opportunity was eclipsed in favor of the institutions of government and business. In both cases, these institutions created a type of dependency that required individuals to turn over their own individualism to become, essentially, wards of the institution. The egregious of this system were those men and their families that worked the mines and "owed their soul to the company store."

The consequences of reaching a mature state, for both the institutions and the people within their social and organizational contexts, is the loss of a horizon that that marks the frontier that is our future.  As we look at the institutions of society, it is difficult to look beyond them to see what might be in the future. Is our present state of government and business our future, or are they a picture of the past that obscures our vision for the future?

The Necessity of the Frontier

Human beings need frontiers. We need them for we are seekers, discoverers, creators, innovators, and movers-and-shakers.We do not stand still. We seek to acquire, exchange, settle, resettle, destroy, restore, and expand that which is in our reach. For these human behaviors, we need a frontier to give us purpose and a horizon to reach after.

Stand at the edge of the frontier and we see ourselves better than at any point. We find that we are both great and small.  We see beyond our reach. We discover that life is not yet complete, settled and fixed. We realize that change is natural and healthy, as long as it leads towards the horizon of the frontier.

Grant Tetons 2

Without a horizon for our lives, with no frontier, we lose perspective, we retreat into the comfort of what is known and owned.  Our smallness before the frontier becomes diminished within the confines of what we can control. Without a frontier, we lose the better part of ourselves. Instead of initiating to create the future, we react to preserve a treasured, often nostalgic past.

 A generation after his essay on the frontier, Turner published a follow up essay on The Significance of the Section in American History. In it he compares the West of the frontier to the settled civilization of the East.

"The East feared an unchecked democracy, which overturn minority rights, destroy established institutions, and attack vested interests. The buoyant, optimistic, and sometimes reckless and extravagant spirit of innovation was the very life of the West.  In the East innovation was a term of reproach. It always "stalked" like an evil spirit. The East represented accumulated experience, the traditions of the family living generation after generation in a single location and under a similar environment, as President Thwing, of Western Reserve University, has aptly put it. But out in the newer West through most of its history men lived in at least two or three states in the course of their migrations."

These basic human differences become regional, or sectional, cultures. These differences exist today, and mark the tension that makes social change so difficult now.  They are so difficult because once the frontier has been settled, a shift takes place from the freedom and openness that is the frontier to the confines of institutionalization.

The American experience of the frontier is unique for the American West was not first colonized by institutions of government and business, and then the people came. No, the people came, and then their institutions followed. As a result, the Western United States, were not colonies of the East, but their own unique sectional creation.

The New Frontier

The frontier today is still geographic and economic, even more so now, technological and social. The geographic frontier is local, "How can our community thrive in the midst of the chaos of global change?"  The economic frontier line is discovering alternative and complementary resources for communities and their business and organizations.  

The advance of technology is where innovation and creativity is most broadly nurtured as the landscape of the frontier. It is free and open space, its virtual geography is in human ingenuity, relationship and the networks that provide the structure for our interaction. From those networks, the frontiers of science and human knowledge present horizons that are only now coming into view.

Today's line of the frontier is more personal than ever before. If technology and its application in social networks are making a difference that matters, it will because it is utilized for a clear purpose. That purpose is an identified frontier that marks a horizon for us to venture toward. Whatever unexplored, under-achieved, far off goal or aspiration that we have is the frontier of our lives.

It is personal because the social and organizational institutions that defined the parameters of society in the 19th. and 20th. centuries are disintegrating, proving to have run their historic course. It is doubtful that a person graduating from high school or college next spring will spend their entire career with the same company. It is as Frederick Jackson Turner identified above in his essay on sectionalism in American history.  When the frontier is sought, people move to where the opportunities are that mark the horizon.

The challenge of this new frontier, for most of us, is not how to master the latest Facebook social media app or decide which smartphone to purchase. Rather, it is knowing for what purpose do these technological innovations exist.

Activity or Achievement

The evidence to me that we have lost our horizon is how purpose is generally understood.

Here's an example of what I mean.

I take a trip to Florence, Italy, one of the most beautiful and picturesque places in Europe. I go to art galleries, eat fantastic food and drink wonderful wine, climb to the top of the Duomo, and return home to tell the tale of my trip.

In describing the trip, I tell of my flight, the hotel where I stayed, the museums and outlying towns I visited, the meals I had, and show the souvenirs that I purchased. And if you are really interested, I could take you through my credit card statement to show you what it cost me.

What does this description of a great trip tell you?

It is a listing of activities, of what I did. It is an accounting of the energy expended. It doesn't tell you the impact that the trip had upon me. It doesn't tell you how seeing Michangelo's David or the Chapel of San Lorenzo had a transformative effect upon me. It doesn't tell you how I am now different for having gone to the seat of the European Renaissance.

A statement of purpose, which is only a description of doing, is a purpose that has lost its horizon. It is a statement of institutionalized identity. It doesn't tell what it is that I seek to achieve or to become or to create or the impact that I wish to have. It doesn't say what I hope to change or the difference that we seek to make that matters.

The Journey is to Change Us

I use the journey illustration intentionally because to venture towards our horizons is to journey into the future.  And it should change us and the people around us and the organizations where we spend our lives. 018_18

Over a decade ago, I became inspired by the story of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. In that tale, I saw a picture of "the first 21st century leadership team."  I was so inspired, that I persuaded my family to travel parts of the Lewis & Clark Trail with me. On one of our trips, we traveled by train from Chicago to Montana, to reach the portion of the trail that we were to visit.Over the course of 36 hours, we passed through very different geographic landscapes, from green regions of lakes and rivers, to flat, wide expanses of golden prairie to the “purple mountain majesty” of the northern Rockies.

Seeing those same horizons that Lewis & Clark crossed, floating down the Upper Missouri in a replica keel boat, camping where the Corps camped, reading their journals in the geographic setting where they were written, I began to see why their Journey of Discovery impressed me so. It changed the way I perceived the nature and character of leadership.

It changed the way I perceived the nature and character of leadership. I realized that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark understood something two hundred years ago, that we are just now rediscovering about leadership. That personal initiative and mutually respectful, collaborative relationships are the key to organizational leadership in our time. (Read my, now dormant, blog on the expedition, Lewis & Clark for the 21st century to learn more.)

The experience of the trip changed our family. We were no longer a collection of genetically-linked individuals, each pursuing our own individualized personal mandates, in some zero-sum game of parent / sibling rivalry. We had a set of shared experiences that created a bond that is not only still with us a decade later, but the values derived from those experiences define who we are as both individuals and family.

If the journey of our lives or our businesses is only an activity, only an amusement, or only a utilitarian means to provide income for that which we really want to do, then its purpose is passive and limiting.  It can be the source of the short-term thinking and immediate gratification that limits what we can do. For if our purpose does not provide a far enough horizon, that we will not be willing to do the hard work and make the serious sacrifices to achieve what we seek. If so, then that horizon is too close.

However, if we approach our lives and the development of our organizations from the perspective of seeking to identify a lost horizon that sets a new frontier line, then immediately we are invigorated for a journey of self-discovery and future impact.

The New Frontier

We each must find the new frontier. Its far horizon calls us to think long term, to delay gratification, to build social networks of collaborative endeavors, to take responsibility for making a difference beyond our own interests, and to create new institutional structures for the future.

Yet, in the midst of a persistent global recession, these words may ring hallow and seem to lack reality. Surely, to seek for new frontiers when jobs are scarce and money hard to come by, to do this is unrealistic. This is why the frontier exists, to show us that whatever is our experience today, tomorrow presents us with a new horizon.

For me, this perspective about the frontier, and how we as human beings relate to it, may best be described in a poem that Western poet Waddie Mitchell wrote for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. I find it a testimony to the truth that a horizon exists for each on of us if we'd only look up and see. I end with That No Quit Attitude, my favorite of his poems, which celebrates the spirit of the frontier.

THAT NO QUIT ATTITUDE  - Waddie Mitchell

Parker Homestead near Three Forks

While gathering cattle near the ruins of a long abandoned homestead in the shadows of the mountains, questions swarmed around my mind of the people who had claimed there, most forgotten now, and long dead still.

I wonder what had prompted them to leave their worlds behind searching for a life uncertain, in a vast and rugged region up and leave their home and kin for opportunity to find.

Taking little more to start with than an idea, and a reason and a dream of their succeeding in a future yet defined.

Soon these queries led to more like …

Why it is that some folks always need to push their borders out beyond the furthest milestone on a never-ending quest to find new ways and trails to blaze and in the process stretch that realm of what is built and done and known?

From the little draw above me and my pard’s ride with his fine’ns, throwing his bunch with mine now shaded up and settled down.

I could see that he had gone through battle for his pony sporting lather but his smile claimed that he had made it in with everything he’d found.

The sweat and dust and brush streaks on that pair done heaps of speaking as he pulled up near, dismounted and loosen latigo a bit.

He said, “We jumped them in the rough, and would have lost them had we weakened but I swear, this here caballo ain’t got one half ounce of quit.

And that no quit phrase speaks volumes on one’s character and makin’s to a cowboy drawing wages riding ranges of the West.

Them who have it you’ll find usually conquer most their undertakings for the best in them is drawn out when their spirits put to test.

Then I spot my cow dogs bushed up staying well hid from the cattle knowin’ with a cue they’d give all to do anything need done.

I thought then how the most of us will opt to shun that battle never knowin’ fully what we could accomplish or become.

Still, I believe like dogs and horses we’re all born with resolution.

Like muscles and good habits it needs use and exercise, if left dormant, its in jeopardy of lost evolution for eventually it shrivels ups and atrophy and dies.

But when flexed, it blossoms heroes in a source of inspiration for we all recognize that virtue and a no quit attitude.

And it proves its attributes in competition and vocation that evokes appreciation and a show of gratitude.

And since mankind started walking, it has been swifter, higher, stronger, as if pushed by some deep need to keep their limits unconfined,

Almost thriving, always striving for things bigger, better, longer in an unrelenting pursuit of perfection, redefined.

And in this world that is soft complacence there are still a few among the masses who will readily give all to see a job or dream fulfilled.

It’s a trait that’s void of prejudice toward races, sex or classes just demanding its possessor be of valor and strong will.

 Then as we start our cattle homeward lettin’ the dogs bring up the rear, and we leave what’s left of once somebody’s hopes and dreams behind.

I’m convinced that no quit attitude will always persevere. Now its the essence and the promise and the crown of human kind.


Conducting your own 2009 review

We are all approaching our end of a year of many transitions.Four Questsions - Life-Work Coaching  

In the past I've written about using my Four Questions that Every Leader Must Ask as a guide for an end-of-the-year review and a way to plan for the next. 

This year, I have been impacted by people who have helped me see beyond the organizational leadership work that I have been doing for a decade and a half.  The result is a reframing of this material for individuals who living on the thinning line of life and work, and the expansion of my consulting work to include a new coaching program. 

While we do look at the change of the year as a time of reflection and new beginnings, the reality is that we can do this year round. However, if you have not, then there is now time like the present to begin to think differently about yourself as the new year approaches.

Today, in my Weekly Leader column - Reviewing Your 2009 Impact - I present the first step in a process of review and planning that will conclude in next week's column. I've prepared an one page listing of the questions that I ask in the column. I suggest that you print the list and the column and spend a few moments over the next week reflecting on the past year to 18 months.

I've said many times over the past couple years that I believe we are in the midst of one of the most significant transitions in all of human history. This is bigger than President Obama, the IPhone, the recession and the combine effects of 9/11, Katrina and the Iraq/Afghanistan war. The transition is, regardless of what you see happening in Washington, is a shift towards individual responsibility and collaborative relationships that transcend the old bureaucratic structures that are no longer able to manage the complexity of life today.

In order to be at our best, for ourselves, our families, our co-workers, our communities and for the world at large, we each need to thinking clearly about what we believe and the difference we are committed to making today. A starting place is gaining perspective and understanding about where we are and what we need to focus on next year.

I invite you to read today's column and begin to answer for yourself the Life / Work planning questions and if you are so inclined, share them with me. I believe that as you go through this process of reflection, that you'll begin to discuss opportunities that were always there, but that the lack of clarity of insight blocked your vision of them. It is my hope that from this exercise you'll find new opportunities in life and work that will enable you to have an impact that is far beyond what you would have imagine a year ago, or even yesterday.


A Conversation about Constant Change - 4

Q from Ed: Why is it important for human beings to experience discovery? How can we do this on a daily basis? And how do businesses and organizations develop ways to discover?

Delightful question Ed! Exploration, discovery, collaboration and relationships are all closely related. So from that perspective we discover all the time. Exploration is very common, discovery is less common than exploration, collaboration is less common than discovery, and relationships are less common than collaboration. This is how these four are related:

  • Exploration leads to discovery.
  • Discovery makes collaboration possible.
  • Relationships are a specific form of collaboration.

There's a cause-and-effect relationship here: exploration may lead to discovery may lead to collaboration may lead to relationships. All four are innate to human beings and thus part of human nature. That's the basic premise.

Exploration is always active: it's not possible to passively make some discovery. People understand this very well: we automatically question anybody who shares discoveries that are based on experience. "Does that person actually have enough experience relevant to that discovery?" we ask. When Warren Buffet gives advice on how to invest people pay attention because they believe this man has done enough exploration in the domain of investment to be credible. When I would give the same advice people would question my credibility because I obviously don't have any track record.

So to explore you need to take action whose outcome is highly uncertain. That's why exploration is risky: it requires time so that it may be considered wasteful. On the other hand, exploration might lead to discovery which might create new meaning. This is also risky because it may threaten the status quo.

Discovery is the result of exploration. You know this Ed. I loved your recent blog post where you admitted being a member of a geeky IT club in Asheville. You take a chance to go out and explore and this leads to discovery. If you would stay home you would discovery nothing. "Do one thing everyday that scares you" is about exploration and discovery. Discovery also leads to new meaning: your brain changes as you discovery. When you close yourself to any outside influence your brain doesn't change (apart from the normal aging processes). That's why people that love the status quo ridicule anything that's new and that looks like a threat. They believe it's the best way to fend off changes in our brain and our thinking.

Discovery may lead to collaboration. Ask any child (or just watch them). As we make new discoveries we may find new ways to collaborate. Children are being given great freedom to learn all kinds of forms of collaboration, and are actually encouraged to do so. Adults however are assumed to stick to certain forms of collaboration whether they like it or not: wait in the line, pay taxes, meet all kinds of obligations. Once we're assumed to be biologically and cognitively capable of doing the required collaborations for real there seems to be no way back. Fixed ways of collaborating are beneficial because they're the same for everybody, but they're also damaging because the more people buy into them the more resistant they become to change. I've been saying for some time now that there are no more masses (as in mass audience). There are only niches. And this is a great thing, because it increases mobility of people and habits, and it installs a ceiling above which forms of collaboration cannot rise. The moral question then is: "Which one is more important: all subject to the same, or the freedom to be different? And how do you determine importance?"

And finally collaboration may lead to relationships. Relationships emerge when people find value not so much in the collaboration as in the people they collaborate with. This describes institutions really well, but it also describes people falling in love. So in one setting valuing the people more than the collaboration is considered a drawback, and in another setting the same is considered wonderful. Go figure ;-) I believe relationships require continued collaboration in order to be maintained, unless we're in love with someone.

The important thing to realize for businesses and organizations is that discovery may lead to new forms of collaboration. And when new forms of collaboration do emerge this may put existing relationships and networks of relationships under pressure. The existing forms of collaboration define the existing relationships. When new forms of collaboration replace the old ones relationships are automatically re-negotiated. Thus is an unavoidable aspect of human nature, and understanding how these principles affect each organization and the people in them is extremely valuable.

I look at organizations as a network of relationships with continuity. This means the while people may leave the network and others may join the network itself has continuity. In such a network each person has relationships with at least a few other people, and since each person chooses different people the network becomes dense and resilient. If you look at organizations in this respect it becomes obvious that the network cannot be arbitrarily limited to the employees. It also involves customers and partners. Most businesses don't look at their own organization as a network of relationships that also includes their customers, but the human nature of all people involved follow these innate rules.

A very interesting opportunity for discovery is then to go out and explore that network of relationships, discover what people have in common and discover new ways of collaborating and in doing so potentially redefine the network. On a side note: I make a distinction between an organization and an enterprise, but I won't go into that here.

Question for you Ed:

Q: You talk about social contexts, I talk about networks of relationships, but I think we're talking about the same thing. In your professional life, how do you look at your commercial relationships (how are they created, maintained; how do they evolve?) And how do you look at economic value in relationships (compared to contracts)?