What's at Stake?

How do you know when you really know someone?

This is a question that I've pondered often over the years. It has usually happened with someone I thought I knew well acted in a way that was inconsistent with the person that I thought I knew.

In one case, a friend walked away from our friendship. And did so with intention and announcement.

In another case, a friend essentially disappeared. Changed jobs, twice; moved, twice, and the links, even those online disappeared.

I've thought about this over the past few days as I've reflected on seeing James Cameron's technological marvel, Avatar. You should see Avatar in 3D. It is an experience that you should have to see how far the digital film technology has come to be able to create the scenes you'll see.

That said, I was disappointed with the film as a story. I sat there in the theater detached from the story. I thought, "What size HD TV will I need to watch this at home." "Imagine Lord of the Rings with this level of visual effect." "Isn't this Dances with Wolves in Space?"  Granted there is an interesting moral question at the heart of the in-story Avatar technology, but the context and story that is wrapped around it is not. It is too much a retread of simplistic themes we've seen elsewhere.

What makes for a compelling story is compelling characters? What makes for a compelling character is the same thing that makes it possible to really know people.

We need to know what is at stake for them. We need to know what they fear losing, not just what they love.

In Avatar, the Stephen Lang character, Colonel Quaritch is a cardboard cutout of every blood-thirsty maniac soldier we seen before.  He is a cartoon caricature of those who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. We know that because for this Colonel, he has nothing to lose. His only concern is completing his mission. It is what he believes in. We don't really know this man. He's just a vehicle for moving the story along, providing some dramatic contrast between the good guys and the bad guys. As a result, he distracts from the story and makes it less interesting.  It is the real reason that movie Westerns lost favor with the public. Now the setting is outer space.

As a result of watching Avatar, I am rewatching The Lord of the Rings. The story is filled with the realization of what is at stake, of what could be lost, and therefore, what truly matters to people. It is the kind of story that I wish Cameron would have written. Here's a comparison between these two fantasies.

For Frodo Baggins, if he fails in his quest, he not only loses his life, but the Shire as well and all of Middle Earth is lost. Here we see author JRR Tolkien's lament for the loss of the simple human scale values of the medieval world to a modern culture of technology that rules all of us.

For Jake Sully, to foresake his human life to live permanently as a Na'vi seems as normal and simple as changing jobs. Did the world and the people from where he came not mean anything to him? What would his mother say of his choice? Is he just a nice version of Colonel Quaritch, only living to complete the missions given him by his superiors, detached from his humanity with nothing really to lose but his disability?  Is this what he found in the Na'vi? Is their primal culture more authentic and humanitarian than the technological, consumer one that he has lived in all his life? Or is it that he finds something that he really wants - the girl? - that is not worth losing? It isn't really that clear to me.

It is common for people today to speak about what they are passionate about. It is an indicator of what they believe in and what they love.

However, until we understand what they fear losing do we truly know people. It is a far greater motivator than desire. When we know what is at stake then we know what truly matters.


The Leader's Mystery Box

Matt May, author of In Pursuit of Elegance posts JJ Abrams', creator of Lost and, in theaters now, Star Trek, TED talk on The Mystery Box. Watch it, then we'll talk.

Matt's point in pointing to Abrams' talk is to illustrate the importance of the missing element in a product or story that makes it more compelling, more elegant.

How do leaders create The Mystery Box in their leading?

One of the things that I've learned over the years is what I call leadership by vacuum. A vacuum is a space that is empty, but not meaningless. Space is a vacuum, but it isn't meaningless. It is a place where things exist. Here are two ways leaders create a leadership vacuum that must be filled by the leadership of others.

In organizations, leaders create vacuum by refusing to do everything everyone expects them to do.  Instead, leaders limit what they do to what they do best, and they create the space for others to step forward and fill the vacuum. This is how leaders expand leadership throughout their organization.

In this sense, leaders lead by subtracting the number of responsibilities that they are required to do by turning them over to people who can do them better.  The leader is still responsible for the outcome of the responsibility, but not necessarily for the administration of them.

Of course, this requires a high level of maturity on the part of the leader. They must be comfortable with the ambiguity that comes with giving away control, and with admitting publicly that there are areas that they are not the strongest person in the business.

Another place I see this happening is with the difficulty with issue resolution in business. Last month, I wrote about Resolving Complex Issues Simply.

An issue arises between two people or with a process. Who is responsible for resolving the issue? Is it the leader's responsibility? The logical answer may be yes. The realistic answer is no. In fact, deferring all issue resolution to the leader is to create a higher level of crisis in the organization. It forces leadership to be concentrated on putting out fires instead of acting on strategic initiatives.

When leaders create space, open up space for others to lead, they lower the crisis level of issue resolution.  To the degree that they can, issues should be resolved by those who are charged to implement the resolution. The problem is that most organizations are not equipped for leaders to lead this way. In fact the whole structure of most businesses is predicated on no one taking initiative beyond a very narrow range of responsibilities. As a result, not only does the leader have to spend his or her time resolving issues, but everyone else thinks in terms of avoiding taking that responsibility and passing the buck up the chain of command.

Creating a leadership vacuum forces issue resolution to its lowest level of responsibility. It doesn't happen by simply issuing a memo stating so. The structure of the organization has to function to give people the safety and security, the boundaries and methodologies to follow, that results in quicker and less painful issue resolution.

The mystery box in most businesses can be the vacuum that leaders create that compel people to step up and lead. I've seen it happen. It requires an intentional process of change to make it happen. If you want to know more, just ask.


Quick Takes: the help of a guardian angel

We live in a time where visual images become our reference point for understanding who we are and the time we live in. It was this thought that hit me as I read Grant McCracken's post on two new TV shows - In Plain Sight and The Cleaner - that feature a guardian angel motif.

In Plain Sight stars Mary McCormack as a U.S. Federal Marshal who helps relocate witnesses and then care for them when they f*** up, which they do eagerly and often.  She is, in other words, a kind of guardian angel.

The Cleaner stars Benjamin Bratt as a ex-drug addict who comes to the rescue of people in need,  and then cares for them when they f*** up, which they do eagerly and often.  He is, in other words, a kind of guardian angel. 

We are drawn to the idea of angelic intervention.  But of course TV has too much integrity to go for celestial trumpets, fluffy wings, smiling cherubim.  No, televisual angels come in street clothing and street cred.  Our angels are troubled, this is meant to make them troubling, and this is meant to turn TV into art. 

I don't get to watch much TV. So, I haven't seen either these shows, but I plan to catch up on them at their websites. I understand the idea behind the shows. I understand the connection of a stranger caring for another stranger. I understand being a guardian angel. It is to a large extent a factor in my work as a consultant.

I am a fan of the George Clooney film, Michael Clayton. I am because as I watched it for the first time, I realized that in my work as a consultant, that I'm a fixer. There is a guardian angel aspect to his role in the law practice.  He cares for people in trouble.

The guardian angel / fixer theme is a well used theme in film and television. There was the angel in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Michael Landon was an angel in Highway to Heaven, as was Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel and David Boreanaz' vampire Angel.

What explains this character device? 

Two thoughts:
1. In spite of  "rugged individualism" as central theme in our culture, the theme of helpfulness is also present.  We see it in the image of the Boy Scout helping the elderly woman across the street. We see in people who take in stranded travelers, abandoned children and stray dogs.  I certainly see it in the out-pouring of help for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. 

A guardian angel is a helper, a servant. For almost a half century, the idea of servant leadership has gained increasing prominence. 

So, along with this independent streak is this helpful, servant one that provides a sufficient level of dramatic tension to make stories interesting.

2. I'd like to think that there are some producers, script writers and film companies who also see that there has been a diminishment of the ethic of service in public life.  Watch enough TV, and you can't help but be carried away with not just egotism run rampant, but actually sort of the reverse of my first comment. Instead of public life being filled with rugged individualists who are exemplars of servant leadership. We have celebrity figures who have an entourage that follows them everywhere, doing for them what they can't do for themselves. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite films, The Emperor's Club with Kevin Kine. In it, Kline a classics professor at a New England prep school, instructs his students about ancient values. Over the door of his class is a plaque commemorating the exploits of Shutruk Nahunte. The plaque reads:

I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshushinak I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my God, Inshushinak. Shutruk Nahunte - 1158 B.C.

Kline admonishes his class that Nahunte is a forgotten leader because he he was simply ambitious. The the theme of the film as well as of his classs, Kline tells them, "great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance."

Whether the character in In Plain Sight or The Cleaner are ones who will become significant is unknown.  What is known is that legacy is tied to service.  As Waite Philips said, "The only things we keep permantly are those we give away."

 

The Dark Knight of the Soulless

Spoiler alert!

With the advent of The Dark Knight, I can safely say that post-modernism has reached its zenith in film. 

The film is a masterpiece of the filmmaking art. It is a narrative of stunning ambiguity with a collection of heroes, villains and anti-heroes whose lack of individualism is a picture of our world at its darkest.

What I mean is that we live in a time where personal identity has become submerged in the superficiality of celebrity morality plays and fashion status. We now live in a time where people live serial identities, seeking authenticity and truth in a social landscape that lacks a ground for it.

I heard recently a comment that the old cultural forms have a difficult time finding traction today because social class distinctions have given way to fashion and cultural status as the driving interpreters of society, and of personal identity.

At the heart of The Dark Knight is a tripartite relationship between Batman, The Joker and the new DA Harvey Dent. As my friend and comic book philosopher, Tom Morris (see Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, a book that Tom and his son Matt, a filmmaker, co-edited.) commented to me this morning: There is a theme running through comic books and Batman in particular, that these heroes, villains and anti-heroes need their counterpart to be complete. This is an important theme in The Dark Knight.

The Joker, magnificently played by Heath Ledger, needs Batman as his alter-ego in order for his mad genius to be seen for the evil greatness that it is. Ledger's Joker may be the greatest villain ever on film. What makes him such is his total amorality. He has nothing to lose, and therefore is totally free to wreck destruction in ways that highlight his sociopathic personality. Here is one moral lesson about freedom that is worth reflecting on.

Batman on the other hand needs the crusading hero DA Harvey Dent to become the hero that Gotham City can believe in. Batman, the alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, does good by being bad, simply put. He knows that unless a true hero emerges, he will go further and further into amoral destructiveness to rid Gotham City of crime, avenging the death of his parents, and becoming more unhinged from reality, and closer to the person of The Joker.

Harvey Dent is a talented, ambitious district attorney who decides to take on the mob.  To me, in one viewing, it was not clear to me whether his ambition to beat the mob is noble or self-serving. This ambiguity in my mind is due to Dent's practice of flipping a two headed silver dollar piece to make his decisions. This lack of core set of principles ultimately is his undoing as he takes on the persona of Harvey Two-Face after his burning by The Joker.  Dent's relationship to Batman is complicated by his romance with Bruce Wayne's childhood girlfriend, Rachel Dawes. Bruce Wayne becomes his political benefactor to thrust Dent into the role of Gotham City's hero, the hero that Batman can never be.

In the end, The Joker is defeated, Dent is dead, and Batman disappears into the night to take up his crusade to rid Gotham City of crime. He lives with the ambiguity of doing good as a hunted vigilante.

When I left the theater, I was disturbed by what I saw. It wasn't the violence or even the amorality. It was something deeper. Joker in his madness was the only character who logically acted from a clear set of principles. He was consistent and clear as a character. Batman/Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent came off as characters without a clear sense of what their principled core might be. Batman's vigilantism and Dent's crusader persona are masks hiding the ambiguity that resides at the core of their identities. Is Bruce Wayne looking for who he is through Batman's crusade to avenge his parents' deaths? Is Harvey Dent, like many in the political sphere, looking for affirmation through the characterization of being a hero or savior?

In the end, what we know is that The Joker in his sociopathic amorality was no match for Batman's incorruptibility. That Harvey Dent's heroism was a sham masking a personal character that was corruptible. And that the true heros were the men and woman, criminal and non, on the two ferries who walked to the brink of pulling the trigger and did not, believing to do so was wrong, accepting their imminent death sentence that did not come. 

We live at the intersection of two era's. An older one where values and ethics became icons held up as the pillars of society's institutions, yet rarely upheld in behavior and practice. And a new one where there is no ground for determining good and evil, no objective basis for identity, no certainty, only people in real and virtual relationships with a shared experience of ambiguity. 

Are these our only choices? I don't think so. Our choices are determined by not only what we value, but also what we are committed to creating. Is Gotham City the world as I know it?  In part yes, and yet, everyday I encounter people who live intentionally quiet, humble lives that are heroic in their own way. They are the people on the ferries who will walk off, go home, fix dinner, write a check to the United Way and spend 24 hours walking in their communities Relay For Life.  They are the people who adopt autistic and physically handicapped children from around the world, bringing them into a home of love. They are the people who move to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and start organizations to rebuild communities where they are and will ever be outsiders.

Ambiguity is a choice. It is not a given. You and I can choose to be someone without an alter-ego to complete us. This is where personal strength is found. To be able to stand when all else is failing apart.  This is what was so disappointing about Harvey Dent's turn of character. He lacked that inner core of resilience to face the horror of his loss and of his physical deformity. As I told my son as we walked to the car after the show, I was disappointed, because I never saw Dent as the hero Gotham City needed. Yet he was simply a plot device in Batman's ongoing narrative of vengence and self-discovery. The real hero, along with the citizens, was quiet Commissioner Gordon, who put himself in harm's way so that the progression of events to their denoument could take place. In reality, he is the better foil to Batman, and I'm glad that he has lived to see another day.


Welcome to America, Maestro Morricone

Ennio Morricone is coming to America. Well, his music has been here for over 40 years, but he is coming to conduct his first concert in America. If you don't know who Morricone is, I'm sure you've heard his music.

The NYTimes has a nice article on him. Here's a hint of the man.

Mr. Morricone chooses his commissions based almost entirely on his trust in the director, he said. “Sometimes I read the script, sometimes I read the main part of the story, and sometimes I just watch the film when it’s done and that’s it,” he said.

“When you work in cinema, you can’t exclude anything,” he added. “Lately I have scored a film, and the film had not been shot yet. It was just being shot, and I just heard the director’s story of the film. This is not as negative as it seems to be, because it gives the composer the possibility to just express music — music and only music.”

Mr. Levinson (Director Barry Levinson) said that unlike many film scorers, Mr. Morricone does not want to hear the temporary music many directors use while shooting. He watches a movie without accompaniment and takes notes, sometimes coming up with themes immediately. “They usually give you less time than necessary, but I usually ask for a month,” he said. “When I have to compose I have no holidays. I write every day. And Saturday and Sunday are even better, because the phone doesn’t ring that much.”

There are a number of very fine compilations of his music. I suggest the following:

Yo Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone - very nice.

A Fistful Of Film Music: The Ennio Morricone Anthology - Two discs from his music from the many Italian spaghetti Westerns filmed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Cinema Paradiso: The Classic Film Music Of Ennio Morricone - Disc has some of his more famous compositions from The Mission, Once Upon a Time in the West and the Untouchables.

This will start and inspire the acquisition of more of Morricone. 

There are also more treatments of his music, such as Metalica's use of Ecstasy of God (my favorite Morricone tune), John Zorn's avant guard homage The Big Gundown and soundtrack music of his less conventional work, Crime and Dissonance.

The richness, beauty and breadth of Ennio Morricone's work suggests that no only is he a creative genius, but that his focus is not simply on some narrow self-expression, but rather an artist who interacts with the film maker to tell a story.  In the deluxe set of discs that comes with Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, there is one about Morricone.  Remarkably, Leone had him write  and record the music before filming.  Then during filming, they would play the music as the film rolled. This is particularly telling in the climatic scene of the three protagonists who are in search of a cache of gold.  It is one of my favorite scenes as Eli Wallach's character Tuco runs in circles through this huge cemetery looking for an unmarked grave. As the camera follows him in circles, the music continues to gain momentum.  Tuco's own obsession to find the gold also gains momentum.  It is a masterful scene as the whole movie is.

I never tire of listening to Morricone. Whether it is his spaghetti westerns or his music from The Mission, The Untouchables or the numerous Italian films, Ennio Morricone is the master of film music. 

Welcome to America Maestro!!!   

Here are some of the over 500 films and television shows that he has scored:
Mission to Mars (2000)
City of Joy (1992)   
Casualties of War (1989)    
Young Einstein (1988)
Cinema Paradiso (1988)   
The Untouchables (1987)
The Mission (1986)
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
White Dog (1982)
The Thing (1982)   
"Marco Polo" (1982)
Days of Heaven (1978)
A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)   
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)   
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)   
For a Few Dollars More (1967)
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)


United 93

Just returned from watching United 93, the first film depicting the events of September 11, 2001.  It is not a dramatic film in the typical theatrical sense.  It is simply a depiction of what happened during those morning hours in September.  Some of the actors are people who are playing the roles that they had on that day. We watch as detached observers as events unfold. We know what will happen, but are unable to step in and help.

The action takes place on United flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, in the control rooms of the FAA, and in the NORAD air command center.

As the film ends, not a sound could be heard.  It is not a tear-jerker of a movie in the traditional sense.  It is a very sad, moving film.  It treats the victims with the respect that is due them.  We are placed in their context wondering how we would respond.  The image of men and women rising up out of their seats to charge the terrorists will give others the courage to do the same if ever, God forbid, it comes to that again.

Whether the impression is intended, though I suspect it is, I left with two other reactions.  One is that really poor communication and coordination between government agencies didn’t begin with Katrina. It is a system lost in internal process without clarity about outcomes. 

Two, that our divisive, self-interested political culture increases the prospects that terrorism will succeed. Why, because while politicians work to pad their campaign money chests with lobbyist money, the bureaucratic system of government cannot function in a state of crisis.

The lack of repeat terrorist attack within the bounds of our country should not bring comfort as long as the political establishment is a divide house about the war on terrorism.

What the film does not answer is why this happened, only that it did.  It does not caricature the terrorists.  They simply are who they are.  A diverse group of young Moslem men whose faith overcomes their own fear of death, to bring terror to our land.  The same can be said for the passengers on United 93. They are a diverse group who conquer their own fear of death when they realize that death is inevitable. There is a lesson in their example.

I know the retelling of this story is painful for those who lost family and friends on United 93, the other flights on 9/11, and at the Pentaton and the World Trade Center.  However, because this movie exists, it may provide a means of reminding ourselves of what happened so that we won’t bow to the petty power interests of the political elites who twist the story into being something that it is not.   

Go see it.  You will not be entertained.  You will leave saddened and a bit affirmed that even in a unresponsive bureaucratic culture human beings can join together to do what has to be done.  We see in the Katrina response, and we see it here, in United 93.  It is that very willingness of individuals to take initiative to do what's right that is the counter to the terrorist's commitment to bring death to our families and land.

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V for Vacuity

V for Vendetta is the Matrix brothers' latest attempt a visual pop political philosophizing.  The Matrix was intriguing because it raised questions.  Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions merely showed that the Wachowski brothers are unable to think coherently.

V for Vendetta picks up where the Matrix series left off in terms of raising questions and failing to be coherent.

V for Vendetta is simply a tale of a victim of government chemical/nuclear/biological testing gone wrong who becomes a terrorist.  Strangely, he doesn't become a vigilante in the guise of Batman.  The parallels between Batman Begins are compelling.  In V for Vendetta, both V and Evey are victims in their youth of powerful forces that destroy their lives, not unlike Bruce Wayne.  Bruce becomes Batman to avenge his parents death and save Gotham City from destruction.  The young V from cell V becomes Guy Fawkes to wreck vengence upon those government leaders who made him the monster that he is.  Evey's character is more complicated, more compelling, and ultimately more satisfying in the end.  And it certainly helped that it had the courageous actor Natalie Portman in the role.

Reviews have pointed to the ambiguity of V's terrorist purpose.  Is it because of what was done to him by the government or because the government is a fascist dictatorship?  V is a political opportunist, who uses the weakness and corruption of national leaders, to bring down the British government.  He does this not because he is an enlightened lover of freedom, but because of his hatred for the people that used him as an experiment.  The action of the story centers around his quest for vengence.  The rationalization of his actions are the typical of high-minded intellectuals who want their destructive behavior to be viewed in a positive light.  In essence, the only no real difference between him and John Hurt's Chancellor are the means of their violent behavior.  There is no love for the people.  No love, only hate and violence.

Reviewers are correct in questioning whether the Wachowski brothers are saying that terrorism in some cases is okay.  Check here, here and here.  What is the difference between a revolutionary and a terrorist?  That is another Matrix-type question the Wachowski brothers fail to answer.  Can you answer that?

I was ambivalent about the movie throughout until the very end.  The bombing of the Houses of Parliament is distrubing.     It took me back to the WTC destruction. The Wachowski's want us to believe - I suspect because it is their movie - that this is a legitmate action for revolutionaries.  That V's is a legitimate course of action.  To even suggest that is troubling. 

The intellecual vacuity of this movie could have been absolved if V had taken seriously the Edmund Burke idea that he alludes to in his television address.  Burke over two hundred years ago wrote, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."  This notion near the beginning of the film is an important one.  How much more interesting would it have been for V to have taken it seriously and instead of focusing on killing bad guys, he would have focused on moving the masses beyond participation in a political theater stunt to something more genuine and progressive. 

The London masses gather across the Thames from Parliament in their Guy Fawkes garb.  The military stands down because no orders come to shoot them down.  Evey and Chief Inspector Finch watch from a distance the explosions and fireworks of Parliament as the government is brought down.  They may be the only two who understand the reality of the situation.

V for Vendetta ultimately is unsatisfying.  It sets up a straw man of facism, and wants us to believe that this is the great crisis facing civilization today. What this film shows is the persistence of the revolutionary notions of the 1960's.  It fails to understand that nature of our time.  This is Hollywood's understanding of the world, and it fails to answer the questions of our time.

I encourage you to see V for Vendetta.  See it with family and friends. Talk about it. Talk about it seriously.  Talk about the ideas thrown around that never find a suitable foundation for action.  Talk and try to understand what is Evey's next step.