What Defines Us?

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Family

I grew up in a family environment where family history verged on ancestry worship.

Connection to the past mattered. I have a folder in my photo file of the grave stones of family members, from both parent's sides of the family.

I regularly recognize in my interactions with people how my family has defined me. My mother's parents (below) had more to do with this than anyone in my family.

GrandmereGrandfather

What my extended family gave me as a child, and continues to provide me as an adult, is a ground upon which to stand that defines a part of who I am. Increasingly, I am aware that this is a fading reality in our society.

It is not that family doesn't matter. It just matters in a different way. Family has become, like any social relationship, a vehicle for self-expression and social positioning.  This is a result of the fragmentation of social and organizational life.

In the pre-modern past, one's identity was less individual and more social, defined by family affiliation and community proximity. Where you lived and what your family did defined you.

Today, we are all individualists, with a choice as to how we are defined.

Recently, this question came to mind as I talked with a friend about her past, and how it was filled with traumatic experiences from early childhood into middle age. I was amazed by her ability to stand apart from the abuse of her past and see it objectively. While that did not cancel out the deep emotional trauma she felt, her pain did not define her. She was not her pain, nor the abuse she received. She was something else, something more. For her family is central in defining who she is and is largely responsible for the healing she has experienced.

Questions

As I thought about her experience and her response to it, and reflected back upon my own family experience, a number of questions began to come to mind. Here are some of them.

To what extent are we defined by ...

        What we do?

        Where we work?

        Where we were born?

        Where we went to school?

To what degree do  ...

        Our choices,

        Our actions,

        Our network of relationships, and,

        Our daily work and recreation schedule

                ... define us?      

Is our personal identity a manufactured public perception like a product brand? Or, are we the person others think us to be?

I don't think there is an easy answer to any of these questions. There are answers, however they are complex, not simple.

The Question of Potential

Each question above I've thought about often, and in various ways, for almost 40 years. I used to think that our identities are unitary, singular, only one thing, that we are born with an identity.

I, now, see us human beings as much more complex. The range and possibilities for our sense of who we are is greater that we can imagine. One way to understand our identity is to understand what our potential means.

Potential is that unexplored, undeveloped part of us, born from the talent, gifts and experience that expands our awareness and reach in life. It is all future and very little past. It is the difference that we make that has yet to be realized. 

Potential is not something fixed and set at birth. It isn't a commodity. It is unbounded openness. It is not only unknown, but undefinable before its realization.

Potential is not additive but exponential. It isn't a container of what we haven't achieved. It is a platform from which our whole life & work is built. The more we build upon, the greater our potential grows. Our potential creates opportunities for new possibilities in our life and work. 

The only limitation on our potential is time. We must apply ourselves to reaching our potential everyday. I'm not advocating for becoming a workoholic. Rather, I am suggesting we develop an opportunistic attitude about each day. We look for opportunities to make a difference, to have an impact, and to affect change within the contexts where we live and work.

If we build toward reaching our potential each day, then over the course of our lifetime we reach far beyond our present abilities. If we did not try to grow or think that potential doesn't mean very much, then a growing sense of lost time and opportunity will grow within us. I do not wish that feeling on anyone. Regret and longing are not comforting thoughts when one is old and past one's prime.

My point is that we need to see potential as an ascending line of development throughout the course of our lives. This is the inner truth of our experiences of transition in life and work. Each transition point is one where we are being pulled to change in order to fulfill our potential. In each life or work transition is opportunity, if we only see it that way. 

In order to continue to reach for our potential, we must stop doing certain things and begin to learn and master new skills, attitudes, behaviors as we move into new social and organizational contexts. This is the secret to mastering our transitions in life and work. It is the secret to being adaptive and reaching our potential each day.

The Question of Impact

To understand and identify our potential is to understand our potential Impact.

Impact is the change that makes a difference that matters.

Embedded in that statement are the values, talents, relationships, strategies, structures and ways of measurement that are required to live a full, healthy, meaningful life. 

Impact isn't just what we accomplish or what we achieve. It is also opens up new potential, fresh opportunities, and environments that may not have existed even yesterday.

Impact never reaches a final point of completion, either. It is a stage along a path of development. Our potential is the same, not a fixed quantity, but something that grows and develops with initiative and action, or, diminishes from inaction.

We are not human machines, but living systems that are constantly evolving. We are always either growing or declining physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This growth is not set, fixed or predetermined. It may show itself as a pattern of development, but it is not formulaic. We are open and responsive to the full range of experience that we have. Our potential for impact is far greater than we can imagine.

To envision our impact is to imagine our potential.

To imagine our potential is to understand better who we are as persons within the social and organizational contexts of our life and work.

To define ourselves is to see that we are both the same and always changing. This is human nature at its most basic.

The Shift in Question

It has become clear to me that the way we understand what defines us has to change. Up to now personal identity has been seen as a kind of object, a thing that we possess, and lasts our life time.

I am (fill in the blank).

One of the reasons why we viewed our identities this way is that for most of human history we lived in homogeneous communities formed by generations of families. But over the past couple hundred years, that social context has been eroding as families fragment through relocation to new places for economic, ethnic and political reasons. Identities have become more fluid as social interaction required greater flexibility and adaptation to change in society.

As a result, we must learn to adapt to the relationships as they present themselves. This shows us that our sense of self is far more fluid and maleable than maybe we once thought. In this sense, our core identity ends up having multiple expressions, which may appear to us as different identities.

The question that confronts us most directly, then, is what makes up that core identity that allows us to be the same person in very different social and organizational contexts? Or to state it differently how can I be a person of integrity who knows how to find strength for any situation?

The Question of Identity

This post, like many I've written over the past three years, has taken not minutes to create, but weeks, and in this case months, to write. They have because so much of what I write is done in a quest to discover my own understanding of what I sense or observe in my and other's life and work. This quest to understand defines me as much as anything I know. What I learn feeds the importance that integrity has for me.

What I write therefore is often much more personal than may be evident. But it is also social because I writing in the context of many conversations and experiences that I have with people and organizations.

I find that many people have the same issues or needs as I do.The need is to be clear about who we are, and how that factors into how we live each day.

The Place of Desire

A third thing that I've discovered about personal identity, along with the importance of integrity, and our potential impact, is that we are driven by desires. We often talk about these desires as passions.

I have come to this view through the work of philosopher/ theologian James K.A. Smith. He writes,

"Because I think we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities - what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are - is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate - what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like."

I find this to be true, and yet hard to get at it. It is so much easier to create a list of values or strengths or traits, and say, that is me. But down deep inside of us is a presence that is passionate for the things that matter.

As I have written before (The Platform of Desire 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5) on desire, I see that there are three principal desires out of which the whole of our identity finds expression.

Three Goals of Life-Work - Simple

These desires are for Personal Meaning, Happy, Healthy Relationships and To Make a Difference that Matters in our live and work.  These desires form the core of our identity. They do because they are ways that we define what we love.

These desires must form the core of our identity because the platform of our identities in the past is eroding.  No longer will families live in inter-generational community. No longer will we work for the same company all our lives. No longer will we find homogeneous environments where everyone finds support and affiliation with people who are like them.

The future is open, diverse and filled with constant change. For this reason our identity cannot be based on external circumstances, but rather on who I am within. And who I am is what I love and desire to create in my life.

When our desires drive us to clarifying the values that give us identity, then we know where to find meaning in our life.

When our desires point us toward the kind of people with whom we can have happy, healthy relationships, then we will know how to be the kind of person who can create those relationships.

When our desires define the impact we want to have, then we know what our life's purpose ultimately means.

As I have worked through a number of scenarios that could possibly define who we are, increasingly they became more complex. The more complex they became the more I realized that the picture I saw was a picture of all the choices from which to build our lives. As a result I was pushed back to what I had discovered before.

There is more to say, and I will in future posts. But let me leave this long post with this final thought.

To live is to love.

To love is to give.

To give is to live a life where meaning, happiness, health and impact flow from the daily experience of seeking to fulfill the potential that we each have to make a difference that matters. 

Series Note: This post is the first in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.

Leading by Vacuum

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"Nature abhors a vacuum."

Aristotle

Physics IV:6-9


Aristotle is speaking about flow.

See the two channels in this stream. One is meandering and the other is more direct. The meandering one has established its own path which is different from the wider stream bed. I've seen this before in streams near my house as a child. The stream bed was dredged of silt, and it looks like a long straight culvert. Within a few months, the meandering curves return. Flow finds its own path of least resistance.

Professor Adrian Bejan writes,

"Everything that moves, whether animate or inanimate is a flow system. All flow systems generate shape and structure in time in order to facilitate this movement across a landscape filled with resistance..."

It applies to the function of leadership in a way that may surprise you.

Hierarchy of  Structure

The conventional view of leadership is that it is a role within an organizational structure. The people within that structure are divided between leaders and followers.  It looks sort of like this diagram. Responsibility is set at the top and accountability is to the level above. It is built for order, control and efficiency.

This kind of structure worked for a long time, many millennia, for many reasons. Principally, limited access to education and technology kept many people from advancing beyond the physical labor of the family farm or the factory. These cultural situations acted as restrictions on the growth of this structure. Sources of friction, like these, are rapidly being removed, the result is that the place of leadership in organizations is changing.

By place I mean function. The function of leadership in this older hierarchical model was management. The function of leadership in the future will be something quite different. Instead of managing order, it is creating opportunity for leadership.

FlowLeadership

The Flow of Leadership

A vacuum is an open space.

Think of two spaces. A bowl full of water and a sponge.

The sponge is less dense, has more open space than the water in the bowl. Place the sponge in the bowl, and the water flows into the sponge until it can hold no more.

Take that same bowl of water, and leave it out on your kitchen counter long enough, and the water in the bowl will evaporate into the air. The water in the bowl is denser than the air. However, for it to flow into the air it must change into water vapor. 

This metaphor describes the changes and differences that I see in leadership between the 20th and 21st centuries.

In the older model, the corporation absorbed the raw talent into its organizational structure.

Today, there are fewer corporate jobs, and so people are adapting to a world of independence, entrepreneurism, and networks of interdependency.

This is the difference is between a closed system of a few leaders and many followers and an open system where everyone can function as a leader. It may depend upon how you define leadership.

These changes, however, are not caused by our ability to define words. Instead, it is defined by our ability to interpret the natural changes that are taking place all around us.

Adrian Bejan's point above is that nature's pattern is one of flow from one place to another following the path of least resistance. I recommend his book, Design in Nature, as an introduction to an understanding of flow in science.

The flow of leadership then is to remove the barriers, the restrictions, the obstacles and the controls that bar people from developing as leaders.

Is leadership, then, a function of management or is leadership a function of who we are as human beings?

Or, let's reverse the question.

Are human beings born as management functions? Or, are we born to lead, to make a difference with our lives?

It isn't a question of nature versus nurture in human development.

It is instead a question of how human beings function in modern organizational structures.

It is a question of human purpose first, and, and organizational purpose and structure second.

Remove the barriers that block human beings from fulling their potential, and leadership develops.

Create openness, and leadership throughout the social and organizational setting will result.

Leadership in the 20th century was a product of organizational structure. Leadership in the 21st is a product of human action.

Simply put,

Leaders take personal initiative to create impact, to make a difference that matters.

The flow of leadership, therefore, is the change that results from the human action rising from the individual initiative that fills the open spaces of opportunity to create the impact that is needed in each individual situation.

This means that in organization structure after 20th. century models must change

The role of executive changes from one who manages processes to one who facilitates the creation of opportunity and the development of the practice of leadership throughout the company.

The structure changes from a monolithic hierarchical one to a collection of smaller, networked communities of leaders.

In this respect, companies are no longer simply places of employment, but rather places of human formation.

The transition is not an easy one, but a necessary one. It is not easy because the most fundamental structure of the modern world is required to change. What is that structure? The concentration of power and affluence into the hands of those who are designated as leaders.

SharedLeadershipImpact

Leading by vacuum

The title of this post is a way I have come to describe what happens in an organization that opens up the opportunity for people to learn to take initiative to create impact.

We create a leadership vacuum when we refuse to do that which we are not able to do.

In other words, I only do that which I can do.

This isn't a rationalization for the avoidance of responsibility.  It is rather an intentional recognition that each person has gifts to offer to the functioning of the organization. When leaders claim more responsibility, more authority, or more control than they are effectively able to manage, they are at the same time restricting the possibility for the leadership potential of others to be realized.

Here's how it works.

1. Do that which you can do. Invite others to do that which they can do. Be a team of shared initiative and contribution.

2. Celebrate your values by creating a culture of unity and commitment to a shared purpose for your relationships and your work together.

3. Create an organizational structure open to change and personal initiative to create impact.

An open structure of shared responsibility for each person to realize their own potential for making a difference that matters is the future of organizations.

Executive leaders as a result push the responsibility for developing the processes and policies of the company down the organizational chart to the point of implementation.  They also are constantly communicating the Why of the companies values along side the How of the companies policies and approach.  They do this by being clear how the values of the company are functioning throughout the organization. 

Like a stream, openness for leadership helps the organization finds its path of least resistance to create impact.

Like a vacuum, where there is openness to make a difference, people step forward to fill the space provided for them to make a difference. When each person does what they do best through their own personal initiative to create impact, then the leadership capacity of the organization expands to become its greatest asset. This is 21st. century leadership.      

Update:

This post was published March 4, 2012 as an introduction for two presentations that I gave in Ventura, California, March 16-17, 2012. Here are links to those two presentations.

The Flow of Leadership

The Flow of Community

A follow up to this post was published as Still Waters Still Flow.

 Attribution Some rights reserved by Phillie Casablanca


Connect, Communicate & Contribute

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Engagement is the hot leadership strategy these days. On some subliminal level, we know what it means. But on a practical level, it is much more difficult to define. It is like so many ideas during this time of epic transition in society.  Abstractions are easier to understand that actual actions.

I'm involved in a project with the Presbyterian Churches (PCUSA) in North Carolina to raise money for our ministries on college and university campuses. It is more than a fund raising project. It is an engagement one, as we engage all segments, levels and congregations of the North Carolina Presbyterian world to support our work with students, faculty and university administrators.As we have worked through the various strategies that we need to successfully meet our financial goals, we are at the same time affecting change in people's perceptions and actions. This is very much what engagement means in its current use.

Our engagement strategy is built around actions that we are asking people and their churches to take. In this sense engagement, isn't just marketing, but encouragement to action. The emphasis on action, rather engagement, is because engagement is an ambiguous term. It can mean only mental engagement. And ultimately that sort of engagement does not produce results. Actions builds confidence, and confidence builds strength. So the goal of any engagement process should be more people participating, action, doing, taking initiative in three specific areas that we have identified as critical to our success.

We are focused on three types of actions: Connection, Communication and Contribution. If we succeed in increasing the level of connection, communication and contribution, then our campaign will be successful. This is true for any organization.

The simple idea that lies behind connecting, communicating and contributing is the importance of personal initiative. If you want people to be engaged, then they have to take initiative. When their initiative is focused on making connections with people, communicating their mission in terms of a story, and intentionally and strategically contributing by making a difference that matters, then engagement ceases to be a cool abstract business idea, and a living reality within your organization.

I cannot emphasize enough that the key is creating an environment where people feel free to take initiative to connect, communicate and contribute. If there is fear or too many boundaries to cross or obstacles to overcome, then they won't.

What does it mean to Connect, Communicate and Contribute?

Here's a starting point for each.

Connection: Connection

We all move through our lives in relationships with others. Some people are family, others are friends, many are colleagues and the vast majority are people who are nameless faces that we pass by along our life's journey.

There are three keys to connection.

The first key is that through our connections we open ourselves up to a broader, more diverse context.  The perspective we gain helps us to better understand who we are and how we fit in the social and organizational settings where we live and work.

The second key is our connecting strengthens community. When I introduce one person to another, the opportunities that can grow from that connection far out weight the ones we have without those connections. Living in isolation, which is not the same as being an introvert, weakens the institutions that society depends upon for its strength.

The third key is that when we connect, we are placing ourselves in a relationship of potential mutuality of contribution. I can pinpoint people with whom I connect with around the world for whom our mutual support for one another is an important foundation strength for our lives. We don't connect just to receive something from someone, but also to give in mutual benefit.

Communication: Communicating

With the growth of social media, everyone is a communicator. However, what do we mean by communication?

The most common fallacy regarding communication is that it is about what I communicate to others.  It is the old model of information distribution as communication.

The kind of communication that matters, that engages people to participate and contribute, is one that is more like a conversation. It is a two exchange, rather than simply a one-way download of my opinion.

The real purpose behind communication is to establish a connection that builds an environment of respect, trust, commitment, and contribution. This produces real conversations that matter. This is how communication becomes genuine engagement.

Contribution:  

I have seen so many organizations during my professional career that were languishing because there was no spirit of contribution.By this I mean, the people who were the organization did not see themselves as the owners of its mission. They were employees hired to do a job.

A culture of contribution is built upon a foundation of appreciation and thanks.

Typically, people see thanks as a response to a gift of some kind. As a response, it is less an act of initiative, though deciding to write a note, rather than sending an email, is a greater act of initiative because the effort and cost are more. 

The purpose here is to understand how increasing contributions by people is a form of engagement. Five Actions of Gratitude - blogpixRED

The Five Actions of Gratitude are acts of personal initiative. They are intentional and strategic. They are acts of mutuality that provide meaning and reality to the connections that we've made. Let's take a quick look at each to understand their function as sources of contribution. I've written more extensively about this under the title, The Stewardship of Gratitude.

Say Thanks: Too often saying thanks is a way we close a conversation. That is not what this is. Instead, we are expressing a perspective that identifies how the connection to someone, group or community has made a difference to them.  Our giving of thanks contributes to the strengthening of the ties that bind a social or organizational setting together.  I've heard it said that Saying Thanks is the "lubrication" that greases the wheels of society, making them run smoothly.  This is part of its contribution.

Give Back: When we give back in service, we are giving, contributing to a person, an organization or a community that has given to us. This is the heart of what we know as volunteerism and philanthropy. For many people, this is where our most significant contributions are made.

Make Welcome: This act of hospitality, or Hostmanship as Jan Gunnarsson suggests, creates an environment of openness, inviting people to join as participants who give, create, contribute their gifts and talent.  Openness and hostmanship are not automatic actions. They are intentional actions of initiative that create the opportunity for an organization to develop a culture of open contribution. Where there is openness to contribute, there is engagement.

Honor Others: When we practice honor, we elevate the human connection that exists in an organization or a community. I cannot think of an more important contribution than to create an environment where each person is honored with respect and thanks for the contributions that they make. Do this, and the motivation to contribute will grow.

Create Goodness: If we were to live to create goodness, we'd spend our days as contributors, and less as passive recipients of others creative goodness. My vision of this is to see an organization where every single employee take personal initiative to create goodness that makes a difference that matters.  To do this means that we'd face all those obstacles and cultrual barriers to engagement, and create a place where people can discover a fulfilling life of contribution as creators of goodness.

Strategic Connection, Communication and Contribution

These actions of personal initiative are not tactics for failing systems to buffer themselves against the harshness of a declining situaiton. Instead,these are strategies of change that help leaders and their organizations make the necessary transition from the organizational forms of the past into those that emerging. These are strategies of engagement because that create a different social environment for people.

At some fundamental level, we'd have to address the organization's structure to determine to what extent it can support a growing environment of connection, communication and contribution. This is the most difficult question because are embedded forms that are resistant to change. They do not adapt well to creative forces from outside of their own control. Yet, the engagement are identifying with these three strategies is an intentional relinquishing of control so that people are free to create their own ways of contributing.

In this sense, leadership shifts from a control mandate to a facilitating, equipping and visioning one. Leaders create an environment of openness so that personal intiative can create new structures for contribution. As a result, leaders become the keep and nurturer of the values of the company. They are constantly reminding everyone of these values of personal initiative, creativity and contribution.  They are protective of this openness that produces engagement.

The future belongs to those people who can create an organizational and community environment where personal initiative to connect, communication and contribute becomes the culture. When we do this, engagement transitions from being the hot topic of the moment to the reality that we find live with every day.


The Social Bond

Troop in Edinburgh - Night

"If this afternoon, you were to lose everything, become a failure in all that you had sought to create, who would stand by you?" 

This is the question I asked of a number of men during a six month period a many years ago.

At the time, I did not realize how traumatizing my question could be. Most of them answered with reflective silence.

The others? "My mother."

None of them were confident that their spouse, their children, their neighbors, the people from their congregation, work, the club or any other social association would hang in there with them during a time of humiliation. In effect, these recognized leaders of their businesses were isolated and alone, alienated from a community of support and caring.

It did not take long to realize that I had to stop asking the question.  It didn't help them. I also realized that I had to become a person who could stand along side of them when they would go through the worst experiences of their personal and professional life. It changed my approach to being a consultant. It elevated my understanding of the relational nature of leadership.

Why is it that these men thought that no one stood with them?

Is it something personal?

Or is it something embedded in the way leadership, professional life and the structure of organizations have developed?

Failure of the sort that I described to them could come as a black swan, out of the nowhere, without expectation. Over the past three years, many people have found themselves in this situation. It points to a fragility that exists in our lives that is buffered by relationships of trust.

Trust is basic to healthy human interaction and the functioning of society.  We diminish the value of trust when it is understood as little more than the basis of economic exchange.

In my post, The Emergent Transformation, I distinguish between human experience that is series of transactions of information and encounters between people, and a transformational one where our interaction creates a higher level engagement.

Here's an example of what I mean.

The closest Starbucks to my home is in my neighborhood grocery store. For most of the baristas, I'm a customer. I come in, order my coffee, pay for it, and leave. Whatever banter we have is rather meaningless, just the sort of talk that accompanies any transaction.

However, there is one young woman who is different. She engages me in conversation. She recognizes me, tells me about her day, asks about mine with genuine interest.

One morning, I walked in and said, "Grande bold, room for cream, please." She starts to laugh. She stops and says, "Sounds like the names of your pets." We both laugh. It is one of those situational jokes (You had to be there.). So about once every three or four visits we talk about my dog, Grande bold, and my cat, Room for cream.

Granted, the barista and I will never become BFFs or colleagues in business. However, the moment we shared that day transcended the typical economic transaction that was the purpose of my visit, and has transformed my relationship to that store.

The Social Bond Online

Over the past decade, an interest in human connection and social networks has grown dramatically. Much of this interest is taking place online through social media platforms. You only have to look at the rise of Facebook to see the extent of the desire that people have to be socially connected to other people.

Many people denigrate the trend towards connection by social media.

"They are not real relationships." 

The relationships that develop are viewed as the online equivalent of a large cocktail party. Lots of meet and greet (search), exchange of contact info (befriending), and a superficial staying in touch (status updates.)

There is a social bond to this shared experience.  Real relating is taking place. Some of it is at a low level of social interaction as describe above. However, some of it is at a personally meaningful level. Social transformation is taking place as our connection deepens with each interaction, and possibilities open up for good things to result.  This is my own experience. 

The social bond is not the online space where we meet. The bond is the connection that we share through a common interest. Our interaction is real and provocative. Like many people, I find people whom are asking similar questions, seeking similar solutions, and who are open to learning from others.

There are two conditions that determine whether the social bond online is superficial or substantive.

The first is the transformational potential of the ideas or common interests that bring people together.

The second is the willingness for participants to allow their interaction to lead the interaction where it needs to go.

As you can see, it isn't being online, but what we do online that matters. By being a particular kind of person, we engage others in such a way that the social bond emerges from its hidden place in the social setting..

Learning to see a social bond

Earlier in my career, I worked at a small college. One of my roles was to develop a student leaders program. For three years I failed as I sought out the top student leaders to form a group focused on leadership. They simply were not interested. Persistence is sometimes not the answer. Changing your approach is.

Over time, and through my doctoral work, I came to see what was in plain sight, but virtually all of us miss when we talk about leadership.

We see leadership as a set of transactions or rather interactions and moments of decision within an organizational context. We think of leadership as a function of process. Is it simply a series of transactions made between people and groups within an business, or is it something more?

When we think only transactionally, we miss seeing the social dimension. 

We touch on it when we talk about collaboration and team work. But if you listen, most talk about improving those aspects of their business is not about the social dimension, but rather the tactical dimension of business processes.  My observation is that most leaders don't address the social dimension until it has become problematic. By ignoring the social dimension, we create a self-profiling prophecy as issues arise that not subject to easy process change.

Let me say it this way.

The last remaining unexplored leverage that leaders have now is the social dimension.

Tactics and processes, while essential, do not address the issues that many businesses now face. Leaders must identify the social bond that exists within their organizations if they are going to find the edge they need for sustainable growth in the future.

I learned this in addressing my own failure with my student leaders program. My approach had been abstract and tactical, lacking in a context for application. So, I shifted my focus to mobilizing student groups through the social bond that brought them together.   

In a college context, there are sports teams, fraternities, sororities, academic clubs, religious groups, advocacy groups and residence halls. In each, a group of students discover each other through a common bond that unites them together. It provides each person connection, a place of belonging, and a sense of identity.  For the group it provides purpose, a reason to exist and possibly as they develop a way to understand the difference they can make as a group.

Connecting Ideas2
In a business context, there are associations based on interest, skills, industry and locale. The social bond unites the executive team, the administrative staff, the sales staff, and back office as uniquely definable groups whose shared work experience provides a basis for connection, belonging and identity.

The leader of the organization has to discover the social bond that unites all the different groups to make them one group. That social bond is wrapped in what I call the four Connecting Ideas. 

When I discovered this perspective, I made two changes to my student leadership program.

The first change was to shift my attention from the individual leader to the group.

The second was to shift my leadership emphasis from teaching abstract principles of leadership to learning to lead within the context of doing it. 

I did this by starting two new activities on campus. One was a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity International. The second was an afternoon play group for the elementary age children of adolescent mothers in our community. For each, I went to the groups on campus, asking them to sign up for a service weekend with a Habitat affiliate in a nearby county or one of the play days with kids during the semester.  In both instances, groups eagerly stepped forward to sign up and participate. They saw it as a fun, meaningful activity for their group. The leaders within those groups rose to the top as organization as they took on responsibility, with the added benefit of new leaders coming forth who wanted to focus on these new campus activities.

The transcendent character of a social bond

A group's social bond is not a branded idea. While ideas may describe the bond, it is more than an idea. It is instead something emergent. It is something that is whole, that draws people together into a relationship that transcends the moment.

Here's the difference. Your college's basketball team wins the national championship. The streets of town fill up with cheering, celebrating fans. The experience brings people together around their shared joy for their team. But once the cheering stops, the bars close, and baseball season begins, the bonding experience of the post-game celebration is gone.

The social bond is something that people draw upon for meaning and purpose in their relationships within a particular social or organizational context. This is historically been one of the core strengths of religious worship. It isn't just the ideas of faith, but the shared experience of faith that matters. It is a whole shared experience that elevates one's perception of who they are and how their life matters.

For military personnel, the experience of battle is the archtypical bonding experience. This became quite clear to me when I watch for the first time the HBO documentary,  We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company that accompanies the mini-series Band of Brothers.  Lt. Dick Winters commander of the 506 Paratroop Infantry Regiment,Company E speaks about the men under his leadership.

I look upon them ... each man with great respect ... respect that I can't describe ... each one of them proved himself that he could do the job.

The respect which is difficult to describe is the bond that unites them as soldiers. It comes through a shared experience where they were tested as men and as human beings in the crucible of battle during World War II. Shifty Powers describes it.

"You know these people that you are in service with ... you know those people better than you will ever anybody in your life ... you know them right down to the final thing .. that comes when you start your training .. that progresses."

Listen how these men, in many ways not different from people we encounter everday, describe their relationships with one another.

 

The social bond that these men have exists beyond analytical description. It can't be simply broken up into a collection of ideas or stories.  It goes deeper than that.  Their relationships matter more than just as as a group of acquaintances. Rather, they are forever connected by the bond of shared experience. You can hear it in what they say. 

Here's what Ed Tipper said in the video.

There is an intimacy develops like nothing I've ever experienced anywhere, not in college, not with any other group of people.

It is like the union leader who commented to me during a values identification process with his company.

"I want us to get back to where we were twenty years ago when we were family."

Embedded in these emotions is the social bond that made working for the company or serving in 506PIR Company E something more than a job.  What formed was something fundamentally important to their experience as human beings. We are not solely individuals. We are not simply interchangeable parts in a system of organizational processes. And potentially not just list of friends in a Facebook profile.

Attention to the social bond that exists in organizations is largely missing in our society today. We treat the shared work that human beings do as mechanical scientific processes that are to be performed and measured. By removing the human social element we think we are removing ambiguity and creating efficiency and consistency. Rather, we are diminishing the organization's ability to maximize the potential that resides in each employee. It produces a rush to the bottom of the lowest common denominator level of social experience. The potential that resides in each person cannot be released because it must be done so within a social context that shared purpose and experience. Our potential is not realized solely by individual initiative, but by collaborative action.  At the heart of every team is a social bond waiting to be recognized and released. It is the hidden potential that awaits recognition by organization leaders world wide.

The challenge we confront

Years ago, when I asked people who would stand with them if they failed, unwittingly, I was revealing the absence of the compelling connection that the social bond in an organization can create. The reason for this is not solely the mechanistic principles modern scientific management.  It is also a national culture that seeks to remove risk and danger from every day life. 

When I first watched the We Stand Alone Together documentary of the actual members of Easy Company, I turned to my son and said,

"If you ever find yourself in a group where this is your experience of friendship, consider yourself to be one of the lucky few. Most people go through life never having this kind of experience of human community."

At the heart of the social bond is the recognition that we need one another. Not because we are weak, but rather because we are incomplete as individuals. The togetherness that is realized when this social bond is strong enables men and women from diverse backgrounds to join together to achieve greatness beyond their individual potential.

The challenge before us is to believe that this is true, and to act accordingly. For if this is true, then how we organize our businesses will set the stage for the elevation of the social bond creating a culture of shared human endeavor, that is required more today than every before.

First steps in discovering the social bond that exists in your organization.

I could give the standard analytical process of a set of processes that focus on the development of values and organizational purpose. But I won't, even if at some level that is important.

Instead, just treat each person with openness and honor.

Learning how to do that (I'm assuming we all need to learn to be more open to others, and to honor the best in them), a new social context will emerge that can elevate your company to a new place of shared endeavor.

To be open simply means to listen, to understand, to affirm, to let people try and fail, and to create the expectation that others will be open.

It means letting new people have the opportunity to influence decision-making and direction. It means not assuming control over every aspect of the organization's life.  And from my experience, openness is a powerful attractor for talented people to come work for your business.  It is a signal of authenticity and opportunity.

To honor is to appreciate the value and dignity of each person (see my post Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomacy) .

This is more difficult because it requires us to pay attention to the other people in the room. We must look at them not as human resources or representatives of particular social ideologies. We look at them with dignity and respect, with appreciation for the potential contributions that they can make. In many cases their contribution can only be realized when the social bond creates social strength for the depth of trust and collaboration needed for a challenge moment.

In one way or another, much of our lives is lived standing alone. But it does not have to be this way. To stand alone together is the product of intention, initiative, openness and persistence. It emerges from the thousands of individual encounters that we have where our connection to one another begins to matter beyond getting tasks done.  It is where genuine transformation happens.

Discover the social bond in your business, and you discover the path to a future that is yet to be realized.


9/11 - Learning from the past

WhatDidYouDoInTheWarDaddy

You may hear this said a lot today.

"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." (George Santayana).

It would be also helpful to hear Paul Simon sing the words from his song The Boxer,

"Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

There are many lessons to be learned from the most costly terrorist attack ever on American soil. The question are we in a mindset to learn them?

In an excerpt from his new book, A Journey: My Political Life, former British Prime MinisterTony Blair states,

In short, we have become too apologetic, too feeble, too inhibited, too imbued with doubt and too lacking in mission. Our way of life, our values, the things that made us great, remain not simply as a testament to us as nations but as harbingers of human progress. They are not relics of a once powerful politics; they are the living spirit of the optimistic view of human history. All we need to do is to understand that they have to be reapplied to changing circumstances, not relinquished as redundant.

While we may find some comfort in his words, I'd say his perspective is not large enough.

The nations and culture of the West are products of long historical trends that are at a transition point.

One of those trends was the Enlightenment belief in rationalism, preeminently embedded in our belief in the progress that would come to humankind through Science. For many Science (large S) has become the replacement religion of intellectuals. It did not require a belief in any mystical being or in the aristocratic social and political structure of old Europe. As a philosophy, it was a ideology of revolution that turned upside down virtually every nation in the northern hemisphere.  In a very real sense, this belief in progress was a belief in the morality of science and progress. For as a replacement religion, it inevitably had to have a moral core to its purpose.

This belief in the absolute and ultimate fulfillment of human progress began to erode with the outbreak of World War I. There was an innocence about this belief in progress prior to the war. However, with it, innocence was lost, and irony as Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, was the result.

lrony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.One reason the Great War was more ironic than any other was that its beginning was more innocent. "Never such innocence again," observes Philip Larkin, ...

Furthermore, the Great War, was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful "history" involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. The shrewd recruiting poster depicting a worried father of the future being asked by his children, "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?" assumes a future whose moral and social pressures are identical with those of the past. Today, when each day's experience seems notably ad hoc, no such appeal would shame the most stupid to the recruiting office. But the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates,"  In the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what on earth he was talking about.

I see that the past decade, in a different way, has brought us back to the place Europe was in 1914. There is a loss of innocence, a loss of purpose, a loss of confidence and loss of knowing what we must do. We live in a time of irony and cynicism, of suspicion and warring factions, where all motives are suspect. We live in a time where words as abstractions that transcend time, giving us perspective and direction for the future, are lost in meaningless of the sales pitch.

As we remember those who died at the hands of terrorists on 9/11/2001, let us not fall into a belief that hope and meaning are lost. That the course of human history is downward toward the apocalypse. Rather, let us see that we are at a crossroads in history, not just the history of our nation, but the history of all humankind.  To see the long view is to see that there is a historical progression that leads to our time.

Let me end with a long quote from Peter Thiel's essay, The Optimistic Thought Experiment.Thiel is co-founder and former chairman and CEO of PayPal, Inc. In his essay addresses the same questions that have interested me over the past several months. He sees two ways forward.

In the long run, there are no good bets against globalization

And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.  - Luke 17:26–30

For the judeo-western inspiration, it is a mistake of the first magnitude to place too much value on the things of this world. Those who busy themselves with the meaningless ideologies of politics, or with the interminable drama of human soap operas, or with the limitless accumulation of wealth, are losing sight of the impending catastrophe that may unfold towards the end of history. The entire human order could unravel in a relentless escalation of violence — famine, disease, war, and death. The final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, even gives a name and a place: The Battle of Armageddon in the Middle East is the great conflagration that would end the world. Against this future, it is far better to save one ’s immortal soul and accumulate treasures in heaven, in the eternal City of God, than it is to amass a fleeting fortune in the transient and passing City of Man.

For the rationalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as for all those who consider themselves cosmopolitan today, this sort of hysterical talk about the end of the world was deemed to be the exclusive province of people who were either stupid or wicked or insane (although mostly just stupid). Scientific inculcation would replace religious indoctrination. Today, we no longer believe that Zeus will strike down errant humans with thunderbolts, and so we also can rest peacefully in the certain knowledge that there exists no god who will destroy the whole world.

And yet, if the truth were to be told, our slumber is not as peaceful as it once was. Beginning with the Great War in 1914, and accelerating after 1945, there has re-emerged an apocalyptic dimension to the modern world. In a strange way, however, this apocalyptic dimension has arisen from the very place that was meant to liberate us from antediluvian fears. This time around, in the year 2008, the end of the world is predicted by scientists and technologists. One can read about it every day in the New York Times, that voice of the rational and cosmopolitan Establishment. Will it be an environmental catastrophe like runaway global warming, or will it be murderous robots, Ebola viruses genetically recombined with smallpox, nanotech devices that dissolve the living world into a gray goo, or the spread of miniature nuclear bombs in terrorist briefcases?

Even if it is not yet possible for humans to destroy the whole world, on current trends it might just be a matter of time. The relentless proliferation of nuclear weapons remains the most obvious case in point. The United States became the first nuclear power in 1945; by the 1960s and through the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, five declared nuclear states (the U.S., the uk, France, the ussr, and China) maintained a semi-stable equilibrium (at least as recounted by the historians who know ex post that the Cold War remained cold); as of today, there are two more known nuclear states (India, Pakistan) and perhaps even more (Israel, North Korea). And what if there are 20 nuclear powers in 2020, or 50 nuclear powers in 2050, armed with Jupiter missiles that can rain down destruction on enemies everywhere? We suspect the answer to this question, for we know that there exists some point beyond which there is no stable equilibrium and where there will be a nuclear Armageddon. A scientific or mathematical calculus of the apocalypse has replaced the mystic vision of religious prophets. 1

On the surface, the world’s financial markets remain eerily complacent. For the most part, they remain firmly rooted in the nineteenth century, when the march of History and Progress were more optimistic and certain. Although it encounters perturbations and larger corrections, the climb of the Dow Jones continues on an inexorable north-easterly path.

The news and business sections seem to inhabit different worlds that coexist on the same planet but rarely intersect. 2 Most financial actors are content to rule their separate kingdom, and to refrain from unprofitable questions about the integrity of the larger whole. Those who ask too many questions are not given a serious hearing. Like the deranged orators in London ’s Hyde Park, the prognosticators of a financial doomsday have been wrong for too long. Consequently, they have been relegated to a marginal role, if for no other reason than that they have lost most of their money and have no significant capital left to invest in anything.

More generally, apocalyptic thinking appears to have no place in the world of money. For if the doomsday predictions are fulfilled and the world does come to an end, then all the money in the world — even if it be in the form of gold coins or pieces of silver, stored in a locked chest in the most remote corner of the planet — would prove of no value, because there would be nothing left to buy or sell. Apocalyptic investors will miss great opportunities if there is no apocalypse, but ultimately they will end up with nothing when the apocalypse arrives. Heads or tails, they lose.

In a narrow sense, it seems rational for investors to remain encamped at the altar of the efficient market — and just tend their own small gardens without wondering about the health of the world. A mutual fund manager might not benefit from reflecting about the danger of thermonuclear war, since in that future world there would be no mutual funds and no mutual fund managers left. Because it is not profitable to think about one ’s death, it is more useful to act as though one will live forever. 3

Such a narrowing of one’s horizon cannot, however, be the last word. After all, there exists some connection between the real world of events, on the one hand, and the virtual world of finance, on the other. For macro investors, it would be an abdication not to wrestle with the central question of our age: How should the risk of a comprehensive collapse of the world economic and political system factor into one ’s decisions?

From the point of view of an investor, one may define such a “secular apocalypse” as a world where capitalism fails. Therefore, the secular apocalypse would encompass not only catastrophic futures in which humanity completely self-destructs (most likely through a runaway technological disaster), but also include a range of other scenarios in which free markets cease to function, such as a series of wars and crises so disruptive as to drive the developed world towards fascism, anarchy, or both.

Since the direct approach to our central question leads to paradoxes, absurdities, or at best money-losing investment schemes, it might prove more profitable to explore the inverse as a thought experiment: What must happen for there to be no secular apocalypse — for what one might call the “optimistic” version of the future to unfold? And furthermore, which sectors will do well — surprisingly well, in fact — if the world more or less stays intact, even if there are some major bumps and dislocations along the way? Any investor who ignores the apocalyptic dimension of the modern world also will underestimate the strangeness of a twenty-first century in which there is no secular apocalypse . If one does not think about forest fires, then one does not fully understand the teleology of each tree — and one badly will undervalue those trees that are immune to all but the greatest of fires. Even in our time of troubled confusion, there exists a chance that some things will work out immeasurably better than most believe possible.

(Read the whole essay.)

The task before us is large because we are venturing into an unknown world where the past is not our greatest asset, but a distraction. We need to see history in its proper context, and learn new ways of being a global society. This is the conversation that we should have today. And I hope that you'll take some time with loved ones to reflect back nine years, and then ask the optimistic question, without doubt or guilt or recrimination, how could we make this different a decade from now. Then our remembrance of those lost will honor their lives, and not simply feel sorry for them and angry at their murderers.

May God give us all peace and wisdom on this day of remembrance.

Image: The Great War and Modern Memory: The Illustrated Edition, Paul Fussell


A Conversation about Constant Change - 3

Here is my response to Steven Devijver's questions (below) author of the free ebook, The Strategy of Constant Change

Q1: You’re this amazing guy with a really special view on leadership and human relationships. What’s your view then - with all this background - on the three human universals? I ask this because you’ve only just recently written on your blog about The Golden Rule. I would like to understand why you think these tree human universals are novel.

Steven, I'm not sure that these universals are novel. I think your identification of them is insightful. They are what I observe in my dealings with people. They want to be treated with respect, kindness and given the opportunity to grow. Yet, at the same time, as people, we make mistakes.

There are two aspects of this worth identifying. There are mistakes that come from a lack of knowledge or ability. These can be corrected by instruction and training. The other kind of mistakes are ones of character.  These are more serious because they are not so easily subject to being changed by training, but by disciplined action. If what I say sounds like Aristotle, you'd be correct. I believe of all the ancient philosophers, his perspective on how we are to live is the closest to what people raised within an institutional context need today.  The parallel insight is of the management philosophers (Say and Schumpeter, especially) of the past couple hundred years who described entrepreneurialism in similar ways. From Aristotle through to Peter Drucker, the virtuous, happy person is the one who acts and creates new things.

I see in your identification of these human universals an ancient truth that is emerging in discussions about organizations and institutions in our day. I point most specifically to my good friend Tom Morris who has been writing and speaking on the value of ancient wisdom in the context of modern corporate institutions for almost twenty years. His perspective informs much of my own.

To be human is to create, and this comes from action, from taking initiative to transform abstract ideas into concrete realities. I believe that this is why God made us, and is God's most indelible mark upon us.

Q2: You mention the human point-of-view on organizational change. How important are human beings and relationships in organizations according to you, and what else should we pay attention to to help organizations thrive?

What I wrote above is about the individual person. Every person, however, exists within a social context, or, rather, many social contexts. There is our family, our neighborhood, our associations whether they are religous, political, or interest based, and then, of course, our work context. What I find is that social organization leads in one direction without intentional human intervention. I find that most organizations grow towards minimizing ambiguity, resist change, exclude outside influence, and become uniform,closed systems of relationships that squeeze out human initiative in favor of social compliance. One of the unintended consequences of universal education is to remove human initiative in favor of comformity. We treat education as a management exercise where efficiency is valued over effectiveness. This is true in every institution that I have had contact with during my lifetime. I do not think that this is intentional, but rather a logical result of how we think.

We think like managers who do not own the work we do. We simply have organzed our lives around the performance of certain activities. Ask people what their purpose is, and rarely does it have anything to do with the work they perform. We think like managers instead of as leaders because we have been taught to work within an institutional environment. I heard yesterday that a million people have lost their jobs in the United States over the past year. Those businesses that lost those people are now more efficient, but are they more effective. Are they capable of taking advantage of opportunities that still exist? I don't think so. Now, imagine, all those million people starting new businesses. Imagine the creative energy that will be released into world as a result.

From my perspective, I see a need to reconceptualize not only what it means to live an authentic, happy, virtuous human life, but also what this means within a social and insititutional environment. As a result, I'm interested in the nature of human relationships. Let me give one example of what I see.

Over the past decade there has been an explosion in the level of social interaction that takes place on line. You and I met through our involvement in the Triiibes online social network. I see in the growth of social media an expression of the basic human need for companionship.  However, I don't see all this social interaction as necessarily their purpose. Instead, taking my lead from Aristotle, I believe that our human interaction should lead to collaborative human action. Through these social media tools, we should be forming relationships where we work together to achieve some impact. If all they are is a place to talk, they will not be sustainable. They will degenerate into a narrow clique built around a few strong, influential voices, and a circle of people who compliantly go along. It is a picture of all social institutions in microcosim.

What is the solution? I return to Aristotle and entrepreneurism. We must become virtuous people who act to create new ways of meeting needs and opportunities. My personal responsibility is to be a person that others can trust. This trust is built upon not only personal integrity, but openness, honesty, humility and the recognition that we each have a role to play within every social context. Sometimes it is to lead, others times to follow, some moments to give and others to receive.  It is from this philosophical perspective that was born my Johnny Bunko 7th lesson - Say Thanks, Every Day. Giving thanks in this perspective is an act of creative openness that affirms the connection that exists between us.

Q3: What’s your view of change is bad, and should be avoided?

I don't see change as either bad or good. I simply see it as the context of how we live. Every change has within it some good that can be identified. For example, suffering is a kind of change. We can view suffering as something to be avoided or we can see in it the opportunity to gain strength.  We have a choice in how we deal with change. We either see it as an opportunity or as an inconvenience. The choice we make determines whether we will find happiness.

We need to develop our capacity to adapt to change. Returning to Aristotle, I believe that this is what he writes about as becoming habituated to doing virtuous acts.

Okay, my next question for you.

Q. 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?


A Conversation about Constant Change - 2

Posted by Steven Devijver, author of The Strategy of Constant Change, available for free at Endesha.

Thanks for your absolutely delightful questions Ed, and thanks for having started the conversation.

Q. How does your view of change compare to the general view that change is bad and is something to be avoided.

I have many ways to respond to the view point that change is bad and should be avoided. I especially think of Clay Shirky’s words: “It’s not a revolution if there are not losers.” Another way to look at this quote is to say: if some people get upset it must be a revolution. It depends on your understanding of loosing: in terms of resources/wealth, or can a parent’s loss of control over her child also be considered a loss?

One thing I like to repeat is: people that love the status quo hate heretics. It reflects on the idea that stability creates power, and change coming from many people all at once subverts power. It also reflects on people clinging on to stability, believing that after they’ve left school and got their diploma’s they’re somehow exempt not just from learning and being tested, but also exempt from having to climb up the ladder to maintain their social standing.

And the last thing I add is that I actually believe the opposite: stability is bad. Stability is static, I call it acting like a mountain. People move on all the time - it’s just an unavoidable fact of being human. Our current time has created a heightened awareness of our human nature and one consequence is that people can’t be easily pinned down anymore. They dare to take a peek behind the curtains. What is being revealed I think - especially during our current crisis - is how inferior gatekeepers are in our society. Journalists fail to report on the issues that matter, the financial institutions have failed everyone, educational institutions are changing dramatically, and don’t even get me started on our governments. Basically, everything that was still stable only 10 years ago is now in turbulent flux, creating a future that is highly uncertain.

I look at gatekeepers (I also tend to refer to them as walled gardens) as institutions that do two things:

  1. They establish and maintain classes of professionals that are distinct - in a superior way - to the rest of society (doctors, professors, journalists, engineers, …).
  2. They control the flow of money and other scarce resources and decide who gets in on the action and who doesn’t.

Typically this results in a group of embedded, accredited professionals joining in institutions that give them access to a steady flow of money while excluding everybody else. The people with accreditation are motivated to do two things:

  1. Protect their institutions and the accreditation they hold against outside attacks of all kinds.
  2. Convince society at large - or at least government - that these institutions and the accredited individuals they organize are vital for preventing society's collapse.

This creates strange, opaque cliques that shy outside inspection and institutions that are completely entangled in society's core structures. By protecting the accredited professions institutions and government create a socially unequal class society.

In the end I say stability is bad for two reasons: out of love and awe for human nature, and against unwarranted classes in our society. When I hear somebody say change is bad I will carefully listen, but I will assume that person is either afraid of losing her power or social standing, or afraid of seeing the gatekeepers she depends on disappear.

Q. You write about three human universals. How did you come to gain this insightful perspective? How is this view central to your thesis about change?

First of all, the three human universals I write about are:

  1. We all want to be treated as human beings, all of the time.
  2. We’re all different but we all try to do good.
  3. We all make mistakes, and when these mistakes are corrected gracefully magic happens.

I've combined ideas coming from several sources to form these human universals. The first defining source of inspiration is The Golden Rule: "Do to no one what you dislike yourself." There are many versions of this, but I’m most fascinated by Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative.

Another important source is closely related to Kant: political philosophy, and how it defines morality. I got fascinated by the history of political philosophy a couple of years ago when I discovered Thomas Hobbes. I find is striking that he published his master piece Leviathan in 1651, three years after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. This peace treaty created an important moral paradox because it defined what is called Westphalian sovereignty: each state has the right to govern over its own people and territory, and each state has the right to rule independently of foreign control.

Before 1648 Europe had no real states, and everybody got conquered and controlled by invading forces at one time or another. But at the same time, everybody knew what they all had in common: they were all God’s children. Morality was a concern of the church. Since 1648 states were in control not just over its own territory, but also over its own people and this created two moral difficulties: if the state controls the faith of its people, how can it do that in a moral way? And why would God hand over the question of morality from the church to the state?

Basically morality had to be completely reinvented and Thomas Hobbes did exactly this in Leviathan although his views of human nature are very dark and pessimistic. After him many other political philosophers weighed in on the question of what we have in common - including Immanuel Kant - believing that if we have nothing in common we can‘t possibly govern a state together. It’s so fascinating to me that all of the sudden people were confronted with that kind of problem in the 17th century, it blows my mind.

The last important source of inspiration is Terrence McKenna. I have to tell you, he’s a pretty weird guy. He’s a philosopher who based his philosophical investigations on hallucinations from using LSD. Now, I have to tell you I don’t do drugs and I completely condemn any drug usage. However, what’s important for me about Terrence McKenna is not his substance abuse, but his views on humanity. I can’t go into much detail on his thinking here because it’s very complicated and so much out there that it’s just too weird. His main thesis however is simple: that our minds are much more powerful than we believe, that our minds are all interconnected, and that this interconnectedness defines humanity. It is therefore our role he says to learn as much about life and humanity as we can by crossing our boundaries and to make it possible for others do discover what we learn. I think that’s extremely powerful thinking, and I think he succeeds in defining his own morality.

This is not exactly a brief answer, but it’s the briefest I can be I guess while still describing a very important aspect of who I am: my desire to understand humanity, morality and leadership. These three human universals relate to change because they re-affirm the turbulence inherent to being a human (what I call constant change). We’re all different so we’re bound to discover new things all of the time. We all make mistakes in all kinds of brilliantly novel ways, and in dealing with them we discover new things about living together in peace. And we all want to be treated as human beings, all of the time, which prevents humanity from falling into chaos.

I draw at least two ultimate conclusions out of the three human universals:

  1. Change exists in our mind. I would love to elaborate on that but not in this answer ;-)
  2. We’ve come this far over 2,5 billion years, constantly changing and adapting in the process. We’ve made enormous leaps over 10,000 years since we’ve first created civilization. Why would anybody choose to believe we’re going to all of the sudden stop changing?

Q3. The name of your weblog is Endesha. What does this mean? Why this name?

Endesha is Swahili and means to lead. So endesha.com basically means lead.com. I want to bring leaders together under a common understanding of humanity and morality which are the three human universals. By accepting the three human universals as core to being human we’re accepting that we have very strong bonds holding us together, and that we have a lot in common.

I think the ultimate learning any person can do is to learn about herself and her relationship with humanity and morality. The ultimate form of leadership is then to give people a chance to explore and discover humanity and morality. My book is imperfect in so many ways, and that’s actually a great thing. It covers a very tiny portion of what is to be said about humanity, morality and leadership, and I hope endesha.com and the network that we're creating around it can become that place where people interested in leadership and learning can come together.

Here are my questions for you Ed.

Q1: You’re this amazing guy with a really special view on leadership and human relationships. What’s your view then - with all this background - on the three human universals? I ask this because you’ve only just recently written on your blog about The Golden Rule. I would like to understand why you think these tree human universals are novel.

Q2: You mention the human point-of-view on organizational change. How important are human beings and relationships in organizations according to you, and what else should we pay attention to to help organizations thrive?

Q3: What’s your view of change is bad, and should be avoided?


Quick Takes: Taleb on the Crisis

If you've read me for a while, you'll know that I am a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the former derivatives trader and author of Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan.  He's written about the current financial crisis here and there is an excellent interview with him in Time. If you are not familiar with Taleb's worldview, start with the Time interview.

According to Taleb, black swans are ocurrences that are unforeseen yet happened. In the Time interview he points to the rise of the internet as one positive one, and the 9/11 attacks as another. At his website, Taleb has extracted a set of quotes from The Black Swan that describes one of the contributing factors to the global financial crisis that we are facing. Here's the quote.

Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall.  The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.

Banks hire dull people and train them to be even more dull. If they look conservative, it's only because their loans go bust on rare, very rare occasions. But (...)bankers are not conservative at all. They are just phenomenally skilled at self-deception by burying the possibility of a large, devastating loss under the rug.

The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deemed these events "unlikely".

There is no way to gauge the effectiveness of their lending activity by observing it over a day, a week, a month, or . . . even a century!

(...)  the real- estate collapse of the early 1990s in which the now defunct savings and loan industry required a taxpayer-funded bailout of more than half a trillion dollars. The Federal Reserve bank protected them at our expense: when "conservative" bankers make profits, they get the benefits; when they are hurt, we pay the costs.

Once again, recall the story of banks hiding explosive risks in their portfolios. It is not a good idea to trust corporations with matters such as rare events because the performance of these executives is not observable on a short-term basis, and they will game the system by showing good performance so they can get their yearly bonus. The Achilles’ heel of capitalism is that if you make corporations compete, it is sometimes the one that is most exposed to the negative Black Swan that will appear to be the most fit for survival.

As if we did not have enough problems, banks are now more vulnerable to the Black Swan and the ludic fallacy than ever before with “scientists” among their staff taking care of exposures. The giant firm J. P. Morgan put the entire world at risk by introducing in the nineties RiskMetrics, a phony method aiming at managing people’s risks, causing the generalized use of the ludic fallacy, and bringing Dr. Johns into power in place of the skeptical Fat Tonys. (A related method called “Value-at-Risk,” which relies on the quantitative measurement of risk, has been spreading.)

Please, don’t drive a school bus blindfolded.

Owing to [...] misunderstanding of the causal chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance—like a child playing with a chemistry kit.

My conclusion is that as a society we are practicing cognitive dissonance on a global scale. We are doing what Paul Simon penned his his classic '60s hit The Boxer, "People believe what they want to believe and disregard the rest."  People believe what they want to believe about the financial crisis, about presidential candidates, about whether whatever it is that they don't want to actually address in reality.

In my previous post on Michael Malone's rant about the decline of journalism, the same holds true there. The Black Swan of this election is not what we don't know about these candidates that will wreck havoc upon the country, but what we do know and what we choose to ignore.

The financial crisis we are in isn't a classic Black Swan. The signs were there for all to see if they only chose to do so. The problem isn't that we are not a smart people, but we are indifferent and ignorant of the consequenses of our opinions and choices. And no more amply seen in this year's presidential election.

Addendum: David Brooks, in today's NY Times, writes about Taleb and the growing influence of behavioral economists like Danny Kahneman, whom Taleb credits highly for his understanding of the perception of risk. It is an excellent look at what I'm calling cognitive dissonance. Brooks writes about Taleb.


His writing is idiosyncratic, but he does touch on many of the perceptual biases that distort our thinking: our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck. And looking at the financial crisis, it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.

Edge.org, who published a Taleb piece linked to above, also has a lot of material on Kahneman. This is pretty heavy stuff, but ultimately worthwhile. The simple idea that emerges is that we are much less rational, as intelligent beings, than we want to think of ourselves being. In reality, we are emotional beings who use our rationality to rationalize our choices. Hence, the person who is either emotionally conflicted or immature, could well make really bad decisions by practicing a high level game of self-deception.

The best treatment of self-deception is the Arbinger Institute book, Leadership and Self-Deception.  I highly recommend this book. It will be a revelation to you about how we fool ourselves into self-justifying rationalization that is intended to help avoid accountability for our bad decisions. It is the very thing which I see played out in the news over the past few weeks. Everyone is rushing to fix blame on someone else. As a result, we get a bail out plan that has not worked, and a market that is continuing to lose value.  What this tells me is that the people (wisdom of crowds?) is not yet emotionally comfortable with what the federal government is doing.

The same self-delusion that leads to looking for scape goats in our relationships, is at work in how this financial mess gets cleared up, and how we are selecting a president. You may not like George Bush's performance as president, but that is no basis for deciding who the next president will be. They should be selected on their own terms. As I told some friends yesterday, it feels like the 1970's all over again, now as then, the self-deception is at the heart of our decision making processes is alive and well.

And be sure to watch this PBS NewsHour interview with Taleb and his mentor Benoit Mandelbrot.


Freedom to Initiate

Leadership begins with initiative. A personal decision that leads to action. Now would it surprise you that our environments either make initiation easier or harder, or, take it another step, may even determine our whole philosophy of leadership.

Watch this video by Polly Labarre, co-author of Mavericks at Work and CNN contributor, then read her report about IKEA in her Mavericks blog post.

Where do you work best?

For me at home or at a coffee shop. This morning between 4 and 8 I produced a committee newsletter and composed the first draft of a strategic plan for a group. I then went and took a twenty minute nap, and now I'm back at my computer, blogging, and getting ready to work on a column, before heading out to a luncheon.

What Polly's report points to is not just that our environment matters, but the systems in which we work matter. Some people need more structure than others, and along with that they need more direction. Others need a more open environment to create.

Underlying these human behaviors, I'm suggesting, is something deeper. That the environment and the systems of organization that we must work within dictate to us the nature of leadership. With cubicles, corner offices and penthouse suites came the clear impression that some people were leaders and others were not. These more open environments provide a work setting that is more dependent upon personal initiative. With that personal initiative comes the opportunity to be more creative. When we create, we create change and impact, and when we create impact, we lead.

In my home, I have a tiny corner of our family's schoolroom, where I can work for hours without thought of any human necessity. There is nothing attractive about it. It is cluttered with books and paper, maps, DVDs, and office supplies. It is just a place where I can sit down and know that I don't have to move until I want to. There have been many mornings when I was up at 3 or 4 working away and looked at my watch and realized that I needed to shower, pack up and travel 30 minutes to a meeting, and I had only 45 minutes to do it.  OOPS, gotta run.

Think about where you work, and where you feel most creative and motivated to work. Realize in that place you are at your best, and your leadership potential is being tapped to a greater degree than just about any other place.

Leadership begins with initiative, and where we feel free to initiate is the place where our greatest value to our company's is found.


Extraordinary

USAF Museum - 17

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things was on my mind this evening as I read a long posting about recently deceased USAF fighter pilot Robin Olds.  Read Britt Blaser's Fighter Pilot Porn (The language is strictly military issue, so reader be warned.)  It is a great tribute to the dying breed of men who came to do extraordinary things with a jet in service to their country. 

A couple things stand out.

These were ordinary men with the stuff to be trained to do extraordinary things.  That certain stuff that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff.  These guys were trained to perform at the highest level of performance in an aircraft. They had to or they'd be dead. But it wasn't their skills that set them apart, but their humanity. It was the human dimension that enabled them to take those skills and use their innate sense of what needed to be done at the moment to do extraordinary things.

A couple of quotes from Blaser.

What’s most interesting about my six-year Air Force career is that it made me look like a hero when I was really just a college kid. Yeah, I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times, which is nominally a big deal, but I always considered it three examples of bad timing requiring me to do what I was trained to do, desperately so, in order to save my sorry ass. I gave little thought to those around me. Please do not confuse those arbitrary awards with great competence or generosity of spirit. Most medal winners agree.

And ...

But there’s a more important message buried in my personal college kid-to-combat pilot meme, that the elitists in any society would like to hide from us common folk: Almost anyone can become exceptional, because most kids are itching to be a rock climber, a cat burglar or a fighter pilot, if the parents don’t keep them too safe. (emphasis mine)

After a long quote from an article by Sport's Illustrated's Rick Reily about his experience in riding in the back seat of F-14D Tomcat, he writes.

What “Biff” King does is trainable. FWIW, I generally get airsick in a small plane if I’m not flying. I puked during both of my “dollar rides” in T-37s and T-38s in pilot training, as I had as a kid in a car during WWII gas rationing.. It’s a control thing with me, and I never had a problem while flying acrobatics and simulated air combat tactics.

The same might be true for “Biff” King, so there’s another myth dispelled.

Biff King would speak of Robin Olds with far more respect–reverence, probably–than Rick Reilly speaks of King. Robin Olds was the fighter pilot’s fighter pilot. Among his many qualities, he compelled his pilots–ordinary men doing extraordinary things–to become as extraordinary as the things he asked them to do.

And that is the lesson I’d like us all to “get” from this over-long post. Any of us can become extraordinary if we are mentored the right way and brought along carefully. I have friends from pilot training who flew with Robin Olds. To us civilians, every one of them seems extraordinary, but I knew them when they were not.

Let’s never stop striving to be extraordinary.

What separates these fighter pilots from us common folk is simply the requirement that they achieve extraordinary skill in order to survive flying a fighter.  For most of us, we don't have to be extraordinary to survive. Only if we want an extraordinary life.

What prompted this train of thought was not Blaser's tribute, but listening to a young seminary student preach this morning in church.  I've known this young woman for a dozen years. Her parents are some of the nicest, sweetest people on the planet.  I've always known her to be smart and personable.  However, what I experienced with the rest of the congregation this morning is an ordinary young seminary student preaching an extraordinary sermon.

I told her parents, "It is not often that I get to hear a perfect sermon. Perfect in how it is written, and perfect in its delivery."  As she spoke, she told a story of the death of an infant at the hospital where she is a chaplain intern.  It was not a story played for emotion, but it was very emotional as she told about holding this child and talking to her mother as the child passed. 

Her sermon topic was about miracles.  She said that in our time we have raised the standard for miracles so high that no one can really say that they have experienced one.  Her point was that technology, advancements in medicine and general cynicism by people have made it hard to accept the inexplicable.  She felt that we needed to see common, ordinary circumstances as miraculous.  She spoke of the staff of the hospital surrounding this child as she did experience of a sad miracle.  One where the miracle is in the care of the people, and not in the outcome for the child.  The child left this world as loved as any child can be, possibly more than most children.  She concluded by speaking of the miracle of the church in its care of children. Speaking in particular to our responsibility to care for them as our obligation that comes with the baptism of a child.

This leads me to a final point.

Most people find it easy to see themselves as ordinary folk.  The imagination required to think of themselves doing something extraordinary is hard to conjure.  I wonder why. Why is it that we don't automatically, by natural inclination, think of ourselves as doing extraordinary things.

Is it fear, insecurity, lack of confidence, courage or drive?  Is it because all we know of ourselves is a reflection of our similarities and differences in comparison to others?

This I know from those few moments where something extraordinary happens. We find a part of our lives that has been hidden from us.  We learn who we are by testing our limits and discovering what the real value of our talent is when it functions in combination with our skills and experience. 

May you have an extraordinary day.