Are leaders born?

My friend, FC, asked me the other day in response to my Weekly Leader column, Luis Urzua: Exception or Standard? whether I thought he was a born leader. I responded with,

"Not really. I'd say he is an intentional leader. It is a moral question of choosing to lead, and lead in a particular way, and not one of personality or talent."

In respect to FC, let me offer more explanation.

For a long time the nature / nurture question of human development has been a standard by which questions, like the one FC raised is discussed. The longer I deal with issues of leadership, the more I see the nature/nurture, born or made question as a secondary, less relevant issue. Because I see too many people who would not be characterized as being born a leader, who are leaders whose life and work make a genuine difference.

Talent is a major topic in organizational circles today. The conversation revolves around how to recruit, train and retain top-flight talent. There is definitely an aspect of this discussion that relates to the question of whether some is born to be a leader. I am not saying that talent doesn't matter, only that it isn't what makes a leader.

Leadership is only realized in action, by what one does with the talent they are born with.

The personality-centric view of leadership commonly called the "great man"(sic) or heroic theory of leadership, promotes a limited, idealize view of what a leader does. It has suggested, wrongly in my opinion, that leadership is a product of the projection of a leader's personality upon a group or organization. It is condescending to followers, colleagues, employees or other leaders.

Luis Urzua's leadership is seen in the choices that he made. They are moral choices, not simply tactical or strategic ones.

To lead in the circmustances that he and the other 32 miners faced, required him to step beyond managing. His leadership created an environment that elevated a collection of men, who had a death sentence upon their heads as soon as the cave-in began, to be a team that survived in a remarkably healthy state.

Luis Urzua chose to lead by unifying his men through confidence, discipline, structure and a mutuality of equality. His leadership did not allow individual concerns that each man had to eclipse the needs of the whole group. Only as a whole and intact team would they have survived, and done so as well as they did.

Luis Urzua's leadership reminds me of the leadership of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking POW during the Vietnam War. I wrote about him here, here, and here. Their stories are similiar in that both were leaders of a group of men were living in a life and death situation. And both chose to lead in a manner that unified a group of men who easily could have lost hope, composure and began to think of their own survival as of utmost importance.

Leadership is a choice, and not a natural one. The natural choice is to put one's own welfare first, instead of the team's. I don't believe people are born to sacrifice their own benefit for the sake of others. It is something that is learned through mentorship, example, training and experience. For those for whom this kind of leadership seems so natural, my sense is that as a child they were influenced by leaders of this sort, and their home experience provided a learning environment to gain these values.

For Luis Urzua, it may well have been playing soccer. For James Stockdale, the lessons learned in studying the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. In both we see leadership that made the difference under the most extreme circumstances. As I point out in my Weekly Leader column, Luis Urzua's leadership is not the exception. It is the standard.


The Moral Component

When we are young, the world is an open book.

There is nothing like being 11 years old with a vivid imagination and absolutely no sense of barriers in life. Then adolescence hits, and we realize that there are some limitations.  Some people are more popular, cooler, smarter; some more troubled and broken. Others are destined for success, happiness or a life of hardship and toil.

Then the hard work of finding just how open and limitless one's opportunities are begins. It may start at 15 or at 21. It may not become important until we are 30 or even 45, and when we do, we realize that our life needs to count for something. When we discover, not just our interest or passion, but our purpose, our destiny, then life changes. Forever.

When we discover the difference our lives should make, our options are immediately reduced, narrowed, defined. We find out that life has limitations, all of a sudden, there is an end point, way out there, when we can say, "I'm done."  At least, that is what we think.

At some point, we may also discover that the pursuit of our destiny is more than just achieving something, more than simply a destination. There is something embedded in the middle of that pursuit that when we were young we could not see, maybe only feel. It was always there, but it wasn't clear to us. Then at some moment, a line is crossed, and we discover that there is a moral component to this quest to fulfill our destiny. We realize that it is no longer about just about destiny, but the journey that leads there.

This moral component is not some abstract, philosophical concept that stands as a branded idea for your life. There are plenty of people who brand their morality, wearing it on their shirt sleeve, and capitalizing on it by capitalizing it.  That is not the moral component that I see.

This moral component is something simple, deep, and intangible. It is the quality or rather the virtue that makes a difference in how we live out our purpose. It is something about who we are as individuals, about our life, work and impact.

Martin Luther King had that moral component. So did Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Lincoln. Each of them was their own person, standing strong as the world around them went a different direction. That is the strength that comes from the moral component.  It isn't ego that made them strong, though they probably had strong egos.

The moral component is something else. It transcends our circumstances, our place in history and the singular importance of us as individuals. It is that indelible quality that links us with others through time, and gives our destiny and purpose its meaning, and the reason our commitment and resilience matters.

Even if I live another 40 years, given my family's genetics, I see that I have now passed some indecipherable midpoint in my career.  My options are fewer now than they were just five years ago. I see it, and find peace in that. It makes things more simple, and to an extent clearer.

When you are young, there is anxiety about what your life will become, and the difference you'll make, and whether it will truly count in the end.  There are thousands of options, choices, directions to go in. Everyone tells you that you can do anything you want. However, in the back of your mind, you know it isn't true. You just want to know what that one thing is that is your destiny.

I no longer worry about that. I find that as life proceeds, the moral component grows in importance because at the end of life, it is that which is our true legacy. 

A friend said during a group conversation that he wanted his legacy to be that he was a good man, a good husband and father, and ran his business well.  The moral component for him was becoming more clear, and knowing him well, I see it in the life choices that he has made over the years. 

Philosophers and historians speak of the moral component in many ways. One of those is the difference between a naive and reflective view of history.

A naive perspective refers to a lack of self-consciousness about the values that inform our lives. There is a sense of not seeing it at all because it is so much a part of one's life, like breathing air or water to fish, we don't notice it.  There is an innocence about this approach. This experience of the moral component in life is such that we see it as continuous through time, across the generations and the foundation upon which we understand the meaning of life. It is unself-conscious because we do not hold these moral values in any objective sense. They are highly subjective and personal, quite possibly never defined in any specific sense. Yet they exist, and we tend to begin to see them when they are under threat.  They are who we are in a real sense, and this even more so as we consistently live them out in a purposeful, intentional way.

A reflective approach stands apart from the moral component, and attempts to view it objectively. Yet this is impossible in any pure, scientific sense because what brings us to this relationship with the moral component is awareness of the connection between the idea and our own lives. We become aware that we lacked objectivity in our formerly naive view of life.  We may speak of this change of perspective as a loss of innocence or coming of age or quite possibly of becoming a cynic. We experience a disjunction or disconnection between our values and the social and organizational environments where we live and work, and stand apart viewing the moral component, trying to understand how it fits in the situation we are in. 

The moral component viewed from these two perspectives is a very complex phenomenon in our lives. We may find that we want to be both naive and reflective at the same time. We want to believe in our values, seeing them as universal, transcending time, space and culture, the way life ought to be, bring purpose, peace and fulfillment.  We may see that these values are rarely lived to their fullest, that some of the greatest proponents of these values were crooks and charlatans, and that there are other philosophies or perspectives that are compelling and valid in their own right.

Where this leads for some people is to confusion and for some to an abandonment of their hope for fulfillment of their destiny. For others, they embrace the moral component as a guide to create a life of goodness and difference that matters.

The people I mentioned earlier are these people. They held to their values in a changing world where their values were not normative. We remember them as much for their courage as for the values they believed in.

As I have reflected upon this picture over the past few months, I began to see that the moral component of life and leadership matters in ways that have been lost. For many people, their naive view of the way leaders should behave and function in their roles has experienced a loss of innocence. With that loss has come cynicism. And what must come next, is a recovery of a more sober, realistic understanding of the moral component in leadership being that which brings credibility and respect to them.

Making a difference that matters, making our lives count, creating a legacy of leadership and goodness comes from recognizing and developing the moral component in our life and work.

This means that we are aware of the values that matter to us, and that we must live according to them. To stand when everyone else is running away or in cynical denial of their own loss of innocence is to live by a moral code than is more than a brand or an inspiring-idea-of-the-month. In the end, this is what separates the moralists from those who truly lead.  This is the legacy that is possible for us all if we choose.


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


Technological advantage

This video of one of Conan O'Brien's guests captures one aspect of the current financial crisis.


The challenge before us is less financial, though that is where we feel the recession, than it is about the choices we must make each day. If I approach life from an attitude of entitlement, luxuriating in the wealth of technology available to me for my amusement, then I'm going to have a difficult time coping with hard financial times.

If, however, I view technology as providing me the tools to succeed in an environment of disruptive change, then I will find a way to deal with the financial crisis without fear or denial. From that attitude will come the courage and persistence to find a way through this crisis each day.

There are still opportunities to make a difference. For this to happen requires us to act in ways that build strength in our relationships with people in our businesses and communities. Without the technology that we have at our disposal, this would be much more difficult.


HT: Dan Pink


When leaders act children

This article - How the Masters of the Universe ran amok and cost us the earth - in The Scotsman gives a insightful picture of life at the top.  As I read it, all I could think was that the world's top banking executives were children playing and benefiting from someone else's money, and thinking that their Daddy, the federal government would be there to bail them out.

Accountability ignored is discipline denied.  Accountability modifies how one looks at risk. If  you think that your actions have no downside because Mommy and Daddy are there, then you'll take on ever riskier activities.

As a result, when the industry was deregulated, permission was given to these children to play with fire. With freedom must come discipline, and discipline begins with the individual. You can see how one firm invested more and more in subprime lending, seeing their cash flow grow and grow, and how other firms jumped on the bandwagon. Just like a fraternity party where one drunk decides to jump off a hotel balcony into a pool, the rest of the guys have to do it too until one or more end up in the hospital or dead.

Independence of thought, and responsibility for action are lost in the herd instinct not to be an outsider.

Here is a lesson for the person who is head of an organization. Following is not leadership. Leadership is taking personal initiative to do the right thing in the context in which you live. In all my years of working with organizations, there is not a single group that is like another. NOT ONE. So, if you want to follow, know that this is what you may find at the end of that sequence of non-decisions.  There are no perfect people or organizations. There are none that you can follow blindly. Everyone spins their failures into someone else's responsibility.

Here's the bottom line, the failure of these banks is not simply because of their financial decisions. Their financial decisions failed because of the moral choices that they failed to accept.  Leadership is a position of trust which is earned by the moral choices we make. If we act like children, believing that some parental agency will be there to pick up the pieces, and that I get to keep all my toys and privileges after my failure, then we are failing at the most fundamental level of life, the moral one.

None of us should ever think that we are immune from the moral imperative of accountability. And in the case of these bank failures, the implications of their moral failure is global.

What should we do? Accept the world as it is. Success and failure are both components of the life of endeavor. What we don't know is more important than what we do know, and what we don't know is determined to a large extent by what we choose to accept as relevant information.

Accept the world as it is because we have now seen, you can't fool Mother Nature.


Ill prepared for success

Reading this Blowhard's piece on Stieglitz' critique ofglobalizism reminded me of a thought I had when I read about a recently fired CEO' severance package that was close to $200 million.

It struck me that the problem isn't the size of the package, but rather corporate boards' inability to think of what to do with all that money.  In other words they were not prepared philosophically for the financial success that have achieved  Or more specifically, capitalism has out grown its original paradigm. The idea is to make money, but it would appear that when that idea came into prominence, the thought that a person could be fired and received hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation was just not conceivable. yet that is precisely where we are today.  If we focus on the dollar amount, we miss the larger question. What should corporations do with the vast sums of money that they make.  And when they downsize in order to create it, it seems to me that we have narrowed our perception of the possible down to something that works for a few, but not for the whole.

I'd rather think about the productive value of money. What should money produce? And expand that notion to as broad a perspective as possible. The social investing moment is going in the right direction, but even that is a overly narrow perspective.

I know I'm beyond my reach here, but it seems to be that the problem is not knowing the value of things and people and thereby not knowing how to utilize them for the greatest return.  Anyone neck deep in a corporate will laugh at my fantastical musings. But it could well be that being so immersed in the system makes it impossible to see the possibilities that are plainly evident to an outside.

Now, I'm not so foolish to think that just changing our philosophy will change things. However, I do think that changing our attitude toward people as resources can make a difference. As I've listen to people over the years, one of the certain remarks that I get from all segments of the organizational world is the impression that people at the lower levels of companies do not see their role as vital to the company's future. And that upper management really doesn't know how to best use them for their inherent advantage. In essence, this is a problem of human communication, education and leadership development.

An employee who is constrained from taking initiative to do the right thing at the right time because someone told it wasn't his job is an employee who may not be under-performing based on his or her job description, but may be under-performing based on their talent and assets.  An example of this was a study that was conduct at the college I served in the 1980's and 1990's. That study determine that the housekeepers in the dormitories had more contact time with students that faculty or administrators.  As a result we provided some training to the housekeepers to help them understand how to identify issues in student behavior. It made a difference because we saw value in these people that others did not.

So, globalizm according to Stiglitz has been a boon to the rich, and bust to the empoverished.  Could it be that the reason is our philosophy of money that is narrow and self-centered?  Worth a thought.


Our Moral Compass: Fixed or Growing?

I want to continue the train of thought from my previous post on fixed or growth oriented mindsets by looking at the nature of fixed and growing moral codes.

My thoughts come from reading a chapter on moral codes in Joseph Badaracco's book Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature.  Badaracco teaches business ethics at the Harvard Business School, and uses literature as a platform to deal with the sort of complex issues that business leaders face. 

One chapter - How Flexible is My Moral Code? - uses Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart to discuss the danger of a fixed, inflexible moral code.  Everything he says there is familiar. But then again, it is a perspective that is fresh and revealing of just how narrow and stubborn we can become in our intellectual life.

He uses the story that Achebe tells of Okonkwo whose potential as a leader is destroyed by following a code that is simplistic and unthinking.  He shows through the telling of the story in instance after instance how change in the circumstances of the community should have brought change to how Okonkwo functioned as a leader.  Instead, he continued to live by the code of thinking and conduct that he learned as a child.

Badaracco asks five questions that get at the issue of whether our moral compass is set right.

1.  How deep are the emotional roots of my moral code?
2.  What do my failures tell me?
3.  How have I handled ethical surprises?
4.  Do I have the courage to reconsider?
5.  Can I crystallize my convictions?

What these questions reveal is how our moral rigidity often has nothing to do with the moral codes of our culture, but rather something more personal, more emotional in nature. Psychologists talk about these sort of questions all the time, and can help us see how we continue to bring the past into the present.  Here Badarraco shows us how a more simplistic perception of morality cemented in our thinking by our emotional reaction to a person or a situation at an early age can derail our ability to be an able leader.

Badaracco is not advocating moral relativism.  He is simply saying that as the contexts of our lives become more complex, we cannot simply apply a fixed set of moral rules to every situation.  It is like the old illustration of using the hammer for every action because that is the only tool I have.

Badaracco's story reminded me of a story line from the first season of the television show, House, M.D.  Here Dr. Gregory House, a smart, difficult, sarcastic, prideful diagnostic physician, lives by a moral code that demands that he always be right. House is forced to make a medical conference speech endorsing a drug that the hospital CEO's pharmaceutical company manufactures. The choice given House is make the speech or fire one of the three doctors who work with him. He agrees to make the speech and then his pride cannot allow himself to submit to what is best for his colleagues and the hospital, so he publicly embarrasses the CEO during the speech.  As a result, the CEO forces the board of the hospital to a vote to rescind House's tenure.  Ultimately, House keeps his job, his colleagues keep their's and the CEO leaves, along with a promised donation of one hundred million dollars.

A stubborn, inflexible moral code is often a guise for an emotional constraint that cannot allow us to move beyond our own needs as leaders.  A more flexible moral code allows us to bring into the equation the most complex factor of any organization, the people question.

As leaders, it is easy to lead from high moral principles. It makes us feel important and principled in our leadership. We find acclaim as an influential moral thought leader. But our leadership is shallow and thin because it lacks the application of those ideas in relationships.  As the world shrinks into a global village of close connections, the thin fabric of our moral codes will show through.  The future belongs to those who know how to cross social and cultural boundaries to create relationships of trust and mutual benefit.  This is difficult if your moral code is a fixed, abstract compass.

The problem is that high principles are often abstract ones.   When they are fixed they exclude a process of self-criticism and introspection focused on the outcomes and implications of these principles.  The culture wars that have become so tiresome in the political and religious arena are examples of what happens when a simplistic, rigid, inflexible moral code is followed.

Badaracco in this marvelous chapter tells about the end that comes to leaders who fail to grow in wisdom and practice in their leadership.

One of the saddest scenarios in organizational life occurs when followers abandon leaders.  The final scene can be brief and dramatic - as when a board of directors tells a CEO that they have been meeting secretly and are changing the company's leadership, or when a middle manager is pulled from a job on very short notice.  But these abrupt endings are usually preceded by long periods in which followers withdraw their assent to be led.  Their former leader is usually stunned and sometimes shattered when he or she finally understands what is going on.

This is what happens to Okonkwo.  At a late-night meeting, the tribal elders are trying to decide how to respond to the most recent British effort to humiliate and subdue the village.  Quietly, messengers from the colonialists walk up to the elders. Okonkwo jumps up, trembling with hatred, and confronts the head messenger. Okonkwo is an intimidating man - Achebe says he is "tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look" - but the messenger stands firm. This is what happens next:

In that brief moment the world seemed to stand still, waiting. There was utter silence. The men of Umuofia were merged into the mute backcloth of trees and giant creepers, waiting.

That spell was broken by the head messenger, "Let me pass!" he ordered.

"What do you want here?"

"The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop."
In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow.  It was useless.  Okonkwo's machetee descended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body.

Okonkwo expects his tribe to attack the other messengers, but they do nothing, and he knows they will never fight.

The Okonkwo takes another extraordinary step and violates the deepest principles of his people: he returns to his compound and hangs himself. The Ibo people view suicide as an abomination. They believe that it makes a person's body evil, so no tribe member can touch the body or help bury it, and sacrifices have to be made to cleanse the desecration.  When the District Commissioner, the highest-ranking colonial officer, arrives at Okonkwo's compound, he finds a village leader named Okierika staring at his friend's dangling body. Choking on his words, Obierika says, "That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia.  You drove him to kill himself; and he now will be buried like a dog."

What Badarraco tells us is that we must grow into our moral judgments. We must always be circumspect about the application of high principles so that we understand what the complications of our actions may be.   Moral maturity is not having principles, but understanding how to apply those principles in a wide variety of situations. Able leaders learn to handle the moral complexity.   Those that don't either lose their leadership role or must become authoritarians in order to preserve their standing.  In either case, it is a failure of leadership.


Leadership and Boundaries

Watch this video of Josh Shipp

What immediately impressed me was how this young man understands boundaries.

Now read this story about a youth hockey riot in Utica, N.Y.  This stuff happens all the time.  The problem is adults who don't understand social boundaries.

We recently dismissed a boy from our scout troop because he refused to operate within the boundaries of safety and respect for the troop.

Boundaries are both cultural and structural. They function to not only guide groups toward common goals, but also protect them from destructive behavior.  They are cultural because they are formed in a tacit agreement between us based on shared values.  They are structural because they are essential to insuring the viability of an organization.

I believe it is the duty of leaders to set the boundaries for their organizations and their communities.  These boundaries need not only to be clear, but also the consequences for actions when those boundaries are crossed. 

If you have a connection to a school or some other youth organization, connect your kids to Josh's website.  Engage him to come talk with your kids about responsibility.  And as adults, listen to his message because it is not just for kids, but for all of us.

Josh understands this and is trying to communicate a message of responsibility to kids.  Read his Change This manifesto on how to talk with teenagers.  It's right on the money. 

The problem is not that kids don't understand boundaries, but adults don't.  Kids often times are victims of adults failure to understand what's appropriate and what isn't.

I'm glad to know that Josh is out there.  As an old guy, I think he is really cool.


A new generation visits the Generation Gap

Liam Kinnon, son of Bill and Imbi, Canadian college student, asks a profound question about how the generations relate to one another.

Here's part of his post:

I’ve realized recently that so much of my thinking is the direct outcome of how my parents raised me.  Ideas they transmitted through discipline and conversation are ingrained in me.  I can’t escape them, but is this a bad thing?  I’m not sure how to answer.
I guess part of the whole part of the teenage rebellion is your answering that question.  So in my instance I accepted that my parents had taught me the right things.  Therefore I didn’t rebel in any big way, though you’d have to ask my parents how they feel about that statement.  So than here’s the question that follows.  What is the reason that so many people in the last century have rebelled to the point of no return from their parents?

Profound question from this young man.  I thought about this last night at our weekly scout meeting as our troop committee met with a boy who they dismissed from the troop. 

The reason?  It wasn't that he used his knife in a threatening way toward other scouts, which he did.  In the passion of a game of capture the flag, we can do some really stupid things.  No, it wasn't that.

Instead it was a issue related to Liam's question about teenage rebellion.  This boy of 14 is very smart.  He knows how to argue his way out of responsibility for his actions.  His refusal to accept responsibility for his actions can be understood.  He's learned that like most kids from all the adult role models society presents.  Many adults refused to accept that there are certain inevitable consequences to our decisions and actions.

No, his problem was that he thought he existed apart from the rules. That he had no responsibility to the troop to be a good scout.  To follow the scout oath and law.  His anger, primarily directed toward me - "I hate you. ...  Just SHUT UP!" - was due to the fact that we had established boundaries of behavior and attitude for him as well as for the rest of the scouts.  He didn't accept those as relevant to him.

Do I have an explanation for his rebellion against the authority of the scout troop?  Yes, I do. 

In a certain sense all of us are in rebellion against authority.  It is normally expressed in passive aggressive behavior. We see it in our organizations. We see in the discussion in the parking lot and rest rooms.  We see in the attitudes of co-workers who believe that they run the company better than anyone else.  We see it in the executives who play the ethical margins and lie to maintain their imperviousness to criticism.  We see it in the resistance to change.  We see it in our own unwillingness to recognize that our individual decisions and actions carry consequences for other people and for the organization.

Here's how I make sense of this. The Impact diagram hereCircle_of_impact_diagram_8 is a picture of the three dimensions of leadership - Ideas, Organizational Structure and Relationships.  A fuller depiction of this chart can be found here.  Let me treat our situation last night as an example of what I see.

This young man lived with an Idea that he was independent from both the Organizational Structure of the scout troop and the Relationships he had with his fellow scouts.  As a result, he was isolated in a fantasy world of his own mind.  His conflict with me as his scoutmaster was that my relationship with  him caused his intellectual world to be thrown into conflict.  The expectations that my role as scout leader places on him as well as the rest of the scouts were in conflict with his independence.  I expected him to have scout spirit. I expected him to act in the best interest of the troop. I expected him to participate and contribute to making the troop a better place than he found when he joined.

My relationship to him also meant that he had to relate to the structure of the troop. He had to be a member of a patrol. He had to fulfill certain requirements in order to advance. He had to live up to the standards that the Boy Scouts set for scouts. So, when the issue of his attitude of defiance came out in the level of disrespect and rebellion that it did, it was then time for the troop committee to handle the matter.  And they did.

Out of the hundred and fifty boys who have been members of our troop over the past seven years that I have been scoutmaster, I can name on one hand the ones that were at this level of rebellion.  For most they were just kids having fun. It wasn't malicious or intentional.  They were just kids wanting to have fun after being confined within the structures of the school classroom. 

Do I blame their parents? No.  I think the social, emotional and developmental context of these boys is far more complicated than just laying it at the feet of their parents.  The parents maybe doing the very best they can, and turn to programs like scouting hoping that the structure, discipline and caring relationship with non-parental adult mentors can make a difference.  Based on my experience, this is what happens in most cases.  There is no greater pleasure than to see a kid, who at one point in his childhood, people were writing off as lost, then emerge as young leaders, focused on their future, recognizing their responsibility to the troop, their family and to their community.

I loved Liam's question because the answer forces the generations to come together to find an answer. I'm privilege to do this every week with 43 scouts and a 30 adult leaders.  But this isn't just an issue with teenage boys in rebellion. This is an issue that lies at a much more sophisticated level in adults.  It is an issue of the personal character of humility and the ability to put aside one's own interests for the betterment of the organization or society as a whole. This is the crux of the issue. It is how our own sense of independence can find a structure that allows for the kind of relationships that are personally meaningful and fulfilling socially.

The last thing to say about last night is that when an organization acts to protect its values and integrity, it provides strength and security to its individual members. This is the second time during my tenure as scoutmaster that a member of the troop was dismissed.  In each case, the discipline invoked was an affirmation to the parents that we take seriously the welfare of their children.  As a result, they have greater confidence in the leadership of the organization and, more importantly, are more willing to personally invest their time and energies in helping. 

There is a fine balance required in the exercise of discipline.  It can't be a knee-jerk response.  It can't be personal. It can't be too stringent or too casual.  The balance is not a matter of the management of organizational processes.  Rather, it is insuring that the relationships within the organization are respectful, that expectations are fair and clearly expressed, and that issues are addressed before they grow to become a serious crisis.  For this reason, it is my conclusion that organizational structures do not exist for their own purposes, but rather are there to provide support and protection for the relationships that are the organization.  Ultimately, this is what was affirmed last night.


Seth Godin on what lasts

Seth Godin, the wisest marketer around, casts a clear light upon the various get-rich-quick schemes that fill the internet.

Seth concludes:

Bottom line: just because the net makes it much easier to measure things, share things, create downlines and hierarchies and yes, scams, doesn't mean its the best way to make something that lasts.

This is precisely why I have shifted away from a focus on outcomes and results to impact upon people.  If you impact people, their lives, families, organizations and communities, beneficially, then you have found something that will sustain itself.  It is that simple.