We are what we do


Everyone needs a dog. Dogs cut through the verbal mumbo-jumbo that we humans  pass off as our intentions and purposes in life. All they know is action.

Our dog Thor only knows us through our actions. He loves us and is loyal to us because we scratch his head, throw him a tennis ball and steal firewood from him so that he can chase us. Thor only knows us through our actions toward him. Because Thor is simple like that, he makes it simpler for us as a family to love each other. Thank you, Thor.

Over the past few weeks, I've met a guy, who will go nameless, who, through his blog, has introduced me to a woman, whom I've now met, who will also go nameless because of her story.

She personifies a principle that I believe is important for leaders to understand. 

Her story in moment.

I meet people all the time who tell me their stories. What is compelling in their stories is not their rationale or their interpretation of it, but rather their description of the actions they have taken to get where they are.

Thirty years ago, when I was a seminary student, there was an idea floating around some churches, and is still prevalent today under different names, that all you had to do is claim God's blessing, and it was yours. It was dubbed, "Name and Claim It."

I realized that this belief system was an invitation to passivity, an entitlement mindset and the self-deception of blaming others for their own failure to act.

Believing in "Name and Claim It" is an emotional narcotic that is not fed by action, but, rather, by the constant need for new inspiration to believe in the idea.

I find it sad and incidious.

My assessment of this success faith is that it is a parasite on the richer tradition of individual freedom and entrepreneurism. It is parasitic because the belief suggests that all you must do to be successful is place an idea in your head, and it will come true.

Not so, every successful person I know has worked hard to get ahead and stay there. There is no magic to becoming a successful person. Even the luckiest, gain and keep their success through hard work and perseverance through the many transition points that are required to create a successful life.

One Woman's Action

I set up this woman's story with this perception of success because of what she did, not what she said she did. I leave her name out, simply to respect the anonymity of her actions. What she did was not done for fame or recognition, but rather to be herself, to live an authentic life, each and everyday. I honor her action by not granting her more public exposure than she wishes.

Let me identify her by the initial H to make the telling of the story easier.

H is a part of group of people who work in most communities as rescue workers. Her rescue work is on the water. She is the leader of a team of water rescuers. They train hard. They put their life on the line for people every day. They are like the police officers who run toward gun fire, the firefighters who run into burning buildings, and soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who go into the most violent places in our world to provide safety for us at home. H is in this class of person. Even before hearing her story, I had the highest level of respect for her because I know people just like her.

To know me is to understand that I place a person's actions above their intentions. I see people spending most of our lives rationalizing either their action or non-action.

As people, we are prone to self-deception, and it is only through dealing with the hardest, darkest side ourselves that we discover the truth of who we genuinely are. To see this is to be free of fear of discovery, free from humiliation, free no longer to appear to be more than we truly are, and instead to act to do what we must to do be our authentic selves.

H's story is one of heroism. She was returning home to her family after a weekend of training. She comes across an automobile accident that has just happened. Let my other friend tell the story as he heard it.

Just got a call. A visceral scream was the first thing I heard. Someone unloading into their phone and I was the recipient. Confusion, alarm, concern, all the keywords one goes through when you know something bad has happened to the person on the phone with you, flashed my psyche as dread fell upon me.
I then realized that (H) was the gutteral scream. She was in her car, naked for the most part, burned, bruised, in shock. We established a rapport and I began to talk her down.

It is 12:15 AM. I am now wired and beyond alert. (H) had rung off as she reached her home in (C). I knew that she had just done a long day at sea ... in an appreciation day that her company, ... had just put on.
In her weary drive home she had rolled up on a flame wall on the (X highway). She said that she had driven through it and that it looked like Armageddon. Pulling up to a burning car she got out and saw movement in the flames. Grabbing a prybar she broke the window and grabbed at the squirming flame ball that was a man. She said his hands had looked like candles as they burned.
There were bystanders and she screamed for help, but as sometimes happens no one moved and as she managed to gain control of the flaming man she began to pull him out and his foot caught in the debris. Screaming at the bystanders, they finally broke from shock and jumped the two.  As they dragged the guy away, the car exploded.
“I smell (D), I smell like fire and burning flesh, I think I fractured my arm, I am almost home”
H thought that the car had punctured it’s tank in a collision with the guard rail, setting off the tempest. I am taking a sip of vodka right now. It burns and rasps my throat. I am worried about my friend.  Emotionally peaking myself, because I love her and can do nothing. But knowing H, I understand that she will be all right. Eventually. Someone lives tonight, albeit in agony, because H was where she was supposed to be. It is her lot, this sort of thing. Lucky guy.
H always lectures us that rescue (and life) is all about seconds and feet. You have seconds in which to assess and feet in which to react. Tonight once again she illustrated her point. Seconds and feet.

H acted heroically. Talk to military people and they will tell you that the only heroes are the ones who lost their lives in battle. To be a hero is to act sacrificially, even if it means giving your life for another. This is what I see in H's action. A hero acts, not out of a desire for fame and recognition, but rather out of a commitment to serve.

The leadership principle is this.

Our actions lead others, and our words follow.

They are the measure of who we are. If we say one thing, and do another, we create doubt about our authenticity. If we act wrongly, and then explain it away as if it does not matter, then we have driven a wedge between ourselves and others. When we rationalize our inaction or failure, tossing blame on someone else or institution, we rob ourselves of truth, and consequently our freedom to be authentic.

Another Women's Story

Yesterday, I was introduced to another woman, and in the spirit of the post, she'll remain nameless too. I'll call her F. I have a lot of respect for her.  In telling me her story, she told me how she has come to understand the power of forgiveness. For her it is not an idea for appreciation, but how she has learned to treat those who have hurt her deeply in her life. She lives forgiveness, just as H lives heroism. And she is free as a result to be her true, authentic self.

We are what we do.

As leaders, how we treat people, not what we say for public consumption is what matters. This is what our family saw everyday from our dog Thor.

Monday night, after two weeks of rapidly declining health, Thor, was put down.  Thor was loyal, loving and a part of our family. He didn't care about my intentions or my philosophizing. All he knew were my actions toward him. All he wanted was for me to chase him, to throw firewood to him and rub his head.

Consider today what you do. You only have seconds and feet to take the right actions. There are people around you who are watching, looking for you to act in accordance with what you believe. Ideas matter, but only as they reveal our inner motivation to act. Our actions are mirror of our intentions.

We lead by actions, and our words follow.

Make sure that they are one and the same, and you'll find peace and freedom, and the respect and love of others in return.

Good bye, Thor, my friend. Rest in peace

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.