Archive for March 31, 2011

Memorial Lessons

How often do we reflect on memory? Surely, we think about it when it fails us. We may damn it when we lose our keys or forget someone’s name, or dread it in the case of Alzheimer’s, robbing mind of memory as bleach leaches color from cloth. We may also think about memory when our memories disagree with each other, in conflict over whether this happened or that. But how many times have we asked ourselves what is memory? Of what and how is it made? What is the difference between “good memory” and “bad?” And what of the role of memory, both for the individual and for a group – family, community, society?

Whether we think about it or not, memory is one of the key pillars of existence, of identity; one could even say, “I remember, therefore I am.” And this holds not only for the individual, but also for the collective, for society. What we choose to remember and then to memorialize is as much a commentary on who we are as anything. This act of memorializing - the act of canonizing memory – is exactly what concerns Dr. James Young.

Recently, I heard Dr. Young speak at the annual Fred Marcus Memorial Holocaust Lecture in Denver, which is itself a tribute to the memory of a remarkable man and Holocaust survivor. Young, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts, is an expert on Holocaust memorialization and memorials, and memory in general. The theme of Young’s talk was trends in memorials since World War II, and he traced the lineage of the 9/11 memorial (Young served on the jury of the World Trade Center Site Memorial competition) back through a wide range of them, starting with Georges-Henri Pingusson’s stark monument to the French deportees under the Nazi occupation.

La Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation, France 1962

What’s remarkable about Pingusson’s memorial is that, unlike the usual larger-than-life edifices towering overhead, his design descends into the earth, an open pit below ground, a kind of grave from which to contemplate loss. According to Young, this monument was a bellwether of future memorials, influencing many, not only those about the Holocaust, but others such as Maya Lin’s design for the Viet Nam War Memorial in Washington, DC (it too slopes down into the landscape, and adds the symbolism of one’s reflection in its polished black granite) and now, the one under construction commemorating 9/11 (the footprint of both towers will be negative space, reminding us of where they once stood). Young talked about the idea of memorials as places that open up the remembering in each of us, instead of remembering for us. What he meant was that we each have different memories and ways of remembering, and these are often quite personal. He described a memorial’s job as being like that of a witness: standing for the memory, but not supplanting it, rather than bestowing memory, providing a space for memory to emerge.

That got me to thinking about other human processes that, like remembering, are best facilitated, not taught. And I likened those architects and artists of memorials to others who take the care to figure out how to facilitate experience – how to support the ones doing to do it for themselves. To learn, to remember, to create, to release, to build muscle, to reason, to experience in all the infinitely varied ways humans do requires a carefully constructed space for all experience to be okay, to be both acceptable and accepted. To thoughtfully provide such a space – whether physical or intellectual or both - is, in my mind, the highest form of service, the highest form of teaching, the highest form of leadership.

Coaches, parents, teachers, therapists, all when at their best, facilitate experience for those they serve. And it takes considerable time and attention to do this well, which is often completely invisible to those who benefit. Who realized just how much deliberation, angst, trial and error, even sacrifice there is behind the memorials we have visited? How much thought went into each stone, each word, each placement of living thing? All designed to help us make meaning for ourselves of a collective memory, and perhaps also a personal one. I find this so magnanimous, so full of humanity, so awe-inspiring – and I feel a particular debt to Pingusson, for his innovation on what a memorial can and should be that has illuminated this concept ever after for all who follow.

And it reminds me that it is just this humanity, this compassion that is behind all the greatness, all the lasting innovation we ever experience. It is this quality of attention and care for others that separates those who are serving from those being served. Let us make a monument to that.

Strategic Planning: A State of Mind

“Leading isn’t doing. Leading is thinking.”

The pace of change in our world is much more rapid than it was a decade ago, and with the influence of technology that makes access to information constant and infinite, combined with the human thirst for knowledge and the new, this pace is not likely to slow in the next ten. In response to this, I am hearing more and more about the need for true leaders, for those who can think strategically and critically, who can develop innovative and creative solutions, and who can maneuver with alacrity. And I agree.

And yet the capacity for strategic thinking seems to be rapidly dying, if not dead already. Thinking beyond the moment is apparently too difficult, too boring, or too old-fashioned. Somehow, being reactive is in vogue. I think about this a lot. The great teachers all preach being in the moment, that there really is nothing else but the present, the here and now. And oddly enough technology seems to line us up well with this credo. The cell phone rings; it’s answered. The email comes in; it’s opened. The text appears; we reply. We are in the moment, responding to each cling and clang of whatever electronic device we’re hooked to. And it’s as if this constant exercise of responding has spilled over into all areas of work. We race from meeting to meeting, making lists of things to do, arguing over this tactic or that, and struggling hard to check some of them off so we can feel like we are getting somewhere. But is this what the teachers meant by the present? I think not.

And for leadership, this reactive drive is disastrous. The very meaning of leader, in my mind, is synonymous with vision. Afterall, who wants to be led by someone who is wandering around, or worse still, running in place? Leaders have followers because they are headed somewhere exciting, compelling, somewhere we are not now. And the big leaders ought to be taking us into the future. Into the future, brightly. They ought to be shaping the future with big ideas, big connections, big innovations. What we are getting instead is mostly management.

There’s nothing wrong with management, except when it stands in for leadership. Simply put, managers maintain, leaders innovate. I dare say, we need innovation now.

So what’s the answer? Strategic planning, believe it or not.

Strategic planning was all the rage a while back, but evidently, at some point, people wearied of vision and mission statements. After all, they didn’t seem to work, right? You spent a day writing up a cool vision or mission (and no one really knew the difference), it would get posted in the break room, and things would swiftly go back to normal. Strategic planning became a lackluster, go-through-the-motions exercise, so leadership stopped even trying.

But all strategic planning was ever meant to be was a practice, a discipline, a rigor to remember to think beyond today. Strategic planning was the time out for reflection from the daily distractions, when everyone was allowed to dream, to reach for the impossible, and to develop the steps together to get there. It was a time to flex the muscle of thinking big (being visionary), out of the box (innovating), and getting full buy-in (collaboration). The reason this fell out of fashion had something to do with it not working, but underneath that was the real cause: people not really knowing how to do it. After all, an organization’s ability to recognize the harbingers of change and stay abreast of the change curve is a highly evolved skill - one that often means the difference between average performance and brilliance.

It’s time to reclaim strategic planning as a vital leadership capability. And it’s past time to make strategic planning much more than a day or two off-site to write a tag line. It’s time to remember what strategic planning was always about in the first place: leaders leading. What else is there on the leadership front than convening a group of diverse thinkers to look out into the world and make sense of it? Make sense of what’s on the horizon. Look squarely in the face of what looks threatening, and reframe it into an outrageous opportunity. More than just a day or two’s dabble, this is the work of leadership every single day.

Instead of the common complaints about strategic planning - that people spend way too much time doing it (I really doubt this); it doesn’t result in anything; and not nearly enough time is spent on getting the real work done, I would cast it more like:

  • people spend not nearly enough time being strategic,
  • the time that is spent is wasted for lack of good process on how to do it,
  • and lots gets done (busy-ness), but has very little real impact.

So how does this get solved? First, being strategic is not an exercise; it’s a state of mind. It’s just dandy to take time away once a year, or once a quarter, to rev the engines by going somewhere new, having an engaging speaker to prime the pump, and using a facilitator to open up the process. But this is just the icing on the cake. Real strategic planning takes place every day, in every meeting, in each conversation. To think strategic planning is ever done, or that anyone is spending too much time on it is ridiculous, especially now when the pace of change dictates that a long-range plan must consider, by necessity, both six months (to keep up with change) and 100 years (to keep an eye on the effect we are having).

Second, if you don’t know how to be strategic, learn. There is not a human being on the planet who will not be served by learning the difference between strategic and tactical, since this difference applies in every context no matter how high up or on the ground the person is. To prove it, I heard about a Libyan man who had made the decision 25 years ago to continue studying English after Gaddafi banned foreign language instruction in schools. He told Jason Beaubien, NPR reporter, who was aided by this man on a recent trip to Tobruk, that he kept studying English on his own in preparation for this day – the day when he would have the opportunity to tell his story to the world. This simple man made a very strategic decision based on his long view of the future. And it paid off.

So, there is absolutely zero excuse for any person in a leadership position to say “Well, I’m just not strategic.” (By the way, this is a direct quote from the opening remarks of a client I was hired to assist with strategic planning some years ago.)  The response to this should be: “You’re demoted until you can learn.” We need our people, but especially our leaders, to be able to glide between the strategic and tactical all day long. We need this precisely because the tendency to the tactical has reached epidemic proportions in this age of instant technology.  And the tactical just becomes busy-ness without the bigger view to inform it.

Finally, busy is a poor stand-in for results. We need all the activity of our workers to have an impact. To make this so, leaders must do their job. Their job is to convene and get to the decisions that then empower their people to do the work. I have never met a human being who cannot be motivated by a clear task, fully within their capability, connected to a desired outcome. If your people are not motivated or producing, one of these things is the problem. And the root of that problem is usually leaders not doing their job. Leading isn’t doing. Leading is thinking. Deep strategic thinking that sets the direction and then checks to see if we’re getting there.

So let’s stop responding to every bleat of our tech gear, every blip of information across our screen, and let’s get back to strategic planning. Better yet, to being strategic, to thinking strategically. If we start looking out regularly to the horizon’s edge and beyond, if we gather and look, we might be surprised at just how amazing what we come up with can be.

Leadership in Crisis

I wrote this blog a few weeks ago, before the recent natural disaster in Japan. This event has added greater significance to the context in which to read it. For a post script on this, see below.

I went to hear a talk on leadership the other night. I love the subject of leadership. It has intrigued me since I was a child. Who gets to make decisions? Who do others follow and why? Is it a matter of popularity? Smarts? Good looks? I have pondered, written about, and worked with leaders and leadership issues my entire career, so when I get a chance to hear someone speak about it, I go.

The thing is, this talk reminded me of so many others on leadership. At the outset, the audience was asked to consider the attributes of a leader. Right off the bat I felt a bit deflated. This question has been asked and answered to death – just look at the more than 800 books dealing with it on Amazon. But, I told myself to be patient, give the guy a chance, and wrote my list. It wasn’t that far off from what various audience members replied when called upon by the speaker. Integrity was first. Then came vision, and a plan of action. Communication – both expressing and listening. Strength of character. All good – the usual suspects. To that list I added what I had written first: compassion. I saw it sitting at the top of my list, and I asked myself, do all leaders really need compassion? But we’ll get to that…

My musings were interrupted by the speaker offering examples of great leaders who demonstrated the group’s identified characteristics. He started with Lincoln and his trials during the Civil War. And from Lincoln, the speaker moved to a discussion of Appomattox and the leadership displayed there by General Joshua Chamberlain. From the battlefield, he transitioned to the October 2010 mining accident in Chile, where he asked the group to consider what their first actions would have been after having arrived on that scene. The story the speaker wove was compelling and dramatic: time was of the essence, the 33 miners’ lives were at stake and every moment was one more nail in their coffins. From the mining accident, the speaker discussed wildland fire fighting, citing the US Forest Service’s Incident Command System as one of the best for dealing with leadership in emergency situations. And there it was: my patience worn thin from one crisis situation after another used to amplify what it takes to be a great leader.

Now, there is no question that leadership in crisis situations is important and, in extremely time intensive circumstances, where lives are on the line, we all want leaders who are at their best. And it is those leaders and the governance process they command that is often the difference between a desired result and disaster. But my point is, if we are in crisis, hasn’t leadership to some extent already failed?

I know this may seem like an almost blasphemous kind of question, and I also know that sometimes, life does just happen and the unexpected takes us all by surprise, even when we think we are well-prepared. But, I do believe that leadership is first and foremost about preventing crisis - the disastrously unexpected, and this is accomplished by being strategic. And by “strategic” I mean looking out into the future for the possibilities of what might occur and being prepared. Planning for how risk will be minimized and how opportunity will be leveraged. This exercise of looking out beyond where we are is one of the most important qualities of a great leader. Think about it. Every game-changing leader there has ever been was someone who saw something, had a vision of something that did not yet exist, that may even have looked impossible. That vision can be of something to be strived for or something to be averted, but vision is what all leaders have, without exception. Without vision, a leader is really a manager, and in the event of a crisis, a crisis management expert. And that may be exactly what is needed, but I would like the general discussion of leadership to get beyond crisis situations that, hopefully, are the exception and not the rule.

Leadership in crisis, or great crisis management, is the stuff of mythology. The ones who take charge are our heroes. We love to tell the battle stories of their accomplishment because they are exhilarating. The decisions, the moments of deliberation, the pressures all make for great theatre. We celebrate the leaders who save the day, who narrowly escape disaster, and who do so at great sacrifice, sometimes even die for it. But what of those leaders who have a vision of something far off on the horizon – something few people see, who strive to bring people together for a common purpose, who maintain momentum over months and years, and who arrive at an innovative solution that the group fully owns? Is this kind of leadership festooned in glory, written and sung about, lauded as heroic, feted with a ticker tape parade? Not often.

As Lao Tse said: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” And this may be exactly why true leadership is most often anonymous. True leadership dies a healthy death under the rubble of the followers dancing with glee over their own triumph. A true leader teaches only common sense, for that is what prescience becomes when it is recognized by many.

So, how do we teach something so invisible? How do we encourage this kind of leadership when it brings no promise of fame or glory?  How do we celebrate what this leadership accomplishes when so often its greatest achievement is something awful, that few saw coming, prevented? These are tricky questions. But at the root, I believe, is the notion of service. Service to the common good, rather than to the self.  And that is where I think many of our leadership conversations, classes, programs, bootcamps, and workshops are failing us. They are busy teaching about glorified leadership, the glory of being the individual leader, the star, the hero. While that is certainly a part of getting there, this curriculum is not reaching high enough.

I remember a client once asking, when he’d achieved the position of chairman of the board, “So does this mean I finally get to have my way?” I looked at him and replied, “Nope.” “Well, when will that be?” I looked at him kindly and said, ”That would be never. Your job is to lead the group to find and have their way.”  This is what Lao Tse was getting at: the leader is BEST (in other words, the ultimate mastery of leadership) when in service to those being led, whose reward is their arrival at a destination they learned first to dream of and then to achieve. And that brings me back to that first quality on my list of leadership attributes: compassion.

What I meant when I wrote “compassion” was care for others, for the greater good, for the big future. This compassion balances the ego that is so vital to a great leader. The ego is what much of our leadership talk and teaching seems to appeal to: the lead dog gets the best view, and all that. And the ego is extremely important to leadership. To stand up for what is right, to describe what others are not seeing, to question the status quo, to throw off the blinders of habit – this takes the fortitude from which ego is made. But compassion tempers the drive, the charisma, the force of the ego, and makes the true leader a most powerful engine for good. And it is compassion that enables the leader to stand down, when it is time, and to cheer from the sidelines before turning quietly away to the next thing.

Will everyone achieve this selfless service? Doubtful. Should our leadership institutions and gurus teach it, talk about it, even model it? Absolutely.

PS: In light of the Japan earthquake and its aftermath, some comment is warranted about how to view that situation in the context of this blog. Japan is recognized as one of the best prepared countries in the world for disaster response, which came as a strategic decision following a series of earthquakes (1923 Tokyo, for example) and Hiroshima. The earthquake last week is a poignant example of how even extraordinary preparation can be thwarted by the unexpected, calling for exemplary crisis management capability. This cannot be overemphasized. At the same time, there are important lessons about strategic leadership in other areas to consider. For example, site placement of nuclear power facilities is exactly the type of decision that requires a long view and consideration of a broad range of complex issues and perspectives. Hopefully, this tragic event will serve to inform future such decisions throughout the world.

Net Neutrality: Who Should We Be Most Afraid Of?

The idea of open, accessible, unmoderated forums for discourse and exchange inspires me. Afterall, that is what I do for a living: I design processes that enable many people to engage in collaborative decision-making. That technology could push this process open even further, to many more people, to a borderless conversation, a churning think tank for innovation is a possibility I dream of. For this reason, I have been an increasing proponent of the growing internet trend toward social media.

I remember my first impressions of social media sometime around 2005, which were based on some vague awareness of Friendster or MySpace as being something for kids, akin to an electronic yearbook. Seeing absolutely zero utility to me and my world, I successfully ignored whatever “social media” might refer to. Some time later, I developed a more-than neutral impression based on the press and an episode of Law and Order that thinly disguised the Meghan Meier suicide case in its storyline. My neutral impression then became tainted by the sinister. I still, however, dismissed social media as largely irrelevant. (It’s plain to see, I have not been in the early-adopter crowd.)  I finally found my own personal application: communicating with my niece and nephew, then in their mid-teens, and set up a Facebook account.

Of course, before Facebook, I used Google and soon after discovered Wikipedia, both of which quickly became indispensible to both my work and personal use. YouTube came later, and I say with some chagrin, I have yet to post a video of my own. However, that’s not far off.

In the past year, I have watched, with the rest of the world, as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have skyrocketed in prominence. Not only are they growing exponentially in users, but (and perhaps more importantly) they are also now celebrities themselves of film (“Social Network”), revolutions (Egypt), and new industry (social media technology and marketing). I have felt increasing enthusiasm over what these portals portend as possible…access, information, sharing, borderless society, innovation on a grand scale. And I have excitedly expanded who I follow on Twitter to open my world of ideas and awareness, which has meant more YouTube, more Googling, more Wikipedia visits, more trafficking in the social media world.

And in this journey into the new world, I have become vaguely aware of the growing concern about it. But it wasn’t until I attended a seminar on the First Amendment that I thrust myself into inquiry of exactly what is up. Well, a lot is.

For starters, there is a fundamental change in how ideas and communication flow. Fifty years ago (1961: the year I was born), Americans were happily ensconced in the TV era. This new mass medium had trumped radio and was being debated by then FCC chair, Newton Minow, as “a vast wasteland.” As a result, TV was mandated to provide programming aimed at the public good. I was raised in the age of  the ubiquitous cop show and rising sitcom, free from explicit violence, sex and bad language. Commercials for liquor and cigarettes disappeared in the mid-60s,  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street gained in popularity, and the Fairness Doctrine was enforced. TV was nice, news was smart, and channels were few. And that’s the difference: there were few speakers, speaking through a handful of regulated distributors, to a mass audience.

With the onset (or onslaught, depending on how you view it) of cable, TV changed: many, many speakers, many barely regulated distributors (remember, FCC jurisdiction stops at airwaves), to a mass audience. And we began to see explicit sex, graphic violence, and hear profane language, all the more shocking since it was coming at us out of the previously known “bland box.” And then with the arrival of the internet, the number of speakers proliferated infinitely. We are now they: bloggers, tweeters, posters, commenters, and on and on. We have gained an open forum, so open sometimes it feels too open, like when I happen across some porn site or rabidly violent one, or a blog that is scathing in ways that make me uncomfortable and sad. We have lost our intermediaries – the media no longer can be counted on like dear old Walter Cronkite to bring us news we can trust, now we must sort it out for ourselves; we have lost our protectors – the FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine and now it seems like a true anachronism with its goal of ensuring a diversity of viewpoints in the midst of what often feels like a free-for-all. But most important of all, we have also seen a massive decrease in media distributors, or rather, in the number of them.

Think about it. Google owns YouTube, Facebook has supplanted MySpace and Friendster with 500 million users, Murdoch owns TV and newspaper, and Comcast owns cable and AT&T. A few distributors for what has become the most massive communications infrastructure the world has ever known. The question is, are these owners of telecomm channels (or “pipes,” as they are called) more like utilities or more like content providers? And who even cares? Well, you and I should.

Enter net neutrality. The idea is that the FCC should assert its authority to keep the pipes open and accessible - to ensure a diversity of viewpoints can be expressed. In other words, should Comcast be able to decide to whom they give access to cable programming or bandwidth? Should Google be able to screen or limit searches? Should Murdoch be able to cover only the stories he cares for, or what’s more, lie about those he does not? The idea behind net neutrality is that purveyors of access, such as Comcast broadband or Sprint or Google, should have to offer that access fairly. They should not be able to exercise their preference. Sounds reasonable. They are, after all, providing access to huge numbers of people through their monopolies. But the problem is that the FCC only has jurisdiction over public resources, that is airwaves (and also, interestingly enough, phone lines, because they are considered “common carriers”). So, while they can tell telephone and network TV companies to be even-handed, they don’t have the authority to dictate to the owners of cable lines, broadband or otherwise. Nor do they have jurisdiction over Google and its search engine. Makes for some interesting concerns now, doesn’t it?

And even if we decide (and by “we” I mean Congress) that we do want the FCC to regulate net neutrality for us – to stand between us and the big media pipe owners – what will that mean for freedom of speech? Will the government stray further into regulation of cable, the internet, and Google? And will that regulation be for our good or to our detriment? Was TV in the 60s, 70s, and 80s really representative of the diversity of viewpoints in this country? Hardly. But I sure feel right now that the big pipe owners need to be held to account by somebody so that they don’t get the idea that they are arbiters of what we know or don’t. However, then I got to thinking, what the heck is the difference anymore between government and big business? Is the line that bright? Can one watchdog the other? And the real rub is, who I want to watchdog whom is dictated by whomever I am most afraid of in any given context or in any given moment. Now that’s something to think about.