Six Words to Write on the Wall

Scholars identify crises as periods when outlier economic events (extreme data points) and social and political polarity (absence of a center or consensus) prevail over what had been considered the normative state.  Economic, social, and political order is in peril.  Stated otherwise, weirdness reigns.  As an Eisenhower baby I am old enough to remember a fair amount of tumult, but the outliers and polarity today seems more pronounced and durable.  Someday historians will turn the current noise blaring at us from all directions into something melodic and lyrical, but when you are in the midst of the milieu it sounds more like a kid performing at their first violin recital. We grit our teeth and brace ourselves until the tortuous fraying of the bow ceases.  What does this chorus of noise mean?  What do the various crises emanating from the political, economic, and cultural spheres portend for you and me?  How should we respond to these events?  What should we expect of others and ourselves?  Even more importantly, what does it suggest about how we should conduct our lives vis-à-vis the purposes and aims that define who we are? Is our destiny still even ours?

To assure that our destiny remains in our control we must first embrace the notion that crisis is good.  It is like the fire in the forest that is both devastating in the moment and essential for the future of its eco-system.  Crisis on a systemic level allows a cleansing of the detritus that has built up from years of traditional thinking codified to protect the status quo and, unfortunately, compromise our future.  What once was thought to maintain stability—like a money supply untethered from the gold standard—may mark the next tipping point toward systemic entropy.  Crisis, however, creates new spaces and resources for new actors to create and innovate.  It is like rebooting your computer: the operating system remains intact while the application software is disentangled from the remnants of prior tasks.  That is not to say crises are thoroughly cleansing; some of the rubbish remains, and that which does will fight mightily to do so.  We need look no further than some of the blowhards in politics and media to recognize this.  Yet, to succeed in our particular purposes and aims, we must take what space and opportunities arise and run through newly opened doors toward our future.

Embracing crisis as a liberating force also allows us to learn from past crises so that we might identify words, themes, and modalities we should employ to survive and prosper, or at least find a measure of tranquillity, if not a state of grace.  Reviewing the history of past crises while also surveying the current political, economic, and cultural landscape leads me to suggest there are six words or themes to write on the wall to guide us in answering the question, how should we conduct ourselves today?[1]

  1. Authentic.  Keep it real, and keep it true. During recovery from crises there is not enough slack in the system to reward work that is almost right.  Only the real stuff wins.  Like most people, I appreciate irony, but too often today irony is worn in much the same way as a teenage girl wears eye shadow; more comical than alluring.  Yet when properly considered the object of irony—exposed in relief—reveals authenticity. The question is, what is the fundamental value expressed in its simplest form?  Seek to produce values that are pervasive and durable throughout the system, product, policy, or personal regimen.  Once identified, set them like cornerstones to support everything you do.
  2. Resilient.  Here is a not-so-newsy flash: you, your family, your company, your community, your city, and your country will suffer a blow or blows as we unwind from the current crises in the chaotic and messy climb toward a new more settled state.  Crises, like forest fires, are indiscriminate.  Even if you avoid catastrophic damage, collateral damage is a certainty.  Many herald schemes of sustainability and independence, but they are just part of this larger objective of resilience.  To survive we must have the ability to bounce back.  In our personal lives, this means we have to be mentally and physically fit, and have access to sufficient financial and human resources.  On the human relations aspect, trust others as Machiavelli might: expect them to consider their own interests first—always ahead of yours.  But, have go-to folks that can bolster your efforts in those areas where they are stronger than you.  Take personal responsibility for your lot, however you define it.  When the blow comes take the hit, dust yourself off, and get ready to hit back.  Make yourself a hard target.
  3. Gonzo.  Just when you thought this was going to be a treatise on conservative realism, I invoke the late Hunter S. Thompson.  In shorthand, gonzo means that you should write all the rules down so you know what not to do.  Channel your inner Hunter, er Gonzo.  The vast majority of rules, frameworks, policies, and structures were adopted to protect those in power, not to protect or serve you.  Moreover, in a post-crisis world, they don’t work in your favor even if you were one of their yesteryear authors.  In the ascent from crisis, those who set aside tradition and define their world in their own terms will be profoundly successful and yes, much happier.  When you face the inevitable admonishment “you can’t do that” or “that isn’t allowed,” simply respond: watch me.
  4. Transcendent.  Rise above the rabble.  Don’t be drawn into the muck of ignorance that is so-often the marker of organizations and factions whose survival depends on the condemnation of opposing perspectives.  This is the basis of my objection to organized religion—particularly monotheistic religions—that advocate intolerance as a by-product of their own survival impulse.  The prevailing principle of these groups is, “if you don’t believe as we do you are wrong and will be subjected to our wrath.”  Political parties employ the same thinking.[2]  Be wary of ideologies and theologies that practice judgment and condemnation.  They are debilitating.  Retain your free will.  Read often and deeply; look for character, structure, and meaning.  Pursue knowledge beyond your comfort zone.  What does the artist know or do that might benefit the scientist?  This is the best way to nurture the power of an opposable mind.  An opposable mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of.
  5. Stealth.  Several years ago I wrote an essay wherein I argued the next frontier—after my father’s frontier of space—was the frontier of anonymity.  It was based on the notion of harnessing the benefits of digital technologies, in particular, networks, to operate in a seamless and borderless manner to master the theoretically endless benefits of globalism.  All of this would be conducted in an anonymous manner where code and avatars replaced our traditional analog identities.  In many respects today, we are headed exactly in that direction as the anonymity of 1s and 0s dominate our commerce and communications.  Aliases have become the norm.  However, there are other aspects of anonymity—of a stealth existence—that have value beyond the ability to tweet your every thought behind an opaque hash tag.  High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis and in the period of objectivism that follows in America’s historical four-phase life cycle (crisis—objectivism—radicalism—idealism).  Humility and self-restraint are clearly preferable to hubris.  There are many people who enjoy health, wealth, and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.
  6. Grace.  There are many definitions and interpretations of grace, so let me start by suggesting the grace I write about here is when the proper balance of virtues are combined with other elements and resources to produce something beautiful.  A state of grace then is the modality that produces beauty, whether it is an object, product, service, idea, or writing.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir often argued that the most durable things in the world are those that are beautiful.  Grace is the capacity to bring everything together in such a way that people say wow that is beautiful, or amazing, or just plain cool.  I am suggesting here that grace is when you bring authenticity, resilience, gonzo, transcendence, and stealth together in just the right way to assure your destiny—which is indeed a truly beautiful thing.  Then, you are in a state of grace.

As we emerge from this period of crisis and enter a new period of objectivism, I expect those who seek grace through the careful application of these ‘six words written on the wall’ will retain a handhold on their destiny.  The fate of others will be chosen for them.

[1] The words and themes presented here all have their basis of research and argument found in prior posts at ameritecture.com.  Please peruse the archive for more substantive material on these six ideas including references to reading material.
[2] In my recent reading of memoirs from members of the George W. Bush administration, I have found an overwhelming sense of certitude that appears to have been the proximate cause of what I call sclerotic decision making.
By |2017-05-23T18:00:35+00:00April 24th, 2013|General, Leadership|0 Comments

The Best in Us

It is often said that the worst times bring out the best in us.  As I reflect on 9/11 and the decade that followed, I oscillate between anger, sadness, and disgust.  At times my jaw is clenched, while at others the tears well up.  Then, too often of late, I just hang my head in disbelief.  As an historian it is impossible for me to avoid comparing 9/11 to other moments of crisis in America, to other ‘worst’ times.  The run-up and aftermath of the American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression and World War II are obvious candidates for comparison.  What I find is that the significant markers that define the beginnings of these crises are characterized by both grave challenges and collective determination.  Americans come together and address the crisis with a high sense of resolve, responsibility, and sacrifice.  Our character is lean and strong.  During this period of comparison there are many more similarities than differences.  It is in the out years, roughly three years and beyond the initiation of crisis, when more differences are found, and where prospects for the future are defined.

Our initial response to 9/11 was similar to other crises.  Flags were everywhere and while a few people behaved in a manner unbecoming an American, most of us kept our cool and rallied around our leaders with compassion for those who lost loved ones, and a determination to seek justice.  In the out years, however, we lost our composure by compromising two things: our honesty and our humility.  Ideological bullies like Vice President Dick Cheney began by lying about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Inside the Beltway of Washington DC they call it politicizing intelligence.  I will call it what it is: lying.  The lies enabled a call to action that has cost us at least two trillion dollars and, across the world, the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  Once our honesty was lost, what little humility remained since we had become the world’s sole remaining superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union was vanquished by our hubristic response to 9/11.  Once our humility was gone, our national character—our identity—was lost as well. We were all sucked into a charade that has proven catastrophic.  The promises of the Cheney bunch—of cheers, bouquets, and new democracies—were never realized and now we are stuck in a quagmire without a clear exit.  The tally of blood and treasure lost is far from over.

Dishonesty, and moreover, arrogance, appear to be the primary products of the out-years after 9/11.  Now we behave at home the way we have abroad.  Our leaders in Congress swagger about with Cheney-esque anger and certitude.  Ideological bullying has become the norm.  Meanwhile, our president hides in the White House like a prom king who has just realized the student body doesn’t love him so much after all.  What courage he had has been overcome by his naiveté.  No, President Obama, the old white pudgy boys in Congress are not enamored with a young fit black man in the White House.  They want you out and they will do anything possible to bring that about.  It is time for you to fight for our future and forget about a second term.  Use the rest of your term to be the best one-term president ever.  If you do, who knows, you might even have a second term.

As I watched the tears shed by the children remembering their loved ones at Ground Zero on September 11, 2011, I couldn’t help but also wonder about all the tears shed by the children of those who have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan.  As I watch Wall Street prosper, I wonder why we can’t do the same thing for main streets all over America.  As I watch the middle class rise across Asia, I watch and wonder why we tolerate its decline in the West.  As I watch students across Scandinavia and Asia excel at levels significantly higher than our own kids, I wonder how we expect to remain a superpower.  As I watch our security, health, and environment decline from our dependence on fossil fuels, I wonder why we don’t launch a massive public initiative to produce new fuels and new distribution systems.

Many wonder these days if Karl Marx was right; if capitalism will produce its own demise.  It is an interesting question given our current circumstances.  I conclude, however, that capitalism and democracy are not the problem, character is.  We must regain our sense of honesty and humility to face the many challenges we face.  Once our character is lean and strong again we will have the courage to do what we know is right.  We will not allow those we elected to serve us to continue serving themselves first.  We will, once again, summon the best in us.

By |2017-05-23T19:50:02+00:00September 11th, 2011|American Identity, Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part IV: Moral Purpose

The final element of leading from the soul is moral purpose. There is a terrific book on this issue by consultant Simon Sinek, titled, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.[1] Sinek argues that while most of us and the organizations we work for can readily articulate what we do and how we do it, all too often there is confusion or even no understanding of why. Why provides the beliefs and convictions that direct the what and how. If the why is missing, everything else is the product of randomness and, even more troubling, its absence provides a vacuum that will be filled by divergent interests and nefarious actors. As Sinek points out, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream, and he shared it on August 28, 1963 with 250,000 people on the mall in Washington DC. People gathered from all over the United States without having received an invitation by way of Facebook, Twitter, email, or cellphone. The three most prevalent phrases in King’s speech are “I have a dream,” “Let freedom ring,” and “Now is the time.”[2] King left us no doubt what he believed, nor of the urgency of his purpose. Like King, Steve Jobs of Apple also has a why. Jobs’ why, is to place the power of computing in the hands of every individual in the world. Today that might not sound impressive, but when Jobs started his quest in 1976, it was patently absurd; computers were never envisioned for use by anyone unless they were employed by a large corporations that would buy them from a company called International Business Machines. Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak were determined to change all that, and in so doing they, like King, changed the world.

The search for why may be the single most important and illusive challenge we face in our lives, but it is also a challenge that must not be ignored, however frustrating it may be at times. Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? What gives our life meaning? And, perhaps the most perplexing question, how do we know what we know? We can and must ask ourselves these questions, as well as ask them of others — especially our leaders. I study presidents and foreign policy. The what happened and how it happened are usually self-evident. The why is a much more difficult question. Why did George W. Bush believe there were WMD and al-Qaeda in Iraq when there were not? Why did Bill Clinton wait so long to support action in the Balkans while the evidence of genocide was obvious? Why did Reagan decide he could trust Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of an empire he claimed was evil? Why was Carter compelled to seek peace in the Middle East, or give the Panama Canal back to Panama? I’ll offer you a methodology that works with presidents and can also be applied to your own lives: look for integrity by and between the what, how, and why. If there is a pattern of consistency—if the three are aligned—you probably have identified the why. I can tell you with presidents the public why they offer seldom reconciles with the facts of what and how. There is usually a private why that emanates from what I call their unique cognetic profile, which is somewhat analogous, in this context, to their soul. If our own answers or those of our leaders do not reconcile—if they do not have internal integrity—we must demand of ourselves and our leaders that they do.

To say that these are difficult times is a gross understatement, but there may not be words adequate to describe the challenges that face us, individually or collectively, as citizens or a nation. What we can do, however, is take a step back, take a deep breath, and remind ourselves that solitude is powerful, transcendent courage is essential, and that each of us must find our why and honor our moral purpose. If we do, we will regain our capacity to lead from the soul.

[1] Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (New York: Portfolio, 2009).
[2] The text and video of King’s speech is available at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
By |2017-05-23T20:25:07+00:00February 23rd, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part III: Transcendent Courage

The next element of leading from the soul is transcendent courage.  Courage is the spine of character; it is the synaptic command and control system for all other virtues.  We are all familiar with courageous acts; the firefighter who rescues the child from the burning building, the soldier who throws himself in the path of danger to save his comrades, or the passengers who uttered “Let’s roll” and gave their own lives to protect other innocent Americans the terrorists intended to kill at their target in Washington DC on 9/11.  There is no question these acts are heroic and worthy of significant praise, even reverence.  Are they born from courage?  Panic?  Desperation?  Are they reflexive or triggered from a deeply wired sense of personal responsibility?  Is courage inherited or learned?  Are courageous people attractive, intelligent, wealthy, or prophetic?  Do they attend church every Sunday?  Do courageous people necessarily perform heroic acts or is courage a state of being that may never be overtly expressed?

The etymology of courage, found in The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word has been used to describe the “quality of mind,” heart, spirit, disposition and nature of a person which “shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking” (emphasis added).  This history of usage indicates a much broader notion of courage, which is revealed by perilous circumstances of life; circumstances that by their very nature are not within the control of the courageous.  9/11 pilot Mohammed Atta, who committed a horrific act when he flew American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, is heralded as courageous in many parts of the world.  Dutiful?  Absolutely.  Brave? Perhaps.  Fearless?  I doubt it.  Courageous?  I don’t think so.  But what if Mohammed Atta had flown his plane safely to an airport and freed the passengers?  What if others who are ordered to act in a manner they know is wrong face their circumstances by acting contrary to those orders?  They are still taking action.  There are still perilous circumstances they do not control.  And, they are doing so, consistent with what I will call their truth: which is the first dimension of transcendent courage as a state of being.

The truth in transcendent courage is based in the simple reality that we know what the right thing is to do; the difficulty comes in listening to and honoring our sense of truth (allowing its transcendence) against the pressures of competing influences.  These influences take many forms and have many origins.  They may be internally generated, like greed; or, emanate from the pressure of peers, family members, superiors, or clergy.  Consequences imposed by these influencers, positive or negative, act to tether or suppress our truth.  A person possessing transcendent courage however, has immediate and undeterred access to their truth.  They do what they believe is right without regard to competing influences.  They are the most innocently (or unapologetically) honest among us.  They live in their truth all day, every day.

The second dimension of transcendent courage is the capacity to subordinate consequence to the importance of action; consequences are inconsequential.  Fears are faced down.  The prospect of immeasurable burden is accepted with grace and dignity. Physical pain, ridicule, even death are accepted as the inevitable partners of a courageous life; one which, above all, honors its truth.  Many arrive here through their faith in God.  Others believe that actions taken consistent with their truth will mitigate the severity of consequence, in time.  I will suggest there is simply no other honorable way to express freedom.  If we hesitate to do what we know is right in the face of consequence, our own chains forever shackle us.  We abdicate our freedom.

The third dimension of transcendent courage is selflessness.  Selflessness enables us to honor our truth and readily accept consequences.  Many people define their lives by their service to others.  They measure their self-worth by the extent to which they make others smarter, healthier, happier, and safer.  Teachers, doctors, clergy, police, firefighters, paramedics, military, and community volunteers come readily to mind.  By their very nature or life choice, people who spend their time serving others have a significantly greater propensity to possess transcendent courage.  Service to others teaches us the intrinsic value of selflessness.  It isolates the influence of adoration and remuneration from consideration.  It gives us the opportunity to embrace our humanity and feel connected to community while enhancing our self-esteem.  Selflessness produces that warm feeling many call peace.  Selflessness is the liberation of the soul from the oppression of our desires.  Think of those who have served you well in your life…who have enriched your life.  Are they profoundly successful, high profile, and wealthy, flamboyant people?  Maybe.  I’ll bet they are quite the contrary; quiet, unassuming, self-assured, and humble.

The fourth dimension of transcendent courage is self-acceptance.  Are you comfortable in your own skin?  Do you like you?  Have you resolved with yourself who you are?  People who have access to transcendent courage accept who they are and live lives bounded by dignity and imbued with grace. They are at peace with themselves, in the present.  Only when self-acceptance has occurred can our consciousness turn to the needs of others; only then are we open to leadership through service … only then is transcendent courage a natural state of being.

The fifth dimension of transcendent courage is the transmission of strength.  I’d like to tell you about Sara.  I met Sara at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders where she was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia. I was a volunteer there for several years helping out with everything from restocking the shelves of videos in the infusion room to comforting patients who were having spinal taps to access bone marrow. I also spent a fair amount of time supporting the parents of patients; trying to help them make sense of the cruel hand they had been dealt.

Sara was five when she started her treatment and like most five-year old girls Sara liked everything as long as it was pink, purple or somehow related to Barbie. Sara had pale, crystal-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, always gathered with a satin, clip-on bow. She loved to have her nails painted and preferred patent leather shoes. Soft and shiny was her style, which meant that both silk and fleece could be mixed in the same outfit without offending her aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes she looked like a kid who had dressed herself while standing in her closet, blindfolded. Everyone who spent just five minutes with Sara loved her, including me. Sara is the most courageous person I have ever known.

During Sara’s three years of horror battling leukemia I never saw her cry out, whine or complain.  I will never forget the last few days before Sara’s death. Sara was the first one to accept what was coming. She helped everyone else through the painful anticipation of losing her. She smiled every moment she was awake. She never expressed concern for herself. She only wanted to make sure her mother, father, and little brother would be okay.  Sara’s legacy is the strength she transmitted to those around her.  Her courageous behavior made anyone who was in contact with her a better and stronger person. This is the fifth and final dimension of transcendent courage. Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them. This is the true evidence of transcendent courage.

By |2017-05-23T20:34:45+00:00February 17th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part II: The Power of Solitude

Leading from the soul can only occur if we practice solitude.  As former Yale professor of literature, William Deresiewicz warned us, today we seem to be intoxicated by “celebrity and connectivity,” where the “great contemporary terror is anonymity.”  However, we know that the act of being alone—of practicing solitude—has produced great work.  In literature solitude gave us Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Jane Austen; and more contemporary talents like Maya Angelou and David Foster Wallace.  In music it gave us a range of brilliance from Mozart, to Coltrane, to Hendrix.  In science solitude found in laboratories and garages gave us street lights, vaccines, and microprocessors.  Some of the greatest thinkers of all time, like Isaac Newton, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Freidrich Nitzsche never married and lived alone most of their lives.  In leadership, solitude gave us the aforementioned Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.

As Deresiewicz further argues, solitude is “the arena of self-discovery, a voyage of the interior realms.”  Solitude is the path to our soul, where our soul is not some deific gift, but rather the core of our being that draws on both the conscious and subconscious.  Solitude allows us to think deeply in search of threads of thought and method that allow us to make sense of the world before us.  It allows our imagination room to roam.  As wonderful as technology is, it can rob us of solitude.  There is no time for deep reading or deep thinking; no time to argue with ourselves, to hone our capacity for critical thought such that we can know what we know and share it with others in a clear and concise manner.  The digitation of everything has made us mental skaters on thin ice, always trying to move to the next link, or app, or text, or email, before the ice gives way. According to John Freeman in his book The Tyranny of E-Mail, by the time it takes you to read this sentence three hundred million emails have been sent and received.  We are just one ringtone or chime or chirp away from the next distraction.  In this sense we are romantics, always wondering if there is a better place to be than in the present, with ourselves.  In the process our ability to concentrate and think critically, so necessary to the creation of original ideas, is severely compromised.

Now you may say, but what about collaboration?  Or, Facebook caused the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt!  And, the Internet is a fantastic tool!  I love the Internet too, but the Internet does not produce original thought and does not solve complex problems.  People do.  The revolution in Tunisia was not caused by Facebook, the precipitating event was the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a despondent fruit-and-vegetable peddler whose death moved a nation of oppressed Tunisians to finally raise both their voices and their hands in unity.  The uprising in Cairo, while facilitated by Facebook and Twitter, was based in similar defiance of years of oppression.  Facebook carried the story and allowed people to organize, not unlike the pamphlets distributed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine that helped foment the American Revolution.  As for collaboration, yes, it can also be very effective, as long as it starts with every participant bringing something to the discussion that is original and adds value.  Too often collaboration is simply a forum for the status quo to receive validation; for old ideas to be given a new wrapper; and for the re-homogenization of that which has already failed.  In too many cases, it becomes a place for people to seek the celebrity that Deresiewicz warned us about; to allow those, who are so disposed, to be a pain in the ass.  So far, the promise of innovation from collaboration by way of the Internet has largely proven to be an empty hope.  The Holy Grail of social networking—yet undiscovered—is how to transform it from its wide and shallow profile to a web of deep integrative exchange.

As British historian Edward Gibbon wrote, “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of work denotes the hand of a single artist.”  I am not saying that every work must be done by one pair of hands as Gibbons seems to suggest, but I am claiming that each hand must bring its own work.  I also agree with columnist David Brooks who suggested to remain competitive, “America will have to be the crossroads nation where global talent congregates and collaborates.”  But, he also argued, “people are most creative when they collaborate face to face.”  To collaborate effectively, each of us must spend time in solitude.  We must take time for sustained reading of great works, to conduct primary research, and to allow for long periods of reflection, such that our soul has a chance to speak— creating original thoughts that produce new solutions.

By |2017-05-23T20:39:01+00:00February 8th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part I: Introduction

When I think of great leaders I think of people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  They were people whom against all odds and, moreover, against popular opinion, led society to places it would have never gone without them—to places that established new norms and higher expectations.  Their ideas and convictions were asserted thoughtfully and courageously and they never wavered from their purpose: to improve the lot of humanity.  These leaders spent a great deal of their time alone, reading and deliberating.  These leaders took risks that elevated everyone.  These leaders had a humble sense of self and a clear sense of mission.  When the history books are written about the early 21st century, I believe it will be claimed that while we suffered from economic malaise, global warming, terrorist acts, etc., the cause was not a housing or capital markets crisis, or an addiction to fossil fuels, or declining test scores, rising federal deficits, or even a broken healthcare system, it was rather a debilitating scarcity of leadership.  Leaders today show little, if any, of the characteristics of Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.

Affluence has had much to do with this dearth of leadership.  For the last twenty years or so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we frankly have not needed much leadership. If a difficult question remained unanswered, the consequences were few. Prosperity assured enough slack in the system that mistakes could be absorbed with little pain and no devastation. Evolutionary pressures that might have selected for capable leaders were largely absent.  Foreign affairs columnist for The Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, writes that the post-Cold War days of optimism are over, replaced by a new “Age of Anxiety” that portends a “zero-sum future.”[1] The so-called “Great Recession” that started in August 2007, and the turmoil of a global rebalancing of power that calls into serious question the future of America’s superpower status, means that whatever slack existed in the system is now gone.  Roger Altman and Richard Haas outlined the brutal details of American profligacy and declining American power in the journal of Foreign Affairs where they claimed, it was a lack of political will at home, as opposed to imperial overstretch “that threatens American power and security.”[2] The fact is everything has a consequence again, and leadership is essential.

Historians may also conclude that besides affluence, technology—in spite of all of its many benefits—played its own insidious role in the decline of leadership.  They may find that those digital conveniences we have come to love and dare not live without, which have forced upon us an incessant need to be connected, has pushed leadership aside in favor of distraction and trivialities.  Technology has produced a conversation that is fast, short, and shallow.  It has fooled us about friendship; convincing us we are just a click away from adding a new so-called friend.  Research has been Wiki-fied, which has led to a diminished capacity to search, contemplate, hypothesize, test, reconsider, conclude, and start the search again.  In the process we have lost our sense of method.  Debates—once like symphonies—have been reduced to sound bites and video snippets.  Solving complex problems is no longer the goal; increasing “click-throughs” and “going viral” is all that matters.

These future pages of history can, however, be avoided if we take care to reclaim our capacity for solitude, courage, and moral purpose.  This requires that we shift our behaviors to those that produce depth of thought and origination – that we have the discipline to disconnect.  It requires that we become transcendently courageous and that we focus on the ‘why’ of what we do.  It means that we each must become our own Lincoln, Gandhi, or King.  We can begin by leading from our soul and embracing a conscious discipline of self-restraint and introspection, so that we may regain our purpose and our will.  The process starts with practicing solitude so that we may know ourselves; then summon the courage of our convictions; and remain steadfastly committed to our purposes.

[1] Gideon Rachman, Zero Sum Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
[2] Roger C. Altman and Richard N. Haas, “American Profligacy and American Power,” Foreign Affairs, 89, no. 6 (November-December 2010): pp. 25-34.
By |2017-05-27T18:28:21+00:00January 24th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

A Time to Lead

The events in Tucson this weekend illustrate all too painfully what has become of leadership in America.  The events themselves raise many questions that can and are being debated with (mostly) appropriate vigor.  But what led to the murderous act of Jared Lee Loughner, concerning as it is, is unlikely to produce a clear evaluation of the state of leadership in America.  What will, however, is the careful observation of what comes now: the response of our elected officials.  The early results are not promising.

The conservative Republican response was framed Sunday morning by Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona on Meet the Press, who made three basic claims: this is an act of a lone degenerate; we must not allow him to quell our freedom of speech; and, if we would all just turn our face to God, all will be well. In other words, it’s not our fault, and we must remain both stubborn and righteous.  Shame on you, Mr. Franks.  Demagoguery, however carefully coded, is not leadership.

One thing is known about unstable persons like Mr. Loughner: they are easily led.  In fact, their instability is in itself a cry for leadership.  The good news is they can be led in most any direction – for ill or better. But, we must – all of us – take care to lead, to tip them in the direction of better.  For the most part, leaders today are followers who masquerade as leaders.  They wait to see which way the herd is headed then run fast to get to the front to claim they’re the ones being followed.  This inevitably produces what we see in Congress today and what happened in Tucson on Saturday: a nation at war with itself.

The leadership this country needs now must have the intellect, courage, and moral purpose to move people in new directions; to acknowledge that where we are is dire, where we are going is disastrous, and that what we must do will be as painful as it is necessary.  Running to the front of the herd and spewing demagoguery won’t do it.  Pushing the unstable toward violence is itself culpable. It is time to transcend such foolishness and retire the political jesters who are leading our country closer to the abyss every day.

By |2017-05-23T20:44:21+00:00January 9th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Waging Legitimate Dissent: the Rise of the LDs.

At the center of freedom lies dissent: the capacity to reject the opinion of the majority and/or contemporary orthodoxy. Dissidents who founded the United States also passed a Bill of Rights to protect those who wish to express dissent.  Among other things, dissent is what made America what she is.  Great American dissidents include people like Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  By definition, those who dissent take unpopular positions and risk both their social and political membership and, at times, their lives.  Dissidents often say what others are thinking but who are silenced by fear.  Dissidents who prevail in their dissent—whose opinion or position succeeds in overcoming the status quo—are the engines of social and political innovation.  They allow society to lurch forward toward a better future. Today, we suffer from those who masquerade as dissidents as well as those who chant “Yes We Can!” or “No We Can’t!”  It is time to replace this noisy charade with affirmative and legitimate dissent.

Tea Partiers (TPs), or, if you prefer, True Patriots (TPs) are those who rail against our government for spending too much money and infringing on our liberties.  Several rallied in August in Washington DC with the self-ordained Reverend Beck, and last weekend with Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks bunch.  Most TPs want all spending cut or eliminated as long as it doesn’t affect their own benefits, entitlements, or patriotic impulses.  Medicare, Social Security, and Defense spending are sacred—so much for cutting spending.  And, forget about raising taxes, that’s unpatriotic too.  As for liberties, those who know God in the same way they do will enjoy their liberties; those who don’t, won’t.  For TPs, liberty has prerequisites.  In essence, TPs are not dissidents they are conformists.  They are the self(ish)-righteous.

The Blanks are the folks who chant “Yes We Can _____!”  The blank is where the who, what, where, how, and why go.  But, they leave it blank.  (Psssst! President Obama, this is your constituency!  It’s time to fill in the blank!)  Their proposals amount to little more than feel-good platitudes of liberal institutionalism that lack any semblance of specificity.  They’re like the dog that finally caught the bumper of the car it’s been chasing down the street for years, and are suddenly faced with the grim reality of answering “Now what?”  Moreover, they can’t understand why the driver doesn’t stop to congratulate them, and why their fellow canine packmembers aren’t cheering.  While they may have great ideas that might prove helpful, they have yet to realize that dissent is hard and painful work that requires courage, fortitude, and the sacrifice of fame.

The Dolts are the “No We Can’t” crowd—the negative dissenters—who mockingly sit on their un-callused hands at the local Men’s Social Club and practice harrumphing in between declaring “No!”  Picture Senator Mitch McConnell here.  They wear expensive suits to cover a well-earned paunch and haven’t had an original idea since they introduced Everclear into the punchbowl at a Nixon/Agnew campaign party.  The last time they embraced progress was when Viagra hit the market.  Before that it was Velcro.  To Dolts, smartphones are for people without staff.  Reform is an inherently socialist concept that will forever justify the concept of filibuster.  America is great and will remain so as long as we practice regression.  The hope-y change-y bunch is little more than a seasonal nuisance, like having to put one’s seersucker away after Labor Day. Dogmatism is just an appetizer before an entrée of certitude.  Dolts are happy to have the old John McCain back.  That maverick stuff annoyed them.

So, where does that leave us?  Fortunately, the TPs, Blanks, and Dolts leave plenty of room for legitimate dissenters (LDs)—for those who dare to face reality and offer substantive solutions.  An LD’s campaign speech may sound something like this:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you tonight.  I can assure you that once I’m done speaking you will have heard several things you don’t like.  Once I’m done speaking you will have many reasons to vote for my opponent.  When you go to vote, you may even circle my name on the ballot and write in the margin “Anyone but that guy.”

I’m not here to tell you “yes we can, or no we can’t.”  I’m not here to argue with you about the Constitution, or the Bible, or the Quran.  What I am here to share with you are five things we must do to secure the future of our children and grandchildren – to preserve their opportunity to pursue their own life, liberty, and happiness.

  1. We must terminate Medicare.  Only then will those entrenched interests who benefit the most from this unsustainable system be brought to submit to true reform.  Only then will we be able to provide access to healthcare for every citizen at a reasonable cost.  Let me begin by pledging that I will not accept government provided healthcare if you elect me as your Congressman.
  2. We must terminate Social Security.  Only then can we have a new conversation about how to deal with our aging population and redress the role of family and community in America.  Let me begin by rescinding my own entitlement to Social Security payments in the future.
  3. For the foreseeable future, everyone’s taxes must go up.  Even if we terminate Medicare and Social Security and replace them with sustainable programs, we must reduce our current liabilities to a much lower percentage of our GDP.  I will share that burden with you.
  4. We must withdraw all troops, regardless of their designation—‘combat’, ‘security’, ‘training’, etc.—from both Iraq and Afghanistan, immediately. Iraq and Afghanistan are ventures which have failed and for which there is no reasonable alternative to withdrawal.  Furthermore, we must abolish the myth of America as the global policeman, and forever suspend our imperialist impulse to recast the world in our own image.  This too is unsustainable.
  5. We must immediately launch a Manhattan-project styled program to produce alternative fuels and new distribution systems to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels.  Not reduce our reliance, eliminate it.  We must completely reinvent our orientation toward energy.

There are many other things we must do to make America strong in education, immigration, infrastructure projects, etc.  But unless we get control of our expenses, our foreign exposure, and our energy needs, we will never be able to address anything else in a reasonable, let alone sustainable manner.

If you want to ‘stay-the-course’ vote for my opponent.  There are those who insist if the captain of the Titanic had just rammed the iceberg head-on, rather than turning to take a glancing blow, the Titanic would have stayed afloat.  To those who continue to embrace false-choices like that I respectfully, and dare I say, legitimately dissent.  I affirm that the iceberg is on the horizon, but I prefer that we chart a new course before it’s too late.  If you agree, please vote for me.

Thank you for listening.

We have witnessed many times throughout history that conformity is dangerous; that there is no such thing as the wisdom of crowds.  (Remember the tulip bulbs.)  As author David Rieff recently wrote in The New Republic, the current political crowds “are studies in the lowest-common-denominator subordination of the individual to the collective and of the thought to the slogan: in short, complexity to simplicity.”[1]  Or, as Albert Einstein said, “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt.  He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.”

Each of us has a duty to think for ourselves and to reject the comfort of conformance.  We must summon the courage to chart a new course and accept the consequences of our prior foolish choices.  We must reject the sloganeering and invective of popular noisemakers and wage legitimate dissent.  If we do, we will preserve the promise of America.

[1] David Rieff, “The Unwisdom of Crowds,” The New Republic, September 6, 2010, www.tnr.com.
By |2017-05-27T18:33:27+00:00September 14th, 2010|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Contrarians & Outlaws

Our future is, as our past informs, in the hands of contrarians and outlaws (C&Os).  Quantum breakthroughs start with breaking rules and venturing in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom.  This is not hyperbole; it is reality.  If you don’t believe me, please name one great idea, invention, product or service that was born by doing the expected according to the existing norms of the day.  You will quickly find that it is much easier to identify the greatness of the C&Os—of those who thumbed their nose (or other singular digit) at the world and pursued a belief, passion, or wild hair at their own peril.  By doing so C&Os benefit us all, and we sooner or later accept their feat as a new norm.

C&Os are not defined by gender, race, ethnicity, heritage, or religion.  They may or may not be handsome, elegant, or even well educated.  Their common bond is one thing: they reject the status quo.  They question the givens.  They foresee lives made better by re-imagining the world in which they live.  Then, against the advice of experts, they pursue their vision with reckless abandon.  Jesus Christ was a C&O, so was Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  From Galileo to Einstein and Edison, C&Os consistently rejected what everyone knew for sure and ended up changing our world.  Remember, a couple of thousand years ago, the world was flat, until Aristotle et al noted the spherical shadow of the earth as it passed across the moon. Humans weren’t meant to fly until Orville and Wilbur Wright—against the odds and the gods—proved otherwise.  Computers were supposed to be for governments and large corporations, until guys like Gates and Jobs—both college dropouts—put them in everyone’s pockets.

We could use a few more C&Os today.  Our so-called leaders have been ground into submission by conventional thinkers and know-it-all do-nothings.  They have fallen prey to what novelist and coffee-shop-philosopher Tom Robbins called tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision is caused by an optic fungus that multiplies when the brain is less energetic than the ego. It is complicated by exposure to politics. When a good idea is run through the filters and compressors of tunnel vision, it not only comes out reduced in scale and value, but in its new dogmatic configuration produces effects the opposite of those for which it originally was intended.[1]

Our future will not be secured in such tunnels.  It will perish in the darkness of overdone egos that play within the rules according to conventional wisdom.  Dark suits and conforming lapel pins do not define the fashion of innovation.  If we are to survive and prosper we must ignore their dictates, break the rules, and define new spheres of knowledge.  We must turn our backs on those who have forgotten how to dream—who have been compromised by convention—and forge a new world.  We must each summon our inner C&O.

[1] Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), p. 117.
By |2017-05-25T19:00:27+00:00July 10th, 2010|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Looking for Leadership

At the center of our current crisis is not the recession, or terrorism, or an oil spill in the Gulf, as challenging as each of them are.  It is a dearth of leadership.  While our president struggles to find his voice it is unlikely, given the election cycle and a news cycle that assures his shoes will be covered with tar balls for months to come, that he will regain his mandate for hope and change.  And Congress has already proven its own hopelessness addled by anger, pettiness and rectitude.  It only leads in ineptitude.  That leaves only one other branch of government with both the authority and aptitude to lead: the United States Supreme Court, and the prospects there are fading too, suffering under the pall of partisan homogenization.

This week’s number is 160,000. That’s the number of pages of documents—mostly emails—the White House has released to reveal the essence of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s mind.  The early analysis provided by the Washington Post[1] is that there is hardly anything controversial or alarming in either her past or her mind, leaving little for Congress to bicker about.  She is a benign product of an intellectually and liberally ambitious middle class family. She is highly educated and has most of the politically correct boxes ticked on her resume.  She’s hard not to like; assuming one could know her well enough to have an opinion.  I expect her childhood classmates are not particularly surprised she is where she is today, just after they answer the question Elena who?  Unless there is an undisclosed tawdry tale or militant link to Roe (and not Wade), Kagan is a shoe-in for confirmation on a Court populated exclusively by Ivy League alumni.  Therein lies the problem.

Once Kagan is sworn in, all of our justices will have been reared and educated in a corridor of thought defined by the same few but highly contentious issues that have been debated from the Back Bay of Boston to the boroughs of New York to the hunt clubs of the Potomac for generations.  As much as Kagan will likely disagree with Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Kennedy, and Scalia, and more often agree with Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, the larger issue is one of human context, which is now as narrow as the differential of predictable 5 to 4 decisions.  While deliberations of the new court will likely have all the luster of the great marble walls of the Court, they will also lack the grit, blemishes, and fractures that make Americans both gloriously unique and at times, unseemly. They will be formed in an ivy-covered vacuum where every argument is as worn and frail as the texts that support them. Many will find comfort in this; many will argue courts should be so boring.  But maybe it’s time for the judiciary to lead.  It has before, as Justices like Earl Warren (Cal-Berkeley), Thurgood Marshall (Howard University), Warren Burger (William Mitchell College), and Sandra Day O’Conner (Stanford) led the nation from the bench by both deed and judgment.  In their day, the nation not only survived, it progressed.

This country needs leadership.  What we face today is a Court of no new ideas or inspirations; notwithstanding the occasional juvenile power impulse of the majority, as we saw in the Roberts/Alito judicial coup, which restored the corporate cash drawer to an electoral status it hasn’t enjoyed for more than 100 years. Kagan’s nomination may assure confirmation, but it falls well short of the spirit the Founders hoped to find in the our halls of justice where ‘We the People’ is best served by including the largest human context possible.  It’s time to shake the place up—to speak up and out about the future of the nation.  The only folks doing that today are far from qualified—unless selfish anger is a prerequisite for brilliance.  If we are to honor the motto on our Great Seal—E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one, we better preserve the many so as not to suffer the narrow context of the few, however inoffensive they appear in tens of thousands of pages of emails.  If we quash leadership at every opportunity the majestic marble halls of Washington DC will become the antiquities of tomorrow, auctioned off to the plutocrats of Wall Street as quaint memorabilia of a great society that died of systemic indifference.

[1] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Kagan Unscathed After Revelations From Past,” The Associated Press in The Washington Post, June 19, 2010.
By |2017-05-27T18:38:37+00:00June 21st, 2010|General, Leadership|0 Comments