What we want

I am preparing for a long meeting of an organization where I am an active volunteer and reading preparation materials in advance.  Because we work with children and vulnerable adults we undergo something described as Sexual Misconduct Training.

That title here is a good example of a misnomer – and it also reflects an error in thinking. Rather than making something that we don’t want go away, we need to focus on the desired result – a safe and caring place for everyone demonstrated by behaviour that is defined, understood and practised.  As it stands, the title sounds like training in the exact thing that we don’t want.

Rather than fixing problems, focusing on a desired outcome is a good plan for both training descriptions and strategy formation.

Different perspectives

Have a look at the cube above. Now look again and see if you can see it from a different perspective.  Most people can – but not see both views at the same time.  It’s lucky we can still do this with the cube because as political animals Americans seem to have lost it.

It gets worse.  Presidents and newscast hosts get involved in slanging matches and start competing for the “Bully of the Year” award.  People become very self-righteous for different reasons and with different reactions.  Some of us have high expectations of appropriateness and when we don’t see it, we become outraged.  Others follow the Twitterverse for its entertainment value.  Values are clearly in play.  Some feel discouraged, others feel helpless.  It’s one thing to deal with a surly adolescent or screaming child at home.  It’s another when you’re dealing with a leader of the free world.

As Tom Friedman observed recently in a New York Times article, “I fear we’re seeing the end of ‘truth’ — that we simply can’t agree any more on basic facts. And I fear that we’re becoming Sunnis and Shiites — we call them ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans,’ but the sectarianism that has destroyed nation-states in the Middle East is now infecting us.”

It’s more than disagreeing on facts. We seem to have graduated to disagreeing on values. How can people who have so much common history seem to be living on different planets?  The clue may lie in how we determine values as much as we do facts.  While even expertise is distrusted these days, a bit of expertise might now come in handy.  I turn to Jonathan Haidt and his book, The Righteous Mind.

Haidt’s premise – that we are intuitive first and rational second – has much in common with Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  Haigt as a social psychologist framed this concept in an earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis, using the analogy of the mind as a rider on an emotional and instinctive elephant.  He sees moral judgment based more on more on intuition than on conscious reasoning; it is automatic.  If we want to change other peoples’ minds, he says, we talk to their elephants.  It is through relationships with others not our arguments that different points of view have a chance of making an impact.  There is more than one way of looking at things and if you return to the original image and looks at it long enough, you can see it in two different ways.

After in-depth  research on moral thinking, Haidt has identified these moral foundations arising out of different cultures and historical traditions but now almost universal in presence – if not in emphasis:

  • Care: Ability to “feel the pain” of others, to show a nurturing kindness. The opposite is harm
  • Fairness: it can be interpreted in more than one way- equal treatment for all or proportionality.  The opposite is cheating.
  • Loyalty: our ability to form groups and put the needs of the group first. The opposite is betrayal.
  • Authority; respect for leadership and traditions. Its opposite is subversion.
  • Sanctity; respect for the physical body and the need to keep it pure and clean. Its opposite is degradation.
  • Liberty; individual freedom and hatred of bullying and domination  Its opposite is oppression.

It gets interesting when you start to apply these foundations to politics. Haidt notes that Democrats and Libertarians are strong on the first two and Libertarians especially on the last one – while Republicans value all six – giving politicians more road maps in how to appeal to voters. The “facts” may matter a good deal less to the elephant than the emotional response they arouse and we see lots of that going on right now.

I’ve also been reminded of another book whose title seems prescient – Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, published after his death.  A rabbi and psychotherapist, Friedman served as an advisor to six US presidents and it would be interesting to think what he would have to say to the current one.  Long before the current turmoil, be saw America as overcome by anxiety.  Both presidents and parents need to understand different roles as leaders.  I have zero confidence that the current leader would take Friedmans’ advice, but it might have some usefulness for the rest of us.  There’s room for more than one leader among us.

The leader’s role, Friedman says, is to be a non-anxious presence – to maintain one’s own integrity when facing sabotage – which any rise to power will automatically bring.  The real job is to maintain a sense of self while at the same time remaining connected to the opposition.  The very time one is under attack is the time not to react by hitting back in the same way.

Any emotional relationship involves a triangle. It can be three people – any parent has seen how the game plays out among mom, dad and teenager – or any two people or groups with an issue in which they disagree.  In an earlier work, Generation to Generation, Friedman explores how earlier generations become part of our triangles even after their deaths. Friedman notes that we are all part of multiple triangles simultaneously involving our jobs, our parents, our significant others, our finances, our health – and even our vacation preferences.  Three levels of government present another set.

Any triangle is a recipe for high anxiety – so the ones we are dealing with right now a perfect storm. In human terms, trying to change the relationship of the other sides of the triangle hardly ever works.  All of us, I suspect are trying to be more responsible than the other players. That doesn’t bring a solution – what it does bring is stress.  Anxiety is contagious and we are in the midst of an anxiety epidemic.

What to do?  Friedman would say –

  • Self-differentiate. The only person’s behaviour we can change is our own.
  • Maintain a sense of humor and be playful. If this were a play or a novel, the modern scene would win prizes for farce of a very high order.  The fact that it is happening isn’t so great – but life is long and things change.
  • Focus on personal strengths and do what one can to enhance them. Let other people work on theirs.
  • Stay in touch with what’s going on. There is a tendency to want to hide under a rock, but we can’t.
  • Be honest. Speak your piece but don’t fall into reciprocal slurring.
  • Question beliefs. Haidt notes that there is a difference between “What can I believe?” and “What must I believe?”
  • Live in the real world – not just the digital one – liars and cheaters are easier to spot there.

I like a quote from a recent memoir Safe Passage, by Ida Cook.  She and her sister helped many Jewish families escape the ravages of the second world war before it started.  She notes that when the war began, her 70-year-old father told the family that he was going to enroll as a stretcher bearer.  His wife replied that he was more likely to be on it than carrying it.  One of the sisters was worried about her father’s silence and projected that his feelings were hurt.  She said, “We think it is fine for you to want to be a stretcher bearer, Dad, even if mother thinks it is impractical”.  His reply would have gladdened Ed Friedman’s heart. He said, “I don’t care in the least what any of you think so long as I do what I think is right”.

We can stop being outraged.  We can stop being entertained.  We can stop expecting others to change.  We can stop being tired of foolishness.  We can start working on our own integrity and acting on it. We can also recognize that there is more than one perspective on the right thing –  giving some the right to emphasize some more than others and follow our own.

 

Friedman explained further

Here is a brilliant summary of A Failure of Nerve:

A different take on leadership

This past week I attended a meeting relating to the roll out of a strategic plan. The agenda was  to review the requirements for leadership and leadership training.  The context was for a mainline church denomination but some of the discussion could apply more broadly.

Several participants had been asked to research and bring  leadership concepts and common key words emerged for leadership roles.  Words like “mediating”, “perfecting”,  offering” and “blessing” appeared in one report.  In another the author had been fond of the letter “C” – and used nouns like “character”, “calling”, “competence” and “community”.  “Servant” leadership was also on the table.

My own contribution came from a longer paper I wrote some years earlier and I focused first on changes in  world view, vision and mission, structural change, personal characteristics and personal development.  My key words echoed some of the others – “disicipline”, “humility” and  “learner”.  I was also strong on “collaboration” rather than “hierarchy” even though we are still working within a hierarchical structure. But leader still assumes followers and someone has to take the first step.

The most interesting submission was a summary of a work by Ed Friedman entitled A Failure of Nerve. The writer of the summary had limited himself to 500 words and boiled down the role of the leader to a non-anxious presence.  We spent little time on Friedman’s idea in the meeting, but I had read his book some years before and its mention whetted my appetite to return to it.

A Failure of Nerve  was compiled after Firedman’s death in 1996 by his daughter and students and has been recently reissued.  It is timely. Friedman was a rabbi and psychotherapist by training and as well as founding a successful congregation he served as advisor to six US presidents as well as to many senior church leaders and individual clients. Even before his death he saw that America in the nineties had become a frightened society, fearing change and seeking safety as opposed to the spirit of adventure of its early explorers and founders.  He’s strongly critical of this stance and challenges us to change our mental models.

Friedman is often caustic and witty – and several readers have collected maxims that represent the substance of his thinking.  Here are some that apply to leadership:

  • Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.
  • ‘no good deed goes unpunished; chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better! Vision is not enough.
  •  Leaders need “… to focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”
  • Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.here

Much of where Friedman is coming from is defining church congregations and enterprise units as  family systems, a concept developed fully by therapist Murray Bowen. It posits that we call rational  in congregations and enterprises is always framed by the emotional responses learned in our personal birth and extended families.  Those families and tribes, like all systems, seek equilibrium.  When things get tense, it’s likely that learned behavior in earlier systems are in play.  When things are going well, Friedman says, expect sabotage.

The remedy is for the leader to develop self-differentiation rather than to try to persuade or motivate others to change.If a non-anxious presence is required it assumes there is already anxiety and conflict in the room.  But it is working on one’s own development that allows others to learn by example – and take responsibility for their own development.

There is much more to  learn in Friedman’s approach – and that will be a feature of future posts.

Leading

The orchestral conductor, Benjamin Zander, is a frequent business speaker and famous for his TED talk. now viewed by more than eight million people.  Conductors are sometimes viewed as the last of the great dictators.  Zander is different.  He had an epiphany some years ago when he realized that the conductor of an orchestra plays a different role.

The insight transformed his conducting and his orchestral musicians immediately noticed the difference.  Now he’s a leader who asks for input in the form of written comments at every rehearsal.  He understands that the musicians’ skills and experience enhance his own.

His gifts as a teacher are remarkable too and they are now shared through masterclasses for all of us on YouTube.  The students perform with technical brilliance before he enters in with a consistent message –  it is time to relax and let go of the kind of competitive excellence their preparatory training has provided and instead relate to their audience.  Transformation happens before our own shining eyes.  (This sample and others are well worth watching now or at a later time. To enjoy it to advantage if your time or tolerance is limited, listen a bit to the beginning and move the arrow to 9:00 minutes and watch some hair pulling – not a conventional teaching technique – but see how effectively it works in creating a totally different kind of performer).

Zander’s passion is for introducing classical music to those unfamiliar with it and he does so with incredible skill and experience in making audiences and performers connect.  It’s a worthwhile example of how a leader inspires and transforms performance.

Framing

I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop this morning preparing to write something about framing when a woman outside caught my eye.  She was motionless on the sidewalk of a busy street below where streetcars and heavy traffic move constantly.  The scene looked something like this:

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My camera shots don’t show everything close by –  the woman crossing the street was almost run over by a passing car, a streetcar or two passed, and a bike nearly ran into the woman on the sidewalk.  Her world was framed by a device that measures about 2.5 x 5.5 inches.  As you can see, she was totally absorbed in it.

We are shrinking our frameworks – and ironically expanding them at the same time.  Our phones allow us to go anywhere in the digital universe.  The question is whether the digital framework will affect our sense of possibility in the real one.

Most of us have been exposed to the  diagram puzzle below where we are asked to connect the dots using only four lines without lifting the pen/pencil from the page.

The square is a shape that we know all too well and the shape suggests a straight-forward solution – except that it takes five lines instead of four.  The real solution requires us to move outside the frame.

We can observe that we first focused on numbers and measurement in trying to find the solution.  But what we have to do is place the image in a much larger box to see more possibilities

 

The new frame doesn’t necessarily have to be square.  It could be a rectangle or ciccle.  It just has to be bigger.

When we  look for new possibilities, thinking quantitatively will not always work.  Other elements also come into play in  real transformation.  Moving from one frame to another can depend upon  seeing relationships – sometimes with people,  but also relationships in a universe filled with “joy, grace, awe,  wholeness, passion and compassion” as the writer of The Art of Possibility says. When we expand the frame,  it opens up more than we can initially ask or imagine.

 

 

Pathways to Change

In the previous post I spoke of Rosamund Zander’s guidance for individual change. She also dealt with bringing change to families and organizations by recognizing that others, like ourselves are walking stories.  As the book progresses she focuses on energy.

She starts with a scientific analogy.  Energy becomes amplified, she says, when in proximity to waves of similar tone and length.  Visionary people use it that way too – though her she defines energy as commitment to something broader than our personal concerns.  And it’s not just about  getting one’s own way.  We enter relationships of collaboration and become catalysts to create a new story.

The physical world is dynamic – an ecosystem where things connect, react and change. The canopy of trees outside my window is awash with green where weeks ago there were naked limbs. Blossoms will turn to fruit, seeds will scatter, new growth will erupt and old growth with succumb to lightning or disease..

It’s a fractal universe too – in nature and in computer simulations and even in emotions when we share feelings and experiences that cross cultures and times.

When we want to change things, we traditionally  develop goals, objectives, strategies and tactics as though we are totally in charge – usually forgetting that there are other forces and energies operating around us – in a  playful universe of galaxies.

Zander suggests we try to think of ourselves less as actors and doers and more as conduits that interact with the energies of others – especially in bringing about change. That story is called possibility and it mirrors natural evolution.  Humans act and talk. How we do both has a marked effect on the bigger picture. She observes

We reconcile by acts and words; we restore through how we relate and how we grow; we inspire through what we build and the art we make; and we cure ourselves by how we care for others and what we give away. In those ways we bring our hearts into a collective resonance – and that is where the power lies.

Nations have child stories that often need a re-write. As we work on our personal maturing,  we change our habits and find new insights and truths that become more like the patterns of nature.  Rather than either/or we learn to live with ambiguity.  We lessen our need to always be right or to avoid the realities staring at us.

Our caring for the earth needs a rewrite even more.  Evolution has always favored invasive species – yet humans are the most invasive of the lot.   Urban living divorces us from the natural world. Nature embraces all systems, Zander says, while we have primarily looked after ourselves.

She has several prescriptions –  get out and walk in nature, question the child stories that place man at the center as the hero. Stop treating nature as a thing to exploit and re-frame it as an evolving system constantly becoming more complex and beautiful.  Take the same stance toward human relationships. “What would be a more compassionate or collaborative way of doing things?  Through the practice of what art may I expand my heart?”, she asks.  It’s an invitation to join an infinite story.

She closes with what she terms infinite games:

  • Take an infinite leap and find someone who has been lost to you
  • Get the love you want
  • Make a decision in a different way that you normally do – change a habit
  • Choose a guiding principle – some examples are wonder, service, courage and authenticity – and commit to making every decision based on it for a day or two.

The entire book is an entertaining reminder that I am not the center of the universe – and at the same time, there are plenty of new possibilities ahead.