Leadership

At a recent retreat, our divisional management team focused on the support and growth of leaders among our staff. Leadership comes in many forms.  We all know of the stereotypical alpha male, Type A personalities who have been celebrated as leaders on Wall Street as well as in the movies, the halls of Congress, business, the tech sector, and the military.  These are the types who bark out orders and expect others to follow.  These are the “born leaders.”  Or so they say.

But there is another type of leadership that is usually—in my experience—much more effective.  It generally comes from people who learn to be leaders, rather than assume they know it all from birth.  I put more stock in these types of leaders in part because I am reminded of the tale of a group of tourists visiting a rural, picturesque village.  They walked by an old man sitting beside a fence and in a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked, “Were any great men or women born in this village?”  “Nope” the old man replied.  “Only babies.”

This type of leadership is resolute, but not rude.  Humble, but not timid.  Proud, but not arrogant.  Humorous, but without folly.  Optimistic, but not reckless.

That last trait is one I personally cherish in leaders.  The good ones can look at any situation and, without being pollyannaish, find the path forward … the good in the person … the way to get everyone to make the right choice. All leaders face difficult obstacles, but the good ones handle them with grace and equanimity, showing all of us how leaders direct change.

Plus, true leaders don’t whine!  George Bernard Shaw said, “The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”  True leaders are a force of fortune.

Jim Collins, in his classic Good to Great:  Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, took on this question of leadership in describing the Level 5 Executive—his term for those with the highest level of executive capabilities.  Collins notes that top leaders build greatness through a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”  They are ambitious, but their ambition is “first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” In the social sector, Collins notes that power is often much more diffuse than in business, but the power to get things done exists nonetheless, if you know where to find it.  “There is the power of inclusion, and the power of language, and the power of shared interests, and the power of coalition.”

Some of the most powerful leaders I’ve known have unassuming exteriors and yet their interior lives and values are exemplary.  Let me anthropomorphize a building that I saw in Rome while on sabbatical in 2016 as an example:  San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Saint Charles at the Four Fountains).  This church’s design – a masterpiece of architect Francesco Borramini – is both “extraordinary and complex.”  The exterior/interior relationship is best described by architect Daniel Solomon in his Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities):

“Borromini was eclipsed for much of his career by the flashier and more charismatic Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his oeuvre are mostly second-tier commissions – smallish buildings on undistinguished city sites.  His greatness is built on surmounting the contradictory demands of these commissions – simultaneous city fabric and monument.  Second-tier commissions produced some of the most complex and subtle works of the Western canon…

Never have the ordinary and the extraordinary been reconciled with more sublime elegance than at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.  Its interior is nothing less than a three-dimensional cosmological map depicting in its intricate geometries and its filtration of light the relationship of heaven and earth.  But the sanctuary of San Carlo sits on an unremarkable street corner on the consistent street frontage of via Quirinale, leading to the magnificence of Palazzo Quirinale and Piazza Quirinale a couple of blocks up the street.  Mediating between the glories of the interior and the important but subservient role of the exterior is a subtly undulating wall, true to the demands of both inside and out.  In this most complex of mediations, Borromini leaves the enduring lesson of how to be both a humble city builder and an architect of thundering power.”

Dome of San Carlo

Dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

I have worked with individuals who eschew the flashy exterior, content to be seen as partners with others in a larger, complex whole.  But their work, values, and legacy show amazing interior depth.  Max DePree is the retired CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller, and through the years I’ve come to appreciate his definition of leadership.  DePree says:

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

In almost every station of life, there exists a potential leadership component.  You may be leading an organization, a division, a department, an office, a project team, an intern, a business, a family, or a group of friends.  Whatever your role, leaders need to be good at recognizing and defining reality.  Saying thank you is acknowledgement that you don’t do these jobs alone.  A servant leadership suggests you are there to help others grow and realize their full potential.

Jim Collins says that great lives result from having meaningful work.  Real leaders can help us get there.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

History is Not What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago; It is a Story About What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago*

Last week, a colleague shared an article that pushed me to think about how different generations view the world. I come at this question from various perspectives—as a baby boomer responsible for staff from multiple generational groups, a father of two millennials, a son of parents of the “greatest generation,” and so on.  You get the point.

Since I’m in the history business, my thinking focused on the major episodes of the past that have influenced generations I’ve known.  Both my parents grew up in the Depression and were greatly affected by the New Deal, Pearl Harbor and WWII.  My generation grew up during the expanding economic cycles of the 1950s and 60s with the rise of the middle class, but also experienced the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, not to mention Vietnam.  Two of my siblings grew up in the Reagan era, with its attacks on the New Deal and government.  For my children, their early and teenage years were shaped in part by 9/11, rising economic inequality, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Understanding how each successive generation views the world raises questions around how the stories about the past change.  That includes identifying the sight lines that we have available to see and tell those stories. One way we can grow our understanding of generational perspectives is through seeing the places where history happened.  I was not alive during Pearl Harbor, but when I was privileged to take an early morning tour of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii one Memorial Day weekend, I began to truly grasp the enormity of the sacrifice on that December Sunday morning in 1941 and its impact on my parents’ generation.

U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

On this day when we’ve just completed our annual celebration of the life and work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there may be those not alive in the 1960s who wonder about his true impact.  Many younger generations know King only as a symbol or a type of civic deity.  Yet there are places, when paired with his writings, which demonstrate why he is so important today. Clayborn Temple is one such place.  When King came to Memphis in 1968 to support the sanitation workers—those African American men who went out on strike and walked the streets with their now famous “I Am a Man” signs—he was reviled by much of white America. Even those moderates who said they supported his work raised issues with his tactics.  (Think of his response to white pastors in Letters from Birmingham Jail.) That trip to Memphis, of course, ended in his assassination.

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

 

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop:  A Sermon to White America, makes King’s status then and now abundantly clear. Dyson argues that America has “washed the grit from his rhetoric” in order to get to a place where he can be seen and admired by the country at large.  Yet it was King who said that the race problem “grows out of the . . . need that some people have to feel superior.  A need that some people have to feel . . . that their white skin ordained them to be first.”  King also said, “Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race.”  Difficult words for many to hear, yet, “This is why King is so important to this generation, to this time, to this nation, to our people,” Dyson writes. “He spoke the truth that we have yet to fully acknowledge.”

Clayborn Temple Memorial

“I Am a Man” Memorial at Clayborn Temple in Memphis

King’s words are powerful, but they also grew out of a history. I’ve seen those antecedents most recently in the writings of Thomas Paine, “the incendiary voice of the American Revolution” as described by Lewis Lapham, and the first individual to write a denunciation of slavery in America. Read these words from Paine’s Rights of Man and see how they provide a prologue to King’s Poor People’s Campaign:

“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance or distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive . . . when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.  What we often obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Understanding generational perspectives on the American story requires work, just as seeking the point of view of different communities of people can be hard.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.  Only when we open our eyes, minds, and hearts to our fellow human beings and acknowledge truths that have remained hidden—only when “one’s fellow citizens are … held in honorable regard not because they are rich or notably generous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens”—will we be able to progress towards the aspirations of America’s founding documents.

With gratefulness for the life—and continuing impact—of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*The title is adapted from a line in Lewis H. Lapham’s Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy

The Founding Father We’d Do Well to Find Once Again

Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson

“Thomas Paine Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations” by Craig Nelson

Thomas Paine and Roger Williams are the two founding fathers whose work is most often forgotten yet remains among the most consequential today.  My belief was strengthened upon reading Craig Nelson’s excellent 2006 biography, Thomas Paine:  Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations.

Paine, born in England and truly a citizen of the Enlightenment world, wrote three of the bestsellers of the eighteenth century, topped only by the Bible.  His Common Sense has long been recognized as a key work in changing the hearts and minds of the people of the United Colonies into citizens of what Paine was the first to characterize as the United States.  Similarly, his Rights of Man helped shape the French Revolution and — although it would take more than a century — inspire constitutional reform in Great Britain and foreshadow Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Age of Reason, a forceful call against organized religion, finds Paine sticking to his Enlightenment and deist values even at the expense of his public reputation. Paine’s mind was clearly a force of nature, and Nelson characterizes him as “the Enlightenment Mercury who sparked political common cause between men who worked for a living and empowered aristocrats across all three nations.”

One of Nelson’s great accomplishments is to explain Enlightenment thinking and values in a way which places Paine and his work in a well-constructed context.  Paine certainly has his flaws as a person, but he is more easily understood when placed within the value system that drove so many of the leading philosophers and political leaders of the late eighteenth century. Nelson’s other important accomplishment is to showcase Paine’s incredible relevance today.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine’s famous opening to The American Crisis, written in the winter of 1776, resonates today as much as it did when Washington’s small army was fighting for its life at Trenton and Princeton. Nelson certainly recognizes the challenge when he notes that the coalition that controls America today repudiates much of Paine in following the John Adams—Alexander Hamilton, ruling class of the rich, style of government.  “While Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson would be crestfallen that the modern-day American federal government is the reserve of a new aristocracy—multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors—Adams and Hamilton would be just as shocked to learn that their admired ruling elite no longer even pretends to lives of virtue.”

In his Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy, author Lewis H Lapham includes the essay The World in Time which makes this point even more forcefully.  Lapham turns to Paine and doesn’t find himself

“in the presence of a marble portrait bust,” but meets instead a man “writing in what he knew to be ‘the undisguised language of the historical truth.’ To read Tom Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rendered in words simple enough to be readily understood.”

Instead of addressing the rich, as do many of the other Founding Fathers, Paine “talks to ship chandlers and master mechanics, and in place of a learned treatise he substitutes the telling phrase and the memorable aphorism—’Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.'”

Thomas Paine, in both Nelson and Lapham’s rendering, has “remained in the attic of oblivion” due to the publication of The Age of Reason and the subsequent attacks—over the next two hundred years—that placed him clearly outside this country’s obsession with religion.  Lapham notes that “Paine’s plain and forthright speaking is out of tune with our own contemporary political discourse, which for the most part is the gift for saying nothing.”

As we struggle through constitutional crises, we would do well to find one of our most important founding fathers.  Paine’s writing might be the tonic to point us back towards democracy.

More to come…

DJB

Kindness

I expected to hear from a number of people last week after announcing that I was stepping down from my position at the National Trust for Historic Preservation at the end of March. In this day and age, twenty-two years is a long time to stay with any organization. In my case those two decades gave me innumerable opportunities to connect and work with people across the country and around the world.  I wasn’t quite ready, however, for the nature of the notes, emails, phone calls, hallway conversations, and comments that have come my way.  I feel a bit like a man who wakes up in the casket at his own funeral and decides to lie there for a while just to hear people say nice things about him.

A colleague asked what was the most surprising response I received to the news, and while I didn’t have a good answer for her at the time I would say now that it was the overwhelming kindness of the remarks. It truly caught me off guard. That led me to think about the nature and effects of kindness.  Naturally, the internet has about 175,000,000 results when one Googles the word kindness.  And there are quotes — sappy, inspirational, nonsensical, insightful, and more — for every occasion.  After looking at more than a hundred, I think my favorite is from the poet Mary Oliver, who (allegedly…this IS the internet) said, “I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.” Kindness—like mischief and spontaneous singing—can touch our souls in unexpected ways.

My colleague’s question also led me to think not just about the nature of these notes, but also about the different types of responses I received.  While all the comments came from personal and often deep places of connection, there were several categories that I intend to file away for future use when I want to reach out to someone else.  These include:

  • The “pithy and poignant” note.  A new friend who prepares copy for our appeal letters sent an 11-word note that spoke volumes . . . just what I would expect from a writer of his talent.  It also reminded me of the quote, often used when a long report is completed, that “I didn’t have time to make it short.”  Messages of kindness can be very short and to the point while carrying extraordinary power.
  • The “playing against type” note.  One famously cranky preservationist sent me a very gracious and thoughtful note.  In my response I told this long-time friend that it was clear that his email account had been hacked and that the hacker was saying nice things about me.  I suggested that if he didn’t regain control of his account quickly, I was afraid his curmudgeonly reputation would soon be in tatters.
  • The “voice from the past” note.  People that I’ve known professionally over the past four decades reached out to me, some of whom I have not heard from in years.  I was reminded that you can never lose touch, and a voice from the past can add context and richness to a time that can be bittersweet at best.

There is a whole inspirational industry built up around “small acts of kindness,” but I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing.  Small acts have ripple effects that we can’t even imagine. As an example, no matter who you are there are people watching you and—perhaps—looking up to you.  I had one individual tell me that I had been a mentor, which surprised me because at the time I was maybe 28 years old, leading a new start-up preservation group, and I had a staff that I could count on one finger (i.e., me).  You never know who is watching and where the ripples will reach.

Kindness often gets a bad rap for being soft. My experience is that it is possible to be kind and yet make the very difficult decisions required as we move through work and life.  Unfortunately, many people value so-called leaders who are never kind, granting a type of permission to bully those with whom they disagree.  These folks may not want to wake up at their funerals.  John Steinbeck noted these contradictions when he said,

“It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

As we deal with turbulent times, I am reminded that history has leaders who can show us a better way forward.  Through the Great Depression and World War II, few dealt with more challenges than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Yet he recognized what mattered when he said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

I am very grateful for the many kindnesses shown to me over the past week and years.  Looking forward, I encourage you to be kind to one another. Having been the recipient of extraordinary kindness this past week, I know the positive effect kind words and gestures can have on an individual.

And now it is time to climb out of the casket and get back to work.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Cynicism vs. Hope

Call Them by Their True Name

“Call Them by Their True Name” by Rebecca Solnit

Cynics.  We’ve all encountered them.  They make pronouncements with great certainty and take pride in not appearing foolish. Those who disagree with them are instantly branded, in the eyes of the cynic, as naïve.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat cynicism. Over the holidays I finished reading author Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays)Solnit includes an essay—Naive Cynicism—that flips the idea of cynicism and naivete on its head.

“Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. . . . Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards.  They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised.”

Change and progress require hard work, and cynics often want to avoid the responsibility of that work. They have a “relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world which generally offers neither.”  Change and progress also require hope, and as I’ve written before, “hope demands things that despair does not.” Hope is risky. But hope is also in love with success.

When you hear news that affects you, what is your first reaction? Does your mind move to cynical inevitabilities, or to hopeful possibilities?  Do you act upon “bad data and worse analysis” to reach your conclusion? As Solnit says in her book The Faraway Nearby, “Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”  Life isn’t easy, but as Stephen Covey has written, we have the ability and freedom as humans to respond. “External forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power — you have the freedom to choose your response.”

“It is the nature of reactive people to absolve themselves of responsibility,” says Covey.  However, “proactive people work on the things they can do something about.” In the same vein Robert Glazer speaks of improving our emotional capacity. “Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.”

Nats Rainbow

Nothing says hope better than a rainbow at a baseball stadium

In times of uncertainty or difficulty, think about your response and consider choosing the proactive option of learning. Of possibilities. Of hope.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Use Your New Year’s Resolutions to Give Up Stuff That Doesn’t Matter

This is the time of year when our thoughts turn to resolutions for the next twelve months.  This year I also considered what to give up for New Year’s. Two articles drove my thinking, the first being 13 Things You Should Give Up If You Want to be Successful. I realize that the title is designed to pull you in…and I took the (click) bait.  Nonetheless, there were some interesting suggestions (and corresponding quotes), including;

  • Give up your perfectionism (“Shipping beats perfection.”)
  • Give up your need to control everything (“Some things are up to us, and some things are not up to us.”)
  • Give up the toxic people (“Stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution.”)
  • Give up your need to be liked (“You can be the juiciest, ripest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be people who hate peaches.”)

The second article was from Robert Glazer’s Friday Forward blog entitled Why You Need a Stop Doing ListHe notes that, “The most successful people and businesses know how to focus on what needs to get done and what they need to stop doing to make that happen.”  Glazer is especially focused on the excuse of being too busy to get the right things done.

DJB Fly Fishing and casting

Say Yes to Things That Matter

Saying no to something allows you to say yes to things that matter.  Author Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, describes how she finally said no to the inner voice of her mother in order to get to the yes of living her own life.

“That yes (to accept a spur-of-the-moment trip down the Grand Canyon) was a huge landmark in my life, a dividing point.  I’d wrestled against the inner voice of my mother, the voice of caution, of duty, of fear of the unknown, the voice that said the world was dangerous and safety was always the first measure and that often confused pleasure with danger…(the voice that) feared mistakes even when the consequences were minor.  Why go to Paradise when the dishes weren’t done?  What if the dirty dishes clamor more loudly than Paradise?”

Figure out what to give up that is wasting your time, as if you think you have time.  Which dirty dishes in your life are clamoring more loudly than Paradise?  As that great American philosopher Mae West said, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

Have a great week and a 2019 where you say “yes” to the things that matter.

More to come…

DJB