Ideas. Relationships. Adventure.

Brown University 2015 Graduation

A scene from the Brown University graduation of 2015…you can guess who the guy is in the middle with the sunglasses and big smile.

This is a time of year when many of us have either completed school terms or have celebrated the accomplishments of children or other friends/family members at commencement ceremonies.  Scholar and author Warren Bennis was thinking about this time of transition when he wrote the following in his landmark book On Becoming a Leader:

“If I were restricted to three words in any commencement speech, they would be:  Ideas, Relationships, and Adventure.  Ideas are the basis for change, for re-invention, for, yes, intellectual capital.  Relationships have to do with outstanding people working in harmony and openness, where everyone feels empowered, where all members feel included and at the center of things, where they feel competent and significant.  And Adventure has to do with risk, with a bias towards action, with curiosity and courage.”

The challenge for organizations and their leaders is, as Bennis states it, to “create the social architecture where ideas, relationships, and adventure can flourish.”  That isn’t easy, especially in light of challenges facing us today, but those who “choose to succeed must have the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failures.”

It is my belief that building the type of social architecture to ensure that ideas, relationships, and adventure can flourish is a collaborative effort that never ends.  Each of us plays an important role.  How we model behavior from our own perspectives and positions is as important as written statements of organizational or personal values.  When it comes to the organization where I work, I’m glad to be traveling that path with a group of talented and committed colleagues who are eager to continue that work together.  It is the only way we’ll succeed.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

New Perspectives

The Next Level

The Next Level by Scott Eblin

In his book The Next Level, Scott Eblin warns against being too myopic, which can lead to silos in organizations or businesses. We all understand our organization or business, but often only from one seat or perspective.   I bring this up because of a conversation I had last week with one of our senior staff leaders in my organization, the National Trust. We were discussing ways in which we could help individuals on our team who become too closely identified with one program, their work in one city or region, or expertise in saving one type of historic resource. It reminded me of my own experience.

Several years ago I was working with an executive coach.  After receiving 360 degree feedback on my work, she asked to see my resume, which listed my various preservation jobs since I entered the field. Once she reviewed the resume, my coach had me undertake what I thought at the time was an unusual task.  I was to rewrite my vita without using the words “historic preservation” or without the name of any of the agencies or organizations where I had worked.  In other words, she wanted me to take a fresh perspective as to who I was and my capabilities at the professional level.  That led me to think about my eight-year stint as executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, for instance, in terms of skills and accomplishments without relying on the jargon of my profession.  No “I led an effort to enact Virginia’s historic preservation tax credit” for this exercise.  Instead I had to talk about coordination of a network of supporters, communication of key concepts to the media, collaboration with partners to reach new audiences outside my professional field, and providing effective testimony before legislative committees.

It was an eye-opening experience. I had become so identified in my own mind with my preservation career, that I simply never put much thought into how the skills required to do my job translated into a broader world of possibilities.  This exercise, along with several others she had me do, forced me to look at my career, skills, and life with a new perspective.

When one becomes myopic, you don’t step back to think about the type of skills you may bring to other work where you could be a valuable team member. Similarly, you don’t think of areas where you may want to seek training to broaden your expertise. Let me encourage you, as you think about your work and what you bring to making a difference in this world, that you think bigger and try a fresh perspective every now and then. I suspect you will be surprised at what you find.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

In Praise of (Useful) Meetings

One of the items that is a perennial in our staff satisfaction survey is the comment “we have too many meetings.”  Many organizations face the same feedback. A recent article I read on productivity suggested we should avoid meetings at all costs, quoting the billionaire Mark Cuban as saying that one should “never take meetings unless someone is writing a check.”  That’s easy for him to say. He pays people to have the meetings to get to the check-writing part of the deal.

Meetings for a dispersed organization with a value of collaboration are inevitable and necessary.  Useful meetings are, unfortunately, not inevitable.  I had a colleague tell me of an experience where someone blocked out two hours on her online calendar with a meeting request, then showed up at the appointed time without an agenda or even an understanding of why they had called the meeting.  No one was sure if the right people were in the room. The participants ended up stumbling around until the crux of the matter at hand was identified, which was then dispatched in less than 30 minutes.  I told this individual that anyone in our division has my permission to refuse to accept open-ended meeting requests for long blocks of time that do not have a clear agenda or purpose.

Death by Meeting

Death by Meeting

Patrick Lencioni’s book Death by Meetings suggests a different way.  Lencioni says we have to

“…fundamentally rethink much of the way we perceive and manage meetings.  That means we cannot keep hating them.  And we must abandon our search for technological solutions that will somehow free us from having to sit down face-to-face.  And we have to…accept the fact that bad meetings start with the attitudes and approaches of the people who lead and take part in them.”

In this work, Lencioni notes that the “single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings is the tendency to throw every type of issue that needs to be discussed into one meeting” instead of clearly distinguishing between various purposes, formats, and timings.  While the format won’t work all the time, he suggests we think about check-ins, tactical decision-making, strategic planning, and periodic review as different types of meetings with different timeframes, different participants, and different venues.

I am not a big fan of George Will, but he does have a good line about why baseball is preferable to football, and that is because the latter “combines the two worst things about America: violence punctuated by committee meetings.”  If we focus, we can do something to make the meetings in our lives much more useful.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Beware the Asides of Summer

Off Speed

Off Speed by Terry McDermott

When I write I often fall in love with my own asides.  (Aside: a remark that is not directly related to the main topic of discussion.)  I believe that what I want to say is so fascinating that it doesn’t matter if it fits the topic.  Nope, I’m going to interject it simply because I can.

I’ve just read a book that may—if not cure me—get me to think more deeply before heading down some rabbit hole.

Terry McDermott’s Off Speed:  Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception comes close to being a wonderful book. Using the framework of Felix Hernandez’s 2012 perfect game, Seattle Mariners fan McDermott takes the reader through a nine-inning/chapter history of pitching, pitches, and—naturally, given the subject—deception.  Hernandez is one of the best in the game and a terrific subject for this fan’s dive into the deep end of baseball.

McDermott is a life-long lover of baseball, having been reared in the rural Midwest in “Field of Dreams” country.  And that is where the trouble begins.  McDermott finds his upbringing fascinating, and he drops in stories, footnotes, phrases (parenthetical and otherwise), and all matter of stuff that simply distracts from what could have been a terrific little baseball book.

Let’s take those footnotes denoted with an asterisk and placed at the bottom of the page that McDermott overuses throughout the book.  He can’t even get past the second page of the preface without a long footnote about obscure Mariners relief pitcher Bobby Ayala and a call with his daughter.  These footnotes occur so frequently that you feel compelled to read them, yet when you finish, 9 times out of 10 you have the thought “this book could have used a better editor.” And the use of a different pitch for each of the 9 chapters “almost” works…until you get to chapter 5 and the knuckleball—which Felix Hernandez doesn’t throw.  That gives McDermott almost an entire chapter to chase down different stories, some of which are interesting and others of which are trite.

Which is all too bad.  When I read in that same preface that reliever Brandon League “is a pitcher with a great arm, two great pitches, and apparently no brain” I thought I had latched onto a book both interesting and fun.  And for the most part it is.  The story of Hernandez’s perfect game, told inning-by-inning and almost pitch-by-pitch, is fascinating.  McDermott does a good job of describing pitches, and for those who want to know the difference between a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a slider, and a cutter, this book provides that information in  different ways that are almost all illuminating.

McDermott is a gifted writer, but he let’s his love get in the way of tighter editing.  I’ll still recommend Off Speed, but—with apologies to William Shakespeare—beware the asides of summer.

More to come…

DJB

Places Teach Us, If We Let Them

I have just finished reading two books about the American West that were written in 1987 and 1994. As I finished the second one on a rainy Sunday afternoon I thought, “I hope I age as well.”  The older of the two—which I actually read second—was the first book cited by the author of the 1994 work in her “Sources” chapter.  Both are written by women I greatly admire as writers and thinkers.

So enough of the cat and mouse games.

Savage Dreams

Savage Dreams by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit‘s Savage Dreams:  A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West, was republished in a 20th anniversary edition in 2014, with a new preface by the author. I’ve been on something of a Solnit kick lately, as she is one of the most thoughtful of writers exploring a wide variety of issues across the American landscape. This early work is often hailed as a foundational work of environmental thinking.  However, I saw this more as a book about place and unacknowledged history, and the title of the post comes from her 20th anniversary preface.

At the end of Savage Dreams, Solnit lists her sources and calls out Patricia Nelson Limerick‘s The Legacy of Conquest:  The Unbroken Past of the American West for special inspiration.  I have come to know Patty Limerick a bit from recent work we’ve undertaken together, and this book has been on my bookshelf since the early 2000s, which I first heard her speak in Denver.  She is unquestionably one of the leading scholars of Western history.

What I found enlightening about both works was the timeliness of the issues they discuss some 25-30 years later.  Immigration, the dominance of the military-industrial complex, the “owning” of the historical narrative, the complex layers of history that are the reality underneath our myth making of exceptionalism and manifest destiny—all are as present and divisive today as they were as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.

I could delve into so much in these two works, but will be content with a synopsis of each and some quotes that may lead you to want to explore them on your own.  Solnit and Limerick are easy-to-read writers who take a different path in getting to their conclusions.  Solnit’s work here is more of a meandering conversation that, amazingly, arrives at its destination at the end of each chapter and feels very satisfying.  Limerick did not rely on original research in her ground-breaking work, but pulled together strains in New Western study with a style that is easily accessible.

Solnit’s work is actually two books, although they do connect in surprising ways:

“In 1851, a war began in what would become Yosemite National Park, a war against the indigenous inhabitants. A century later–in 1951–and a hundred and fifty miles away, another war began when the U.S. government started setting off nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site. It was called a nuclear testing program, but functioned as a war against the land and people of the Great Basin.”

In her preface to the 20th anniversary edition, Solnit notes that she was writing as a period of “making visible, of rewriting history” was underway. She is in the parking lots at Yosemite ten years after her book was written and noticed that the signs had changed, with a “massive reimagining of native America” as the old language of discovery was mostly gone, and the idea of virgin wilderness was seen as outdated.

Right from the beginning Solnit notes that “it’s important to remember that this was not inevitable change but was the work of scholars and tribal spokespeople, activists, and storytellers.”  That is so important in today’s charged political environment, where thoughtful scholarship is often under attack. As she notes, “the people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.”

I found this most compelling in the Yosemite story (not to downplay the importance and terrible nature of the test site history).  But as we think about hearing, understanding, and honoring all stories in historic places, I was especially taken by the stories of eradication of the Native American people and story at Yosemite right from the beginning of its conquest by white Americans.  As one small example out of many, the kind of plants growing in Yosemite Valley in the 1850s was largely the work of its original inhabitants.  So when “Bunnell, Olmstead, and their peers rode into the valley and wondered at it for its resemblance to an English landscape garden, it resembled such a garden because it was one.”  Since Yosemite is often considered an American Eden and a touchstone for wilderness, it is surprising (to many) to find that it was an “artifact of generations of human care.”

Legacy of Conquest

Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Nelson Limerick

Solnit’s is an activist’s book, which is “about how understanding history and making it are not really very different” to quote one reviewer.  Limerick’s activism is of a different sort.  She seeks to take the story of the “settling” of the American West as “a series of quaint, violent, and romantic adventures—most with happy endings—and a process that came to an end with the ‘closing’ of the frontier in the 1890s” and turn that on its head.  The west is not a process, but a place.  It is a place where competition, profit, loss, uneven business cycles and—always—conquests are what ground its history.

Limerick’s book is also divided into two sections.  First, “The Conquerors” followed by “The Conquerors Meet Their Match.”  In today’s fight over immigration rights, the antagonists on each side could do much worse than read Limerick’s chapter entitled “America the Borderland.”  Limerick notes that this antagonism has been with us from the beginning of our country.

“…some New England Puritans brooded over the presence of Spanish Catholics far to the south; the ‘New World’ seemed less than pure if the papists had a more sizable empire than the Puritans.  Two centuries later, Anglo-Americans moving into the borderlands encountered long-term Hispanic residents.  Much modified by the environment, time, and contact with native populations, northern and southern Europe met in odd circumstances and conflicts between them, unresolved since the Reformation, surfaced again.”

SE Utah Cliff Dwellings

Cliff Dwellings in the Bears Ears area of Southeast Utah, where centuries-old conflicts over the West are still present today

One of the more difficult parts of our past to square with the American myth is the treatment of Mormons. Today’s hatred of “the other” has—it appears—deep historical roots. Limerick dives in here as well, to make the point that just when the reader thinks race is a key factor in dividing people in the West, we come face to face with the Haun’s Mill Massacre.  As she says, this attack by a Missouri militia on a poorly defended settlement, where seventeen were killed and fifteen wounded, “restores one to a realistic confusion.”  All of the victims of this 1838 massacre were white—and Mormon.  She examines the prejudices behind the 1857 Mormon War, which is extraordinary in that the U.S. Army was deployed against a church primarily composed of U.S. citizens.

There is so much here I could explore, but suffice it to say that both Rebecca Solnit and Patty Limerick have written books that are as timely today as they were some 25-30 years ago.  That’s a remarkable place for writers to find themselves.  In these challenging times in which we live in 2017, we do well to remember Limerick’s point that we need to think as anthropologists, because “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.”

Recommended!

More to come…
DJB

Intimacy

Leadership is an Art

Leadership is an Art by Max DePree

I’ve mentioned before how much I have learned from the book Leadership is an Art by Max DePree.  Events in my life are leading me back to reference this work. I want to share some thoughts from this book, beginning with DePree’s writings on intimacy and work.  The former CEO and Chairman of Herman Miller, Inc. begins his chapter on the subject by saying,  “Intimacy is at the heart of competence.  It has to do with understanding, with believing, and with practice.  It has to do with the relationship to one’s work…intimacy with one’s work leads to solid competence.”

Intimacy—in DePree’s view—is the “experience of ownership.” One arrives at intimacy with one’s work out of “difficulty or questions or exasperation, or even survival.” And this intimacy “affects our accountability and results in personal authenticity in the work process. A key component of intimacy is passion.” Working through difficult situations to reach a sense of ownership of one’s work—and life—is something to which we can all relate.

“Superficiality in a special way is an enemy of intimacy.  When one thinks carefully about why certain people who are competent, well educated, energetic, and well supported with good tools fail, it is often the red thread of superficiality that does them in.  They never get seriously and accountably involved in their own work.”

DePree also focuses on ambiguity and change.  He notes that “We find intimacy through a search for comfort with ambiguity.  We do not grow by knowing all of the answers, but rather by living with the questions.”  I love that idea of being comfortable with ambiguity and growing through our living with the questions.  This is important because “Three of the key elements in the art of working together are how to deal with change, how to deal with conflict, and how to reach our potential.”

Let’s think about how we can ask the questions and search for the answers together.  Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Two Unexpected Books for These Times

The Immortal Irishman

The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan

It wasn’t until I was well into the second of two books I’ve devoured in the past few weeks that the timeliness of these very different works dawned on me.  Nothing in either the biography or novel – both released in 2016 – would have suggested that they were important books for our time, much less that there would be common threads.

And as a bonus, both are terrific reads.

Timothy Egan has produced a page-turning biography that captures the incredible saga of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced Mar), one of the most famous Irish Americans of all time.  Egan – one of my favorite writers (see the “Writers I Enjoy” list on the side of my blog page) – has previously written highly readable and well-researched histories on the Dust Bowl (The Worst Hard Time) and the founding of the U.S. Forest Service (The Big Burn).  In The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, Egan bring Francis Meagher’s time and story to life.

Meagher was born to comfort in Ireland, but left that life to lead a failed uprising against the British during the Great Hunger of the 1840s.  In this part of the book, Egan’s description of the horrors of the potato famine and the English starvation of the Irish is visceral and hard-to-forget. For his part in the Young Ireland uprising, Meagher is “transported” to a Tasmanian exile on the other side of the world, yet escapes and comes to America where he is instantly hailed as the most famous Irish American in the land.

The 1850s in America have eerie parallels to today, with sectional divisions, strong partisan divides, and politicians who ignore the fundamental issues facing the country.  In the decades before the Civil War, the Know-Nothing Party – one of the predecessors to Trump’s Republican Party today – brought a nasty, nativist strain to politics that blamed immigrants – and especially Irish immigrants – for all the nation’s ills.  Irish-Americans were attacked in their homes, legislation blocked their arrival, and bigotry was both accepted and prevalent throughout the land.

Francis Meagher strode onto the stage and – through the power of his story and oratory – because a leader of Irish Americans in New York.  When the South (including a large number of Irish immigrants) fired on Ft. Sumter, Meagher helped recruit Irish Americans to join the Union cause.  In short order General Meagher was the head of the Irish Brigade, which was asked again and again to go into the worst situations in battles and save the day after the blunders of the Union’s incompetent generals.  The worst example was the charge they were forced to endure up Mayre’s Heights into the teeth of the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg.  The great Irish musician John Doyle captured that story in his terrific tune Clear the Way (with the music beginning after a short history lesson at about 2:48 in this video).

 

Disillusioned with the war, Meagher moves to Montana to become the territorial governor.  Hoping to finally make his fortune and create a New Ireland in the frontier, Meagher instead finds himself fighting injustice in this lawless territory.  The story ends with a mysterious death at age forty-three.  Egan provides compelling new information to perhaps help put a coda on this amazing life.

The Immortal Irishman is a first-rate work.  The relevance is that he reminds us that the nativist strain we face today has a long and sad history in the U.S.

Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I expected to enjoy Timothy Egan’s work.  I had no idea what to expect when I bought a young writer’s first novel on a whim – literally because a woman was standing at the book table at the Politics and Prose members sale and said, “This is a great read.”  We talked about other things she liked and her tastes seem to align with mine…so I took a flyer.

Am I glad I did.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a very impressive debut novel.  The story of two half sisters born in eighteenth century Ghana, and the families their different paths produced, is epic and emotional.  Gyasi skips back and forth between the family that stays in Ghana and the other one – unbeknownst to the first – who is sold off into slavery in the U.S.  She follows each, generation after generation, through wars in Africa and slavery and the Great Migration in the U.S.

The pace is brisk and there are multiple story lines to maintain.  The reader is helped along by the family tree in the front of the book, and somewhere along the way I found myself drawn into the rhythm of the story being told on both sides of the Atlantic.  Some reviewers have suggested that the African chapters are the stronger of the two strains of storytelling, but I found that to be a minor quibble.  Certainly the chapters about the family members sold into slavery are more familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less compelling.

Homegoing is yet another epic reminder of how a country that proclaims freedom was built on conquest and slavery.  So many times I came up from an extended period of reading this fascinating work, only to be faced with what seems like never-ending examples of bigotry and conquest coming from the evening news.

Two very different books.  Two excellent writers.  Two works that help us see that the national story is truly much more complex, layered, and difficult than we often realize.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB