About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

05 March 2010

Alex Haley: On Assignment for Playboy

In 1976, Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The following year, Roots was made into a television mini-series that reached a record-breaking 130 million viewers. In 1979, ABC aired a sequel titled Roots: the Next Generations.

Until then, Haley was best know for writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was published in 1965 and was later named one of the ten most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Alex was the speaker for the kick-off session of our 1991 Masters Forum series. He arrived fairly early on the cold and snowy Minnesota evening prior to his appearance. We had planned dinner together. But he called and said he would just as soon spend the rest of the night trying to get warm, and wondered if we might have breakfast early the next morning instead. I chuckled and said "not a problem." We agreed to meet at the hotel's coffee shop at half past six.

I was really anxious to meet Alex. I had become familiar with his work several years before he became famous. I was in college at the time and had attended an on-campus lecture by George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell's hate-filled presentation stopped me cold. I had grown up in a small town in Minnesota, and though I was familiar with the civil rights movement, I'd had no first-hand experience with it. Rockwell blew the fog away; he gave bigotry and hate a face and voice I'll never forget.

At roughly the same time, I got hold of an issue of Playboy magazine that featured an interview with Rockwell, and though I was not surprised to find him saying pretty much the same things he said in his speech, I was surprised when I learned that the interview was conducted by an African-American writer named Alex Haley. "Why in the hell did he do that?" I thought.

I had a chance to ask Alex that question as we sat having breakfast on the day he graced our stage. The story he told me was fascinating. He phoned Rockwell to set up the interview. Rockwell asked him if he was Jewish. He said he was not. Rockwell apparently didn't think to ask him if he was Black. Alex didn't bother to tell him either, and said there were a bunch of surprised Nazi's when a cab deposited him at their front steps on the day of the interview. He said Rockwell went ahead with the interview nonetheless, but kept a loaded pistol within his reach the entire time. You can read the interview here.

After he finished telling the story, I had another question for Alex. He had been quoted as saying:
"In all my writing, as much as I could, I tried to find the good and praise it."
I asked him what good he found in Rockwell. He answered:
"I found a very rich lesson for myself in my conversation with George Lincoln Rockwell for the Playboy interview. Whatever else, he was intelligent. I found that he had become a Nazi because of a series of frustrations in his life. He wasn't the tough, tough man he presented himself as being; he was actually a poignant, in-trouble human being, surrounded by ignorant haters - that's all they had sustaining them."
That answer rendered me speechless for one of the only times in my life. The best I could do at that point was suggest that I pick up the tab for breakfast and that we head to the auditorium where he would be giving his presentation. He was all for it. Before we left, however, he asked if he could have the two pieces of bacon I had left on my plate. I said "Sure!"

I have reflected on the notion of Alex finding something good about Rockwell many times since. I think there are two very important lessons to be learned.

First, research tells us that if we don't see the good in someone, we can't effectively manage or lead that person. Alex Haley reminds us that there is something good about virtually everyone, and if we can't readily see it, we simply need to dig a little deeper to uncover it. The key to the dig is listening to understand, or listening in a way that allows others to tell us their own stories in their own way and in their own time. Once you've done this a few times, you'll understand what Will Rogers really meant when he said:
"I've never met a man I didn't like."
Most people think he said it because he was an eternal optimist; I think he said it because he made it a habit to take the time to get to know people by listening to their stories. If you are a leader, you should make it a point to do the same with your colleagues.

Second, "find the good and praise it" is the by far the most important rule of giving effective performance feedback. But, it's not the only rule. A leader must also point to what is wrong with performance periodically. I learned this early in my career from Fran Tarkenton, who was both a quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings and a business consultant at the time. He remains a consultant today. He said that there needs to be a positive to negative ratio of 4:1 in giving performance feedback. He called the concept "laying the one," and said it's the one negative stroke in five that gives the four positive ones their credibility. James Boswell, the 18th century Scottish author, summarized this idea very succinctly when he said:
"He who praises everybody, praises nobody."
He could just as well have said:
"He who praises everything, praises nothing."
The idea didn't really come alive for me, though, until my oldest son landed on a 6th grade traveling basketball team coached by a guy named Joe Crawford. This could be a long story in itself, but suffice it to say that Joe was willing to "lay the one" at a time when every parent, teacher, and coach was being told they could only pat kids on the head and say good job; to do otherwise would damage their self-esteem. Joe took some heat on this. Coaches were also being "encouraged" to give equal playing time to everyone on the team, and not be concerned with winning or losing. Joe took more heat here, especially from parents whose kids were sitting on the bench at crunch time. In fact, at one point in the year, those particular parents tried to get Joe fired. They failed. But Joe didn't.

Joe did three things for the kids on that team during the three years he coached them. They were lessons which will last a lifetime.

First, he taught each and every kid how to play basketball. And he was really good at teaching basketball. This is in contrast to some parents who volunteer to coach youth sports to help their kid and their kid's friends and no one else.

Second, he established a high performance culture; kids earned their playing time and the right to be on the court when the game was on the line through attitude, hard work, and results. My son was one of those end of the bench kids at the beginning, and he earned more playing time as the year went along. One thing he knew for sure, though, was that when he was on the floor it was because he had earned the right to be there, not because of some equal playing time rule. This is how true self-esteem is developed: through true accomplishment.

Third, he taught them to honor the game. He showed them - by example - how to play by the rules, how to win with humility, lose with dignity, and show respect for teammates, opponents, game officials, and parents.

The bottom line for Joe and his kids? They lost the state championship game in triple overtime that first year. They won it the next, and lost in the finals again in the third. I still see kids who played on that team today, and to a one, they say that Joe was by far the best coach or teacher they ever had. Today Joe is running the national AAU basketball program. The AAU couldn't have made a better choice.

The bottom line for leaders? Spend most of you time looking for what's right with performance and praise it when you see it. And don't forget to "lay the one" once in awhile to bolster your credibility.


  • What about Haley - what inner strength or life view or studied means of detachment - made it possible for him to sit down and listen to try to understand someone who was so filled with hate for him and all others of his race?
  • How was he able to absorb Rockwell's rhetoric long enough to get a even a glimpse of the good he eventually saw in him?
  • Besides the gun - though I don't think it was an issue - how was he able to refrain from arguing with Rockwell or striking back in some other way?
  • Haley said he found a very rich lesson for himself during the conversation. What do you think it could possibly have been?
  • Have you ever had an experience that mirrors Haley's in some way, shape, or form? If so, please tell the story of what went down, and touch upon any lessons you learned.
"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time." - M. Scott Peck
"One has not only the ability to perceive the world, but an ability to alter one's perception of it; more simply, one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them." - Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
"In the perspective of every person lies a lens through which we may better understand ourselves." - Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning
"When a man begins to have a vision larger than his own truth...he begins to become conscious of his moral nature." - Rabindranath Tagore
"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Our greatest pretenses are built up not to hide the evil and the ugly in us, but our emptiness. The hardest thing to hide is something that is not there." - Eric Hoffer, Passionate State of Mind
"It's by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life." - Joseph Campbell
"You can't study the darkness by flooding it with light." - Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

From Roots: Alex Haley Meets with George Lincoln Rockwell

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