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.

26 June 2009

When Good IS Great

Dov Seidman - founder and CEO of LRN and the author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything . . . in Business (and in Life) - appeared at the Masters Forum in March, 2008, to share his notion that success in our highly connected and near completely transparent world is mainly dependent on our ability to out-behave our competitors. He also left us with an impression as sticky as his ideas: he is at his core the genuinely good person his behavior suggests.

Dov's work was noted not so long ago in a New York Times column by Thomas Friedman who used it to help build the case that inspirational leadership at the very highest levels of government is one of the things needed to get the U.S. economy rolling again. Friedman said:
"President Obama missed a huge teaching opportunity with A.I.G. Those bonuses were an outrage. The public’s anger was justified. But rather than fanning those flames and letting Congress run riot, the president should have said: 'I’ll handle this.'

"He should have gone on national TV and had the fireside chat with the country that is long overdue. That’s a talk where he lays out exactly how deep the crisis we are in is, exactly how much sacrifice we’re all going to have to make to get out of it, and then calls on those A.I.G. brokers - and everyone else who, in our rush to heal our banking system, may have gotten bonuses they did not deserve - and tells them that their president is asking them to return their bonuses 'for the sake of the country.'

"Had Mr. Obama given A.I.G.’s American brokers a reputation to live up to, a great national mission to join, I’d bet anything we’d have gotten most of our money back voluntarily. Inspiring conduct has so much more of an impact than coercing it. And it would have elevated the president to where he belongs - above the angry gaggle in Congress."
At that point, he quoted Dov:
"There is nothing more powerful than inspirational leadership that unleashes principled behavior for a great cause. What makes a company or a government sustainable is not when it adds more coercive rules and regulations to control behaviors. It is when its employees or citizens are propelled by values and principles to do the right things, no matter how difficult the situation. Laws tell you what you can do. Values inspire in you what you should do. It’s a leader’s job to inspire in us those values."
Dov's work is both rich and relevant, and I often find myself connecting it with other important ideas. For example:

Dov says that great ethical leadership is not grounded in a skill set, nor is it the offspring of a magic hat we don on the way to work and remove on the way home. It flows instead from a deep commitment of the heart and mind to a particular way of being. Robert Fritz, another of the real geniuses who's graced the stage at the Masters Forum, says when we enter into that kind of commitment, we are making a fundamental life choice:
"There are many people who have chosen the religious path (primary choice), without making the fundamental choice to live in accordance with their highest spiritual truths. There are many people who have chosen to be married (primary choice), without making the fundamental choice to live from within a committed relationship. Fundamental choices are not subject to changes in internal or external circumstances. If you make the fundamental choice to be true to yourself, then you will act in ways that are true to yourself whether you feel inspired or depressed, whether you feel fulfilled or frustrated, whether you are at home, at work, with your friends, or with your enemies. If, on the other hand, one day you decide that it is all right not to be true to yourself because it is inconvenient or might make you feel uncomfortable in a particular situation, you have probably never made the fundamental choice to be true to yourself to begin with. You are basing your commitment on the conditions or the circumstances in which you happen to find yourself at any particular time. When you make a fundamental choice, convenience and comfort are not ever an issue, for you always take action based on what is consistent with your fundamental choice."
Dov says that leaders who ask us to do what's right, honest, and good in the service of our organization, concurrently ask us to do what's best for our soul. Dr. Abraham Maslow pointed to this notion a little over forty years ago:
"The serious thing for each person to recognize vividly and poignantly, each for himself, is that every falling away from species-virtue, every crime against one’s own nature, every evil act, every one without exception records itself in our unconscious and makes us despise ourselves. Karen Horney had a good word to describe this unconscious perceiving and remembering; she said it 'registers.' If we do something we are ashamed of, it 'registers' to our discredit, and if we do something honest or fine or good, it 'registers' to our credit. The net results ultimately are either one or the other - either we respect and accept ourselves or we despise ourselves and feel contemptible, worthless, and unlovable. Theologians used to use the word 'accidie' to describe the sin of failing to do with one’s life all that one knows one could do."
Dov admits there are certain risks involved in making the choices he urges us to make, but he says there are far greater risks associated with not making them. Morris Schectman, another former Masters Forum presenter, shares that perspective:
"If you embrace the behaviors and attitudes of the high risk individual, you need to understand your decision within the context of stress and distress. Low risk people exchange short-term stress for long term distress. High risk people are constantly under short-term stress and rarely experience long-term distress. When you strike a low risk posture, you may avoid day-to-day stress, but you accumulate unmade decisions that ultimately cause you much unhappiness. High risk people, on the other hand, constantly make decisions and face change-related stress, but they never look back on their lives with regret. High risk people regularly pay a price for being successful in this culture, whereas low risk people avoid paying until a big amount is due at some point down the road. It’s the difference between making fixed payments on a loan and a gigantic balloon payment after a period of time. In a high risk culture, no one can afford to accumulate such a huge debt and expect to be happy or successful."
  • What are the fundamental choices you have made for your life? Are there any choices you know you need to make but haven't yet made them? What is holding you back?
  • What are some things you've done that have "registered" to your credit? Discredit? What is the credit/discredit balance at this point in your life? Are there changes you can see you need to make?
  • Do you have the tendency to defer decisions to avoid short-term stress? How have you paid the price for this in the past? Are there any gigantic balloon payments looming in your future? Is there a way you can overcome this habit as you move forward in your life?
"A schism in the body social will not be resolved by any scheme of a return to the good old days, or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future, or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death - the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new." - Joseph Campbell, Hero With A Thousand Faces
Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
- Rabindranath Tagore
"It is immensely moving when a mature man – no matter whether old or young in years – is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.'" - Max Weber, speaking at Munich University at the end of WWI
"Google’s a strange place. When I met Eric Schmidt, he said, 'If you are kind to everybody, then you will make good decisions because people will give you good information, and if you are truthful to everybody, they will be truthful to you.' That’s what’s different about Google. They screw up and make mistakes, but they genuinely mean the good stuff about 'don’t be evil.' - Larry Brilliant - Wired: Feeling Lucky

14 June 2009

I Never Met a Man I Didn't Like

In the November 6, 1926 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, the American humorist Will Rogers said this about the notorious Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky:
"I bet you if I had met him and had a chat with him, I would have found him a very interesting and human fellow, for I never yet met a man that I didn't like."
This is one of his most famous quotes ... or at least part of it is:
" ... I never yet met a man that I didn't like."
If you've seen or heard only these words, you will probably beg to differ with Mr. Rogers, because I'm sure you've met at least a few people you didn't like.

On the other hand, if you consider the whole of what he said, you quickly see that he threw in a qualifier:
" ... if I had met him and had a chat with him ..."
And, on that basis, I would venture to say you are more likely to agree with him.

I would go a little further, though. In my way of thinking, the chat has to be more involved than simply talking about the weather, what we do at work, hobbies, etc. I might decide that someone is very interesting or not very interesting by conversing at that level - and I think this is where most conversations begin and end - but I certainly won't get to human. To get to know another person as a real, honest-to-goodness human being, I find that I need to listen to his or her story. And, I can truly say that there is not a single person whose story I've heard that I don't like.

Are you with me? Have you found that if you take the time to really get to know another person you almost always find something to like? And, when you find something to like, don't you find your relationship with that person to be much more meaningful? And, isn't there more understanding and trust? And, don't you communicate more freely? I see you nodding your head in agreement. I can almost hear you saying "I get it. I get it."

But, wait! This is an idea that is rather easy to get, but putting it into practice is an entirely different matter. There are two reasons for this. Well, maybe there are more, but who's counting?

First, it takes time to sit down and listen to another person's story and to share yours. And, we're all so very busy today.

Second, busy or not, we are prone to making like or no like decisions about others almost immediately upon meeting them, and from that point on see only the evidence that supports our original decision.

There is another way forward, though. We can look at another person as a book to be read - perhaps in more than one sitting - and hold off on a like or no like decision until we see how the story ends. Author Philip Roth elaborates:
"The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties, the novel is dead. ... In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties."
I decided to put this theory to a test last weekend. You might try it as well.

To begin, I selected a person I had judged harshly - Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I had seen a 30-second video clip of him shouting "God damn America" and decided I didn't like him. The next step was to have him tell me his story so I could find out whether hearing it would cause me to change my mind about him. Here I had to improvise: I knew I couldn't get hold of him to chat, but I knew that Bill Moyers had and that their conversation was aired on PBS. I found a video recording of the event in the PBS archives, and sat down to watch.

I watched the whole thing, and I changed my mind about Reverend Wright in a couple of ways, at the very least. First, once I heard his entire story, I concluded that he is "a very interesting and human fellow," to quote Will Rogers. Second, after hearing his comments about America in their entire context, I realized he was speaking as a preacher and not as a politician: he was referring to a place in the Old Testament that said God would condemn nations that killed the innocent and was warning us that God would also "damn America" if we did the same.

In addition to reinforcing a notion I already had - it's important to take the time to get to know people before judging them - I learned there's a big difference between thinking something is true and knowing it's true because you've experienced it for yourself.

Conversation: No suggestions.

"If you are to judge a man, you must know his secret thoughts, sorrows, and feelings; to know merely the outward events of a man’s life would only serve to make a chronological table — a fool’s notion of history." - HonorĂ© de Balzac
"Sixty years ago, you could simply take your children out into the barn; even if you lived in the cities, there were working men all around you. Chances are your son would learn to use his body. But more and more now the children are going to the Internet ... and the danger is that it will simply cause deeper isolation among many young males than they already have. It is a lie to say that there is communication going on. It is just a form of chatter. True communication takes place when two people are standing close to each other -- maybe a foot away -- so that you can feel when the other person is lying, through his body." - Robert Bly