Nov 302018
 

I am sad much of the time these days, and, as I reflect, it feels as though much of my sadness erupts from fear. I am frightened about a future rooted in an environment impregnated by discord, untruth, misconception. I fear we have become a body politic lacking the interest or will to seek wisdom, connection, and love. In a garden, manure is a magnificent fertilizer. However, the dung created by our war of words, rather than being nourishing and procreative, is toxic to the germination of ideas. Our body politic needs intensive care.

We seem to exist in a world in which few are willing to listen. Everyone, it seems, is willing to opine, but opinion lacking authentic, thoughtful curiosity is hollow. How might the world be different if every expression we utter ended in a question mark—either real or implied? What might emerge from our conversations if we were deeply eager to engage in inquiry-affirming dialogue?

Politics, it is often said, makes strange bedfellows. I recently read Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal.” As one of the most conservative republicans in the U.S. Senate, is a fair assumption the Senator and I would disagree greatly on the solutions to the problem. However, we are in full agreement on the root causes. In a recent interview on PBS, Sasse explains:

More and more people are processing their politics not primarily as what they’re for, but as a form of anti-tribe. What are we against?

And so, I think you see a willingness among the American public to accept more falsehoods than would have seemed normal at most moments in U.S. history, because people hear them as a kind of rhetoric that is mostly a framing of the other side and the things that we’re against.

We need a politics that isn’t chiefly that, isn’t chiefly against. We need a lot more ‘we’ and a lot less ‘them’.

In the end, I am left with a bit of hope when we who disagree, can peer together and gain some clarity on root causes. If we can follow that agreement and clarity with inquiry-affirming dialogue, and a profound interest in listening, perhaps we can find a fertile garden in which to propagate new ideas, and a new life-affirming future.

Aug 172013
 
Note: I wrote the following piece for the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, but thought it might be of interest to the readers of my blog
I’ve been accused of focusing too much on images of death, but bear with me, you just might find the questions I am about to ask confusing and irritating enough to be useful.
What if the greatest challenge to your organization is that everyone expects it to be immortal?
We race books like Built to Last to the best seller list because we expect organizations and institutions to be impervious to the vagaries of imperfect economies and unpredictable politics.
To be sure, we are in awe of human creations that survive the limits of our fragile lives. I recall the wonderment of experiencing a few of the celebrated cathedrals of Europe.
But what if organizations are more valuable as organic, less stable, human creations? Consider human mortality. (Here is where I estrange those troubled by thoughts of death). It is no secret that, as people age, they become more aware of their mortality and begin to ask questions about what their time here might have meant. Conversely, if we were immortal, the need to make every passing moment a thing of beauty becomes less imperative. There would be plenty of time tomorrow—and the infinite tomorrows beyond that—to accomplish something of depth and meaning.
So what about your organization. I assume it exists to accomplish something of depth and meaning. To create products and services that add value to peoples’ lives…offer meaningful employment…make the world better, safer or more beautiful…or just to create wealth (however you define that easily misunderstood word).
Does it change the mission, vision and values you hold dear if you knew the institution you are building will, with no possibility of reprieve, cease to exist in five years? Even if it doesn’t alter the words, does it change their urgency? Does your heart skip a beat as you ponder how you must now turn those words into results prior to some uncompromising deadline? What if, as a result, mission, vision and values became more important than next quarter’s net income?
These questions occurred to me on one of my many journeys afoot. As the images flew, I began to ask how mortality might change my view of the Batavia Chamber. How might our goals and priorities change if the Board had to disband the Chamber at age 65 in the year 2018?
The Chamber’s purpose is to create a dynamic culture where business and community enhance one another. How might we renew our effort if we had only five years. Our vision is for Batavia to be a destination for people to grow themselves, their family, their business and their community. If that became the Chamber’s destination in a mere five years, what must we do differently this afternoon…and tomorrow? With a mission to advocate for, build relationships with, and educate our members for the benefit of the community, how should we redouble our efforts and set different priorities?
I know…this all has little meaning because our institutions are build to last. But you are not, so from your perspective, the organization you now run or support will only last a few more years. With that awareness to the fore, is there something you might do differently knowing it truly is a matter of life & death?

 

Oct 052012
 

 

Judi and I recently visited Williamsburg, Virginia. I did not realize, until we experienced the extraordinary reenactments, the vital role the people of Virginia played in our journey from independent colonies to a united nation. Two events in particular connected me to the 18th century—in different ways.
One afternoon, we found ourselves in a small room of the George Wythe House. Wythe was the first law professor in the United States and noted classical scholar. Since he also enjoyed music, he and a group of friends played together; and spent time discussing and debating ideas; everything from the classical to the current.
When this group decided to add a violinist, they found a talented young student at the College of William and Mary. Likely, the young man attended to the discussions as well as the music. It was, no doubt, a very formative time for young Thomas Jefferson.
I was actually standing in the same room where Thomas Jefferson began to contemplate the future of the New World. As a young man in this place, his ideas were just beginning to emerge; many years before Congress would appoint the “Committee of Five”—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Jefferson—to draft a declaration. How might these United States have emerged differently had this chance meeting between student and mentor never happened? In that moment, I felt a powerful connection to July 4, 1776.
My other connection to that time was similarly powerful, but confusing. The very talented Williamsburg thespians reenacted an event that occurred outside the Raleigh Tavern in 1775. As tempers began to flare over independence, a brash young man by the name of Carter, perhaps after a few too many tankards of ale, decried the folly of the colony’s amateur militia facing the British Army. He was dragged from the tavern and tried on the street. Three townspeople passed judgment following an inflamed prosecution by an angry Captain James Innes of the Virginia Militia. No real opportunity for defense was offered. Even as I stood there, more than 225 years later, I felt how dangerous it would have been to even suggest a more reasonable trial be held at a later date. Carter avoided being tarred and feathered by publically recanting his beliefs. Nothing less would have satisfied what had essentially become a lynch mob.
I’d like to think we have come a long way since 1775, but I fear we have not. As the 2012 presidential election approaches, I hear too many ideas tried and convicted “on the street” with little opportunity for defense…and it saddens me.
Aug 202012
 

 

Today, as I begin the second year of my seventh decade—with kind and generous missives filling my microscopic corner of Cyberspace—I struggle to understand the clash of gratitude and sadness with which I sit.
A few hours ago, Judi and I left “Charm City”, the place our daughter has taken up residence for two years following her tenure at Illinois Wesleyan University. If you are unaware, as I was until three days ago, CharmCity is a moniker pinned upon the city of Baltimore, Maryland as an unintended consequence of marketing promotion in the early 1970s.
As I sit in the lobby of the hotel that marks the half-way point of our journey home, the clash of emotions I struggle to understand emanate from a few brief moments gifted to me by Kathryn and her fellow Teach For America corps members. This is an amazing group with whom she will share uncountable moments of laughter and joy, spawned by days marked by success; and perhaps just as many tinged by and tears and heartbreak as a result of best efforts that fall just short of their extraordinary dreams.
Just 23 years ago, Wendy Kopp proposed the idea for Teach For America in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis. Since then, nearly 33,000 participants have reached more than 3 million children nationwide with a simple but ennobling vision for America: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”
To meet members of the 2012 corps, you cannot help but recognize them as cohorts in education. But in meeting them, you would expect them to be headed for the halls of America’s best graduate schools—not the hallways and classrooms of the nation’s most lost and neglected elementary and high schools. These amazing young adults are bright, articulate and determined. But what truly sets them apart is their incredible passion for what they are about to undertake. As we sat at breakfast yesterday morning, Andrew, who is headed for an underprivileged middle school science classroom, explained that while science is his medium, his goal is nothing less than “to break the cycle of poverty in America.” This was not the sentiment of one isolated member of this corps; it is shared by more than 5000 of his cohorts stationed across the United States, waiting for their moment to begin.
In order to have this opportunity to change the lives of those so often lost, these newly minted graduates have been through extraordinary preparation: a difficult selection process, challenging praxis exams and a grueling 5-week program to draw out their natural ability to help those around them discover the intricacies and importance of the subjects they have chosen.
Just after I woke this morning, my phone buzzed, indicating another birthday wish had fallen from Cyberspace; this one from a new friend on Facebook. Ironically, this message was from a former student, from the days in the late 1970s when I taught high school math, coincidently not too many hours from Charm City.
It is from this message, and my three days with Kathryn and her friends, that the tangle of emotions arises. I know intimately those moments of extraordinary joy when you look into—and through—the eyes of a young protégé and suddenly understand the wonders and intricacies of the Universe in a nuanced new way. While the word was not used this past weekend, it is in those moments we truly understand what it means to love.
What I cannot know, what I may never know, is the sadness they will experience…sadness seeded by the depth of their dreams, and their hopes for their students and the world. When I began teaching, I did not even know such dreams were possible.
When what we want for this world is informed by the depth of our greatest passions and animated by our uninhibited generosity, the inevitable setbacks, no matter how small, tear deeply into our very being. It is that deep pain that is the price we pay for love.

 

Apr 062012
 

 

Note: This piece was recently submitted for publication in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
Many years ago, I taught in a private high school on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. As faculty advisor in the dorm, I began each day at breakfast with the students. One freshman would frequently catch me in the dining room. “Mr. Breisch,” Sam would intone, “may I ask you a question?” I’d turn and say, “You just did! Would you like to ask another?” At the time, I felt our early morning repartee was nothing more than a way to point out a bit of irony Sam seemed unable to grasp. I now believe he was pointing me towards my future…a future in which life’s questions have become infinitely important; and answers are often more destructive than constructive.
So, even though we are not in line awaiting breakfast, may I ask a question? Or two? Have we lost the art of assembling provocative words into questions that inquire into the great mysteries of the Universe? To what extent do the answers we summon imprison our thinking and hold it hostage? When was the last time you heard a question so profound it left you in wonderment and awe? How often, in the face of questions, do we find ourselves in search of the nearest convenient answer, regardless of its ability to add a bit of wisdom to the human narrative? How often do we formulate questions for which we truly have no answer, as opposed to those whose sole purpose is to allow us to loose a carefully crafted declarative response?
Questions open us to possibilities; answers limit the future. Nowhere is this more clear than when facing a caller on the suicide hotline. In the presence of extreme desperation, which of the following do you imagine might invite you and the caller into a deeper conversation? “Suicide is not the answer.” Or “Would you be willing to share with me why you want to live?”
Lest you think my wandering through the subterranean jungle of human conversation relates only to deeply philosophical questions, or those regarding the end of life, allow me to stroll through a few of the forests that more often characterize day-to-day life.
In conversations with my wife and children I find myself too willing to jump in with a statement ending in a period, often a very large period at that. I wonder how our lives might have evolved differently if, when faced with a thought I found difficult to accept, I might respond with “That’s very interesting. Would you tell me more?”
Over the years, I have listened as many community issues have traveled the highways and byways of our public discourse. After acrimonious debate, we decided we did not want a hotel on south Batavia Avenue, but we would permit a shopping center on a portion of the Braeburn Marsh. We decided not to decide the fate of the north dam on the Fox River. Even now we find ourselves in the midst of a debate regarding the proper placement of a drugstore in our downtown and have begun to take sides on the future of a forest preserve just to the north of Fabyan Parkway.
Because of my unique position near the center of many debates, I am often privy to the edges that bound the questions. As I have listened over the years, I have been struck by the dearth of sentences that end with the extraordinary question mark. Our “public hearings” are too often attended by people who have stopped listening.
The word “discussion” itself calls into question our intentions. Its evolution from Latin meant to “smash apart” or to “scatter and disperse.” Shouldn’t our community conversations begin with an intention to gather our ideas in a generative fashion rather than scatter and disperse them?
In the coming years, humanity will face moral and ethical issues more profound than any we have ever faced. Brain scans will allow us to know what others are thinking, thus obliterating even the most intimate forms of human privacy. Genetics will allow us to custom design our children. The harvesting of human organs will blur the line between life and death. These deeply challenging issues will require intricate, new answers. Unless these answers are preceded by the most profound questions we can conjure, I fear we will be forever lost in the subterranean jungle.
Feb 232012
 

Note: The following is being published this week in the March issue of Batavia Business, the monthly publication of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.

When I began these words, I would have thought that being human and being inhuman were opposites and mutually exclusive. But now I wonder.

The spectrum of words that define “inhuman” range widely. At the brutal end are words like barbarism. At the softer end, even “lacking kindness, pity, or compassion” are invited to this party.

Steve Jobs, was a creative genius, and he could ignite fire in those around him. And yet, his ability to frighten, intimidate and reduce others to tears is legendary.

Was this brutal side an integral part of his success? If someone had found a way to polish Jobs’ rough edges—soften his abrupt, angry, impatient manner—might Apple have succumbed to one of its near-death incidents? After Lisa (a commercial failure in the 1980s), might Macintosh have remained only a variety of apple you eat. Might iPod, iPhone and iPad never have seen the light of iDay?

Was Jobs’ willingness to reduce others to rubble what ensured the innovations that made it to his office were more refined, more dramatic and more creative than they would have been if he treated product developers and researchers with kindness, pity and compassion? Did those invited to his office, knowing their careers could be made or broken by Jobs’ quixotic reaction, work harder, refine further, create more before daring to walk under the transom to his office?

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were organized under the attentive, uncompromising, often critical eye of Peter Ueberroth. Those Games were to become the first privately financed Games and resulted in a of $250 million surplus that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games eight years earlier, which left that city burdened with debt for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.

I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20th century. Similar to Steve, Dee was a visionary and innovator. Visa—or BankAmericard when first formed—saved the credit card industry from turmoil and eventual ruin with Dee’s radical view of the electronic transfer of bits and bytes that represented money. If you read Dee’s book Birth of the Chaordic Age (sadly renamed and reissued as One from Many) he too was very hard on those around him during his career, Like Jobs and Ueberroth, Dee had a vision that was so clear, so inviolate that compromise was simply not possible. When I asked him why, he looked at me and said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand, something in me would die.”

I hold each of these leaders in the highest esteem. Each opened doors to innovation that might have remained closed for many years without them. And yet, each let some edges of inhumanity slip into their lives. Or perhaps, our definitions of inhuman simply do not allow us to be fully human.

Feb 032012
 
At the end of a very successful, and completely redesigned, Chamber event, I turned to a member of the Board and told him I felt much of the success emanated from having turned many of the evening’s details over the young man who was emcee. “You should do that more often!” he suggested. The lightness of the moment did not ameliorate the painful way the comment pierced my psyche with its implication that I am otherwise too controlling. I need to tease apart, and try to understand, what the comment means, and how I will use it to move forward.
Having planned and executed hundreds of events in my life—everything from small, casual lunches to community events capturing the attention of tens of thousands, I have long wandered the hallways that define event planning and project management.
There are many doors that can be traversed in moving from concept to completion. Some lead into rooms filled with riches. They included “vision”, “mission”, “goals”, “values”, “teamwork”, “planning” and “attention to detail”.
There are other doorways labeled in less-flattering ways. “Overly-controlling”, “my way or the highway” and “closed to new ideas”. These are the rooms one is not supposed to visit along the journey. But I wonder?
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games were organized under the attentive eye of Peter Victor Ueberroth. Through his leadership, those games became the first privately financed Games and resulted in a surplus of nearly $250 million that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games just eight years earlier that left that city with debt that burdened its citizens for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps even rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was also named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.
In the last few months, the creative genius of Steve Jobs, founder and visionary behind Apple computer, has been splashed across every medium of communication imaginable, including those that wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jobs’ vision.
But if you read reports of these two visionaries, they traversed all transoms I have seen along the hallways I have traveled. Each used vision, mission, values and teamwork in extraordinary ways. But make no mistake, for each, much of their vision was so clear and inviolate—contained so much personal passion—there was to be no compromise.
I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20thcentury. Similar to Peter and Steve, he founded Visa on a vision and set of values on which he simply refused to compromise. When I asked him why, he said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand something in me would die.”
I do not, nor will I ever, deserve to even be in the shadow of the likes of Peter, Steve or Dee. But in my own very, very small way, I have plied my creativity to help midwife a future slightly brighter than the past that preceded it. There have been many times I have crossed the thresholds of the politically correct doorways. And many times I borrowed from the rooms generally banned, and, when standing my ground on those things I felt were critical, I wielded the less desirable weapons of “overly-controlling” and “closed to new ideas”.
So let me return to the comment that sparked this discourse. I have a vision and set of values upon which the event in question has been built over the 8 years it has been under my watch; principles upon which I would never compromise. I turned the details of the evening over to our young emcee because I have worked with him enough to know he truly understood. And while he built the evening in new a creative ways, the foundation was never under attack. If “You should do that more often” means allowing for creativity within the boundaries defined by the vision and values I believe are essential for success, I am in full agreement. If I allowed those values to be violated, however, I too would feel as though “something in me would die.”
Aug 052011
 
The following will be published in the next issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.
Like a modern day Parthenon, it wore the ravages of time—but this monument to human endurance had no one to defend it against old age, or protect it for future generations. It stood pockmarked and failing, left as nothing more than a canvas for modern day artists and their graffiti. It stood as a memorial to what appeared to be a very different age.
Judi and I were examining this concrete formation in a digital image from our daughter Kathryn. On it, stood twelve students from her summer program in eastern Europe. “Do you have any idea what we’re standing on?” Kathryn asked via Skype. “It’s all that remains of the luge track from the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.” I was stunned! A feeling of sadness and loss assaulted me. This immense sculpture, which appeared to be from a much earlier age, was only 30 years old; a mere child in the panoply of human construction. Yet this child sat neglected and unloved.
Then Kathryn lobbed a verbal bombshell I found vastly more disturbing than the digital image on my computer screen; one that explained the premature aging of the luge track. “During the tour of Sarajevo, the guide insisted we remain on the path he traversed…if we were to stray, we would run the risk of detonating a land mine.”
I had to catch my breath. My little girl, one of two young adults I have tenaciously guarded and protected for the majority of my adult life, was walking the terrain ravaged by the Bosnian War that raged from April 1992 to December 1995.
As we sat in the comfort of our home, intimately and immediately connected to our daughter by the Internet, yet separated by thousands of miles, she proceeded to take us on a pictorial tour of Sarajevo; each image littered with the remnants of war…hundreds of buildings that still wore the scars of bullets and mortars.
In the weeks since our virtual pilgrimage to war-torn Sarajevo, I have been dragged back many times to images of life in a country where children live in constant fear of straying from the path…children who have lost the opportunity to roam freely and explore the land where they live. And while I am aware there are many places in America where children live in fear of straying from their homes, there is simply nothing in my life experience that can help me understand what it would mean not to be able to stroll the thousands of fields and forests I have wandered and explored over 60 years.
As I travel the roads and byways of America, I see much human creation vandalized by graffiti. And while most disappoints or angers me, an occasional image reveals artistic potential, or strikes an indispensable note about what it means to be human. But land mines are the hellish graffiti born of hatred and human conflict with no possible redemptive value. It is bad enough we scar human creation with pigment, but it is simply inexcusable to have scarred with explosives that which was created and left for us by the eternal.
Then, finally, I wonder if even my child has been left scared by the journey. In spite of my desire to protect her, will her experience of the results of hatred and conflict detonate within her some time in her future? Actually, I am hopeful it will. I am hopeful, as a result of experiencing humanity in ways I never could, she and her generation will find ways to diffuse the next generation of bombs, mortars and land mines before they too can be used to ravage tomorrow’s monuments to human creativity and endurance.
May 082010
 
In a recent blog, I wrote of “Pearls and Plaques,” and borrowed Ray Benedetto’s metaphor to speak of the unique “River of Character” that flows through the communities—be they organizational, spiritual, educational or geographical—of which we are a part. I surmised that the character flowing them is made most visible—not by the pearls of wisdom emanating from the lips of leaders, nor the etched, brass plaques that proclaim vision and values—but by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions made by community members…every hour…every day.
So if the dreams we dream for our futures are actualized—or dashed—by the disparate actions of so many others, how might we ensure these actions exhibit even a modicum of congruency? Is there a way to nudge people—or invite them—into alignment with the values we want the communitiy to exude? I believe the answer is yes, but beware…the territory I am about to traverse may make you decidedly uncomfortable.
Some four hundred years ago, the best scientific cartographers of the day, lead by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton (of gravity and apple fame) and Rene Descartes (“I think, therefore I am.”), drew maps of a scientific universe they believed was mechanical and clock-like. As a result of their cartography, we came to believe actions have definable and predictable outcomes. Even the actions and interactions of humans, like the bouncing of billiard balls, have predictable trajectories and knowable future impacts. In a Newtonian, Cartesian world, plaques and pearls, carefully crafted, would catapult us forward in precisely the direction we send that cue ball hurtling across the table.
But our experience shows these maps are crude and unreliable. Even as children, we learn the world is messier, less knowable and far less predictable than the one Newton and Descartes so clearly envisioned. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows that human interactions, in spite of our most careful planning, often ricochet into wildly unpredictable futures.
However there are new maps emerging…new ways of seeing…new ways of listening to, and understanding the world. These new maps ask us to imagine a world that emerges from webs of relationships and action at a distance. It is a quantum world in which the intentions of the experimenter determine the outcome of the experiment. It is a world of fields—gravitational, electromagnetic, quantum and others—that give the world much of its structure. As Meg Wheatley says in Leadership and the New Science, “Fields are unseen forces, invisible influences that become apparent through their effects.”
What if we were to think of communities as webs of relationships rather than boxes in a hierarchy? What if re-imagined vision and values as “invisible influences that become apparent through their effect”? Congruency ceases to result from command and control, whiplashed through an organization’s hierarchy. Gaining congruency—shoring up the banks of Ray’s “River of Character”—must then be re-imagined as strengthening our webs of relationships and fields of unseen forces and invisible influence.
How do you strengthen those fields? How do they become “apparent through their effects”? One of the most powerful ways is through the stories we tell—our mythology. Stories give us concrete examples of how to turn our desires, dreams—and dilemmas—into positive action. Greek mythology…Aesop’s Fables…the Bible, Koran and Torah all communicate proper action through the clarity of story.
The myths and tales we tell scream so loudly they deafen us to any other message. The stories that pervade our communities help create the fields that define vision and values. When they are compelling—for good or bad—they become as difficult to violate as the field of gravity.