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.”
Jun 252011
Note: This piece is being published in an the July-August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. Reprinted with permission.
They laid the first stone April 14, 1434—three hundred and forty two years before American’s Declaration of Independence. It took 50 years just to complete the façade. Inauguration of the nave and aisles occurred in the late 1500s. On December 25, 1891, 457 years after they began, Bishop Jules François Lecoq inaugurated the completed St. Peter and St. Paul’s cathedral in Nantes, France.
On a recent visit with our daughter after her semester abroad, I stood in the nave of this edifice, gazing upward 114 feet to the roof. The interior is 116 feet wide and 313 feet long. The outside towers raise 192 feet. These somewhat cold statistics cannot begin to instill the awe that overwhelms you as you stand in this magnificent holy space.
As I stood in this vessel—a message sent from the Middle Ages, and delivered to me in this moment—I realize the stones in the columns I stand beside were carefully, perhaps lovingly, put in place by a mason more than 500 years ago. My mind is flooded with questions I fear we have lost the ability to answer. When we find it difficult to create plans that survive four decades, how was it possible 600 years ago to design a structure that would not be completed for more that four centuries—and last a thousand years? In an environment in which every generation is encouraged to leave their unique fingerprint on the future, how did more than 20 generations refrain from changing the cathedral’s original design? When the technologies we use to transmit information to the future change every 2 or 3 years, can we even conceive of passing plans entrusted to fragile parchment across more than 400?
However, the questions that most intrigue me relate to the mason who laid the stones in front of me—perhaps a hundred years after construction began. Even if he began as an apprentice and spent the entirety of his life dedicated to the completion of this monument to his creator, it would have risen only a few meters as he lay on his deathbed. He woke every morning, and invested all of himself for his entire life, inspired only by a vision of this gift to generations so distant their lives were simply unimaginable? Would any of us be willing to toil for our entire lives on a project begun by our great, great, great, great, great grandparents, which will not be completed before the birth of our great, great, great, great, great grandchildren?
In an ironic coincidence, I began reading Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch before we began our two week pilgrimage. As MacCulloch relates the history and derivation of the Christian faith, he touches on the origin, meaning and symbolism of the world’s great cathedrals. As I read MacCulloch’s words and chapters, and stroll the masons’ nave and aisles, I am struck by the juxtaposition of the creation of a cathedral and the formation of humankind’s great wisdom traditions. Each is a gift from the past, built from seemingly infinite, small, often courageous contributions by mostly anonymous individuals.
I am left to imagine generations 600 years hence. What will they come to know of us? What messages will we have left behind that speak of our visions and passions? Are we building any edifice—with the bricks we lay or the wisdom we formulate—that will invite them into a feeling of awe? Then the final questions emerge: What have I done, what will I do today, and to what will I dedicate my remaining days to help craft a message of wisdom, grace and beauty to be left for my great, great, great, great, great grandchildren? The masons of the 15th century had answers we may have forgotten.
Mar 022010

Thank you your Honor and members of the City Council.

I’ve come before you tonight to talk about Ignite!…the community visioning session we are planning for March 26 at Waubonsee Community College.

The great psychologist, Kurt Lewin, generally recognized as the founder of modern social psychology, was the first to say “Nothing is as practical as a good theory.”

So here is the theory driving our plans for March 26. All living systems naturally seek life, health, and growth. In living systems, life, health and growth naturally emerge through intimate connections and interconnections. In the living systems we humans inhabit—our organizations and communities—that intricate web of connections and interconnections is known as social capital. What Robert Putnam discovered in researching his ground-breaking book “Bowling Alone” is that social capital is in dramatic decline in America.

At a very high level, March 26 is about rebuilding social capital in Batavia. It is an opportunity for everyone who joins us to reestablish old connections and build new ones. Those will, over the coming years, enable new possibilities and a new future…a future built on friendship, respect and trust.

So how do we make this theory practical on the 26th? After we gather, we will identify the hundreds of extraordinary assets and capabilities we enjoy…the spirit of volunteerism, the magnificent Riverwalk, our relationship to Fermilab and Mooseheart, our history and historic architecture, and hundreds of others. We’ll use this amazing inventory as our foundation, and gather in small groups to generate the ideas and projects that will build the Batavia the future is waiting for us to manifest.

We’ll leave Waubonsee Community College on the 26th with ideas, project teams, plans and dreams. My dream is that future generations will point to that day in late March, in the year 2010 and say, “that was the day Batavia ignited a bright new future.”

I am hopeful hundreds will join us to begin the journey. Registration is available on the Community Calendar at BataviaChamber.org and participants can follow along on our “Ignite Batavia 2010” page on Facebook.

Jan 282010

In the western culture in which I was raised, there is a model of leadership which is highly influenced by the Newtonian worldview. Newton, who first proposed the laws of motion, believed, correctly, that the cause and effect relationships of physical motion could be accurately described. The future, if you will, of balls on a billiard table could be foretold if we have sufficient information regarding the initial conditions, friction and gravitational influences. Combine those laws of motion with the belief that sub-atomic particles are much like billiard balls and you came to the conclusion that, given sufficient information about initial conditions, the future of the world could be accurately predicted.

Defining leadership based on this worldview is easy. We look for a person who has the ability to describe current reality, paint a clear picture of the future we wish to share, and identify a precise list of steps to get us from the current realty to the future we desire.

Let me discuss each of these three leadership characteristics and share some reasons why I believe they are of questionable validity.

A leader has the best description of our current reality.

The figure is often referred to as the Kanizsa Triangle. I have displayed this figure to many groups and ask if the white triangle is larger or smaller than the black. The majority typically agree they are, in fact, the same size. I then simply ask how many believe there are NO triangles in the picture?

This is a powerful metaphor for the kind of thinking I do all too often. I take small, incomplete bits of information and use them to create much larger, complete pictures. I don’t wish to recount how often I did this with my children. I would walk into the house after a stressful day, see 30 seconds of activity and angry children. I would turn that into a complete picture of what they are up to,who did what to get them upset, their motivation, what they were thinking and why they are wrong! Unfortunately, I continue to make the same mistake with co-workers and friends.
A leader has a clear picture of the future we wish to share.

We often refer to this as vision. We talk eloquently about the power of vision. “If you don’t know where you are going, any direction will do.” Unfortunately, we confuse vision as a compelling sense of direction, with vision as a precise picture of what the future should look like.

I once asked pianist Michael Jones about the importance of vision. Michael said, “There is a wonderful interplay between mastery and mystery. On one hand, you have the mastery of having and fulfilling a vision. But along with vision is imagination. Imagination is the path the heart loves to wander. You find yourself in places you had not conceived. The things I encounter at the piano I had not anticipated are the moments of grace I live for. It’s the mystery of finding things happening in my hands…composing through my fingers. This is not so much vision as it is life of the imagination. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught that the future we ordain can be fulfilled the way we ordain it. If we live according to those rules the possibilities open to us become limited…it becomes a relatively narrow life.”

There is an additional aspect of vision on which I wish to comment. We want, and need, people to be motivated and inspired by their lives and their work. I realized some time ago that the word “inspired” and the word “spiritual” have the same root. The words “motivation” and “emotions do as well. I find it difficult to be inspired and motivated unless there is a spiritual and emotional content to my work. I have to feel that what I am engaged in is bigger than I. To the extent a leader can paint a vision that has a deep emotional and spiritual context, I will be fully engaged in the enterprise.

A leader has a precise list of steps to get us from the current realty to the future we desire.

It is said that every action we take has intended and unintended consequences…the intended consequences sometimes happen, the unintended ones always do!

After the second world war, the United States build a highway system connecting major cities. While there were a number of reasons to justify the investment, one was that highways would save the declining inner cities. By facilitating the movement of goods into the cities they would become more available and cheaper. The unintended consequence? People fled. The highways made departure from the inner cities so easy that suburban areas grew almost overnight. It was suddenly possible to live outside the older areas of the city, show up from eight to five for employment, and retreat to a new home in a nice neighborhood for dinner. This “savior” of the cities actually may have hastened their decline!

Taxing authorities usually argue that commercial development is good because it will increase the tax rate, thus keeping other taxes lower. Commercial development, I am told, will help keep my property taxes low. A recent study of numerous American Cities shows that over time, commercial development and property taxes go up together…lock-step.

So much for the intended consequences of the actions we take. Peter Senge, in his groundbreaking book, The Fifth Discipline, said, the solutions we implement today will often lead us to even bigger problems tomorrow.

Leading by following

So where does this lead? In On Becoming A Leader, Warren Bennis says simply, “At bottom, becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.” I believe is was Fritjof Capra who said, “Healing the universe is an inside job.” These are powerful thoughts. They say the leadership comes from deep within; not from external views or visions. Leadership emerges from clarity of self. The more I know what is truly important to me–the values to which I am deeply committed–the more clearly I will see the path I need to walk.

Michael Jones did not sell his first CD until he was 38…he has sold millions in the intervening years. In spite of falling in love with the piano at age 2, he was unable to admit to himself and others that his gift lie in his music. He set out to become a management consultant and change the world through ideas; ideas carefully crafted by others and respoken by him. Michael found his gift partly because an elderly gentleman in a quiet hotel in Toronto, happened upon Michael playing a piano, thinking he was quite alone and “safe”. This wise gentleman, touched by the wonderful sensitivity of Michael’s music, looked at him and asked, “Who will play your music if you don’t play it yourself?”

Some years ago I came to know an artist in Chicago. Andrew Young, had a promising career as a scientist, with many opportunities to pursue research and academia. “In college I had a love for art but didn’t feel it was appropriate to pursue; in fact, I was very much afraid of it. I had a lower drawer at my desk, sort of my “altar”, filled with pastels, water colors, water color pads and colored pencils, all of which were impeccably arranged, neatly sharpened and color coded. Three semesters in succession I signed up for and withdrew from a course in color and composition because I knew what kind of door it would open. I was trying to conceal something that was clearly boiling in my spirit.”

Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, speaks of the way in which we normally teach sports. He likens it to a rubber mat with footprints. Unless the student steps on the foot prints in precisely the correct way, they are doing it “wrong”. What he came to learn is that the body has an innate sense of movement. The secret to improved athletic ability is to get the mind out of the way…thinking impairs natural ability.

What would happen if I stopped trying to live my life as if I had to place my feet on the correct space on life’s “rubber mat”. What would it mean if I followed my deep desires…to get thinking out of the way and make room to live life more naturally. For me this means living the life of the heart. Michael Jones said, “Our way of experiencing life, and our participation in it, becomes the art of all arts.”

I have had the privilege to know many people who have created wonderful institutions, art, music and ideas. Each of them are living lives largely dictated by beliefs, values and passions they would say, I think, are beyond their control. Each of them have pointed to significant moments when they needed to make a choice…and they chose to follow their passion.

So there is the conundrum. They lead precisely because, at the critical moment in their lives when they were called, they followed. They followed the inner voice that called to them. They took incredible risks…yet they chose the difficult, but extraordinarily joyful path. The path their heart called them to. Based on logic, analysis and cultural norms, each of them could have chosen a path of less risk…a path of greater predictable security…a path of less joy. But each of them chose a path of courage.

Each of them leads by following.

Jan 152010

If I close my eyes, even momentarily, I can return to any number of journeys through the woods and rewitness a bird’s feather or wispy seed float past, gently buffeted by the breeze. And, as gentle as that journey might appear, the feather has no control over the direction of its travels or its final destination. In the case of a seed, the future of its species might actually be transformed by this journey over which it has no control.

“Feather on the breeze,” is the phrase, Jake, a wonderful friend and English teacher, used to describe life in a note he recently floated into my life. As I have thought about how to live life in the face of Black Swans—the highly improbable, impactful events described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book by the same name—feather on the breeze becomes a wonderful metaphor. And yet (pardon the pun) it flies in the face of much conventional wisdom. In a search of the web, the first blogger I discovered, compared a feather-on-the-breeze-life with one lived largely on a couch with a beer in hand and TV in view. The author spoke of the horrors of allowing the winds of life to determine where we and our seeds are planted. “Take control of your life,” this author demanded as millions of his pixels splashed across my screen. Is it just me, or is the image of a feather gently following the breeze juxtaposed with a couch potato and a beer just too difficult to fathom?

What if all we have is swans? What if highly improbable, impactful events really do define my life? How might I see swans as the winds—be they gentle or tumultuous—upon which my life’s path is hewn? If my most carefully refined plans will ultimately collide with—and be demolished by—the unpredictable, what is the role of planning?

Don’t misunderstand; I know planning is necessary and useful. I just wonder if we too often miss the mystery of life—the “road less traveled.” Our lives are made up of both mystery and mastery. If we are slaves to mastering life through planning, do we risk missing the mystery…what the pianist Michael Jones once called “the path the heart loves to wander”?

I have asked many people about the trajectory of life. I even emailed the December 3 blog to my son, David, webmaster for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitor Bureau (QCCVB). “Dad,” he emailed back, “your article reminded me of an interview I did as a student at Augustana with a staff member, Doug, during an extremely brief stint at the Observer newspaper. As a result, Doug offered me a job as a web journalist…and eventually one as student web developer. A year after I graduated, Doug encouraged me to apply for this position. If I hadn’t met Doug during that “fluke” campus activity, I wouldn’t be working at the QCCVB today!” Welcome to the feather on the breeze life, son.

When asked, most people will admit their life landed in a place far removed from where they imagined it would. And if I listen very, very carefully, I often detect a tinge of guilt. “My life is good,” they tell me, but their sub-context is “but I was just so lucky. I benefited from so many flukes. I feel unworthy to take credit for the blessings I have been given.”

So in view of lives directed by the flight of swans, what do I tell my son about how to live the rest of his life? I would be justified—and safe—if I were to pass along any number of well-worn pronouncements. “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” “People who write down their goals are more successful then those who don’t.” “If we fail to study history we are doomed to repeat it.” These, and thousands of others, are backed by data that appears to prove their validity. Yet I wonder.

These pieces of advice rely on well-worn skills. Describe the present state, create a vision of the future and then identify the gap that emerges. Follow that with plans and endless “to-dos” lists you can dutifully check off on the journey from today into the future. What we cannot take into account is that swans—be they black and horrific or white and joyous—have the irritating habit of showing up, making all the analysis and planning obsolete and sending us back to square one.

What then do we do—what alternate skills might we employ—to live in a world in which a swan’s flight path might well collide with ours at any moment. I can think of three. The first is to review where we have been, not as a detailed study of the events of the past, but in deep reflection. What has life taught me about who I am and what it means to be human. The second is the ability to “be” more and “do” less—we are, after all, as many have reminded me, human beings, not human doings. The last is the ability, desire and willingness to dream. As Dee Hock, Chairman Emeritus of Visa, has written, “At times such as these, it is no failure to fall short of realizing all that we might dream…the failure is to fall short of dreaming all that we might realize.” Perhaps a future blog will afford me an opportunity to think more about these skills.

One final story. I have struggled with these words—sat for hours trying to find the perfect metaphor. This morning I grabbed at random one of nearly 50 notes I received on the last Snowball weekend. It was Jake’s kind and generous note that ended up between my thumb and index finger. In that moment the winds of life had shown me the direction forward. I only needed to allow the words to appear over the horizon. And I arrived here without a beer, couch or television!