October/November 2010

I consider the introduction to the newsletter my opportunity to share interesting, miscellaneous tidbits.  So here are three.
1.     Last week, during my travels around the country, I went through security at a small airport in North Carolina and saw something I rarely see.  As I was waiting for my shoes and briefcase to clear the bomb detection machine, a very tall and large fellow was standing next to me waiting for his shoes to be returned to him, since they had been singled out for special treatment.  The TSA officer approached him, holding his huge shoes in his hands, and with an absolutely straight and serious face, said the following.  “These shoes are too big to fly with, and your feet are too big for this flight.”  I’ve never seen someone lose all the color in his face so quickly.  There was an uncomfortable and excruciating silence, and then the TSA fellow broke into a smile and said; “Just joking.”  We all had one of those discombobulated laughs and went on our way.  Walking toward the gate I had two rather contradictory thoughts.  It’s certainly nice to see the normally stone-faced TSA folks with a sense of humor; but, why are they the only ones permitted to joke around in the screening area?  One other note – I also went through security in Chicago, at O’Hare, and the difference in the TSA folks was remarkable.  Not simply stone-faced, but indifferent to the passengers existence.  If you could be non-verbally rude and insulting, they’ve achieved it.  What happens to people in urban areas?
2.    I’ve had my first experience with destructiveness on the internet.  If you use Google to search for our website (FifthWaveLeadership.com), you will get the following message:  “Visiting this website may harm your computer.”  To say the least, I was quite alarmed (i.e. freaked out) to see this.  Knowing less about the internet and computers than I do even about my car, I thought it was curtains for our website.  I have found out subsequently, by talking with very knowledgeable people, that these kinds of things are not uncommon.  As it turns out, our site needed a goodly amount of work (since it was ancient by internet standards), so we’re essentially having it rebuilt.  What I found really interesting, as a side note to our problem, is that there are a number of wacky people out there in internet land whose lives revolve around screwing with other people’s websites, just for the fun of it.  These are not the same people, I’m told, who have monetary motives, perverse sexual agendas, or security breach interests.  They just like to make other people suffer.  I guess these are the new psychopaths, proving that everything new brings gifts and curses.
3.    Just today I received an email from a friend that made me aware of an amazing video addressing the issue of how children actually learn, and even more fascinating, how little it has to do with our traditional notions of “teaching.”  It couldn’t be more supportive of what I wrote last month about education and learning than if I had produced it myself.  The video is titled “Child-Driven Education”, and it describes the work and research of Sugata Mitra, an Indian “educator”. 
Mitra has done demonstration projects all over the world, primarily with children mired in poverty and substandard schools (if having any access to schools at all).  The core of his work involves giving groups of children a computer and an assignment (to solve a particular problem), and, most amazing, no instructions, no help, and no direction about what to do in order to solve the problem.  He just tells them what he wants as a result and he leaves them to figure it out.  In a number of instances, the children are illiterate, or speak only a local dialect, or speak an entirely different language than the assignment requires.  To say the least, they have no familiarity with, or knowledge of, computers.  And guess what?  They solve the problems and, most importantly, they retain and integrate the new knowledge.  If you have any interest in how people learn and how we can fix our terribly broken system, this video will enlighten, enthuse, and touch you.
Click here to view the video.
“Success Is Going From Failure to Failure, Without A Loss of Enthusiasm”…………………….Winston Churchill
Business Tips
“Heated Emotions in Business:  How Losing Your Cool Can Bring People Together”
What I like most about what I do is the opportunity to be a part of a living laboratory.  I regularly get to be right in the middle of interactions that prove the validity of the concepts I work on with clients; concepts that not only make their businesses better, but bring them closer together personally.
This was particularly true a few weeks ago when I was facilitating a senior management accountability group with a corporate client.  Near the end of the group one of the managers said that he had an issue to bring up that involved another one of the managers in the group.  These managers had worked together in the past and had a long standing relationship.  They both ran similar types of operations within the company.
The issue that the first manager had with his colleague involved the latter’s hiring of an individual that the first manager had terminated about a year ago.  All terminations are difficult, but this one was especially hard, for a variety of reasons.  The second manager hired the previously terminated person without any conversation with the first manager, or, for that matter, without running it by anyone on the senior management team.  The first manager was furious, and he made his displeasure clear.  He told his colleague how upset he was with the decision; how he felt discounted and betrayed; and how he felt that their relationship had been irreparably damaged.  The strength and intensity of his anger was apparent to all.  He was direct, confrontive, and clear.  What his colleague had done – more precisely, how he had handled the re-hiring – was totally unacceptable.  From his perspective, the values of the organization had been breached, and that could not be overlooked.
The second manager was, initially, very defensive.  He didn’t feel like it was that big a deal, nor did he feel like he had to run it by his colleague prior to the hiring.  The rest of the group gave him some tough feedback to the effect that they simply didn’t believe him and were puzzled by his decision and disappointed in him.  After the initial stonewalling, the second manager told his colleague that he didn’t tell him about the proposed hiring because he thought that the first manager would be upset with him and try and talk him out of it.  This led to a good discussion of a pattern of behavior that the second manager falls into, that always backfires on him.  He avoids upsetting people initially, which inevitably creates a far worse upset later on, and, even worse, undermines his credibility and integrity (by being dishonest, initially).  The upshot of his interaction was an apology by the second manager, to both the first manager, and to the rest of the group, for violating a core value, and for not trusting his colleagues’ ability to deal with a difficult situation, upfront.
It would be an understatement to say that there was some discomfort in the group, particularly at the beginning of this interaction.  You could have cut the tension in the room with a snow plow.  It was palpable and thick.  There were a few minor attempts to rescue the combatants and get people back into their heads.  I did nothing to try and defuse the intensity of the emotions.  I had total faith in the groups’ ability to work things through and believed that the only way through this seeming impasse, was a thorough airing of everyone’s feelings.  The very heat and intensity of the feelings shared was the catalyst for an ultimately honest and intimate connection between the two “adversaries” and the group as a whole.
Interestingly, a number of very heartfelt emails followed the meeting, all of them emphasizing the importance of clearing the air, getting the feelings out on the table, and creating a closeness by taking ownership of what one does and says.  As one of my friends and clients often says:  “This stuff really works.”
Political and Cultural Observations
“The Myth of ‘Special Interests’”  
In the midst of this political season there is much discussion of so-called “Special Interests” and their impact on the political process.  Almost without exception, the term has become synonymous with private sector organizations; in particular, with “big business.”  What I find curious is the total absence (even amongst far right groups), of any discussion about the single largest and most influential special interest – the Federal Government.
I would describe a “special interest” as an organized body of individuals or groups, underpinned by a set of values, principles, or core beliefs (articulated or assumed), whose purpose is to gain the widest possible dissemination and acceptance of those beliefs, as well as the greatest allocation of resources to their advancement.  At this point in our political and cultural evolution, no institution does this as aggressively and effectively, as the Federal Government and its attendant bureaucracy.  I am not, here, talking about the political point of view of the Obama administration or the legislature.  I am referring to the massive Federal bureaucracy and the set of assumptions about dealing with people that drives its daily work as it interacts with the American people.
Let’s look at the core beliefs and values of this enormous player that touches our lives on an almost daily basis.  From my experience and vantage point, the Federal bureaucracy believes the following:
1.     Individuals are not responsible for the choices they make in their lives.  Ultimately, their destinies and their futures are driven by forces outside their control.
2.     The goal of life is to seek comfort, at all costs.  Growth is fine, if it is not disruptive or uncomfortable.  If it involves any pain, it is to be rejected out of hand.
3.    “Education” is seen as a terminal process.  You learn everything you need to know, as soon as possible, and resist any attempt to get you to think or act outside the prescribed “nine dots”.
4.    Accountability to others is seen as unfair and unjust.  Blaming and excuse-making is institutionalized and legitimized by referencing the past.
5.    There is a clear differentiation between those who have the capacity to manage change and those who do not.  Those who do not must be treated differently and accommodated accordingly.
6.    Low levels of expectations must be applied to certain groups of people.  They are seen as quite fragile, and as a result, must be accepted as intrinsically limited and compromised.
To say the least, I categorically reject the beliefs articulated above.  I don’t argue the right of people to believe these things; but I very much resent my taxes being used to promulgate them.  This, for me, is the real outrage of “special interests”.  So, when I hear folks whining about all the “special interests” descending on Washington, I simply answer that they’re going there to counteract all the “special interests” already there.
Let me give you a practical example of how the Federal bureaucracy’s belief system gets played out.  Several years ago, on one of my trips to D.C., I decided to take a tour of the FBI headquarters.  I had had some contact with the Bureau earlier in my career, as an intern and as a consultant to law enforcement agencies, and I was interested in their history and evolution.  It was, to say the least, a disappointing experience.
The tour guide for our group was a morbidly obese young woman, shabbily dressed, speaking a dialect tangentially related to standard English, and with absolutely no interest, whatsoever, in the exhibits we were seeing, or the rich and varied history of the agency.  She could have made the arrival of the first group of inter-galactic visitors a boring and pedestrian event.
I was outraged by her behavior.  Given a different set of core beliefs and values, she would have been confronted with her abominable behavior and either made significant changes, or she would have been terminated.  I asked, at the end of the tour, to speak to a supervisor.  I expressed my dissatisfaction to him and asked him if he had any intentions of doing anything about this situation.  He didn’t even hesitate in his response:  “There’s nothing I can do; she’s civil service; she’s a woman; and she’s black.  My hands are tied.”  Do I need to say much more?
It’s not much of a logical stretch to translate the Federal Bureaucracy’s belief system into public policy, compensatory programs, and social engineering.  That’s how we got affirmative action, “set-aside” projects, “impacted zones”, suffocating regulations of the private sector and an intrusion into people’s personal lives that has had a chilling effect on innovation, creativity, and risk-taking.  And though the Federal Bureaucracy is the most visible and far-reaching purveyor of a caretaker philosophy, our public (and private) educational system is not far behind.  Its core beliefs and values mirror those folks in D.C., from the kindergarten classroom to the seminars in grad school.
My point here is that we need to disabuse ourselves (and others, especially in the mass media) of two key concepts.  First, that there is anything objective about government or the public sector.  They are as much a “special interest” as the lobbyists for Exxon, Target, or the insurance industry.  Second, the scapegoating and demonizing “special interests” is one of the trickiest distractions and subterfuges for deflecting attention away from the clear political stranglehold that the caretaking lobby has on government, at all levels.  As long as we spend our time and energy defending “special interests”, the disabling interventions and “help” of government bureaucracies goes unnoticed and unexamined.
So, the next time someone goes on a rant about the “special interests” in Washington, put up your hand, call time out, and insist that the discussion include government and education.
Personal Notes
“My Favorite and Most Impactful Movies”  
I have always felt that “favorite” lists were an exercise in trivialities – kind of chewing gum for the brain.  But a few months ago, in a conversation with a good friend and client – Ed West – I had to re-examine this belief, when Ed and I started to discuss the movies that had had the greatest impact on us.  This included movies that not only evoked strong emotions of a “serious” nature, but those that brought humor and joy to our lives.  So here they are, in no particular order of importance, but some types of categories:
“Young Frankenstein” – Possibly the funniest movie ever made.  Everyone in it gave virtuoso comedic performances; Mel Brooks, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle, and many others.  It is that rare combination of physical humor, clever writing, and uninhibited acting that doesn’t come along very often.
“A Fish Called Wanda” – The second funniest movie ever made, and undoubtedly the best example of politically incorrect humor ever produced.  The stuttering scene (done by one of the Monty Python fellows) is beyond a doubt the single funniest scene in movie history.  We’ve become so politically correct, that I’m afraid we’ll never see anything again to rival it.
“Annie Hall” – The quintessential portrayal of the quintessential Jewish neurotic.  This could easily be subtitled:  “When Concern Slides Into Paranoia”.  This movie has special meaning for me, since it was the first one that Arleah and I saw together.  She had had, in her life, no exposure to the culture I grew up in, and was so much a WASP, that someone had to tell her that she was involved with a Jew.  What better introduction to my history than a classical dose of Woody Allen.
“Good Fellas” – The most accurate portrayal of people in organized crime.  I grew up, in Chicago, with the Mafia all around me.  I had relatives tangentially involved with them; a few of my father’s patients were Mafioso; and in my psychotherapy training and consulting practice, I interviewed hit men and worked with the FBI Strike Force.  The “Godfather” had more glitz and drama, but, for me, lacked the visceral impact of “Good Fellas”.
“Scanners” – A strange, mostly misunderstood movie from the early 1980’s.  It was marketed as a blood and guts drive-in diversion for teen-agers who lived out their sex lives in their parents’ cars.  In reality, it was a very subtle metaphor for emotional overload.  It portrayed people who had no filter or discriminating mechanism for all the emotional information coming from other people.  They were constantly “scanning” the environment and were incapable of shutting off or sorting input and stimuli; so, in the inimitable style of Hollywood, their heads exploded.
“Altered States” – Another misunderstood gem from the early 1980’s.  This was a fictionalized portrayal of the early experiments with sensory deprivation (connected with our space program).  It showed people suspended in tanks of water, with nothing touching them, and in total silence.  Understandably, the results were not good.  Generally, people went nuts (i.e. clinically psychotic).  The metaphor passed by 99% of the audience, but was nonetheless powerful.  Remove boundaries and limits, and people will be destroyed.  A good lesson for our time.
“District 9” – A recent sleeper.  This is one of those meticulously crafted productions that absolutely sneaks up on you, and before you know it, you’ve undergone a shift in perspective that you had no conscious awareness of.  On the politically correct level, it is a fairly transparent metaphor for the perils of bigotry and prejudice (in this case, apartheid, as practiced in South Africa).  On a deeper level, it is about profound personal transformation, and the price it can exact on close relationships.
“Sophie’s Choice” – A gut wrenching portrayal of the human capacity for inhumanity.  One of those pictures that is an uncomfortable cultural necessity to remind us of what we’re capable of, and disabuse us of the arrogance of believing that it could never happen here or in our time.  A number of years ago, Arleah and I visited Auschwitz.  It was the end of the day, and for most of our time there, we were the only people in the camp.  I could not put in words the feelings we had walking through rooms full of glasses, shoes, and human hair.  After a while, the unspoken suffering of the place drove us out.
“What Dreams May Come” – The most profound depiction of grieving I’ve ever seen portrayed in a work of art.  The people who made this movie had to have suffered a crushing loss.  They had an understanding of grief and loss that few people have, and even less can articulate.  It is a work of pure emotion and demands a complete engagement on the part of the viewer.  And it is one of those movies that speaks to the aggrieved in an absolutely unique and powerful way – like a poem and a painting.  (I don’t know if it’s coincidence or karma, but the scenes depicting heaven were shot 30 miles from our house, in Glacier National Park.)
“Young at Heart” – A documentary about a singing group of 80 (and some 90) year old men and women from a town in Massachusetts.  It follows their lives (and some deaths), as they rehearse for their performances and challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zones.  Interestingly, they do not perform nostalgic “old folks” songs.  They sing down and dirty rock and roll, with all their heart and soul.  This is, without a doubt, the most inspiring movie about staying engaged with life that has ever been made.  You will never laugh so hard, nor cry so much, during any movie.
“The Notebook” – My all-time favorite movie.  On its surface, it’s a history of a compelling romance.  A love story for the ages.  One of those movies where you find yourself cheering for people to make it – to stay together forever and ever.  On that level it works well.  On a deeper level, it is the most evocative and soul-searching movie ever made about the emotion of true love; about unquestioning devotion; and the most noble response to the ravages of illness and aging.  When I want to get in touch with what Arleah and I share, and want to really access the full range of my feelings about life, I put on this movie.  If you ever have any trouble reaching deep inside, you need to own this movie.
Let me know how this selection has struck you.  I’d be interested in your comments on any of these movies that you’ve also seen.

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