Saturday, November 29, 2008

Another Day. Another Leader.

November 1, 2008, sitting at Pete’s Coffee on South Petaluma Boulevard, in Petaluma, California. Three days to go in a contest, a process, that started two years ago, and arguably for some long before that. And it will continue past Tuesday. You can bet on it. The headlines of our local newspaper, The Argus Courier, read “Record number of Petaluma voters” – and indicates that more than 90% of those registered may cast ballots. That’s good news.

The plea for leadership is strong and loud. Yet, unfortunately it’s also numbing. That’s sad news. I wish that weren’t so – the numbing part. But it is, as evidenced by a medium complaining how long this process has been underway, and how wonderful it will be when it’s over. How come that’s sad? Because we cry out for leadership when our times are bemoaned, or when we feel victimized by the economy or stressed because of a war or the downslide of the stock market or global warming or based on whatever situation we’re in. But when things are cushy and pleasant and easy and there’s no perceived threat, either internally or externally, leadership as a topic is at best either something reserved for an MBA semester elective; or a slogan in some mission statement that isn’t really a mission statement but actually an advertisement some focus group spent a couple of hours playing with (man am I tired of slogans). At worst leadership as a study in practice is something left as a discretionary spending budget line item when our organizations can afford a management retreat which really isn’t a retreat nor does it have much at all to do with leadership but rather is a sit-around-the-bar-session-knocking-back-cocktails-and-beer-while-discussing-blends-grapes-the-pour-and-nuances-of-the-day’s-last-putt. Have another cigar? Think I will, thank you very much.

Truman as quoted by Miller was often short and to the point, e.g. “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” (p. 69, Plain Speaking). He understood the need for average persons to wake up to how much they matter in life. I imagine this was so for him because he understood that he was an average man. FYI, 1973 a lowly second lieutenant in the Army, married with dependents (me at that time) was making about $550 per month. A four star general with 30 years of service, married with dependents was making about $2800 per month. Kind of makes one think, especially in light of the roller coaster of the past months. And all of us, 2nd Lt’s and Generals alike, sat in hour-long lines waiting to fill our cars with gas.

So at this moment and for this month’s newsletter and blog, I think I’ll rant a bit.

First. Leadership isn’t academic, though it definitely should be a topic in every school from grade one through all doctoral levels. It should be included in dialogue in all extracurricular activities such as music, sports, art, home economics, etc. Why? Because those activities really aren’t extracurricular. They are educating half of the brain, the right half, the activities that enhance full mental capacity and they are just as important as the left-brain activities commonly referred to as curricular, i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic. Someone, somewhere should be asking the following questions in our schools all the time: who and what is influencing you; who and what are you influencing; how is what we have been doing and studying going to be of influence in life when you step outside this room or off this playing field? We don’t need to tell our kids the answers to these questions, because the answers will change.

Second. Leadership isn’t about having the right slogan. It’s about everyday reality. It’s not reserved for some time when some person or some team occupies some office or position or has some kind of title affixed to some name or has amassed some certain level of fortune and is then entitled to be called Leader. Leadership is as present and as simple as the average person making coffee, taking time for shampoo, washing hands or the dog or the car, raking leaves, saying something simple to your son or daughter, putting gas in the truck or changing the oil. [Maybe changing oil should be left off the list because some folks have forgotten that lubricants, like old ideas, need changing; and yet lubricants, like old ideas, are universally necessary!]

Third. Leadership should never, ever, ever be attended to only when we have set aside enough discretionary funds to attend a retreat. In fact attending a retreat should not be hinged to discretionary funds. Refreshing the mind (i.e. going on retreat) ought be thought of as something necessary for good mental, emotional and spiritual regularity. We don’t consider the respective parentheses associated with refreshing physical regularity (i.e. meal time and toilet time) as things reserved for when our pockets are flush with cash. We get it about that – bodily inflow and outflow are essential to physical health. But when it comes to the digestive processes of the mind, the heart and the soul – ahhhh, some-a-day when there’s enough money and time, maybe we’ll attend to the inflow and outflow of that. In case you haven’t noticed, our yesterdays are quickly becoming the some-a-days that we should have been attending to. [I said this was going to be a rant]

Fourth. Let’s be straight. You and I are being influenced all the time by someone or something. Additionally, we’re influencing someone else and/or some situation all the time. Influence surrounds and binds us and it flows through us. Influence is the essence of what it means to lead. I realize this may sound rather Yoda-ish. Alas, some have either forgotten the lessons of Star Wars Episode IV or they have never seen the movie.

We grow blind the fact that, regardless of station or age or title or whatever else we want to call it, we are always leading and being led all of the time. We get so used to the influences that press on us daily (or the influence that we have on others) that we numb out to them. It doesn’t mean that they (we) are no longer of influence. It merely means that we are no longer conscious of this influence at work.

Some influences that touch us (or that we are) are attractive: beautiful music, vivid colors, sweet odors and tones and textures, supportive voices and the like. Some are repulsive: yellow tarps over spread next to overturned smoldering cars; hateful graffiti splashed across walls or doors; anguished faces viewing the remains of cherished children or parents suddenly gone; the homeless one passed out late at night inside a post office; spittle on the sidewalk; the roll of untrusting eyes or the sneer of disgusted lips; sharp unforgiving comments; raw vulgarities of racial, ethnic or sexist slurs; the dull dazed look of a drugged kid sitting on a curb. Either way, pleasant or ugly, we don’t notice or we pretend we don’t notice or we walk quickly on by or we soon forget. We become, as Marshall McLuhan put forth in a 1969 Playboy magazine interview, so used to the environment we’re living in that we no longer see, feel or hear it talking to us or about us or from us. (“I don’t know who first discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t the fish,” McLuhan.)

Today is November 1st. By the time these words are delivered and posted in e-newsletter form or at either a McCain or an Obama will be the President-elect of the United States. As I write these words that outcome is a mystery. By the time these words get posted and delivered online that outcome will be history. Both Obama and McCain are leaders. So are you.

US citizens are involved in a grand experiment, an experiment rooted 2,500 years ago in the ground of ancient Athens. An experiment that Abe Lincoln wrote of as being “of the people, by the people and for the people.” We are not separate from government, no more than we are separate from nature. True, we can think of ourselves as separate. But thinking that we are separate does not change the fact that we are connected, no more than thinking the world is flat changes the fact that it is round. We are the government. Some may reply, “How naïve!” OK, but where does that kind of cynicism lead? There are people alive today by trainloads wishing they could get here or wanting their own land to change so that could enjoy the freedom to actually exercise this kind of naivety at home. Last month’s newsletter addressed some lessons learned by viewing the US from outside our borders. Add to that this thought: the things you and I do here over the next few days either through action or inaction may be small, but in time they make a difference. On Election Day or on any other day millions, actually billions, of human beings living elsewhere see the truth of this and wonder why we have such difficulty seeing it for ourselves.

When you read this whether you voted or didn’t vote in the election of November 4, 2008 – you voted. And your vote was counted. You contributed somehow to the outcome.

Bringing it back to everyday stuff of the average person. Like the man sitting on the bale of hay and the boy in his arms in the photo above - we’re all influencing and being influenced all the time by someone or something. What influence does the boy have on his father? What influence does the father have on the boy? You can’t see either of their eyes. Yet it’s clear that on that day they were each looking in different directions, existing simultaneously in the same place yet holding vastly different perspectives. You may not be the boss. You may not be the manager. You may not be the person in charge. You may not be the employee. You may not be office temp. You may not be the father or the mother. You may not be the son or the daughter. You may be big. You may be small. But somehow right now you are a leader. You’re affecting an outcome.

Who and what are you influencing? Who or what is influencing you? Stay alert!

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