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Learning Leaders Learning

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

At its very least, effective leadership is a clarity of communication. Great leaders simply express their ideas clearly. It’s a matter of presenting distinct possibilities when they exist. Rare are the situations that possess such distinct choices; though, and it is also the role of the leader to both perceive and take advantage of them. Take, for example, the statement often linked to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Whether he actually said this or was capable of such poor use of grammatical parallelism is debatable, but my issue here is this application of distinct choice. Though the situation was complicated, Franklin curated the moment to possess these two choices. “It’s either privacy or security, people. So which one do you want?”

One such moment now arrives in contemporary society. Recent revelations of privacy violations by government agencies has led many to question whether “too much” spying is taking place. What was once thought (and claimed) as an action focused on terrorists and criminals has now been revealed to include trusted allies, celebrities and even the Pope. John Q. Public’s records have also been revealed as material worth saving, but with this collection further excuses regarding the anonymity of supposed metadata work to quash some concerns.

Would you rather trade your personal security for your right to privacy? Are you more comfortable facing the possibility of a terrorist attack than having the data of your private life collected and saved? Ultimately this is the question of our time. As shocking as it may seem, some people would rather have their data kept private and take the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack. We’ve reached this point in a post 9/11 world where our initial actions were inspired in part by our emotional reaction to the attacks. We’re older now, more removed from the initial shock, and capable of re-assessing just how much protection we want.

A great leader will recognize this critical question and pose it to the public. Though posed, we’ll also need extensive time to consider a response. Great leadership plays a role here as well: facilitating communication and creating a community of thinkers will be essential in reaching a response. Perhaps our sense of “great leadership” has changed in our contemporary society. Has technology altered what we need from leaders? Tech has certainly changed our day-to-day existence so why might its effects also extend to those we choose to lead? Perhaps our future is one where our leadership is less a figurehead and more a conduit of thinking. Maybe leadership is less the “out in front” and more the “learning side by side”.

Incorporated Grief

November 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Though John F. Kennedy’s biological life ended when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, a cadre of alternative existences lives on. Kennedy the father, our president, the family man and soldier being just three alternative and complimentary existences at play. Kennedy is among a small cast of characters whose death provides a birth: figures who in leaving become enlivened by symbolic status. History is rich with great figures whose greatness went unrecognized when they were alive. Kennedy, like these figures, is an individual “cut down early” or geniuses living “beyond their time.”

Though few knew John F. Kennedy personally, millions feel a sense of sadness when considering his death. Often frames of commonality are applied to garner senses of melancholy. Not just a man but “President” “father”, “Catholic” or “solider” these labels become points of identification and relation. We more easily mourn the loss of someone we relate to or in whom we’ve placed significant importance. Is the death of a President more tragic than another? Of the millions who died on November 22, 1963 why is it John F. Kennedy that continues to capture public attention each November 22?

One wonders how the use of terms is utilized to manipulate responses. Are we mourning Kennedy or ” a president” Do his roles as “father” or “husband” make us more upset than an alternative JFK whose lack of children and wife negate these labels? What of his label as “Catholic”? One wonders whether the constant application of these terms functions more as a distortion. When a priest mentions Kennedy as Catholic does the moment of silence become something more? How is this religious figure utilizing JFK’s faith to cull reaction? What does it matter what Kennedy believed?

In memorializing the life of someone we warp that person’s existence. We layer on symbolic frosting and create some new identity whose c0nnection to its biological root is foreign. Are Presidents laying a wreath on Kennedy’s grave remembering or mourning their own death?Are we crying more for symbols or for something other- something beyond our experience and knowledge?

Relative Success

November 14, 2013 Leave a comment

When a child yells, “I’ll be the greatest ever,” a parent might grin and pat her on the back and work to further an encouragement. And yet, while noble and respectable, much remains unsaid in such a statement. The greatest what? Certainly the greatest mob boss, terrorist or pornographer and what the parent had in mind. Success is relative and our notions of what defines it based on culture and the social norms within it.

Success is measured in many ways. Robin Hanson argues in this podcast that the ability to control is one of the most common. In our need to demonstrate our ability to control other people we invest significant amounts of time and energy. Minor tasks like picking what to eat or what to wear function less as decisions of detail and more as minor battles won in a war of control.

Worse yet is our tendency to measure the success of others via our own sense of success. A child might possess musical skills destined to make him the greatest rock guitarist of all time but what becomes of him if he is born to a great politician? Might a mother whose daughter shows signs of immense interest in baseball steer her otherwise for fear of some social stigma? How does a parent’s need to be perceived by others lead to manipulation and delusion of children. Many parents would likely shudder at the idea of their child becoming a gifted artist in some lewd activity. While many desire their child to have power, money and happiness they do with exception. Success is counted sweetest but only in some ways. Better to be poor and normal than successful in some weirdo way.

Impossible to Luddite

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Technological change comes fast. Consider the number of phone numbers you held in your memory a decade ago. Was it more? How has GPS affected your ability to give directions. Many often respond with “Do you have GPS?” when asked to give directions. Technology changes who we are and how we live.

But what of those who loathe technology and instead desire “good old days”? Is anyone capable of existing in a world divorced of technology? Technology is everywhere and impossible to avoid. From grocery stores to libraries every location in society has been affected by technology. One cannot be a Luddite now.

Perhaps most profound about technological change is this inability to avoid it. We need not own technology to be affected. Pew reported in 2013 that just 56% of Americans have smart phones. What of that 44%- are they floundering alone and lost in their world without a data plan and killer apps? Does the user of the “dumb phone” flounder in a world without GPS and data plans? Of course not. Technological change is inherent and profound.

Perils in Pursuits

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

For a select category of products, consumer trust defines the relationship. Mary buys kosher beef with the confidence that her religious beliefs are not contradicted in her use of the product. In a sense, her need for the product stems not from solely her desire; instead, she purchases the item because it allows her to meet religious expectations and deliver pleasure. There is a dual role for products in many transactions- situations in which consumer desire involves multiple needs and expectations.

Consider violations of this trust. Vegans are shocked to hear of animal by-products in Chipotle’s beans. Jewish consumers are stunned to find that their supposedly kosher beef contains horse. The examples are numerous and spread throughout time; though, what remains common with each is this common violation of consumer trust and expectation.

Product failure happens all the time. A battery dies or a pixel fades to black. Consumers have come to understand planned obsolescence and regularly buy new phones, devices and toys despite having working models. Capitalism benefits from this system as innovation drives progress for both consumer and manufacturer. Perhaps the ideal economy is a world in which this dance is perfectly balanced and paced.

Despite this sense of what defines ideal, a world of competition creates benefits to cheat. To cut corners means to reduce costs and severe competition leads to a world where all cuts are on the table. The recent horse meat scandal in Europe is a prime example of the dangers of complicated networks and expected low costs. Expand the network out and more links become involved.

As we work towards greater levels of global competition we will see more violations of this consumer trust. Despite a greater concern for public health, as seen in America’s Affordable Care Act, the networks from which our health and society function grow increasingly less concerned with users who consume. When price becomes priority and reducing it the most valuable accomplishment there are no limitations to the means to reduce cuts. What today may shock us as appalling will likely pale as we demand more for less and blind ourselves with complex networks.

Relationship Comparatives

November 8, 2013 Leave a comment

What defines a quality relationship? Realistic expectations, quality communication and respect are just three commonly accepted expectations. One’s list, while highly personal, ultimately boils down to equality and respect. We might supply the analogy of a balance to illustrate the idea for a quality relationships.

Paradoxically, we best understand quality relationships by our experience with bad ones. From our nightmares come our sense of peace as often bad begets our sense of good. What is evil if not the direct opposite of good. Does not greater evil demand a greater sense of heroism? We are locked, it seems, in an endless game of cognitive leap frog.

If a quality relationship can be understood and its features stated, we can use this list to evaluate other relationships in life. What is the state of one’s relationship to food? How might one consider his/her relationship to charity or employment? Consider the features of a bad boyfriend: obsessive, indifferent to rational emotions and blind to common needs. Might these same features be used to evaluate one’s relationship to food? Does an eating disorder not treat its object (food) with the lack of concern?

By considering the ways we relate to other people and the expectations that guide our interactions we gain a useful tool for other applications. How should one interact with others? Branch beyond these human-to-human expectations and apply them elsewhere. How do we treat these other objects? Too much time at work? Obsessive compulsion towards a diet? Perhaps we gain a sense of balance by these considerations and learn from common social standards how we might best behave with that which surrounds our daily life.

Staling Aura

November 2, 2013 Leave a comment

Let me play a recording from 1961. Will you know its not from 1991? Assume you do not see me drop the vinyl on the record player or thrust the VHS into the VCR- would you know the era of the work of art? Certain arts are dated by the medium of production. A recording from the 1960s sounds like its from the 1960s. You can see the age of movies in their very nature. Though the story line is common, the date of a production informs our reading of a text, film, or song.

Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” considers our relation to art when it can be copied. If the gift shop sells a post card of The Mona Lisa, can we just skip the original and hit the cafe? Benjamin thinks not- he asserts an “aura” surrounds the original. An initial creation exists as something more than just an object. A painting is more than just some paint on canvas or the ideas suggested in the medium’s arrangement. The work is many things: a document of artistic creation? A historical document or record? This list is truly endless: art can be anything and everything.

Despite this ambiguous existence the work of art itself suffers from its means of creation. Media decays and technology evolves to place a work of art in history. As the work ages we gain a sense of how old it is. When the painting falls to shreds does Benjamin’s suggested “aura” become depleted? The Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC displays the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner. The flag is highly tattered from its age and experience but is its aura affected? In the end it is the viewer that invests this flag with meaning. Might our flag, draped carefully from the garage inspire similar feelings from Key? Is it rather the battle or the moment that inspired Key?

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