Music City Miracle: Sport or Trascendent Experience?

December 31, 2010

“If I can’t outrun a placekicker, I don’t belong in the NFL.”

Kevin Dyson

I was present. There in the Club Section on the West side of the stadium looking down at the 2o yard line where it happened . . . right in front of me.  Really!   You can ask my son.  He was standing beside me.  Since that January day in 2000, I think I have talked with at least one million other people who claim to have been there.  But I really was.

We were almost out of hope, the clock was winding down on the Titan’s season in the Wild Card game which was our team’s last chance.  Only 16 seconds showed on the clock and the Buffalo Bills had just scored a field goal leaving them in the lead 16 to 15.  Following the kickoff, there was no option but to get out of bounds and hope against hope that a single play from scrimmage would generate the score needed to take the lead, win the game and move on in the playoffs.  But, there were only 16 seconds.  It would take a miracle.

The Bill’s kicker Steve Christie kicked off to Titans’ kickoff receiver Lorenzo Neal who (against all my shouting to the contrary) handed off the ball to Frank Wychek.  “No!!!!”  I shouted, “The sidelines, get to the sidelines and stop the clock.”  Then horrors of horrors, Wycheck passed the ball  to Kevin Dyson and the goal line was 75 yards away.  “No!!!! You can’t pass on a kickoff return.”  It seemed like an eternity passed while the crowd, first silent, then began to realize that Dyson was making his way down field with a phalanx of blockers in front of him. We erupted in a deafening roar as doctors, lawyers, bankers and factory workers began jumping up and down, hugging each other, crying, spilling their beer and just plain “loosing it”.  The mandatory official review of the play for a possible violation of NFL rules took another eternity.  Finally, the pass was ruled a lateral, the touchdown stood and the Titans were on their way to their first and only Super Bowl to end their season.

And I was there!  (Along with a million other of my closest friends.)

I’ve thought a lot about that day since January 8, 2000.  I have wondered how buttoned up business men and women could lose all sense of propriety in that setting.  I have wondered why church is more reserved and less transcendent than that moment.  I have asked myself why that experience was as transformational as the birth of a baby.  I have questioned my good judgment, my morality and even my sanity.

I need worry no more.  David Brooks made it all make sense today.  His New York Times column The Arena Culture was sent to me by my friend Dr. Eugene Regen and I don’t feel so guilty anymore.

Brooks points out that our increasingly secular culture has served to transform the religious experience into moments like the Music City Miracle.  Community can galvanize around an event like those last seconds of that playoff game in 2000.  Transcendence still lives because humanity needs it.  If religion can not provide transcendent experiences, people will find them, celebrate them and remember them for decades.  As Brooks writes, philosophers call this experience “whooshing up”.  We might find them at sporting spectacles, civil rights rallies or religious events.  The fact remains, we need them.  Our lives are given meaning through them.  Perspective is gained, exhilaration achieved and the Glorious Impossible becomes more real to us.

We can’t whoosh up individually.  It only happens in community.  Our highly individualized culture tries to convince us that whooshing up is unnecessary, unsophisticated and only enjoyed by the lowest forms of human life.

That’s simply not true.  Just ask the other million people with me and my son on the Club Level at Titans stadium that January 8 day in 2000.  We will never be the same.

When was the last time you “whooshed up”?


Complex Adaptive Systems: Why Hierarchy is Dead

December 29, 2010

In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.
Tell a FriendLaurence J. Peter

The author of the Peter Principle reminds us of the limits of hierarchical structures. One need look no further for an example of the powerlessness of hierarchy than the snowstorm that paralyzed New York the weekend after Christmas 2010.  The three main airports in the immediate vicinity of New York City began closing as the snow storm gathered force and by the day after Christmas, hundreds of flights had been canceled.  Restarting the air travel system following this regional storm was a simple matter of clearing the runways and re-booking the passengers, right? Wrong!

Air travel is a perfect example of how complex adaptive systems do not respond to hierarchical command and control methods.  Because aircraft were diverted from the New York vicinity airports to avoid the storm, the entire air travel system was adversely affected as operational efficiencies took as much as a week to recover. An air traveler seeking to leave Nashville to work in Kansas City three days later encountered the reality of how complex adaptive systems operate. Neither city had the slightest weather related difficulty. Nonetheless, flight delays and cancellations were the norm far from New York. Families stranded by canceled flights far from the storm were no more able to leave Chicago for Los Angeles than a family stuck in New York City.  Flights world wide were impacted by a storm in the U.S. Northeast.

The total interdependence of the airline system explains how suffering in one segment affects it all.  Just like a human body, a sore toe can impact the functionality of hip, back and spine leaving the entire body impaired.  The head cannot simply dictate to the body to “get over it”.  Neither can any complex adaptive system respond to hierarchical command.  The system must heal itself holistically.

As our culture becomes more infused with complex adaptive systems (health care, criminal justice, poverty, homelessness), the less any single source of power can address and resolve the problems presented.  Problem solving in complex adaptive systems must take place at the cellular level.  In human systems such as businesses, communities or religious orders the only power leaders possess is that of influence and credibility.  Command and control will not force change in a system that is not convinced of the value of change.  The chief architect of the air travel system had no power to get the system back in running condition by simply ordering it to happen.  The system of air travel could only achieve normalcy as the individual segments of reservations, mechanical repair, logistics and people movement began to function normally again.

For organizational leaders, these lessons of leadership should become clearer as our society’s complexity approaches infinite dimensions.  Building competence at the individual level, encouraging employees in enhancing their skills and acknowledging the value of each person in the work they do are the tools of leadership in complex adaptive systems.  Instilling systems of accountability and providing trustworthy methods of managing the conflict inevitable in organizations are critical leadership skills today.  Leaders who lack personal credibility or are untrusted cannot by force of power influence change.

It is no longer sufficient to simply be “in charge”.

Peace on Earth

December 25, 2010

That peace was better than war; because in peace the sons did bury their fathers, but in wars the fathers bury their sons.
Tell a FriendFrancis Bacon


Colosseum Christmas


On Christmas Day the world over people stop to consider the possibility of peace. I was reminded of this universal desire yesterday as I made visits on Christmas Eve to Imam Mohamed Ahamed and Rabbi Kliel Rose here in Nashville to deliver materials for an upcoming event we are hosting together next year.  As he escorted me through the decorated fellowship hall in his synagogue, Rabbi Rose explained how American Jews enjoy being together and sharing a Chinese meal on Christmas Eve .  Later, at the Islamic Center, the Imam reached out to grasp my hand with both of his in a warm greeting of affection.  Each wished me “Merry Christmas” as we parted.

As a Christian who celebrates the Christ story, I stopped to consider the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.  I marvel at a God who for the sake of peace among men would assume human form and live in our midst.

At the close of 2010 with the promise of a new year approaching, I am overwhelmed by the deep longing in the human heart for peace.  No war is commenced with the intent that it last forever.  We all want wars to end.  No conflict is capable of perpetuating itself indefinitely.  All disputes will be over.  Even the “100 Years War” ultimately concluded after a mere 116 years of conflict between French and English dynasties each claiming the French throne.  Although the real “mother of all wars” introduced gunpowder and artillery into human warfare, it too ended.

Here’s to 2011 as the year we pursue reconciliation with greater commitment.  May we learn the tools of making peace and better managing the inevitable conflict that arises in our communities, our workplaces and in the relationships we treasure.

In the Spirit of Christmas 2010, “Peace on earth, good will to all men and women.”

Major League Mediators: Idea Entrepreneurs

December 20, 2010

“A consultant solves problems, that is not my role. What I want is for companies to self-diagnose their problems and self-discover their own solutions through my thought leadership.”  Vijay Govindarajan

Dr. Govindarajan, co-author of The Other Side of Innovation, is one of a new breed of mediators on steroids.  Of course, he would never consider himself a mediator, nor would most of the mediators I know.  The vast majority of mediators think of themselves as the masters of an extremely small slice of innovation found in the litigated space.  “We settle cases,” they are heard to say.  Likewise, most people in need of the skills of a mediator would never allow themselves to be helped by a mediator.  “That’s something for people who have failed,” they protest.  Each group has fallen victim to categorical thinking (leaving the problem in the box they created and failing to “think outside the box”)

As yesterday’s New York Times article illustrated, In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm is the skill set management, business and thought leaders will pay enormous sums of money to learn.  I know of no mediator who would consider him or herself worth $200,000 to $500,000 per month to do the thinking for a business in need of innovation.  That’s what major corporations are willing to pay “thought entrepreneurs”.  No mediator I am aware of would charge $200,000 for a day of training 25 employees in the art and skill of brainstorming problem solutions.  These sums are regularly being charged and paid to professionals like Dr. Govindarajan and groups like Jump Associates to help businesses break through categorical (“inside the box”) thinking.

Ironically, most mediators create their own box of small minded thinking to define the work they do while culture, society and businesses are craving professional assistance which challenges entrenched thinking, engenders creativity and empowers innovation.  While “we can’t know what we don’t know”, the work of mediators is to help people think about thinking.

The skills of mediators, if well developed, are precisely what idea entrepreneurs provide.  A great mediator is a master in promoting self-determination which allows people stuck in their unhelpful thinking to take out, examine and improve their way of thinking about a problem, then change it for the better.  Mediators hone the skills of reality testing in order to allow their clients to re-examine the confirmatory bias which has trapped them in unhelpful thought until a breakthrough is achieved.  Great mediators are masters of the question.  Similarly, the New York Times article states, “You often hear this from idea entrepreneurs: Don’t ask us for the answers. Let us help you frame the questions, so you can answer them yourself.”

Mediators arise!  Shake off your limited view of the work we do.  Meet the public’s need where it is most pronounced.  Leave the shackles of the litigated case to those who desire to stay there.  Jump into the pool of thought innovation.  Help change the processes of idea generation.  Assist organizations caught in the boxes of their own creation.

Have fun!  Pay the bills!  Change the world!

WikiLeaks: Power, Disclosure and Autonomy

December 18, 2010

“We are rapidly entering the age of no privacy, where everyone is open to surveillance at all times; where there are no secrets from government.”

Tell a FriendWilliam O. Douglas

It is impossible to avoid confronting the dilemma posed by the WikiLeaks and Julian Assange saga.  As a finalist for Time magazine’s person of the year, Assange certainly has received more than his share of headlines.  Guilt or innocence aside, the WikiLeaks controversy poses significant questions for our culture, national security and the very concept of “secret”.  Communications intended as confidential lose their purpose for being if posted on the Internet for all to see.  Should we revise our concepts of privacy to expect potential disclosure of any communication exposed to the invisible eyes of the Internet.

As an employment lawyer engaged in the occasional litigation over workplace indiscretions, I have a much lower expectation of privacy for email traffic than I used to.  If I write it and send it, I know my email is accessible by many eyes and available for many years to be recovered, discovered and uncovered.  As a result of the power and reach of forensic computer discovery, I write every email correspondence with a recognition that those words and the interpretation someone might give them (actual or unintended) could see the light of day at some point (any point) in the future.  I have almost come to believe that there is no such thing as a  “secret”.

Should there be limits to the power of the Internet to reveal everything?  What does it mean to our culture, to national security and to human understanding to allow no boundaries for prying eyes?  For Julian Assange and those that see him as the man of the year, the answer is a  resounding “expose it all”.  They argue that in only that way can freedom exist and deception in high places be exposed.  However, I genuinely doubt that they have no expectation of privacy for their own communications intended as confidential.

Clearly, their’s is a sentiment that has force.  Power requires secrecy.  Hierarchy depends on fewer people with more access to information and more people kept in a “need to know” status.  Knowledge is power.  If everyone had all knowledge, all would be equally powerful.  It is obvious why governments are in such disarray attempting to staunch the flow of “classified information”.  Public disclosure of classified secret diplomatic wires intended for “your eyes only” has lead to embarrassment, diplomatic back peddling and the unleashing of armies of lawyers charged to find a way to stop the relentless flood of private communications.  Assange and his followers would argue disclosure is a good tool to keep the powerful in check and prevent abuses.  Those in power only see colossal damage resulting from unfettered disclosure.

Every institution or relationship is subject to the same dynamic in a less newsworthy manner.  No CEO could feel comfortable if every conversation, every meeting and every communication were available for review and critique by the entire organization.   Every personal relationship based on trust has theoretical limits on telling everything you know.  From something as simple as “Yes, dear that dress looks wonderful on you” to facts more potentially destructive regarding past indiscretions, sustainable relationships require self-imposed limits on “brutal honesty”.   Sometimes you really don’t want to know what I think.  More often, I should not tell you.

The limits on absolute disclosure took another interesting turn this week in a headline less titillating than the WikiLeaks controversies.  A below the radar project was announced by Google and a group of scholars.  As reported by the New York Times, Google is making available free downloads and online searches for a growing body of literature.  To date, 5.2 million books containing over 500 billion words in works published between 1500 and 2008 in seven languages have been digitized and are searchable by word or phrase.  Intended as a scholarly tool, this amazing project will allow the public as well as researchers to explore the use of phrases in comparative languages across the span of human endeavor.

In what might be viewed by most as a mere footnote in the incredible capability of the power of the Internet, an unexpected source of opposition has weighed in on this project.  Although seemingly neutral in its impact, humanist scholars are “hot and bothered” by the fact that the project is not engineered or managed by them.  Why, you ask, would that matter?  Great question.  What is it that humanist scholars fear will be disclosed by this massive research tool? What do they want to keep secret?  Wonderful imponderables.  Maybe time will tell. Perhaps disclosing what culture has captured through its written record over time will educate us all about the nature of human thought as it is, rather than as some would have it to be.

The fact remains that secrets are power and operate in opposition to autonomy, or self-determination.   The more we know, the less others hold power over us and the greater our ability to decide matters in our own self-interest.

Which is right:  “Tell it all” or “Let me decide how much should be disclosed”?  As with most polarities, neither extreme can claim the exclusive high ground.  Perhaps, the answer lies in an ongoing dialogue about which polarity has the greatest value based on circumstances and consequences of disclosure in a case by case analysis.  This polarity of confidences to be disclosed is one that defies a “one size fits all” solution.  (See, Managing Polarities blog post.)

What we all know universally is that each of us wants to control the timing and the audiences to whom the secrets we hold are disclosed.  Don’t let them hook your brain up to the Internet.

Operation Broken Trust: Busted!

December 10, 2010

When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.
Tell a FriendThomas Jefferson

It is amazing to see how good people doing good things are sometimes blinded to the consequences of a little exaggeration in order to make the numbers look better. What can be intended to generate trust can destroy it instantly. Recently, we have been treated to an example of this phenomena from a very unexpected source.

The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News report on the early returns of the U.S. Justice Department’s “Operation Broken Trust”. The irony of the program’s title is that it clearly was not intended to cultivate, but repair the public’s broken trust. Apparently, trust is in short supply indeed.

In August 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its intention to bring swift justice to the recent perpetrators of financial fraud on investors, shareholders and the public.  In order to restore public trust, the Attorney General and his staff committed to “sweep” through the halls of Ponzi schemes, fraudulent conveyances and disreputable investment practices and bring wrongdoers to a quick and sure reckoning.

On December 8, 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced amazing results from this full frontal assault on financial fraud.  Perhaps, “unbelievable results” was the better phrase.  Reportedly, in just under four months the Justice Department instituted 231 cases against 343 criminal defendants, 64 arrests, 158 indictments or complaints, 104 convictions and 87 sentencings.  In addition Holder indicated that the operation was responsible for 60 civil suits against 189 defendants.  We could only hope justice moved so swiftly. As reported by Bloomberg’s Jonathon Weil, the numbers seemed too good to be true. In fact, they weren’t . . . true.

Bloomberg’s Weil looked more closely at the numbers and discovered all was not as reported.  Instead, many of the cases cited had concluded long before Operation Broken Trust was instituted on August 16, 2010.  Some cases have not begun at all.  No support for the 60 civil suits could be provided.  In short, a little exaggeration was intended to go a long way to build public trust.  Isn’t that what got us here in the first place?

In contrast, Weil reports that there were thousands of convictions including high flyers like Charles Keating in response to the Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Quite a contrast in criminal enforcement efforts in the wake of a far more disastrous series of financial self-dealings seen in recent years.

Whether intentional or negligent, the impact on the public trust is no different.  When statistics assume mythical status and “beating the numbers” becomes more important than truth, credibility will be sacrificed.

Following the debacles of Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson and other high profile financial failures, Marianne Jennings wrote Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdown in Companies . . . Before It’s Too Late. In her study of these cases of broken corporate trust, Jennings identifies the traits of companies on the brink of collapse.  The number one sign is pressure to maintain the numbers.  The other traits all evidence a culture of conflict aversion.

The companies, the individuals and the government agencies who break trust with the public depending on them to “do the right thing” are those who are afraid of the difficult conversations, unwilling to engage a culture of confrontation and unskilled in the power of consultation.

Perhaps, the U.S. Attorney’s General’s office is the victim of a culture similar to that of the high profile corporate financial failures and fraud they are sworn to protect us from.  Or perhaps the U.S. Attorney General’s office is less concerned with factual accuracy than with a message that “sells” and afraid to encourage the difficult conversations that lead to trustworthy conduct in the public interest.

In the final analysis, is there really a difference?