I’m With Her?

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I normally don’t join in the great quadrennial teeth gnashing that is the American presidential campaign. But this year I find Donald Trump’s message so odious that as a husband, a father of a son and daughter, a colleague to people of color, and friend to those of diverse ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations, I need to be able to say that I took no part in him.

I am a white evangelical Christian and I am voting for Hillary Clinton.

Clinton’s competence, experience, and demeanor are in sharp relief to Trump’s thin-skinned superficiality so unsuited to the stewardship of American military and economic power. On issues of importance to me (gun policy, the economy, security, health care, foreign affairs, immigration, criminal justice reform, etc.) she reflects more the America I want to help build. She wasn’t my first choice, I will admit, and I am aware of her considerable shortcomings. But any lingering reservations completely evaporated after comparing the message and tone of the two competing party conventions. I’m with her.

Here’s hoping that my fellow evangelicals will be as well. Recent Pew studies suggest that over 70% of white self-identified evangelicals plan to vote for Trump. Christian author and speaker James Dobson recently endorsed him saying “most evangelicals I know have decided ­ for various reasons ­ that they will really have only one choice for president, and that is Donald J. Trump…I believe it’s a good choice. America needs strong and competent leadership.”

I understand and agonize with my brothers and sisters who are genuinely tormented by the “lesser of two evils” predicament and who view their potential Trump ballot with quiet revulsion. But what I do not understand and what I condemn is the hearty public approval of Trump from other evangelical leaders and their full throated endorsement of a budding despot who, by self-admission, has never asked God for forgiveness; and whose biography and philosophy are so antithetical to God’s call for justice, kindness and humility. Their public testimonials will have grievous long term consequences for a religion already perceived by many as having too eagerly traded away its enduring spiritual banquet for the temporary scraps from a political table.

Permission to Dissent

Evangelicals respect orthodoxy in matters of faith, but that respect may cause us to imagine orthodoxy in what is only conformity, especially when opinions from leaders like Dr. Dobson are received “ex cathedra”. The breadth of evangelical support for Trump may be nothing more than an instinctive response to his unrelenting message of fear and threat. But, as George Orwell observed, such instinct doesn’t necessarily result in people doing the right thing…merely the same thing (“like a herd of cattle facing a wolf”). Individual evangelicals must give ourselves permission to dissent politically, to be more than a part of the herd, to think for ourselves with the sound mind God has given each of us. Because now and in future generations there will always be those who yearn for credible witnesses with whom to explore the claims of Christianity. We will not be convincing to those seekers if we are seen as the commandeered church; the expropriated tool of Trumpism.

Options

I am proposing that evangelicals can and should vote for Secretary Clinton. Notwithstanding the bewildering intensity of the 40-year vilification machine directed at her, she is clearly the most capable and credible candidate. I know, however, there are those evangelicals whose ideological disagreements on abortion, the Supreme Court, or other issues, make a Clinton vote simply intolerable. Even for them there are options. Some analysts suggest that not voting for Trump is a vote for Clinton or a wasted vote but that is not entirely true. A presidential election boycott that produces a massive vote differential between the top of the ticket and down ticket candidates would send a powerful message to the Republican party and its future candidates that voters deserve better. More importantly it would do so retaining some sense of integrity for the dissenting evangelical base.

What evangelicalism cannot afford is a broad capitulation to Trumpism. If that happens our children may look back in one, or in ten, or in 70 years and ask, where was the modern American confessing church that should have stood up to hate and demagoguery? If the church is not there today for our children we shouldn’t expect our children to be there tomorrow for the church.

Why Hold Trump to a Different Standard?

But is there no fear that an evangelical vote for Clinton could be seen as just as troubling to those examining Christianity? Why such concern for Mr. Trump’s character and not Secretary Clinton’s? There are three considerations. First, her inconsistencies as a candidate, however real, bear no equivalency in magnitude to Trump’s. Clinton’s policies may threaten conservative ideology, but when Trump careens from utterly offensive to heedlessly divisive he threatens the American ideal itself.

Secondly, we don’t have to measure our support of Clinton in the way we do Trump because there is no contention that she speaks for evangelicals; she has not become our de facto standard-bearer. By contrast, the Republican candidate specifically brags of his evangelical backing. “Every poll says how well I’m doing with them,” he claims. Unless we specifically reject him, we cannot escape being painted by his brush.

Finally Trump himself has made this election a referendum on his character and temperament. He speaks of his opponents using character questioning nicknames, “Lying Ted”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Crazy Bernie” with which to differentiate his own cult of personality (“I alone can fix it”). Because of this Trump has left us no room to support his policies without sanctioning the Trump persona. We cannot vote for him without endorsing his dangerous narcissism.

I am a center-left evangelical so for me the vote poses no great personal dilemma. It is an easy choice. But my wonderful rightward-leaning evangelical friends are left with a tougher decision: what to do if political support of their most important values requires that evangelicals marry their fortunes to a demagogue? I believe we must forfeit that support in return for retaining our credibility as believers in a different King. For after November the horrible high tide of electioneering will once again recede. If Christian values have been broken on the rocks of the Trump expediency, the shoreline will be so spoiled by the flotsam of our political imprudence that it may become permanently unappealing to those looking for an inviting vantage from which to contemplate their spiritual horizons.

We should not let that happen. So I’m with her.

The Poetry of Business

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For twenty years the Dai-ichi life insurance firm in Japan has run a short-form poetry contest specifically directed at Japan’s so-called “salarymen”, the country’s white-collar workers. These salaryman poems have become intensely popular across Japan and throughout the world as they capture the ironies and perversity of daily office life.

Perhaps, in this American season of relentless election commentary and overwrought headlines, those of us in the commercial world would do well to refresh ourselves by reflecting on some verses of our own.

So here is my brief collection of business poetry chronicling the trials and exhilirations of the office worker. The first is from the Japanese short-form master, Sumi. The next is an unconventional sonnet from Lord Byron’s little known drinking companion, Jonathan St. Love. The final two are from the largely overlooked Irish limericist, Paddy O’Donagh. Enjoy them.

Downsizing

By Sumi

Reduce staff, boss cries!

So we each lost ten pounds.

It’s good to comply.

……………………………..

Power(point)             

By Jonathan St. Love

When gallant Thor the thunders broke, he wrought

True Mjolnir’s ancient stone to break the night.

With sandals bringing earth’s caress to naught

Young Hermes’ trodding feet were set to flight.

The armor of Achilles full encased,

The warrior’s pow’rs upon the field increased.

When Neptune’s fist his glist’ning trident raised

The desperate shudders of the earth released.

What spear, what shield, what weapon from the gods

Can make my worldly foes to bend the knee?

I need not one! No more repair the odds.

For I have mighty Powerpoint, you see.

My foes from quiet aching boredom weep,

Still others it compels to deepest sleep.

……………………………..

Fenwick

By Paddy O’Donagh

Fenwick had no time for me

He only saw folks for a fee

He thought of aspiring

Then came the firing

Suddenly Fenwick was free

…………………………….. 

Month-end

By Paddy O’Donagh

The CEO talks to the Chairman

The Chairman talks to the Board

But when quota’s unmet

And the family’s in debt

It’s the salesman who talks to the Lord   

……………………………..

Just remember: not everything you read on the Internet is true.

2016: The Movie

s-l300Several years ago, at the encouragement of friends at church, I read Story, Robert McKee’s guide to screenwriting. My friends and I did so not with the idea that we were going to start producing screenplays, but rather as an illuminating exercise in thinking of our own lives as a dramatic narrative.

It is hard not to perceive our ordinary existence in terms of action. We careen from event to event as life reveals itself. While there is much to be said for simple perseverance, Story allowed me to look at my life not through the unique series of completed tasks and experiences, but rather, as the screenwriter would, through the narrative of the character change brought on by living through them. For McKee makes it clear that, in storytelling, activity alone is not enough to sustain interest:

“If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent.”

There is nothing wrong with buying detergent, clocking in at work, picking up the kids at carpool time. Accomplishing tasks brings happiness. We should admire those who quietly and consistently contribute as citizens, parents, spouses and friends, day in and day out. Most of my life is lived within this realm of the ordinary where, if I am honest, my values and character remain largely untested. But at some point we all experience unexpected challenges, internal or external opposition, which disrupt a “normal” life. According to McKee that is precisely where a screenplay gets interesting:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

While we naturally focus entirely on the actions required to overcome our obstacles and reinstate equilibrium, those around us (our audiences) pay attention because of how our choices reveal the state of our true character. Our fascination with great movies is stoked by character change. The same is true for our fascination with each other.

“From the worst of experiences something positive can be gained; for the richest of experiences a great price must be paid. No matter how we try and plot a straight passage through life, we sail on the tides of irony.”

Of course, most of us don’t go around seeking out adversity. But no matter, it finds us all anyway. The abiding lesson in thinking about your life as a screenplay is that it is precisely our response to opposition that makes us interesting people at all. We “sail on the tides of irony” when negative events create positive changes in our character. Were movies really made from our lives they would be about little else.

The folklorist J. Frank Dobie wrote, “well, I have gone in one canyon and come out another,” and it is a good line to consider at the beginning of a new year. Things happened in 2015 that I just didn’t anticipate as I was riding into it last January. It is easy to regret the bad things and venerate the good. And I’m sure I will be grateful for many unanticipated blessings in 2016 as well. They will make me happy. But here’s hoping someone will remind me to be grateful for the challenges and dilemmas as well.

For they will make me interesting.

Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe.

Talking About Talking About Politics

social-media-logos (1)The acerbic literary critic, Dorothy Parker, once chided Sinclair Lewis because “the thing he desires to believe is the thing he feels he knows to be true.” It doesn’t require much attention to realize things have not changed much.

“Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic?” Donald Trump’s recent complaint to Bill O’Reilly were those of a man for whom facts were inconvenient to his bullying intentions.  Trump’s litany of absurd and demonstrably inaccurate statements reflects his deliberate investment in volume over veracity. As Dorothy Parker reflected on Lewis, “he says it so loud and so hard that it sounds to him like the truth.” Ditto Trump, almost a century later.

But we expect that of candidates. Far more worrying is when we as citizens embrace the very same attitude, that the important thing is not whether a statement is true but whether we think it ought to be true. Nowhere is it more evident than social media during campaign season.

Daily I am bombarded with memes and tweets from people whose opinions I once considered thoughtful, supporting their political positions with the most obvious, often odious, factual misrepresentations. False statements which would take less than 30 seconds to fact check get re-tweeted, liked, shared, and posted solely because they affirm a preconceived bias. It is not a partisan disease. In my own small social media sampling I see it more often on display from the right than the left but not exclusively so.

We may simply have forgotten that by what we re-tweet, post, and share, we are all being judged as to our reliability as witnesses to truth.

And this is particularly so for people of faith of which I am one. It saddens me that many of my Christian friends are often the worst offenders when, regarding truth, we should be the best behaved. The most profound weakening of my own faith in recent years has been as a result of seeing other Christians whose influence I had once cherished prove themselves unreliable witnesses. Once bright lights have become dim bulbs not from personal moral failure but simply from the demeanor and imprudence with which they handle opposing opinions and willingly spread misinformation in support of their point of view.

The Apostle Paul wrote “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” As we enter the quadrennial Christmastime before a presidential election perhaps now especially believers should ask themselves three questions before a sketchy re-tweet:

If my friends cannot trust me to show integrity with the facts of civil government, how can they trust me to tell them the truth about the Kingdom of God?

If I am so easily duped by propaganda and exaggeration, how can my friends believe I have good judgement about some obscure Jewish carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago?

If I rejoice in the vilification of those holding opposing views, how can I expect my friends to become curious about grace and lovingkindness?

Not all are spiritual believers, of course, but we all represent something, and whether as ambassadors of our God or simply our political persuasion, class, gender, ethnicity, or whatever, we are all being judged as to our reliability as witnesses to truth.

Americans have historically been hard headed and soft hearted, committed to the hard headed discipline of fairly evaluating competing ideas yet exhibiting that general compassion which de Tocqueville viewed as inherent in American individualism. Yet either from fear or from want of intellectual discipline we appear to be becoming soft headed and hard hearted, unopen to opposing ideas, unwilling to demand critical thinking from ourselves, and trusting invective instead of empathy.

When that happens we diminish ourselves as individuals and as a nation. So from now until the election, before I forward a meme or article or re-tweet a post, I am going to take an extra minute or two to reflect: Is it true? Is it helpful? How does it reflect on my reliability as a witness?

Call me out if I mess up.

The First Law of Business

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You know you’ve made it when a theorem or scientific law gets named after you…Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Pareto Principle, the Doppler Effect, etc. So how great must it have been to be Sir Isaac Newton? Not only did the 17th century mathematician create Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation but he is also credited with not one, not two, but three laws of motion, including the Newton’s famous Third Law: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

So now, to create my own small legacy, I humbly introduce Dupree’s First Law of Business: “For every business rule there is an equal and opposite business rule”.

Seriously.

Virtually every business cliché has some countervailing platitude. For every coffee mug that says A Satisfied Customer is Our #1 Goal, there is a break room poster shouting A Happy Employee is Our Top Priority. So which is it? For every pep talk on Pivoting there is another one on Staying the Course. Think Strategically says one book, It’s All in the Detail says another.  Lead, no, Serve, scream LinkedIn memes. It’s confounding. Delegate but control, scale but customize, grow quickly but build profit, move at Internet speed but don’t act too quickly.

The consequences of the First Law of Business are so befuddling, in fact, that they demand a separate proposition devoted to what it means for good management, Dupree’s Second Law: “In the absence of reliable business absolutes, the single most important professional attribute is sound judgement”.

Individuals who can evaluate competing inputs and render good, thoughtful, business decisions are simply the best colleagues. This expresses itself most powerfully when those inputs conflict or when competing options seem equally desirable. It is vital when the information is unclear or when the decision is not between good and evil but between the greater of two goods or the lesser of two (or more) evils. It is brought to bear as often in deciding on inaction as it is action. It may not be the showiest of management qualities but it is the most potent. Workers with sound judgement are like athletes who may rarely make the individual highlight reels but somehow always seem associated with championship teams.

They are not swayed by passion or the buzzwords of the day. But with the information at hand, however imperfect, they consistently make reasonable choices based on the whole picture, not merely their direct self-interest. They constantly groom their business judgement through their own experience, good and bad, as well as their keen observation of colleagues.

Of course, the First Law tends to overstate things. Customer attention is not exactly the opposite of employee focus, nor is growth inconsistent with profitability. But commercial life routinely presents business people genuine discordance in priorities which they must learn to synthesize as best as circumstances allow. It takes double helpings of both energy and brains.

Almost 80 years ago F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Today, after two world wars, multiple global financial crises, the creation of the Internet, the information age, and postmodernism, it still comes down to that.

Keep your charismatic showmen; your showy iconoclasts, your radical innovators. Give me the team of men and women who can thrive in uncertainty and still lead with sound judgement day in and day out.

Still Goodbye Football for Me

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It is football season again and several folks have asked me whether I am continuing my position regarding not watching NFL games live or on television.

Yep.

For those interested, here is last year’s post in which I outlined my reasons: https://thestubbornglebe.com/2014/08/05/goodbye-football/

Were I to re-write for 2015 I don’t think I would change anything except possibly to be a little harsher on the vast corporatism represented by the National Football League. Sadly, little else has changed for the good. I also might expand my tiny boycott where it would hurt the most…not simply abstaining from viewing the games but compiling a list of all the official NFL sponsors and deliberately committing to move a meaningful portion of my own purchasing to a non-sponsoring competitor. Look out Papa John’s and Dannon. You too, Nationwide and Hyundai.

Because it is still “goodbye football” for me.

“Do not go gentle, Jimmy”

isMy first foray into door to door grassroots campaigning came in the fall of 1980 when I boarded a bus full of other students in Boston and rode to Nashua, New Hampshire to walk leafy neighborhoods on behalf of Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful presidential re-election campaign. Had I been more experienced in campaigning I might have noticed that there were far too few of us and we were far too uninspired for that point in an election year. Of course, Carter lost resoundingly to Ronald Reagan.

I suspect that historians will one day admit that Carter was neither quite as bad a president, nor Reagan quite as good, as is popularly held today, but I cannot contend that Jimmy Carter will go down as one of our great Chief Executives. The office seemed big and even in his best moments he seemed small and ill at ease in it. I have only had that feeling again once since, and that was with George W. Bush for whom the presidency always seemed like a man’s hat on a boy’s head.

No, Carter certainly wasn’t a great president. But as he announced this week, at age 90, that he has cancer, I experienced a surprising swell of admiration for him and I know why.

Jimmy Carter is a terrific retiree.

I know a little about this as I grow older myself and my professional efforts have morphed…if not into retirement, at least into something unconstrained by the conventional demands of my former corporate life. I’m moving on and as I do so several characteristics of Carter’s post-presidential career influence my own journey through the second half.

Exercise of Faith

Carter was a very public evangelical Christian as president and has been unembarrassed in suggesting that his personal spiritual convictions have shaped his views on public policy issues of all stripes. But at a time of life when many faithful are content simply to reinforce and protect our comfortable spiritual bias Carter demands that his faith and the messy world around him interact. It hasn’t always been pretty and he has created many detractors to his right and left but his faith clearly is something more than a mild palliative taken once each Sunday morning.

Intellectual Curiosity

Thinking is an adventure. There are many retirees whose world has become smaller with age but one gets the sense that Jimmy Carter’s world has continued to enlarge. Virtually every president, Democrat and Republican has been on the receiving end of Carter’s thoughtful, if unsolicited, insights whether on the War on Drugs, Guantanamo, Iraq, drone use, privacy, women’s rights, etc. and his personal involvement in the Carter Center has yielded results from North Korea to Cuba, from rigged elections to Guinea worm disease. It is an amazing testimony to mental acuity and the willingness to engage intellectually.

Breadth of Conviction

But mental acuity and strong opinions alone can simply produce curmudgeons and they just annoy rather than inspire. What generates affection for Carter is not the depth of his convictions but rather their breadth, by which I mean that his passion for purpose manifests itself across a broad range of activity and isn’t restricted to what is seemly and elevated.

If most Americans are asked to describe Carter’s post-presidential life, they likely remember him in a denim shirt with a hammer at some Habitat for Humanity construction site. While many celebrities restrict their good works to appearances at tony fund-raisers, Carter got dirty and modeled to America that sometimes as citizens it is simply about showing up on a volunteer workday.

It is a powerful image that speaks to us all. I may well not found a world-renowned peace center or win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I can lift a hammer or mow some grass…just like the President. For the things that make him a beloved ex-president are precisely those things that are accessible to all the rest of us semi-retirees: making the small efforts purely for the benefit of someone else.

So good for you, President Carter. I am glad I was there back in 1980. I hope you recover and on behalf of all of us semi-retirees, please keep it up.

            Do not go gentle into that good night

            Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

            Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Burn and rave, Jimmy, burn and rave.

The Three Secret Words

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Having been married for well over thirty years I sometimes get asked what accounts for the longevity of a relationship. Of course there are so many factors that it is impossible to highlight any one or two things that insure matrimonial happiness. But I often use the opportunity to give people the three simple “secret words” which, if said often, with sincerity, while gazing into your spouse’s eyes, will 100% guarantee a long and loving marriage. The three words?

“I’m paying attention.”

Okay, one of the words is a contraction.

The point is that my wife knows I love her but what she doesn’t know is whether, at any given moment, I am actually paying attention to her. How, you might ask, could you ever be inattentive to someone you truly loved? I honestly don’t know but it happens, trust me.

And if it happens in your most intimate human relationship, it is likely common in interaction with schoolmates, friendships, work colleagues and other associates. In a world of relentless multi-tasking and uninterrupted connectivity to electronic media, the temptation to tune people out, to half-engage, is constant. But precisely because of that, we also have the opportunity to profoundly impress, because simply being mindful of others and truly present when interacting sends a message of respect which, over time, generates regard, even affection.  Because of our distraction-infested environment, even small investments of undivided attention yield huge returns.

Decades ago corporate bureaucracy, simple scale, and process-obsession were commonly blamed for workplace disaffection. Now, that sense of irrelevance has been democratized by inattentiveness in individual relationship. If you are a manager, a team leader, a member of a family, you know this. We declare our intentions to that colleague, friend or even spouse (“to love and to cherish, til death do us part”) and then we demean that intention by taking that call in the middle of a conversation, or constantly peeking over a shoulder to see who else has entered the room, or carrying on a conversation while looking at the computer screen.

I know because I’m the worst.

While most of us recognize this in ourselves, who among us is going to go cold turkey on our multi-tasking? It is simply unrealistic. But we do not have to toss away our cellphone or embark on a wholesale denial of distraction in order to make a change. Rather we simply commit to finding steadily increasing opportunities to surrender a potential distraction in service of a higher good, whether it’s turning your cellphone off during an important meeting, turning away from the computer screen to talk to a child, whatever. The discipline of attentiveness is not forfeiting distractions altogether; but it is conscientiously accumulating opportunities to narrow your field of attention if only for a limited amount of time. Even that is a challenge, but it helps to find somewhere to start.

Many years ago I had a much taller mentor. I used to think that part of my admiration for him was associated with his stature, but as I think back I realize that it wasn’t that at all. What affected me about him was not the fact that he was so tall, but that, because of his height, whenever he spoke he would very slightly incline toward me. In that little move I was made aware, if only subconsciously, that I was the recipient of a great voluntary gift: his undivided attention. Parents of small children do the same thing instinctively.

So try this very small little exercise: whenever you are standing around having a conversation with a family member, friend or co-worker, particularly if it is in a crowded room or another place where potential distractions exist, lean toward them ever so slightly, almost as if you were attempting to hear better. A very small change in body posture alerts you that your intention is to focus solely on the person with whom you are speaking, and doing so faintly reduces your field of peripheral vision which also reinforces to your brain that this interaction is an important one.

Over time those with whom you relate will get the sense that they always have your undivided attention, something increasingly rare in their daily experiences. And for you, this little practice also becomes a reminder to find opportunities to build a discipline of attentiveness in other parts of your life as well.

But don’t get creepy and invade your companion’s personal space. The posture change should be very small, natural, and almost unnoticeable. After all, it is not some grand gesture meant to persuade your companion that you are paying attention.

It’s a small gesture meant to persuade yourself.

The Commons Problem (or the Real Case For Culture)

08vespaEveryone likes the guy who figures out how to get things done: the fixers, the innovators, the Radar O’Reilly’s who develop the informal network of favors to cut through the bureaucratic silos and “make things happen”. When I was running a large sales organization I had plenty of those folks and they were often my most successful producers. They had figured out how to grease the system, who to call for an expedited approval, how to divert disproportionate corporate resources toward their pet accounts. By way of full disclosure, as a young salesperson I was probably one of those people myself.

I admired those teammates but to be honest, they scared me as well because I could not shake the thought that if everyone behaved in that same way, the company would inevitably collapse into chaos. The license to self-organize, to collaborate across boundaries and to innovate processes depends on a tight alignment between the self-interests of the individuals and the goals of the organization to which they belonged. We often take that alignment for granted but I knew full well that was a mistake to do so.

In 1833 William Forster Lloyd, an English economist, wrote a paper in which he described the behavior of herders who are all grazing their cattle on the same parcel of common land. An individual herder could make the independent decision that it is in his self-interest to add cattle to his grazing herd even though it would contribute to the quicker depletion of the commons grasses. He makes that choice rationally since the short-term benefit of his additional animal accrued to him alone while the negative long-term impact on the commons was shared across the entire group.

But if all the herders were independently making the same rational self-interested decision regarding individual gain and collectivized loss, then the commons would deteriorate at a far faster rate and everyone would suffer. This metaphor has come to be known as the “tragedy of the commons” and was later popularized in 1968 in an article by Gareth Hardin which set off a decades-long debate on exactly what this meant for ecology, population, pollution, political philosophy, social welfare, sustainability and on and on.

The “commons problem” is one of our most profound challenges for businesses, indeed all organizations. We want people who figure out better ways to do things, not simply people who do more of the same thing. Yet when self-interest is the compelling motivation those successes may simply reflect cutting corners which create more work for others, or engaging too many resources thereby depriving them from their peers. Their short term individual motivation may stunt rather than enhance the ability of the organization itself to grow. Modern collaboration tools may indeed allow new interactions among colleagues but if those interactions merely quicken the ability to exploit self-interested behavior, we haven’t really done much good.

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” Hardin suggested. In modern business terms we might replace “freedom” with collaboration, delegation, innovation or any number of buzzwords to describe colleagues solving problems in more kinetic, boundary-busting ways. And for those of us raised on the extrapolations of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, the idea that self-interested motivation could be anything but good is disquieting. But every sales leader knows the salesman who would enthusiastically sacrifice company profit if it helped him overachieve his personal sales quota. Most managers have encountered score-carding problems where cross-divisional programs benefiting the entire organization would be rejected solely because individual executives could not agree on which departments would get to report the financial gain, a perverse restatement of the commons problem in which executives may rationally choose not to engage in the common good unless it maximizes his or her short term position.

A sea of thinkers since Hardin’s article have suggested numerous ways to minimize the impact of the commons problem. Hardin’s own conclusion was simply either regulating commons land or privatizing them altogether. However, within business organizations we have a secret weapon: our corporate culture.

Too often a company culture initiative is a managerial afterthought or an ineptly executed HR distraction. When it is managed poorly it is fair game to be ridiculed and derided. But our delight in pointing out poor execution should not trick us into dismissing the need for culture itself. A healthy common culture is the greatest tonic to unreserved self-interest. The governor against poor individual decision-making is the shared sense of belonging to a bigger enterprise with shared goals and long term values. Aligning the interests of the individual as tightly, passionately and genuinely to the interests of the firm is both the essential ingredient to real innovation and the preeminent responsibility of corporate culture.

How nice it would be if organizations adapted as fluidly and gracefully as the murmuration of a flock of starlings but that just doesn’t naturally happen. We require innovators at all levels pushing the boundaries of our bureaucracies and discovering quicker and better ways of doing things. But they must do so on behalf of the common welfare not just their own. Company cultures are built precisely to remind individual innovators of the corporate community to which they belong, and to provide the sure footing from which to channel their energies toward the common aspirations of the organization.

In an age where working across corporate silos is all the rage, don’t be fooled: the true leader’s job is not to knock down walls but rather to pour firm foundations.

Book and Poem

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This week I finished one of the most arresting books I have read in some time, A New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s meticulously researched indictment of the racial caste system created in America as a result of the law enforcement, prosecutorial and sentencing changes brought about by the War on Drugs. I felt angry and ashamed that, as a citizen and voter, all this had happened during my watch. Ferguson, Staten Island and North Charleston surprise me now not so much at the violence and anger, but rather at the level of restraint shown by communities of color who have been so profoundly and systematically alienated from society and civil protections.

It was with this peculiar perspective that I recently reread an old favorite poem from William Butler Yeats. Written in 1918, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is a tribute to Major Robert Gregory, an Irish aviator shot down while fighting alongside the United Kingdom even as Ireland was attempting to wrest its own independence from England. It is a brief, first-person reflection on the surprising motivations of an Irish airman as he faces certain death. It is not love of country, nor duty, nor personal gain, nor glory that drives him; he does not hate his enemy, he suspects the conflict he is a part of is essentially futile in any case. It is only a “lonely impulse of delight” that sends him skyward. He has done the math and nothing he has experienced or will experience, is worth altering his course.

Any Irishman who fought alongside the English in World War I was considered a traitor to Irish republicanism. To defend the brutal English institutions that kept Ireland in subjugation was inexcusable to nationalists. Thus the perspective of the poem’s Irish narrator is all the more highly charged, so much so that Yeats waited until 1920 to publish it in consideration of its political implications.

But now, as I reread it fresh from finishing Michelle Alexander’s powerful critique, I no longer hear in it the voice of a 20th century Irish airman fighting someone else’s war, but instead that of a 21st century African American police officer guarding someone else’s peace. Choosing to serve and protect the public, he guards those very institutions that produce the disaffected classes who no longer believe that citizenship extends to them.

The poem is a statement of profit and loss, weighing continued life against imminent death and choosing death. Like so many others I had been preoccupied with comprehending the narrator’s “lonely impulse of delight” when I first read the poem several years ago. What could draw one so powerfully to his own destruction? But perhaps the key to the poem is understanding instead what has made the accounting of a man’s past and future so cheap. It has all of the sudden become to me a profoundly sad poem, an upsetting one. Society endangers itself when entire classes of citizens do their own accounting and reason that there is little to live for, that circumstances will never change, and that the deck is too rigidly stacked against them.

In our history there have been those times in which the fraying of the social fabric has been enough to bring about reform and renewal. Let’s hope that this election cycle brings these big hard issues to public attention. For until we create a grassroots affection for real justice, we should not wonder at those for whom citizenship, the social order, possibly even life itself, are merely a “waste of breath”.

The poem:

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.