Fast? Not so fast…

dreamstime_s_8909658You see it at intersections every day. When the traffic signal turns green the first car slowly pulls away while the next car in line remains until a safe space has developed and it then eases into the intersection. The third car is slightly more confident of the traffic flow but it too allows for a gap before proceeding. The process repeats itself down the line of vehicles until seconds or even minutes have passed before the final car begins to move.

This despite the fact that every single driver sees the light turn green at exactly the same time and could, theoretically, all proceed simultaneously.

But drivers are cautious in a line of traffic precisely because they cannot know the intentions of the vehicle in front of them. Is that person going forward as expected or will he suddenly stop, abruptly change lanes or make an un-signaled turn? We slow the pace of acceleration to avoid a potential wreck.

This may be the story of your company. The senior executive team unveils a major new priority with clever communications plans but when the signal is given to go, the organization’s response is sluggish. Top managers embrace the fresh agenda but middle managers and individual contributors creep along with a wait and see attitude, deadening the pace of change.

Perhaps there is a lesson for us in those roaring NASCAR race cars traveling 200 miles per hour, side by side, with only inches separating the tail of the leader and nose of the pursuer. NASCAR drivers travel at astounding speeds by maintaining a shared direction and a common goal. Every driver knows where everyone else is headed. While they may jostle for position there is little concern that the driver ahead is going to suddenly slam on the breaks or make a right hand turn.

Like street drivers at an intersection your employees may well be waiting a safe distance until they see their manager really commit to the initiative. They may have been so burnt by repeated abrupt changes in strategy, process or org structures that their adoption intervals are becoming larger not smaller. What’s worse, their dawdling response to a new program may be perceived by the business as an indictment of the merits of the initiative itself, leading well-meaning senior executives to replace it too soon with yet another project, only reinforcing employee skepticism about the staying power of programs.

Change agents may be the popular business celebrities. But there is an equally true business case for stability. It enables organizations, like race car drivers, to accelerate with confidence toward a common checkered flag. By affording new initiatives their full lifespan the organization actually grows less cautious about committing to change in general. This enables truly good ideas to succeed faster, and it also causes poor ideas to fail legitimately, that is from poor conception rather than slothful execution. Reducing the time to true success or legitimate failure saves a company money and resources. So the velocity of change should not be measured by the raw number of initiatives but rather by the discipline of the organization in committing its human capital to them.

That discipline happens when the organization’s history does not include abrupt turns in the middle of the race.


Pay attention the next time you are the last car in a line of traffic at a signal. Watch the behavior of the drivers in front of you. If your job was first and foremost to get as many vehicles through the intersection as possible during a green light cycle, what creative ideas might you come up with to make that happen?  Are there analogues for those ideas that could speed the pace of change in your business or organization?


Pete and Dissent

71nBWdDgN0L._SY470_To be honest, I came to appreciate Pete Seeger only indirectly and later in life. After all I was not yet born when the Weavers hit #1 with “Goodnight Irene”, and I was just a toddler when Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

I did enjoy his music, albeit unknowingly at first. Through Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio and others I heard Seeger songs but in other voices. In high school during the early 1970’s each morning we would listen to announcements over the school’s public address system. These were invariably introduced with the Byrds’ rendition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Seeger’s activist take on Ecclesiastes 3.

Only as an adult did I begin to understand the texture of his remarkable life. I came to know more of his musical legacy when he appeared so consistently in tributes from other artists and documentaries on the development of American popular music (recently in Laura Archibald’s fascinating film, “Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation”).

Seeger’s personal history was defined by an uncompromising consistency of character. The musical path from “Talking Union” in 1941 to “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in 1967 reflects a philosophical purity hard to imagine in many of today’s artists and antiheros. He dissented around war, labor, race, pollution, big-ness and civic alienation. He was a Party-affiliated Communist early on and though forsaking the party membership remained an egalitarian communist his whole life. He valued participation, political and otherwise, and never performed a concert without modeling it in invitations for the audience to join him in song.

Still I cannot help wondering, would a whole nation full of Pete Seegers be contentedly utopian, or simply insufferable? It may be impolite to say so this week, but I think insufferable. Progressivism seems to work best as a compass or governor on market forces, rather than as a replacement of them. It was in that sense that Seeger helped hurry change. And I do not believe it diminishes Seeger’s political legacy to suggest that his music’s resonance comes largely from its historical context as artistic dissent.

It is precisely this point that Pete Seeger’s death causes me to reflect upon in my own business and social life. How do I as a leader value and maintain the contributions of an individual whose point of view, if ever dominant, would be ruinous to the group?  Surely Pete Seeger’s life suggests that healthy dissent can not only be tolerated but revered. The notion of a gadfly has been part of Western thinking since Socrates. However, most of us find that the dissenters and challengers in our organizations are not the congenial Seeger but the irascible Socrates and, I admit, it is often hard for me not to prescribe hemlock.

For a healthy nation dissent is worth the effort, and that is why even many arch-conservatives permit a certain admiration if not to Seeger himself then at least to the country that eventually allowed him to exist and thrive as an artist. Mature businesses and social organizations have a similar need and the aged folk singer’s death reminds us of that. Many groups have within them that person whose perspective is so strikingly different and difficult that the leader must often exercise his own personal capital to protect and defend the nonconformist. Here’s hoping we do so.

I might hate to live in a world with only Pete Seegers, but I would equally hate a world with no Pete Seegers.


Think about your business or social organization. Is there a “Pete Seeger” bringing a different voice? If not, should there be? And if so, is that voice cherished or merely tolerated. The answers to those questions may well be a good thermometer to the maturity of your group.



I saw them from the window as the car from the airport turned onto the Custom House Quay on the way to St. Stephen’s Green. There on the sidewalk along the River Liffey were six gaunt, bronze figures, starving ghosts trudging a despairing path toward the Dublin dockside to board centuries-gone emigration boats to North America.

It was Rowan Gillespie’s sculpted monument to the Great Famine of the late 1840’s in Ireland, where over a million people died and another million had to emigrate. I knew the piece was in Dublin but had never seen it in person. Tired from the long flight, I almost missed the figures, small and incongruent among the commercial buildings of modern Ireland. But when I did recognize them the effect was jarring.

I tried to think of a similar public monument to the underclass, to poverty that existed in my own country but could not. In one way that is understandable. The Great Famine in Ireland, triggered by potato blight, starved the country even while the Irish agricultural engine was still exporting food to England on behalf of absentee English and Anglo-Irish landlords. That brutality produced a direct link from the Great Hunger to Irish Republicanism so the starvation monuments are in that sense nationalistic rather than purely empathetic.

But to an American visitor, groggy from a day of transatlantic travel, the rough bronze figures set among the modern cars, buses and office buildings appeared like shards of useless metal on some great manufacturing room floor, the unimportant shavings left when the economic milling machine had smoothed away the rough edges of national commercial efficiency.

Would we profit from a similar public reminder? I think so. The current American political debate is often dogmatic and extreme, socialism versus market economy. The national reality is actually a precarious balance, one that presupposes constant healthy argument on the appropriate role of government, its institutional competency to perform its role, and the impact of government on essential market forces.

Not every government intervention is socialism; not every underclass is a “moocher”; not all income inequality is bad, nor is self-interest inevitably oppressive. Balance is difficult and when corporate scale and income concentration become too great (as during the Gilded Age) a self-aware society responds if for no other reason than its own interest. As American economic growth is concentrated on a smaller and smaller set of citizens, we may now be at that point again but our ability to respond by consensus is dulled by dogma, platitude and a commitment to philosophical purity.

So perhaps among the American private monuments to the marketplace, the corporate campuses, bank skyscrapers, and malls, we need some sort of public monument to the poor. It might remind us that a market based national economic engine will inexorably purge itself of unproductive materials and grind ferociously away the rough edges of inefficiency. But the discarded human chips and pieces of unproductivity have faces and families and, if unattended, can fuel revolutions. And in that important sense our monument to poverty might appeal to the empathetic and the self-interested alike.

Application: Here are two brief passages you may want to memorize or make note of.

Continuing in the Irish theme, William Butler Yeats, describes “The Countess Cathleen”:

“Sorrows that she’s but read of in a book, Weigh on her mind as if they had been her own.”

The Biblical prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 22:16) remembers the King Josiah:

“He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.

The Stubborn Glebe’s New Year

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It has been common practice since the early 18th century for British poets laureate to recognize each new year with an original poem. Not all are especially memorable but the practice of reflection and thoughtful commemoration by poets (laureate or otherwise) and fellow artists reminds us of our own obligation to consider the transition of these life chapters. As with individuals, the passing of a year is also a moment of significance for almost any self-defined organization and it is a valuable opportunity for its members to contemplate together.

Alas, most businesses commemorate the passing year with an annual report so deliberately dreadful to read that they are remarkable only for obfuscation or deadening self-evidence. My personal favorite is one annual report proclamation that routinely appears: “company’s ability to achieve its projected results is dependent on many factors which are outside management’s control.” I cannot decide whether this is simply a distinctly unnecessary expression, deliberately ironic, or an existential comment so profoundly frightening as to render it almost debilitating. Fortunately I believe it is the first.

Contrast it then, to Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” in which the poet, at the end of December, 1900, describes the departing age as an oppressive haunting gloom (“the Century’s corpse”) broken only by the tiny hopeful song of a thrush:

That I could think there trembled through     

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew     

And I was unaware.

Whatever our poetic competency, however, should not every thoughtful professional reflect during this time? For only in demonstrating that you understand what happened and why, do you win the authority to decide what could happen and how. All too often in my career I have seen failing projects and initiatives simply disappear as if they had never existed, like out of favor Politburo members from old Soviet photographs. What lost opportunities both to learn from mistakes and to model a self-awareness indicative of higher organizational thought.

Once we had a new product of such importance that we met personally with the CEO on a monthly basis to gauge the results. Unfortunately the product’s sales were disappointing and as results continued to lag, the CEO meetings got deferred, then more occasionally canceled and then they simply disappeared off the calendar altogether with no explanation other than the embarrassed silent acknowledgement that, for some reason, this whole effort must have been a colossal mistake.

How much more powerful to have gathered the team together and jointly discussed what happened and why. Were we wrong in our expectations? Did we simply execute poorly? Did the market somehow change without our realizing it? And most importantly, is there any reason to believe that the responsible team has learned from the experience and is less likely to make the same mistake going forward?

Public reflection is frightening but also energizing, whether it be in the context of a company, a community organization, a family, a marriage, or any other organized human endeavor. A leader must sponsor that activity in a way that solicits candor and rewards real insight, even when painful. The turning of the new year is a perfect opportunity to engage in that activity.

The key is open ended, non-threatening questions that solicit rather than inhibit consideration. Let me suggest two simple new year’s questions you may want to pose to your organization. I find it often helpful to give people time to reflect on them before they are discussed together:

1)    What one thing do you wish you could do-over in 2013?

2)    On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being “hopeless” and 10 being “irrationally exuberant” what number would you choose to reflect your own expectations of 2014 compared to 2013? (use the 1-10 scale because I have found that it is extremely difficult for people to assign a number without explaining themselves)

Set aside some time at an upcoming staff or team meeting, family dinner, evening with your spouse, and pose the two New Year’s questions above. Take part when it is your turn (if you are the group’s leader you may want to go last so as not to influence other answers). When it is someone else’s turn, listen for what is said and for how it is communicated. Insofar as anything reflects on you do not be defensive, do not justify or rationalize, do not attempt to fix. Just listen.

Through these exercises we often discover just how life moves on a ragged course at its own pace. In my very early days as a young professional I was the executive assistant to the CEO of a large Fortune 500 company so I often had to meet with the CEO in his office. As I stepped through the doors of the executive suite I always noted the two pieces of art that greeted me. On the left wall of the entry hall was a large abstract expressionist painting with splashes of tumultuous color. Directly across on the right was a placid, quiet Japanese screen of a calm pastoral setting. In my youthful conceit I thought the two incongruent styles silly together. But over the next 35 years in business I would think of them often. I realized only with experience that as I passed between those two artworks I modeled the fine line every executive should walk, between order on one side and chaos on the other, equally appreciative of the contributions of both.

Of course, maybe that is simply just another way of saying “our ability to achieve our projected results is dependent on many factors which are outside management’s control.”

Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe!

Application: Take some time to ask your team, your organization, your family the two new year questions.

Mandela and Me

I did not meet Nelson Mandela. Not privately, that is.

However, in 2003 my family, which included my wife and our 19 year old son and 17 year old daughter, traveled to England for a family vacation. A large reason for this particular trip was the opportunity we would all have to hear Nelson Mandela give a speech in London. It was somehow important to me that my children have the opportunity to be in the presence of South Africa’s towering leader and to be able to tell their children one day that they had heard and seen the great man in person. In 2003 Mandela was already 85 years old and I don’t remember anything of what he said. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were also on the program and I don’t recall their remarks either but I do vividly recollect Clinton and Blair on either side of Mandela, steadying him as they all three exited the hall after the speech. It was a beautiful image of respect.

As the world celebrated the life of Mandela last week I caught myself wondering why it had been so important to me that my children see Mandela. I have had the opportunity to meet other politicians and public figures and celebrities of all stripes and I cannot think of any other that I would go to such lengths to have my children hear. My mother-in-law recently remarked how much her own mother, a poor, south Georgia school teacher in the first decades of the 20th century, revered Mahatma Gandhi. Did Gandhi present the same fascination for her that Mandela did for my generation?

Both Gandhi and Mandela were complicated human beings. Certainly there were flaws and imperfections in both, consistent with living long, scrutinized public lives. Last week I read a piece critical of the media’s rush to make a saint of Mandela. I don’t do that. He was neither perfect nor uncontroversial. But for me Nelson Mandela modeled personal sacrifice and rare public reconciliation of an almost unimaginable nature. Mandela was not a saint to me; he was a hero.

A few years back the pastor of my church told the story of taking his young son to the zoo for the first time. As they reached the elephant enclosure they gazed at the great lumbering beasts and he heard his son exclaim “so…there really are elephants!”

I suppose that is why we took our family to London in 2003. I wanted my children to be able to look at the stooping, frail old man as he walked past, supported by a President and a Prime Minister, and say to themselves “so…there really are heroes!”

Five Christmas Chestnuts from Dickens

Fictional characters have always been powerful vessels within which to carry political, theological and philosophical arguments. The dramatic impact of a well-drawn character takes us places that purely reasoned debate simply cannot. We may not want a chastened Ebenezer Scrooge making modern social welfare policy (nor would we want a defiant John Galt) but Scrooge’s Christmas conversion story annually whispers deep into the psyche of each businessperson.

A Christmas Carol resonates in part because Dickens assumes social virtue that tempers self-interest with generosity. We can acknowledge the superiority of a free market to create wealth and yet we can still retain a healthy fear of the of the unfettered market’s natural disposition toward class inequality, just as we relish the benefit of nuclear power but govern the handling of fissionable material with great care.

For those that are “haves” either by virtue of good fortune or hard work, these five tiny gobbets of Dickens should remind us that the “have nots” do not disappear simply because we are busy increasing wealth. And for those of us who manage teams of colleagues, old Fezziwig’s example is well worth remembering during this season and beyond.

Here are five chestnuts for Christmas:


Some gentlemen visit Ebenezer Scrooge in hopes that he will make a charitable contribution to benefit the poor at Christmas time:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge.  “Are they still in operation?”

“They are.  Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”  said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.  “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. 


Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former business partner who rues his earthly preoccupation with business and has come to warn Scrooge of the same fate:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”


The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to witness a merry Christmas party put on by Fezziwig, his first employer. As they overhear two apprentices discussing Fezziwig, Scrooge remembers how his old mentor treated his employees with warmth and regard:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

“Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing in particular,” said Scrooge.

“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.

“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now! That’s all.”


Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past overhear a conversation between the young Scrooge and a girl he has loved:

He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”

“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”


The Ghost of Christmas Future reveals to Scrooge two hideous urchins and haunts Scrooge with Scrooge’s own words:

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”



“I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now,” Scrooge says. Could you make that statement for yourself this holiday season?

“I should like to be able to say a word or two to _________ just now.”

Holidays are times when professionals are likeliest to accept sentiments of gratitude sincerely and gratefully, without fear of hidden meaning or ulterior motive. Take advantage of that with a co-worker.

Perhaps also make a sacrificial charitable contribution this week (by sacrificial, the contribution should be such that it deprives you of something you would have otherwise purchased for yourself or your family).

Merry Christmas from The Stubborn Glebe!

Welcome to The Stubborn Glebe

For thirty plus years I worked in the technology industry, wrenching shareholder value from the market as a farmer coaxes crops from an unyielding soil. At times that occupation was overwhelming. I forced the flow of all my attention into the narrowest of channels in order to power the insistent waterwheel, unwilling that even a rivulet of mental vitality should escape the banks and nourish the parched fields of undisciplined thought.

At other times, however, I saw more clearly.

Then, I could spot the ironies that build their nests in all organizations, great and small. I noticed connections between a book, or poem, or cultural event and the job I did each day. The compartments separating my life at work and the work of life disappeared for an instant and I became part of something more enduring than the next project or month-end report.

Those moments led to this blog.

The Stubborn Glebe will celebrate work but perhaps not as other blogs do. This space is devoted to marrying our vocational lives to our cultural setting, using those cultural associations to compare and contrast our own professional narratives. Assorted perspectives make us better people, more self-aware and de-commoditized. I also believe they makes us better workers, whether we be professionals, craftsmen, home managers, entrepreneurs, or whatever.

But, what is a “stubborn glebe” anyway? The term most notably appears in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, a sensation when first published in 1751 and still a profound read today. I chose “stubborn glebe” because I am fond of the idea of a work-culture blog being titled by one of the English language’s most widely read poems. It is also fitting. In the professional world language routinely communicates information efficiently but The Stubborn Glebe will admire communicating understanding evocatively.

A “glebe” is an archaic term for a parcel of arable land. Cultivable land represents potential from which work extracts abundance but only stubbornly, through such demanding effort that we are often left too weary for cultural engagement. The glebe is meant to be a suggestive image for those of us who toil whether in home, office, field or factory. It is our patch, our place.

But “glebe” also has a communal suggestion. In medieval times the glebe often specifically described a tract of soil assigned to the parish church and worked by the peasants in rotation to provide income for the local clergy. Workers toiling in the medieval glebe did so in community. In the glebe they labored toward a purpose beyond simply their own physical well-being. It was a corporal toil from which they could impute spiritual meaning.

So each fortnight, and sometimes in-between, The Stubborn Glebe will offer up contributions for a small community of readers who see in their own work the potential for the noble, at least the poetic…or perhaps even the spiritual. Here’s hoping that together we discover those stories that take us from shabby business clichés toward those unnoticed potential metaphors all around us and in doing so, have a little fun as well.

And for those of us enslaved to task-orientation, I will even include a tiny application at the end of each piece.

Welcome to The Stubborn Glebe.


This week take time to read “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. Slowly. Memorize your favorite line or couplet and say it out loud to yourself during the week. Find it here.