Saturday, December 25, 2010


During my studies with the National Urban Fellows, I have been charged with a great many characteristics: gregarious, overly productive, at times mildly pedantic, literary; all of which I acknowledge and accept as things I need to either celebrate, or work on. Since my last post, I've been party to a whole host of leadership decisions, and perhaps have even been involved in a few, though I always hesitate to consider things 'leadership roles' until I've written about it, and perhaps that's one of my faults. In an interesting twist of fate related to that previous statement, one of our recent assignments was to develop a conversation using the Blackboard Discussion Board section of our Journaling class to properly treat the concepts of 'Reflection on Action, Reflection IN action, and Knowledge in Action.' How that has been represented in my agency varies in degree across the profile of personnel, however, I find it at once disturbing and amusing that Pope Benedict XVI would publish a statement using precisely the same terminology at the point in time when we had this assignment. A reflective practice indeed, and quite a serious set of circumstances.

As I wrote to my parents in an e-mail just this past week: "...the Integrated Workplace Management Software implementation heated up, the boss' 'transition team' meeting involved me, and his administrative assistant, and that's it, and strategic planning for the division is underway using the flow chart I designed..." of which I made light as though things had slowed down due to the holidays. But secreted away inside of that short summation of the last 5 days' events was a few kernels ready to pop on the hot surface of my race tuned, fabulous firebird funny car, nitro burning, quarter mile winning mind. That IWMS meeting I attended included, unless I miss my guess, every division head in the agency and me, to represent my division. I managed to gain some key insights, and introductions to the project team from the vendor. Luckily, I've made good friends with the Chief Information Officer, and I was able to ask him some of the hotter questions that remained as I left the meeting. Also, during the meeting, the announcement came of the selection of the interim Director, and they are not somebody at the even Deputy Director level, and that was a great deal more surprising than the mayor not simply picking a standing replacement. I also wonder, as Dove Seidman said in his article for Bloomberg News if this choice has the wherewithall to do that which is  "inconvenient, unpopular, and even temporarily unprofitable," or if there might have been a different purpose altogether.

Of course, this speaks to something that Professor Greg Sicek mentioned during a Brookings Institute presentation that the answer to our country's education dilemma is not something that is fast, cheap, and easy, and rather what we need to do is long, expensive, and difficult. In my training in the martial arts, these sensibilities are always expressed, nearly every lesson. There's no such thing as developing the necessary skills quickly, they are only acquired over time. "Repeating a technique 10,000 times, you begin to understand the reason..." and so on, and so on. A similar thing can be said to be visible in the current climate of 'Leadership training' or 'Business Leadership' wherein collections of people in groups large enough to be statistically significant enter into accelerated programs with pie-eyed dreams of leadership. "Tai Chi in 12 steps" as quintessential NYC personality Roberto Sharpe comments in the video below.

So, leadership, what does leadership mean? How can we assess who it is that has the prowess, training, and proper mentality in order to lead? The Harvard Business Review Blog carried a recent post entitled 'The Value of Ritual in Your Work Day,' in which the opening remarks contain a recollection of a scene in 'The Last Samurai' of a japanese warrior performing a tea ceremony. This, to the Western mind, is undoubtedly oxymoronic - a warrior arduously focusing on the minutiae of properly preparing something so effortlessly simple as tea. But, the author notes:

"This, I realized, was the source of the samurai's strength."

And I believe that is in essence the point of this post. Peimin Ni is a philosophy professor who periodically writes columns for the New York Times, and two of his recent posts are appropriate here. He starts by quoting an earlier article written by a visitor to the Shaolin temple in China:

In a 2005 news report about the Shaolin Temple, the Buddhist monastery in China well-known for its martial arts, a monk addressed a common misunderstanding: “Many people have a misconception that martial arts is about fighting and killing,” the monk was quoted as saying, “It is actually about improving your wisdom and intelligence.”

Not how easily 'fighting and killing' could be exchanged for 'being productive and making profits,' and 'martial arts' could be replaced with '[business] leadership training.' As is frequently the case, the leader of a particular school defines the character that such training will take: is it primarily technical, with a conveyor belt type approach, turning out finished students as fast as humanly possible? Or are there internal mechanisms that the teacher seeks to instill in his/her students before they are granted 'mastery'? Is the skill of passing on the acquired knowledge also instilled in the student? Or will the storehouse of knowledge for which they are now responsible remain solely with them? This begins to drive at the oft quoted ideallic state of 'creating leaders around you.' Though this is a rare and infrequent practice indeed.

Another story that Professor Ni relates is being invited to a dinner by a practiced and very effective martial artist, who had come to an impasse in a very philosophical section of a manual he had been reading. Knowing of Peimin's facility with Asian philosophical trends through history, the practitioner asked that he please decipher the text, and provide a certain level of insight into its meaning:

"I looked at the manual. It was on a martial arts style called xingyi quan. While the main body of the book was about postures and movements of the body and energy, which Mr. Wu had no trouble interpreting, the introduction was basically a treatise about metaphysics. It contained views derived from the Song dynasty neo-Confucian scholar Zhou Dunyi, in which an abstract concept, called wuji, the ultimate non-being, takes a central role as ontologically prior to taiji (t’ai chi), or “the primordial ultimate.” Oddly enough, the author offered no indication about how the ideas should be translated into the martial arts, as if it were all self-evident.

Thanks to Mr. Wu’s practical background and drawing on my own philosophical training and experience in the practice of Chinese calligraphy art — a form of kung fu which is deeply influenced by traditional Chinese philosophy — it did not take me long to convey the basic ideas to him and help him see the intellectual connection between the metaphysics and the martial arts, though we both aware perfectly well that it would take lots of cultivation for the connection to be embodied and manifested in the practice. The point is basically to empty oneself (including the metaphysical idea), so that, paradoxically, one can achieve unification of the self and the world! Mr. Wu sighed, regretfully, “Today’s martial arts practitioners focus too much on the surface performances. That is not real kung fu!”"
"Surface performance" or "performance measurement" or "metrics" or "profitability" or any of a host of other monikers that I could easily list here that readily demonstrate both the inherent callousness, and intrinsic fallibility of that system of thought. Tai Chi in 12 easy steps. What, precisely, has our efficiency gotten us? Robosigning and derivatives markets caused a global problem so severe that it will be a miracle if we ever manage to return to pre-2008 levels. The Washington Post's very detailed article of how we've become responsible for our own runaway extinction train is instructive, to say the least. Eight presidents in a row have touted initiatives to create American energy independence, and none have been successful. We expend far too much effort futilely attempting to create significant change at the margin, when it's the structure of the entire balance sheet that needs to be shifted.