Wandering Into Wisdom

This blog chronicles the knowledge, insight and wisdom I encounter every day as a leadership consultant, executive coach, educator, father, friend and citizen. This site is dedicated to my father, Louis (Jack) Laughlin, who passed on to me an appreciation for wisdom. A special thanks to my friend Isaac Cheifetz, a businessman and journalist, who helped me understand the value of blogs and encouraged me to write one.

Little Old Ladies*

A voicemail left by a witness to an accident in Texas is making the rounds on the Internet. Yet another example of the kind of news and entertainment disseminated through the Internet. Apparently the voicemail system where it originated crashed because it was forwarded so many times. The narrative is quite humorous. Link to Voicemail

Mind Control*

Rebecca Saxe is a neuroscience researcher at MIT where they investigate areas of the brain responsible for things like moral judgment. One of their experimental techniques is to temporarily disrupt parts of the brain to study the impact on moral judgments. When someone said they hope she doesn’t take calls from the Pentagon she responded, “I’m not. I mean, they’re calling but I’m not taking the call.”

Illegal Carpooling*

A French bus company sued a group of janitorial workers for organizing carpools instead of taking their busses on the grounds that it is "an act of unfair and parasitical competition". You simply can’t make this stuff up. Guardian Article

Good News for Some*

The U.S. government’s H-1B program provides visas to skilled workers and university students. Last year’s allocation was dispensed in one day but six months into this year there are still visa’s available. This is bad news for the economy but good news for those who want visas. Wall Street Journal Article

Wikipedia Accuracy*

A study done in 2005 by the world renowned scientific journal Nature found Wikipedia’s accuracy to be comparable to Encyclopedia Britannica. A surprising outcome given that Wikipedia articles are written by volunteers. Wired Article

Like Video Games*

I have been trying to help my son understand that learning math takes practice and repetition. One doesn’t simply learn the concept and then apply it. One has to practice. After numerous attempts to explain the concept I finally asked him what it’s been like watching me learn to play video games. He paused, grinned and said, “OK, now I get it.”

Science*

“Science is what we do when we don’t know what we’re doing.”
Professor Alvaro de Rujula of CERN

Sick Irony*

An outbreak of swine flu occurred simultaneously in pigs at the Minnesota State Fair and a group of children housed in a dormitory on the fairgrounds. Officials wonder if the pigs infected the kids or visa versa. It seems that globetrotting humans spread illnesses much more quickly than penned up livestock and that our taste for pork may not be our only threat to pigs. New York Times Article

Reload*

"More amazing than the frequency with which we shoot ourselves in the foot is the speed at which we reload."
An observation made to a friend of mine by his boss.

How Much Do You Know*

A week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century. Want to know more? Watch this video.

Gulf War Syndrome*

Researchers at Johns Hopkins hypothesize that Gulf War Syndrome is an allergy to beef proteins caused by the calf serum used to produce vaccines given to soldiers. Veterans developed symptoms after returning home where the beef content of their diets is much higher. Link to Abstract

Social Media*

Social media is not changing our world; it's creating a new one.

Learning*

To learn something completely you must ultimately teach it.

Confidence*

"Arrogance is thinking you have nothing to learn. Confidence is knowing you have something to teach."
Marty Marzolf, my business partner and mentor for many years.

Halftime*

In his book “Halftime” Bob Buford distinguishes between the first stage of our lives which is typically dedicated to achievement of success and a second stage devoted to attainment of significance.

D.E.T.A.C.H.*

Don't Even Think About Changing Him/Her

Ubuntu*

"Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate."
Desmond Tutu

Does It Need To Be Said*

These guidelines for feedback are used in support groups that encourage participants to share openly, listen carefully and comment sparingly.

1) Does it need to be said?
2) Does it need to be said now?
3) Does it need to be said by me?

The Secret*

Spiritual leaders and philosophers throughout history mention three things with some regularity as ingredients to a fulfilling life.

Faith in something greater than ourselves
Gratitude for what we have
Service to others

Unemployed*

The current economic recession has impacted a significant number of people, some groups more than others. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the June unemployment rate for men (10.6%) is significantly higher than for women (8.3%).

Of The People*

"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." From V for Vendetta

Maximum Effort*

The body has two modes of generating energy, aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen). Endurance athletes train to increase their body’s ability to deliver oxygen to their muscles. They also train to develop a sense of how far they can push themselves. If they exceed their body’s ability to deliver oxygen their metabolism turns anaerobic and the buildup of lactic acid significantly decreases their performance. The key is to exert the maximum amount of effort without exceeding the body’s capacity to deliver oxygen. This would seem to apply to many other aspects of life.

Wheels*

When we think of the wheel as one of the most important technological advances in history we tend to think of transportation. Wagons, bicycles, cars and trains all ride on the wheels. Other important applications of the wheel are gears and pulleys. Gears allow for the amplification and transmission of force which allowed wind mills and water wheels to do work. Pulleys allow for a small amount of force to be amplified to a much greater force. Many ancient building projects depended on this technology and large sailing vessels would be impossible to handle without pulleys to turn the rudder and control the sails.

Eat Right*

According the World Health Organization 1.2 billion adults are overweight and 800 million are undernourished. This means that one third of the world’s population is not eating a healthy amount of food.

EQ*

EQ is defined as the ability to identify, assess and manage the emotions of one's self, others and groups.

The Payoff*

Craigslist is a website for classified ads that has reached $100 million in annual revenue. As amazing as that may seem, national revenues for classified ads in newspapers have dropped by $10 billion in the last eight years. If we assume that Craigslist took 10% of those revenues, some speculate it’s significantly more, that would account for $1 billion of those losses. Since Craigslist’s annual revenues are only $100 million that’s a 90% decrease in cost. It’s one of the best examples of doing more with less on the Internet. It’s also a major headache for the newspaper industry.

Freemium*

Freemium is the term Fred Wilson gave to the business model used by many software and cloudware companies like MusicMatch and LinkedIn. "Give your service away for free, possibly ad supported but maybe not, acquire a lot of customers very efficiently through word of mouth, referral networks, organic search marketing, etc., then offer premium priced value added services or an enhanced version of your service to your customer base."

Good Ideas*

When I began my marketing career one of the first axioms I heard was, “Good ideas can come from anywhere.” Not long after struggling to find good ideas to drive our business I reworded that axiom to state, “Good ideas have to come from somewhere.” The first axiom insinuates that good ideas will appear without planning and effort. The second axiom recognizes that good ideas are the product of clearly defined insights and hard work.

Bluffing*

Some experts suspected that Saddam Hussein resisted attempts to prove Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction because he was afraid it would invite an attack by Iran. He admitted as much during his interrogation. How often, in our own daily lives, do we misinterpret the posturing and actions of others because we assume it is directed toward us?

A Strange Look*

I was watching a meteorologist on the local news and noticed she had a strange expression on her face. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was unusual until I realized that her eyebrows were moving. I have become so used to watching newscasters with Botox treatments that seeing one with normal facial expressions looked out of the ordinary.

Watching Big Brother*

“George Orwell imagined a world where Big Brother is watching us. We, instead, with little cell phone cameras are watching Big Brother every moment of the day.”
Henry Jenkins, Director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT

Go The Distance*

I travel from Minneapolis to Los Angeles frequently to visit family. Despite some differences in climate and traffic they are pretty much the same. It's strange to think that it's about the same distance from Paris to Moscow.

Flato*

As an undergraduate student I volunteered at a nursing home. I was struggling to understand life and figured that’s where the wisdom was. I particularly liked an African American gentleman named Flato. He would have objected to the label gentleman since he had very little education and spent most of his life on the road. His stories and perspectives on life taught me a great deal. I remember once telling him that I was getting tired of school and thinking about quitting. I figured he wouldn’t lecture me about getting an education. I was wrong.

Walking Master*

I walk our dog almost every morning. I realized this morning that I get more exercise taking care of the dog than I ever did taking care of myself.

Hey Neighbor*

I was driving near our house a couple of days ago and came to a stop sign. It was raining so the bottom of my shoe was wet and slipped off the brake. I lurched forward and stopped again just as another car honked with an angry tone. I looked up just in time to see the look on my next door neighbor's face change from angry to smiling when he realized it was me. It makes you wonder how much of the anger we experience every day is driven by lack of familiarity.

Intelligence*

There is a lot of controversy about what I.Q. scores really mean. My psychological measurements professor made it clear to us that I.Q. is highly correlated with success in school and anything else constitutes a "misuse of the assessment."

When David Usually Wins*

Ivan Arreguín-Toft is a post doctoral fellow at The Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He recently wrote “How the Weak Win Wars” where he states that in asymmetrical conflicts, where one side is significantly stronger than the other, the stronger side wins about seventy percent of the time. What’s fascinating is that when he looked at the conflicts where the weaker side used unconventional strategies the win loss rates were reversed. It turns out that David usually beats Goliath, if he uses unconventional strategies. Related Article by Malcolm Gladwell

Late Bloomers*

While you will pay much more for a Picasso painted in his twenties you will pay much more for a Cezanne painted in his sixties. It turns out that talent can emerge at either end, or the middle, of a person’s life depending on the nature of their creative process. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a wonderful New Yorker article about this topic.

Sustainability*

There is a growing global dialog about sustainability and responsible use of resources. Although the discussion centers on environmental impact, the fact is, we're going to run out of resources sooner than people realize. Here are the world population figures for the last three centuries, with each of us using a lot more resources than our ancestors did three hundred years ago.

1700 – 0.6 billion
1800 – 1.0 billion
1900 – 1.7 billion
2000 – 6.1 billion

What Are You Planning*

Much of what I've learned about strategic planning over the years can be summed up in the following statements.

More is not a vision
Hope is not a strategy
And the first casualty of any battle is the plan

Dog Gone*

We recently lost our beloved beagle Beans who was so difficult to train we had to keep him on a leash in the house. We soon got another rescue from the Humane Society, a border collie named Rio. The difference is remarkable. He seems to know what to do before we give the command. We loved having a smart dog, right up until we caught him sneaking stuffed animals out of my daughter’s room and opening the gate to his pen. Border collies are considered the smartest breed of dogs while beagles are in the bottom ten percent. In the end, this just means different kinds of challenges. Dog Intelligence Rankings

On The Mark*

"If you don't know who the mark is after 30 minutes -- it's you."
Old Poker Axiom

Irrelevance*

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” General Eric Shinseki Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Delusional Leadership*

In a study done by Bain & Company 80% of the CEO’s polled believed their brand provides a superior customer experience, but only 8% of their customers agreed. From a slideshow by Futurelab.

Creative Genius*

I recently watched this video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about the way she learned to deal with the success of her book “Eat, Pray, Love” which was on the New York Times #1 bestseller list for over a year. She looked to the ancient Greeks and Romans who believed that creativity was a gift from divine spirits that ebbs and flows through the artist. The Romans called this spirit a "genius." This belief does not diminish the work but provides a buffer from the creative roller coaster that can claim so much of their lives and sanity.

Clarity Out Of Chaos*

A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter and Gamble, wrote a Harvard Business Review article about the function of a CEO. His thoughts express one of the key challenges for leaders; making clarity out of chaos. One of the big surprises for new executives is the complexity at the top generated by a constantly changing world and complex organizational dynamics. Many of them thought that any lack of clarity by the previous leadership was simply a communication problem or lack of clear thinking. They are soon on the phone with their predecessors looking for advice.

Telescopic Time Machine*

It turns out that the Hubble telescope isn’t just for looking far away but also back in time. If you look at galaxies a billion light years away you‘re also looking at them a billion years ago. It’s how astronomers are studying the origins of the universe. If digesting that concept gives you a bit of a headache you should listen to this astronomer explain what they’ve discovered.

Ancient Quotes*

Ancient quotes are always my favorites. They make me realize that modern society is not losing ground; we're right where we've always been.

Angry Quotes*

How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it. Marcus Aurelius

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone; you are the one who gets burned. Buddha

Whatever begins in anger ends in shame. Benjamin Franklin

I Hit My Head*

Studies on concussions have concluded that the recovery time is significantly longer than previously thought and that a second concussion on top of the first is extremely dangerous. There’s a new system emerging for evaluating concussions by medical professionals called the ImPACT Test and some states have passed laws that require children under 18 be examined by a doctor after a significant event.

Stone Cold*

We hear each day that terrorism makes the world a dangerous place for Americans. We can’t seem to comprehend the thirst for violence and destruction of those who would attempt to frighten us. It makes me wonder how a group of these terrorist would fare if placed in proximity to one of our most violent street or prison gangs. I’m not certain who would start the fight, or who would win, but I’m sure there would be one.

Other Languages*

Anyone who watches the Dog Whisperer knows that dogs communicate primarily through touch and body language. People also communicate through these more primal methods. Politicians understand and use these “other languages” very effectively. So do most successful leaders.

Not What It Seems*

My son plays Lacrosse and I recently discovered that the primary function of a mouth guard is not to prevent injury to the teeth but to prevent concussions. Teeth slamming together during a fall is actually a major cause of concussions. While I was learning Spanish I came across the word constipada. You can guess what that means but you’d be wrong. It refers to nasal congestion. Sometimes things are just not what they seem.

Authentic Humility*

It seems a more authentic display of humility to commend others than to denigrate oneself.

Who's Flying The Plane*

The National Transportation Safety Board found that 73% of the incidents in its database occurred on a crew’s first day of flying together, before people had the chance to learn through experience how best to operate as a team—and 44% of those took place on a crew’s very first flight. Even more frightening is the way airlines decide on crew assignments. A computer decides crew assignments based on the most cost efficient use of individual crew members. From a Harvard Business Review interview of J. Richard Hackman

Experience*

A colleague and I were surprised how little time and effort it took us to put together a new training program. We deduced that we moved quickly and efficiently not because we knew what was necessary but because we knew what was unnecessary. That’s the true gift of experience.

Sounds Too Good*

A talented presenter can make even the most mundane or insignificant topics seem dramatic and important. They use charts without a zero baseline to make changes look more extreme. They show astounding hindsight before they predict the future. But most of all, they cultivate a manner of speaking that exudes authority and knowledge, a British accent helps. I’m always a bit guarded when people present too well.

Underestimated*

A thirteen year old from Florida recently took his dad’s credit card, the keys to the family car, his report card and a flight across the country, without the knowledge or permission of his parents. Even more amazing than his age, he has aspergers, a mild form of autism. Sounds like he’s a lot more functional than anyone thought. I'm sure our friends at Homeland Security are scrambling to figure out what this means and what they should do next. News Broadcast

The Cure*

The recent outbreak of swine flu reminds us that western medicine can diagnose a lot more than it can cure. Here are the elements of our medical knowledge in descending order.

Diagnoses
Causes
Preventions
Treatments
Cures

Half Truths*

“A half truth is a whole lie.” My Fourteen Year Old Son

Practice Under Pressure*

My golf instructor showed me a drill that involves putting ten in a row from four feet away. I was surprised when he told me the purpose of the drill was to teach me to putt under pressure. Once I was within a couple of putts of achieving the goal, sick and tired of failing in earlier attempts, I would learn to putt when I desperately wanted to make it. Over the next few weeks my putting improved dramatically. I realized that I had been simulating the physical conditions but not the psychological conditions of putting during an actual round. It made me reconsider how to practice, and teach, a lot of other things.

Just By Accident*

It’s surprising how many discoveries are made completely by accident. Antibiotics were discovered when a scientist noticed that the penicillin mold contaminating his Petri dishes killed the bacteria around it. Discovery is just as much about seeing the possibilities of unexpected phenomena as it is methodical research.

Absolutely*

Two thoughts arise from various conversations I’ve had lately. An almost certain way to make a statement false is to make it absolute and evil is often done by people absolutely certain they're right.

My Left Foot*

I struggled to learn to water ski on a single ski. No amount of advice and instruction seemed to make any difference. Then one day the new ski instructor shoved me from behind. When I turned around to tell him to knock it off he pointed to my feet and said, “You’re left footed.” It turns out that I had caught myself with my left foot rather than my right meaning that, although I’m right handed, I’m left foot dominate. I put my left foot forward and rose out of the water on the first try. It’s amazing what a little expert diagnosis can do.

The Good Life*

In France full time employees are guaranteed 5 weeks of vacation and a maximum work week of 35 hours by law. The French turned the increased productivity provided by modern technology into more leisure time. On the other hand, Americans continue to work long hours and turned the increased productivity into higher incomes and increased purchasing power. One wonders who has the better deal.

Suffering Pleasure*

I’m reading a book by the Dalai Lama on Buddhism. Although some of the concepts are painfully complicated I’ve begun to grasp the basic principles. One is how pleasure leads to suffering, or away from happiness. Pleasurable experiences result in suffering because they lead to increased desires, cravings, frustration and even withdrawal. Makes sense. Just ask any addict.

Why Are You Here*

I knew an executive who used the following framework to handle day to day interactions with peers and subordinates. “Everyone who walks in my office needs either permission, help or to simply tell me something. Knowing which at the beginning of a conversation saves a lot of time and confusion."

Kids Need*

Three things we should never ration to kids.

Vegetables
Books
Time

Trust*

To trust someone they must have both good intentions and adequate competence.

How to Listen*

The guest interviewed at our Rotary Leadership Academy posed a question he uses to improve the effectiveness of his communication. “Are you listening to respond or understand?”

Bridges*

It is the nature of a bridge to touch both sides of an expanse and never be completely supported by either. This is also the reality of leaders who engage in diplomacy.

What's Your Answer*

Many leaders struggle to respond carefully rather than simply react to situations even when they do not require immediate action. A careful response allows time to understand your initial reaction, clarify the situation and consider the impact of your response on others.

Clear and Simple*

I know someone who was invited to watch a Space Shuttle crew in the simulator. He tells about an interaction that demonstrated how clearly and simply people can communicate to manage a situation.

Captain – Do you see the problem?
Pilot – Yes
Captain – Do you have a plan?
Pilot – Yes
Captain – Are you ahead or behind?
Pilot - Ahead

Wanna Help*

I was talking with someone who found the secret to dealing with a critical colleague. It turns out that her colleague complains because she doesn’t feel empowered to make changes. It’s as simple as asking her to help fix the problem and she’s on it like a dog on a steak.

Face to Face*

There’s an ongoing debate about the impact of social media on relationships. During a report at our church business meeting by our youth group about a regional youth retreat one of the adults asked how many of the kids from the other churches they knew. The girl said, "All of them." She must have noticed the quizzical looks from the other adults because she quickly followed up with, “We met them all on Facebook before the retreat." Sounds good me.

I Don’t Win*

While playing gin rummy with my daughter I noticed she had the chance to win but chose not to play the winning card. Assuming she had missed the play I told her she could have won. She smiled and said, “I know but I wanted to keep playing with you.” My kids constantly help me to see what’s really important.

The Aftermath*

The plague killed one third to one half Europe's population in a five year period around 1350 A.D. Although the epidemic caused pain and suffering on an unimaginable scale some theorize that it also changed the social structure in Europe forever. Land became available so poor surfs could now own their own farms and the church’s inability to stop the sickness brought its infallibility into question for the first time in centuries. It's possible that this new found freedom and prosperity helped drive the Renaissance.

The Few..The Proud*

With twenty years experience in sales and marketing I had more than my share of tense conversations about compensation and expenses. I recently received a link to a short video that addresses this topic in a delightfully humorous way. The Few..The Proud..The Salesmen

Future or Fad*

It’s difficult to know if social and consumer trends are a thing of the future or just a fad. Blogging has clearly established itself in social networking and electronic publishing but micro blogging, or Twittering, seems less certain. Here is a video that takes a humorous look at Twitter's real value, or lack thereof.

Belief-O-Matic*

There is a website called Beliefnet with a 20 question quiz, called Belief-O-Matic, which tells you how your beliefs align with various world religions. I can't vouch for its accuracy but I found it very interesting.

Lottery Bailout*

Imagine your state lottery goes bankrupt and the government uses taxpayer money to help pay the winner. Do you feel outraged, cheated and a little confused? Buried in the recent economic bailouts is a scenario that looks surprisingly similar. AIG sold Naked Credit Default Swaps which allowed investors to place bets on all kinds of securities that they didn’t own, and the American taxpayer helped pay them off. Here’s a link to an article that explains in more detail. The Real Crime in the Bailout

Busy as Bees*

A friend of mine used the most interesting analogy to describe her effort to prevent micromanagement by her superiors. “They need to let us measure the honey produced rather than try to count all the flowers pollinated.”

Gratitude*

Many people have noticed a pronounced sense of entitlement in recent generations. A friend of mine commented that the severe economic downturn has transformed her son by making him grateful for a job he thought was beneath him just a few months ago.

From Excess to Ethics*

While the politicians and media cry out for changes on Wallstreet some real changes may have already occurred on mainstreet. People have become much more interested in ethics than excess.

The Department*

I know an auditor at an international financial services company. They have a group simply called “The Department.” It is a group of computer hacker, ex CIA and ex FBI types that have one job, find fraud and get the money back. They don’t use the courts to do this; they literally steal it back. Then they let the courts sort out whose money it is.

Security or Privacy*

There has been considerable criticism of our intelligence agencies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but incompetence and interagency politics may not be the only issues. There is speculation that since the terrorists were operating in the U.S. the laws that prevent the NSA from monitoring domestic communications impeded them from telling the FBI what they knew. To avert future lapses President Bush signed an executive order making it legal for the NSA to monitor domestic communications. Privacy groups have screamed about the order but we must ask ourselves, would we have fought this change prior to 9/11 if it would have prevented the attack?

Wrong Turn*

I recently asked the students in my leadership class to define good citizenship. They said that a good citizen contributes as much as they can and takes just what they need. I thought it was a good answer and then realized it is almost verbatim the slogan popularized by Karl Marx. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” One wonders where it all went so wrong.

Student Teachers*

After years of teaching and consulting I realize that my initial goal to teach and help others has been eclipsed by how much I have learned. The endless variety of student questions and client needs has given me many more opportunities to learn than to teach.

Just Say Yes*

In the new member orientation for Rotary they said it’s customary to say “yes” whenever asked to help or volunteer. It gave me pause because I am used to organizations that abandon volunteers to do everything themselves. Later I realized that the “say yes” rule also ensures that volunteers can count on other members for help, making it easier to say "yes" in the first place.

Little Birds*

Micro blogging was introduced by a website called Twitter. I first heard about it, as I do most social Internet phenomena, from one of my students. The moment he said the word I looked around the room and said, “I just figured out blogging and LinkedIn. Now my son has a Facebook page and you tell me to Twitter. I’ll never catch up!” If you feel the same, here’s a two minute video titled “Twitter In Plain English” sent to me by, you guessed it, one of my students.

Better Off With Bugs*

"If all the insects on earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on earth would disappear. If all humans disappeared, within 50 years all species would flourish as never before." Jonas Salk

A New Paradigm*

A group of Christians started a program called “Lazarus at the Gate” which uses biblical references to develop financial principles. The name refers to the gospel story about a rich man who persistently ignored a beggar named Lazarus. They use generosity and gratitude as central principles to guide them. They consider wealth a blessing, potential idol and resource to be fairly distributed.

What Jesus Meant*

Quakers have a strong belief in a peaceful resolution to conflict and participate in reconciliation programs worldwide. The Quaker Shop has a bumper sticker that reads, “When Jesus said love your enemies, I'm pretty sure he meant don't kill them.”

The Printing Press*

The printing press was one of the most important advances in the development of our current society. The creation of new knowledge accelerated dramatically because existing knowledge could be more widely distributed. The Internet has transformed computers the same way the printing press transformed paper, and brings an interactive capability we are just beginning to explore. Guttenberg could never have imagined the impact of his printing press on the last five centuries. I doubt we can envision the impact of the Internet on even the next decade.

How to Be a Good Teacher*

Teach the basic subject.
Have an atmosphere conducive to learning.
Hold the student accountable for progress.
Have performance standards.

by Colonel Patrick Harrington, USMC

Leading the Troops*

The Army’s Leadership Field Manual utilizes the following axiom to describe effective leadership. “Leaders of character and competence act to achieve excellence.” The manual translates this axiom into the following model.

Be (character)
Know (competence)
Do (action)

Workfare*

I attended a Rotary leadership conference that hosted the president of a nonprofit organization that provides vocational training to people from economically depressed neighborhoods. His motto is, “The best social service program in the world is a job.”

Secrets*

We have all suffered the pain of a secret revealed at an inappropriate moment. I recently heard the story of a deathly ill father who told his fifty two year old son that someone else was his biological father. It turns out his father had married his mother when she was pregnant by another man. Although I’m sure the initial promise to keep the secret was made with the best of intentions, I’m equally certain he never imagined telling his son fifty two years later. The next time someone asks, "Can you keep a secret?" we might want to think twice.

Taxes*

Ever since their creation, taxes have caused controversy. Few argue with the need for public infrastructure and defense but other types of spending generate considerable debate. Even more contentious is the division of the tax burden. After decades of wrangling, the current U.S. tax code is 13,458 pages long. Finally, we arrive at the notion of taxation and spending as a method to manage the economy, without enough bread crumbs to find our way home.

Free Will*

Free will is an integral part of most western religious traditions. In this context we have a separate will from God. But free will also exists as the human ability to act contrary to our instincts. Unlike other animals we can choose to stand and face danger, not react when threatened, not eat when hungry, etc. Although animals can be trained to act in a similar fashion they do not do so of their own free will. It’s not simply that we do something better; we do something they cannot.

The Test*

Rotary International has a set of ethical guidelines called The Four-Way Test that members use to guide their actions.

Of the things we think, say or do:
First...Is it the truth?
Second...Is it fair to all concerned?
Third...Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
Fourth...Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

The High Road*

Sometimes people react inappropriately and out of proportion to a situation because of factors beyond our knowledge and control. I recently saw someone artfully navigated such a conflict. Even though they were surprised by the extent and nature of a colleague’s reaction to a misunderstanding, they apologized and offered a remedy. When their offer was rejected they walked away, now certain that they were not responsible for their colleague’s reaction.

Global Elections*

The Economist magazine does an Electoral College style poll of their readers worldwide to project what U.S. President they would elect. In the Global Electoral College poll of 2008 Obama won almost ninety eight percent of the votes. And we think he's popular here.

Limited Power*

I attended a Rotary function today where the principle of a magnate school outlined their efforts to improve the school’s quality of education. When I asked him what national policies could improve education he just laughed and said that local communities determine the quality of education, so he doesn't pay much attention to national politics. One wonders how many issues on the national political agenda simply can't be addressed by the politicians in Washington.

Saying Goodbye*

A friend of mine and I both lost our fathers in the last year. He recently completed his year of mourning as is customary in the Jewish tradition. I am struck by the way their customs allow time and support for mourning while clearly defining the moment that the mourning ends and life goes on.

Addicted to Debt*

I have heard various economists caution against the use of additional debt to stimulate the economy. They point to leverage as one of the key factors causing the crisis and worry that additional debt will amplify the problem. Their fear reminds me of one the key dynamics in addictive systems. The substance plays a dual role as both problem and solution. One uses the substance initially to feel good but the aftereffect is to feel bad; which then brings one back to the substance to feel good again which ultimately makes one feel even worse. You get the idea. The addict eventually has to quit, suffer the withdrawal and abstain from any future use of the substance.

Phelps Smokes Pot*

A British tabloid recently published a picture of Michael Phelps smoking a bong. He handled it with honesty and humility by confessing to smoking pot, admitting to poor judgment, apologizing publicly for his behavior and promising to never do it again. It's quite a contrast to the way many public figures handle similar situations.

Crips and Bloods*

The congressional vote on the latest stimulus package split almost exactly along party lines. It makes one wonder if gang dynamics have taken over our political system. Gangs form in prisons and dangerous neighborhoods for protection. They require absolute loyalty and lifetime membership much like political parties. Does survival in the current political environment require protection by a political party much like street gang in a dangerous neighborhood? Has the destructive nature of gang dynamics permanently taken over our political system? Only time will tell.

Dependants and Dependence*

I drove my kids to the store today so they could spend some of their allowance. I had a lot of other things I wanted to do but they depend on me to get around. Sometimes having family that depends on us is hard but what goes around comes around. I know too many elderly people who can’t or won’t depend on their adult children because their children could never depend on them.

Gimme Sugar*

I have an acquaintance that recently checked into a treatment center for carbohydrate addiction. Although this diagnosis sounds like a stretch, it might not be. An addiction is, “a dependence on a mood altering substance.” Since blood sugar levels have a significant impact on mood and refined carbohydrates raise blood sugar much more quickly than whole foods, this combination may be a recipe for an epidemic the likes of crack cocaine and crystal meth. Since the body quickly turns any excess blood sugar into fat you also have a recipe for obesity. Although an altered diet will solve the physical addiction, the psychological addiction presents a significant challenge.

Size vs Skill*

I was watching an exhibition match between an unskilled fighter and Naoka Kumagai: a five foot two inch, one hundred and fifteen pound, Japanese women's kickboxing champion. At one point during the match she kicks her much larger male opponent in the leg which he immediately mimics. As he's kicking her he lowers his hands slightly to retain his balance. She sees the opening and knocks him to the floor with a right hook. Despite his significant size advantage he was almost helpless against his highly skilled opponent.

Will It Never End*

I wrote a post a while back about the economic mechanisms that have caused oil prices to fall so precipitously. Even after writing that post I wondered if those mechanisms could account for the magnitude of the decline. Now I realize they didn’t. In fact, some of the market forces I described should have brought prices down much sooner than they did. So what happened? It turns out that many of the speculators who worked for Enron were hired by investment banks to continue their activities. When the bubble they created burst, oil prices dropped seventy percent. I’m beginning to wonder if there is any aspect of our economy the investment banks didn’t significantly impact…and that’s being polite. See related post It's Marginal.

My Hero Bill*

I work out at the YMCA with a guy named Bill. He’s about six feet tall with an athletic build much like a baseball player. He’s in considerably better shape than me but that’s not why he’s my hero. He’s my hero because he’s seventy five. As I thought more about it I realized that we typically pick a hero beyond our reach like a rock star, Olympic athlete, billionaire, supermodel, etc. I think it ultimately leaves us demoralized. On the other hand, I have twenty five years to get in shape like Bill.

If You Die Tomorrow*

I once heard a story about a manager who was a Vietnam combat veteran. He called a new subordinate in his office and said, “Your first task is to train a replacement like you’ll be dead tomorrow. Your second task it to learn my job.” Unless you're in a combat zone it seems a little melodramatic, but after years of managing operations I see the wisdom.

Cops and Kids*

I was watching the TV show Cops one day when I heard my daughter say, “She better not argue with the police or she’s gonna get arrested.” This was a real shock since I didn't know she was there and my daughter argues with us constantly. I don't usually let her watch the show since she's only ten but I realized, in that moment, that she was learning an important lesson. If you get drunk, use drugs, commit a crime or argue with the police you will probably get arrested. Maybe I should let her watch after all.

Critical Thinking*

I recently read about the lack of community development in a marginalized Minneapolis neighborhood due to drug related crime. I kept waiting for the author to propose a solution or plead for help but his examination ended with a condemnation of the police. I wrote an e-mail asking about his next step to solve the problem. His response read, “I have no idea.” Well, I had a boss once who told me that if I walked in his office with a problem and no pragmatic solution, I was just complaining.

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