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.

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.

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