Ten myths of talent

According to Buckingham and Clifton (2001), talent is a relatively misunderstood and abused concept, especially in the workplace. In this short essay, I will explore ten myths about talent (and strength) that are emphasized in Buckingham and Clifton’s book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” which I have attempted to give a stronger emphasis than in presented in the book by relating several insights as popular myths modern culture has propagated about the power and paradox of talent.

Myth #1: “Self-improvement (and success) comes through cultivating and increasing abilities in a wide variety of necessary skills for the workplace according to standards of excellence in the industry.”

In our modern world, the myth of “skill gaps” and “areas of opportunity” is a widely propagated deterrent to maximizing on our greatest talents and turning those talents into strengths.  Companies and organizations encourage workers to retune their weaknesses into strengths instead of focusing their efforts on increasing the capacity of their workers’ strengths, in order to create a more balanced workforce, but in the end the only result is a rather mediocre set of employees that work not out of passion but need.

Myth #2: “Education and mentorship unlock inner potential for greatness and must be built slowly through expert advice and institutional programs.”

Talents are “recurring patterns of thought” that are identified through yearnings (childhood passions), instinct (natural actions), and satisfaction (positive emotions).  Education and mentorship may assist the transformation of talents into strengths, but each person has been designed or formed from a young age to respond in certain ways, our unique signature.  The catastrophe of modern education is that the focus on a multifarious liberal education based on societal temperaments has replaced the tutorial education of the past, and many students find themselves stuck like a broken gear in a machine they barely understand or know how to respond to and struggle through like itinerant farmers in a famine.

Myth #3: “Some people are born with the rare gene of genius; everyone else is ordinary and must accept that even with schooling and training, they may be able to get a good job but shouldn’t hope for any more.”

Talents must be reinforced with knowledge (factual and experiential) and skills (structural procedure).  Talent by itself is like a lump of clay, which when molded by hands (knowledge) into a visual piece of art (skill) transforms into a strength, which can then be focused in one’s work or career and used proficiently.  Every person in the universe has talent, just as every person in the universe has the ability to breathe.  Genius isn’t a cause but a result.

Myth #4: “A liberal education (education in a mixture of fields) guarantees and prepares students to be good stewards of an intellectual legacy, and is the most important element of showcasing intelligence and preparedness for a complex, challenging, and invigorating career.”

Our lives must be focused on our talents.  It is not enough to identify one’s own talents, but career, education, family, all these must point toward an end in which the talents we possess are of use.  While a liberal education may be exciting (much like trying out various hobbies can be invigorating) a liberal education cannot be the sole source of knowledge and skill, but must serve as a stepping stone in a direction to focus the energies of the student.

Myth #5: “Human potential is limitless; people have the capacity for brilliance in any field, as long as they follow the correct method, the right teacher, and are inspired by greatness.”

Talents are built into our biological systems, part of our unique blueprint as individuals.  Talents are not a mystical branch of the ether.  Talents are electrical impulses that jump back and forth between the canals of our brain, and as we get older we are awarded with fewer talents, while the ones that remain become stronger.  While human beings are limitless, a human being is not.  People have the capacity for brilliance, but not in everything, and while a good teacher can help them in the path to unlock their potential, people are ultimately responsible for their own progress.

Myth #6: “The trendsetters and world-changers possess a quality of rare talent that most people could never imagine of themselves; such talent comes as the result of extraordinary circumstances, forging people of incomparable mettle.”

Strengths are not born but must be built with talent, knowledge, and skill.  In most cases, the giants of the world are not any different from anyone else.  They were all children once, they all went through puberty and experienced their first kiss.  And they will all grow old, weary, and pass away into dust.  The only difference between the giants of the world and the giants of the next is knowing what they loved, and their focus on doing what they loved.

Myth #7: “Many factors contribute to a person’s profession and career, including education, age, experience, sex, as well as previous successes, failures, and relationships. These factors constitute a person’s primary currency in the realm of job value.”

Too often, we find ourselves in a position because of exterior circumstances beyond our control.  However, position must be according to strength, not any other factors, a motion easier to say than to do and often requiring sacrifice of comfort in order to find a place where we can be truly valued and feel our contributions have value.  External circumstances are hindrances, barriers, and arguments against our true value.

Myth #8: “Standards of excellence promote positive value in worker output, defined from years of experience, planning, and research; such hallmarks secure the foundation of a company or organization’s success, and help to forge a path into an uncertain future, presenting employees with a model to transform themselves toward.”

Each person has a unique collection of strengths, and so each person has to contribute in a slightly different way to be the most effective.  Companies that focus on creating a singular worker according to an ideal model will never capture the essence of effectiveness, as much as an organization that focuses on utilizing the unique strengths of each person in the beautiful way he or she was designed.  A person who is invigorated, passionate, and strong is infinitely more valuable than a person who is stretched, confused, and tired.

Myth #9: “In order to maximize a person’s potential, the wheat must be cut away from the chaff.”

Learning how our weaknesses contribute positively to our strengths will help maximize our strengths instead of managing our weakness and wasting our potential.  Weaknesses stem from fundamental value decisions, and are part of the building blocks of our strengths.  Therefore, focusing on weakness means opportunities to maximize strengths are wasted.  Trying to separate the two inevitably causes a fracture in our strengths as well; however, focusing on the strength will generally transform the weakness into an asset.  For example, a worker who is lazy but incredibly creative, by putting opportunities for the worker to practice his creativity will transform his laziness into patience.

Myth #10: “Natural capacity and genius are shown at their highest in the image of the Renaissance Man, a person of flexible modus operandi who can seamlessly move from field to field in a quickly changing modern society, and who can understand a wide berth of disciplines and apply those across boundaries.”

You can’t and shouldn’t try to be the Everything in terms of strengths.  Focus on core strengths, and your effectiveness will be far greater, even if you are massively talented.  Leonardo da Vinci, while a great man, is celebrated far more for his art than his engineering, even though engineering was for many years his career and how he earned his keep.  We have faded notebooks of his engineering designs, but The Last Supper as evidence of his art.  There is a noticeable difference.  His art consumed him; had he not been a painter, we probably would never have known about his mechanical designs or his scientific theories.

Talents are a rare gift that each person born onto this earth possess, but which are left to despair to dry in the sun and wither away.  Only by possessing those talents and transforming them into strengths through careful study and critical praxis, and then pointing ourselves like an arrow in the right direction, will those strengths hit their mark.  The beauty of strengths is that unlike an arrow, they are a force of growth and beauty, and immediately upon hitting their mark, if watered will grow into a beautiful tree and bear fruit for everyone around us.

Intercultural immersion: an analysis of textual sources

One of the most humbling aspects of working cross-culturally is working with people from radically different backgrounds, and then inserting oneself into that pool of different mindsets and trying to make sense of it all. Duane Elmer and Richard Lewis have added to the cross-cultural conversation in their books Cross-Cultural Servanthood (2006) and When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures (1996). Both books attempt to explore the intersection between cultures, but while Elmer explores culture through his Christian vocation as a pastor and missionary, Lewis explores culture through his secular vocation as a teacher and businessman. While both authors approach the topic with radically different points-of-view, they do offer consensus on a select few areas, namely the need to separate oneself from the primary culture (home) so as to embrace the secondary culture (foreign), as well as emphasizing that while cultures can be different from each other, at the core cultures consist of people in their most fragile and malleable forms, capable of both corruption and beauty, no matter the culture or country.

While the old adage may be true: “people are just people no matter where they live,” cultures vary primarily because of three functions: history (collective experience), environment (physical surroundings), and language (communicated personalities). Lewis (1996) argues that cultures at their core function from a foundation of myth: “Germans believe in a world governed by Ordnung, where everything and everyone has a place in a grand design calculated to produce maximum efficiency” (Loc 1970). In his exposition of German culture, Lewis claims that this mythical perception of Ordnung permeates each person with the collective experience that is Germany, in the same way that Confucius permeates people from Asia (Loc 2904) and the establishment of the Napoleonic École normale supérieure defines how the French view leadership expectations (Loc 2016). From myths such as the Founding Fathers in the United States, to the old Viking Code in Sweden, to the tales of King Arthur and the Welsh stories of the Mabinogi in the United Kingdom, philosophies and cultural mythology form a very strong bond between people who claim a certain lineage, regardless of blood. Cultures may vary, but all people are flesh and blood and operate from a basic survival mechanism for the need of food, shelter, clothing, and security. Beyond even those four basic needs, people are connected through an even stronger link: their experience as human beings. Elmer (2006): “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization-these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit-immortal horrors or everlasting splendors” (Loc 600). To only accept that people are different and move on is not enough; transformation, regardless of station, is what divides human beings from trees, mountains, and even animals. Elmer argues that true transformation comes from Jesus Christ, but while Christ is the inspiration, servanthood (through Christ) is the only truly cross-cultural attitude can that reach across the divide and transform people (Loc 1476). Cultural concepts of servanthood must be abandoned however, and instead Elmer relates serving to learning, “seeking out the knowledge of the people, learning from them, knowing their cultural values and then acting in ways to support the fabric of the culture” (Loc 1130). Serving others by honoring their ways fosters trust (Loc 947), and as trust operates different in each and every culture (Loc 855), the process for gaining trust must be inductive rather than deductive through experience and an approach of humility rather than superiority.

Intercultural competence is not only a process of education but of immersing oneself into a culture so as to embrace that culture personally. While cultures are different and can only be accessed through a humble attitude of learning, action within a culture must acknowledge the secondary as primary (see first paragraph), as cultures operate not only from a historical and environmental vantage, but also through a linguistic medium. Language is more than a mere collection of sounds, but contains an entirely different philosophical approach to life (Lewis, 1996) and often trains people to act in certain ways by altering personality to fit appropriateness of speech (Loc 2288). Beyond adapting to the personality of the culture however, Elmer (2006) also encourages the art of listening: “You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or with impressing the other, or are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or are debating about whether what is being said is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered” (Loc 1217). These two aspects of language (a sensitivity to spoken personality and listening to learn) constitute the two most immediate needs for intercultural competence, and if trained successfully would solve innumerable issues in cross-cultural work.

The most dangerous pitfall for cross-cultural workers, however, is adopting the mentalities of us versus them, superiority complexes, and stereotypical generalizations. Elmer and Lewis fall prey to all three of these issues in their books. Elmer (2006) struggles with perspectivism, a strategy he believes is helpful where a cross-cultural servant makes “two or three local friends” in order to find a basis to work from (Loc 1359), while Lewis (1996) falls much further into the pit, eradicating his reliability through multiple outlandish statements that were probably written more for satire than education, but come off oafish and insecure (Loc 1749, 2274, 2691, 6326, 9152, 9199). I won’t bother with rehashing his statements, but the selection in the latter sentence are only a few of Lewis’s egregious errors in generalization he happily bounds through the bulk of his otherwise very helpful cultural tome, a trivial selection of far more than I wish to list in this short essay.

Regardless of these trite statements from the two authors, their books are worth reading and studying, as both men acknowledge that the importance of understanding differences in culture are ingrained deeper than just etiquette and restaurant menus, but serve much deeper foundations, from politics (Lewis, Loc 2912), history (Loc 6982), and even differing perceptions of servanthood (Elmer). To cross that boundary between culture, to learn from another culture through the process of serving and transforming the self into a different perspective, is the first step to synergy, Elmer believes (Loc 1033), and synergy is the key to operating at full value when working abroad. Lewis (Loc 2314) believes that an international team can only operate at full power when each member of the team not only is willing to work with one another, but respects one another for who they are at their core. Core beliefs are not something a person can be induced to give up unwillingly, and quite often are so deeply built into the core mindset that awareness of those core beliefs is as foggy as the foreign culture; the goal then, is for the cultural worker to adapt him or herself to the culture they are either operating in or interfacing with, rather than expecting the secondary culture to transform around the primary culture.

Book review: The gift of being yourself, by David Benner

Transformation, according to Benner, cannot be achieved without a thorough knowledge of both self and God. Benner states, “truly transformational knowledge is always personal, never merely objective. It involves knowing of, not merely knowing about.” Benner uses the example of the Apostle Peter to explain transformational knowledge, as Peter is the disciple readers have the most intimate details of his personal struggle regarding accepting God’s call on his life. Benner concludes his chapter by stating, “the authentic transformation of the self… is at the core of Christian spirituality.” Knowledge has the ability to inform, but only God has the ability to transform.

To truly know God, however, means that one must be embrace God at the in the “depths, not in the abstraction of dusty theological propositions.” Benner emphasizes experience over knowledge, and believes that prayer and meditation are the keys to unlocking true transformation in Christ. Objective knowledge will never be as powerful as relationship-based knowing, as evidenced by the personal time the disciples spent with Jesus rather than spending that time as a school, much like the Jewish elite such as Saul. Before Saul truly understood himself, he had an experience with Christ, and so must anyone desiring the same.

The first step to knowing oneself, however, is to recognize that God’s knowledge is far-surpassing and deeper than any other, even personal knowledge of the self. Benner states, “The generative love of God was our origin. The embracing love of God sustains our existence. The inextinguishable love of God is the only hope for our fulfillment.” Therefore, Benner claims, God must be at the core of the self, but to allow God into the self means to accepting oneself in all the beauty and darkness. Acknowledging the sin nature of the self is tantamount, but equaling recognizing the love of God as important. Benner uses the example of a young Jewish woman who found Christ only after she embraced the courage God gave her in acknowledging parts of herself she had long been ashamed.

However, Benner believes, it is not enough to face darkness, but God’s desire is for the darkness to be fully embodied, embraced, and sanctified through that personal relationship. In order to face darkness one must recognize God’s love, as Benner states eloquently, “sin is more basic than what we do. Sin is who we are. In this regard, we could say that sin is fundamentally a matter of ontology (being), not simply morality. To be a human is to be a sinner.” Benner suggests the Enneagram, a personality profiler used to reflect on one’s “sins”, but instead of approaching as a psychological tool, he uses the tool to help one face deep, raw truths and through that profound process attain a mastery of the self so that one can approach God’s love with humility and transparency.

One of the terrible dangers, however, of confronting sin is that human beings have a habit of creating false selves. False selves are created so that sins are shielded, not recognized, or at worst, held in honor. Benner calls this “listening to the serpent,” a reference to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Often, false selves are created not because of fear of authenticity, but because of the desire to be more like the Creator God but without God as a figure of authority. Benner states, “paradoxically, Adam and Eve got what they wanted – to be like God without God, likeness that was based on independence rather than surrender.” A similar example would be if a child wanted desperately to be like his physical father; he wanted his strength, his intellect, and his kindness, but he did not want anything to do with his father and wanted to stay as far away as possible. “The false self is the tragic result of trying to steal something from God that we did not have to steal. Had we dared to trust God’s goodness, we would have discovered that everything we could ever most deeply long for would be ours in God.” The false self clothes man in illusion, and that illusion creates a circular necessity; only by revealing the false self and embracing vulnerability with God can one take the first step towards tearing down self-inflicted idols.

Once the false self is revealed, the next step Benner says is to “become your true self.” However, Benner is strong in stating that “the foundation of our identity resides in our life-giving relationship with the Source of Life. Any identity that exists apart from this relationship is an illusion.” Benner uses the example of Jesus needing solitude and meditation in order to find his true self, even though he understood clearly his purpose on the earth, even to the point of accepting death as a sacrifice for those who wished to kill him when he could have fled or returned to his family trade without incident. Benner explains that for the Christian, vocation is more than just a career or job, but must be grounded in identity, community, and an expression of the gifts God gave that person.

Our self-in-Christ is a self that fits perfectly because it is completely us. It is a self that allows us to be free of all anxiety regarding how we should be and who we are. And it allows us to be absolutely our self – unique not by virtue of our strivings for individuality but profoundly original simply because that is who and what we are.

I found Benner’s insights to be valuable, especially as I have always had some difficulty with setting time aside for prayer and meditation. Benner has encouraged me to take time throughout the day or the week to consider carefully my own experience with God, especially with regards to how God has gifted me in a unique way. I have always viewed my life holistically, as well as taken seriously the gifts God has given me, although I have had some trouble learning where and how to use those gifts most effectively. For example, my love of writing and my love of the imagination have often found a focus in writing stories, although the amount of discipline and solitude required for such an endeavor has been a constant challenge, one that has not benefited from a lack of solitude with God. I deeply want to serve God with the gifts I have been given, but some of my many “false selves” (as evidenced by the Enneagram) is my need to be special (fours) and my need to be perfect (ones); strangely enough, both Paul and Joseph are two of my strongest Biblical heroes, and Benner states that they suffer from the same false selves as I do. I am encouraged however, because both Paul and Joseph turned out as not only paragons of faith but through their deep flaws, transformed those around; Benner has encouraged me to study more about how they conquered their false selves.

Book Review: Upside Down

The essence of servant leadership comes from Christ and his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in their inter-relatedness, diversity, and old world “Early Christian” equality. The disciples and the life of Jesus are our direct models for how to utilize these principles in a very direct way for the church, to eliminate the spread of the “McChristians” and develop a huge network of people who know their individual callings, and are working towards the establishment of the kingdom of God.

There are several focii in the book: on Jesus as the ideal servant leader, the disciples as the servant leaders he taught through modeling, and the equality (and hence, servant leadership qualities) shared by the Early Christians. The qualities of a leader are: intimacy with Christ, being above reproach, solitary authenticity, rooted and growing in grace, submitting to authority, but above all, leading others through developing and equipping them with their God-given gifts, and then releasing them.

Rinehart is in danger of being labeled a polytheist. Beyond the odd relationship between the trinity he espouses, his servant leadership model seems primarily aimed at increasing the size of the church of believers, as he intimates that servant leadership is primarily relegated to Christians who are working for the church. However, his commitment remains to discovering how the scriptures root all Christians in the concepts of servant leadership, and his discoveries are insightful and sometimes amazing, specifically when he mentions that “serving” appears over 250 times in the New Testament. It makes one wonder why more scholars have not caught onto this, unless they have but did not have the benefit of Rinehart’s paradigm.

My desire is to see a model of servant leadership that has no goal but to serve, and I believed I had found that in Rinehart, but ultimately, his focus was less on the debt we owe to God for our lives, and more on the Christianization (in a good way) of society; thus the incentive for us to be salt and light having a purpose beyond that of being a servant, but of the expansion of all believers. However, Rinehart has done tremendous work in bringing in context verses from the Bible which talk about servant leadership in a very accessible way, as well as explaining how New Testament servants were very different from Old Testament heroes because of the influence of Christ. Most intriguing to me was the extent which Christ went in teaching his followers practically how to be servant leaders, something definitely to emulate.

Bibliographic information/citation

Rinehart, S.T. (1998). Upside Down: The Paradox of Servant Leadership. Colorado Springs: Navpress.

Book Review: Images of Organization, by Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan’s book, Images of Organization, is a challenging look into how organized groups of people can be understood in terms of eight different categories of thinking. These categories or images are tools that Morgan uses to identify, medicate, and reorganize thinking about organizational structure. The example story written in sectional intervals is an example of all eight images in motion (machine, organism, brain, culture, political system, psychic prison, transformation, and domination; in that order) and will serve as an analogy as I go through each of the eight images and explain how Morgan introduces these topics. The eight images Morgan uses in his book are not only methods for understanding current organizational models, but also tools in which the listening can recognize important organizational needs and faculties which normally are ignored due to either being invisible to the naked eye or due to miscalculated beliefs about an organization.

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Figure 1: Image of Organization, based on Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, modified by Benjamin Seeberger (2012)

Machine. According to Morgan, organizations which run as a machine operate through the foundational principles of scientific management, a top-down method dividing chain of command to the coordination of function and hierarchy so as each particular aspect of the organization fulfills a specific role (pg. 29). Classical management theory, also known as bureaucratic thinking (pg. 25), attempts to precisely define jobs through defined vertical structures of command; in other words, those above control, while those below follow. However, the crux of machine-like behavior deals with the concepts of time and motion. Just as a machine’s parts must function collectively in-time with each other, so the job of management is to train workers exactly how to complete an assignment within a given period of time (pg. 30); in order to do this, the scientific method is utilized and each task becomes an experiment, where each worker is a variable rather than a changeable human being.

As the teacher walks into the classroom, the gears and gyros begin to spin. Heads swivel to the front, eyes locked on the instructor standing before them, and time slows until the first words boom out of the teacher’s mouth, calling the students to attention.

Organism. Another method of understanding organizations is to view them as a “living system” (pg. 39), or an organism that must sustain itself through the satisfaction of particular needs unique to that organization. Morgan defines the Organization as Organism as being required to meet particular “organizational needs” (pg. 43), which he bases on the five pillars of Maslow’s Hierarchy (Physiological, security, social, ego, and self-actualizing in that order) but differ on slight points within the scale based on the particular “open system” (pg. 46) the organization evolves as.

All functional organizations must at some point recognize the futility of attempting to complete tasks in utter loneliness. Although different organizations adopt different attitudes towards shared power, organizations that adopt the concept of a “shared future” can be determined to be operating within the capacity of an organism (pg. 69). Organizations that operate with shared futures, in order to complete tasks, will resort to methods in which for brief moments they adopt other aspects, such as machine-like thinking with the Matrix Organization (temporary teams shifting into particular roles based on the circumstances, pg. 57). Although Organizations as Organisms will often adopt other methods, they are first and foremost concerned with the self-sustainability of their own being, given the unique traits and persons working within that organization.

“Good morning!” At once the visage of sternness and sterility fade from the teacher’s face, his eyebrows arching upward and a smile appearing on his face. “How was your week?” he asks, pacing around the classroom, trying to lock eyes with a stunned audience, unsure of what to return to him for fear of giving an incorrect answer. Although they lay in stillness, they understand what he means: that they can relax, take a breath of fresh air and stop counting the seconds until the beginning of class. They are here together, and there is no reason to worry.

Brain. The key to understanding Morgan’s view of the Organization as Brain is to understanding the concept of cybernetics, in which organizations “engage in self-regulating behaviors and maintain steady states” (pg. 85). Just as memory can reconstitute itself from various parts of the brain if lost by utilizing a part of memory from a different location of the brain (pg. 80), so the Organization as Brain has the ability to use holographic systems embedded within the design and structure of the operation as methodology to inform, reform, regulate, and rebuild itself in times of crisis. The Organization as Brain is able to miraculously self-regulate through the use of negative feedback (pg. 85), which allows members to engage in self-questioning and if implemented in a healthy fashion can result in operations such as the Ringi process where decision-making in the organization is a collective-process rather than a dictatorial process (pg. 93).

The instructor marches to the front of the classroom, puts a stack of papers on the first table, and then tells students to come to the front to pick up graded worksheets from last week. “If you have any questions about the markings on the papers,” he suddenly says midway back to his desk and turning half a face to the students, “please come to my desk at the end of class and ask and I will answer any questions you may have. I am here for you, and I do not want you to struggle through this work. I know it is difficult, but we are all here to learn, so please, ask away.”

Culture. Organizations are naturally like little worlds, in which rules, regulations, rituals, beliefs, philosophy, and archetypes emerge and forge new participatory cultures. While most organizations can be understood in terms of having a unique culture, Morgan stresses that the Organization as Culture actually attempts to reconstruct reality through “interpretive schemes that underpin systems of control” (pg. 132). Whether they recognize the construction of reality or not, many organizations attempt to reconfigure perceptions and assumptions about life not only through direct processes, but through indirect methodologies and expectations of workers. Morgan states that “organizational society” cultivates routines, ethics, and rituals (pg 112), and depending on the amount of time required for a work process to be completed, can consume someone’s life entirely. However, Morgan counters that even within the main organizational society, there exist subcultures formed from individual work groups, departments, and even like-minded individuals which will often enhance the main culture or create a counterculture within the organization itself (pg. 121). In analyzing organizations, it is helpful to carefully understand what kind of culture the organization is encouraging, and how that culture is fashioning a new kind of reality for followers.

The lecture the professor discusses with his class details a very difficult application of using Aristotle’s Categories and Rhetoric to the concept of the modern essay. He tries to weave in these two disparate topics by using pictures and videos, but throughout the lecture he is worried the students may not have understood fully. When the lecture is completed, he hands out a worksheet to the students and asks them to work with a partner and read an article in the textbook. The worksheet is meant to break down the material in the lecture in a practical way, explaining ideas through the practice of observing and remarking.

Political system. All organizations, according to Morgan, follow a “system of rule,” which he divides into seven different types (autocracy, bureaucracy, technocracy, codetermination [sic], representative democracy, and direct democracy, pg. 146). Morgan further divides the seven types of political rule as requiring one of the fourteen sources of power, to which he details a majority of his chapter on political systems. The fourteen sources of power are (in my own words): legitimacy, resource control, regulation delegation, decision influence, information gate-keeping, boundary management, uncertainty buffering, technology manipulation, alliance cultivation, countervailing management, symbolic integration, gender management, ecology of action, and personal charisma (pg. 159-185). Based on only the seven types of political structures and fourteen sources of power, there are almost 100 different kinds of power leaders will utilize in any given circumstance within a particular political association. Morgan maintains that due to the vast differences in political power, it is important for leaders to remember organizations are coalitions of “people with divergent interests who gather together for the sake of expediency,” what he terms “loose networks” (page 154). These networks when gathered together comprise the political makeup of an organization; in other words, the politics are chosen by the people, not by the leader.

The worksheets use the same structure each week, so the students know what to expect; however, the material of each worksheet differs from week to week and reading to reading. In this way, the students understand how to function with the curriculum, but are still challenged by new reading material each week. At one point a student raises her hand and the teacher stands from his desk, hovers over her paper and sees where she is confused. “Remember what I said in the lecture,” the teacher reminds her. “I know it is a tough concept to grasp, but do you remember that image I gave you to help you remember?” The teacher waits for a response while the student taps her pen on the table and then nods after a moment. “Oh,” she flusters, “of course, that makes sense. Thank you teacher.” He nods to her and returns to his desk.

Psychic prison. As much as organizations are carefully designed by leaders and followers (as has been shown in the previous images), organizations are also created unconsciously by dreams, desires, and fears of people involved in them, notably the leader or group of leaders who set the vision for an organization. The unconscious organization is what Morgan calls “the shadow of the organization… a reservoir not only of forces that are unwanted and repressed but of forces that have been lost of undervalued” (pg. 225). Morgan also illustrates how actions people take within an organization are not based on rationality, but rather on “reaction formations” in which repressed feelings and unconscious drivers manage the pool of actions someone takes within an organizational setting (pg. 207). Based on the unreality of the organization and the unreality of action within an organization, Morgan admits to the “illusion of realness” (pg. 213) and how people involved in an organization attempt to preserve an image in their minds based on fantasy and desire for immortality.

As he is waiting for the students to complete the work, he doubts himself. Is he too hard? Are his methods for teaching too difficult, that he needs to sit down and explain every concept to his students? He wonders if the design of his pedagogy, meant to fill a vacuum from his own life as a student back in undergrad, really necessitates the difficulty of teaching students whose second language is English, when native English speakers would most likely have a difficult task of completing his assignments. But even though these doubts plague him, he pushes them aside for the greater goal: to craft beautiful and intelligent writers.

Transformation. When one element in an organization changes, another also changes. The “mutual causality” of action and reaction within the organizational environment is what Morgan terms “holoflux… the flowing nature of implicit order” (pg. 234). Mutual causality is a recognition that within an organization no one person or procedure has full control over the direction of that organization (pg. 250). While an organization’s power can be understood in terms of political systems, the vision in terms of the organization’s shadow, the culture in terms of interpretative schemes and rituals (and so on), the direction of an organization can only be understood when doing a dialectical analysis, a three-pronged survey into the methodology of change: the struggle of the various elements in opposition, the organization’s methods of struggling against that struggle, and plan of action to exact a “totality shift” and force a social organization to abandon particular elements in favor of strengthening other elements (pg. 258). In order to arrive at a point where an organization can even embrace the dialectical method, however, they must first have a “dialectical imagination” (pg. 265), which allows leaders in an organization be not only be aware but open to change.

He understands there is a give and take in the process. Every term he teaches he must scale back the workload and find new ways of challenging his students so that no moment of time in the classroom is wasted and no word written on a page is without meaning. He is commonly criticized by former students as being a very strict teacher, and he tries to amend his classroom assignments and policies by offering help outside of the class, skimming down assignments, and listening to student issues and changes in the university system. However, even though there is a give and take, he is still the teacher.

Domination. The last image Morgan introduces is that of the Organization as Domination. While similar to the Organization as a Political System, Domination differs in that while people based on inherent differences choose a political system and a leader chooses a source of power which to utilize, systems of domination are invisible much like the shadow of an organization. Domination is a form of rationalization (pg. 278), which results in one of three different forms: charismatic, traditional, or rational-legal domination (pg. 276). The modern form of the organization, Morgan argues, developed from the rise of the oligopolistic market (pg. 284), in which a few major sellers controls the decisions of other organizations involved in the same operation.

Additionally, since the advert of diversification, the market has become internationalized, and the once domestic players have become players on a global stage (pg. 302), setting trends for their entire dominated market. Multinational organizations (or organizations which operate across national boundaries) have increasingly used forms of social domination in controlling followers, including using wage slavery (pg. 310), transfer pricing (pg. 311), hard bargaining (pg. 312), and most importantly resource dependencies (pg. 307). Whether the result of social domination is a conscious act or a rational reaction to market forces, organizations still play a huge role in controlling markets and setting cultures for not only followers, but those on the receiving end of organizational services and goods.

Being the teacher, especially in China, requires a certain form of social antagonism. He wants to be there for his students, but the culture demands otherwise; the culture demands without apology that a teacher be not only a practitioner of knowledge but also a bastion of respect and authority, whom the students recognize has a vast amount of knowledge intrinsically, not only extrinsically. To do this he must be stern, give out assignments that challenge not only the mind but also the body, and refuse to back down when a student challenges him in front of the class. He must have confidence and control, and through this gain the respect of his students so that he may come alongside the shining stars in his midst and help them shine even brighter and perhaps if he is lucky, forge a friendship that will last.

References

Morgan, G. (1986). Images of organization. Sage Publications: Beverly Hills, CA.

Book Review: The Speed of Trust, by Stephen M.R. Covey & Rebecca Merrill

 As a teacher in China, one of my biggest struggles is learning how to build bridges of trust between myself and my students. Trust in China has a very different meaning, one that when taken to extremes can turn to distrust and even abandonment. Growing up in the United States, I was secure in my notion of trust: having life-long friends who without even a thought are willing to continue being a friends after twenty years of not a word shared. In China, such a thing would not be thought possible – there might be a modicum of congeniality among old friends (much like the errant family member who shows up every three years for a yearly gathering) but trust in China is earned, not given. In the United States, trust often is considered primarily a noun, whereas in Chinese trust is a verb. The quest for learning how to establish boundaries of trust leads me into this study of Covey’s notion of trust, and will serve as a bridge I move through his themes.

One note before I begin: Stephen M.R. Covey is a direct descendant of Stephen R. Covey, the writer of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a primal book in the infancy of self-help theory and an archon of a new genre of literature. Covey the elder became famous for splitting his theories into neat segments of seven. His son, Stephen M.R. Covey, refrains from making such an outlandish claims that trust can be neatly categorized into seven different themes. For the son’s sake, I have taken inspiration from the father and split the younger Covey’s book on trust into seven themes: 1)Trust thyself, 2)trust begins in the home, 3)trust is collaborative and fluid, 4)trust must be maintained, 5)trust is an external force, 6)trust is developed behavior, and 7)trust is bound to efficiency. These themes do not appear as such in Covey’s book, but I believe they accurately summarize the most important learning points included within the text.

Themes

Trust thyself. The key to trust is self-trust, shown as the absolute central “wave” which Covey asserts governs the nature and flow of trust (34). Self-trust is indelibly linked to credibility, notably four separate cores of credibility which compose close to one quarter of Covey’s book: Integrity, intent, capability, and results. These four cores composite the building blocks of a person’s trust capacity for self-government. Covey describes building credibility as “the second most identified behavior of leaders” (48), showing the important of credibility not only as a solid state, but also as a continual action of improving oneself as a leader so that not only will others trust the leader, but the leader will trust the leader. According to Covey, credibility must be constantly improved, the policy for “reinvention is required for longevity” (93), and in today’s changing world longevity is one of the holy grails of efficiency and success.

Personal reflection is necessary for self-trust. Not only understanding but refining personal motives helps to justify intentions to the self (85), but understanding intention must be understood as a two-way process. The first process step deals with the perception of action, while the second process step is reaction to action, or understanding the perception of action through clarity of reasons for personal reaction (86). Through the act of reflection, leaders strengthen purpose and resolve, a core capability Covey believes is required for self-trust (105). All four cores are part of what Covey calls “the Ripple Effect” (135), a meta-theory which relates how particularities of one part of life echo and cause change in another part of life, with the capacity to create chaos or peace depending on how the parts align with the whole.

Trust begins in the home. While not a central theme, the concept of home is heavily rooted in Covey’s trust theory. In almost every corner of his book, the home appears. Covey believes that the family is an organization, and organizational trust is just as relevant to the family as to the organization (258). In order to engender trust within the family, the leader must declare intentions directly, without any rhetoric or illusion (140). Expectations within the family unit define responsibilities (196), and if expectations are not voiced, they are generally assumed in the lack, with responsibilities which remain undefined but accepted. Trust is broken in the family unit when responsibilities (voiced or unvoiced) are shirked; sometimes parents carry heavy expectations on children but fail to voice those expectations, while other times children expect to be treated in a certain way and the parents do not meet their expectations, leading to distrust and betrayal.

In order to create trust within the family, Covey insists to focus on the “little things” at home such as respect and gratitude (148), which can serve as helpful bridges from misunderstanding to forgiveness in times of family crisis. Family leaders should also follow the “10-year rule,” which aligns vision with the future rather than the present (219). By focusing on the short term (“little things”) as well as the long-term (“10-year rule”) family leaders can create an environment of trust and acceptance even in the harshest of climates.

Trust is collaborative and fluid. Just as in family, in an organization all members in theory are directed towards a single purpose or end-goal. The ties which bind members of an organization together create a strong collaborative bond, and trust therefore is inescapable as members of an organization rely not only on themselves but on each other (4). Covey claims that the importance of credibility within a collaborative organization is not maintained by the results of that credibility, but rather by the awareness of credibility (118). As people walk down the halls or sit in an office, others are watching them and trying to discern and map credibility. Rather than focusing on the product, people focus on the image of those surrounding them, which in turn fosters either collaboration (opportunity) or cooperation (256) as trust grows and wanes. For Covey, trust is intrinsically a collaborative economy (256), in which trust as a currency is shared between an organization and credit (166) and desired accountability (203) are used as variables in a complex exchange of human needs.

Covey is quick to point out however, that trust is not a rooted concept which grows over-time. Rather, trust is fluid and one of the fastest and quickest to change of all behaviors within an organization (25). Trust solutions are created by a process of listening (37), in which all resultant dimensions have been fully considered and weighed (112). Such dimensions include understanding the past, present, and the future, not only in their own separate spheres but together and in coordination with each other. Often, unrealistic expectations are a major breach of trust (196); expectations formed due to a lack of proper listening in which all dimensions were not carefully considered in context. By viewing trust dimensional theory in view of context, the levels of trust from one organization to another organization, from one time to another time, from one leader to another leader can vary wildly; even within the same organization an issue of trust may transpire differently one month later; the fluid nature of trust is that trust constantly shifts as attitudes and desires shift.

Trust must be maintained; it is not absolute or static. Early research into trust during the late 1950s and early 1960s tried to state that trust was a part of absolute science in which if a proper methodology was used, trust could be cemented into an organizational framework (Deutch, 1958). By the late 60s, trust was considered, rather than a scientific formula, as a figment of the personality (Rotter, 1967), yet another static element which while changeable takes considerable psychological seismic change to induce a different state. In the 80s, trust was defined as a sociological concept in interpersonal relationships (Johnson-George & Swap, 1982); as a relational attitude, therefore trust could be influenced through cultural outreach and self-management. Understanding trust as an interpersonal relationship insinuates however, that trust is like a ball passed between two feuding brothers; if they could learn to share the ball, they would be able to trust each other .

While Covey does maintain that trust can be improved through the analysis and adaptation of opportunity, risk, and credibility (297), he also claims that trust must be continually maintained, not only when there are problems but when there are none. Covey captures the idea of continual maintenance of trust through his concept of trust accounts, which serve as depositories of reputation and obligation (130). The trustee standard according to Covey is a playing field of expectations cognizant upon all people involved in the trust game and required of all, but whose rules are defined by the people who populate the field rather than a predefined set of notions delineating official procedures and regulations (83). By listening to others not only to words, but also to the eyes and the heart, trust deposits can be put into a trust account (212); when necessary, Covey believes withdrawals from trust accounts can be taken, and the cycle continues. Therefore no one situation of trust is the same; trust must be constantly watched over, acted upon, and analyzed.

While trust must be internally consistent, trust is primarily an external force. For me, one of Covey’s most interesting realities of trust is that trust is brand. Covey states that trust is built upon impressions, which are shown through integrity, honesty, straightforwardness, and other types of behavior (137). These impressions, when combined together create brand, and brand is the external force and outward expression of an organization. Regardless of whether the organization is a business or a family, personal brand results in solid dividends (265).

High trust equals high dividends, and as brand is an image of trust as an external force, so high trust equals high brand. High brand equals high dividends; the comparison of brand with trust is known as the “trust dividend” (17), a key point repeated in Covey’s text as a barometer of trust success. In order to gain the trust dividend, Covey recommends building brand through the steady application of the Core and Wave Principles in his trust theory, by using them as diagnostic tools for analysis in order to bring the greatest returns (269).

Trust is a behavior that must be developed through action. Academic studies today often refer to trust as an attitude, which is generally settled way of thinking or feeling, typically reflected in a person’s behavior. Some researchers have claimed that attitude is a summative evaluation of the consideration of right and wrong behaviors (Martinez-Tur & Peiro, 2009), which leads to risk and interdependence as conditions for trust (Yamagishi & Yamagishi, 1994; Whitener, et al., 1998). However, Covey has a strikingly different conception of trust, as he believes that trust is primarily a behavior which can be developed and changed; trust is not only a by-product of behavior, but an actual action which when trained properly can create openness and allow for credibility and reputation to increase the efficiency of an organization. Covey represents his belief through nearly 33% of his book taken up with methods of improving behavior (127-232). He divides these methods into the “13 Behaviors,” a subset of one of his five waves entitled “relationship trust” which he believes when improved upon can engender trust (34).

In order to change behavior, Covey recommends viewing behavior externally rather than internally; instead of understanding behavior with belief, he insists behavior should be compared with words, which in turn offer themselves as signals construing worth (128). Therefore, as behavior associates with words rather than beliefs, shifts in behavior are more easily managed (130), but only if done so holistically and in context through which Covey suggests using the 5 Waves of trust starting from the fifth and moving to the first in that order (304). Through a method of applying behavioral changes through an analysis of the 5 Waves, one can not only strengthen trust levels but even repair and restore broken trust. Covey strongly believes that the end more than justifies the means in the quest of mending trust issues, as results are the factor which converts distrust into trust (174).

Trust is bound to efficiency. The title of Covey’s book is The Speed of Trust, and Covey consistently claims that speed is bound to trust, just as love and respect are bound to a marriage or dividends are bound to success. He describes this relationship in the Trust Formula, which is: “High trust equals high speed and low cost, while low trust equals low speed and high cost” (13). Covey states that the view that trust is a slow process, one that is built over many years and lasts for many years is wrong; rather than slow, trust is one of the fastest aspects of organizational life that is both gained and lost, gained in a moment and lost in a moment but more powerful than can be imagined (25). The speed is trust is regulated by three different “accelerators”: commitment, principle, and openness, which when woven together in an act of integrity or absolved in an act of dishonesty or corruption, cause trust to be gained faster or lost faster (72).

Covey relates an interesting fact: in the modern era, “people have learned to trust a complete stranger” just through the sheer power and speed of technology (268). “Stranger trust” therefore is tied directly with efficiency and speed. Just as people have learned to trust strangers because of the speed of reputation, so efficiency can be lowered through the imposition of taxes such as the “spin tax” and the “withholding tax” (139) when people in an organization, having lost trust in leadership because of misinformation and white lies, withhold their own information and skill in an aura of distrust. Therefore in order to create an environment of trust, organizations must strive to foster a “spirit of transparency” (154) where nothing is hidden and agendas are questioned early and improved upon in a collaborative process.

Covey does not claim that trust is only defined by speed, however. Without patience, planning, and careful execution of strategies, trust is lost. While speed is integral in efficiency, so is care. According to a professor at Harvard Business School, when considering speed or careful planning, “it is better to have a grade-B strategy and grade-A execution than the other way around” (257). Furthermore, according to Admiral James Stockdale, “you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be” (186)1, meaning that only through careful planning, discipline, and confrontation of contextual factors can true efficiency be achieved. Covey also believes that efficiency is fundamentally tied to the art of listening; he refers to Drucker’s rule: “Listen first, speak last” (210). Therefore, as trust is bound to speed, speed is bound to efficiency, and efficiency is bound to patience, logically then trust is a complex paradox composed of disparate elements warring against one another while at the same time complementing one another for the end result.

Themes as tools. Covey sees his themes primarily as methods and strategies for improving behavior and increasing brand reputation. Each section of the book carefully divides ideas into steps and procedures, making each chapter very practical. However for me, I view his themes not as methods or strategies but as tools of analysis. For example, in reviewing trust levels in my classroom, applying the 13 Behaviors directly may cause more harm than good as the 13 Behaviors are founded primarily on western concepts of confrontation, upward transparency, and strength of resolve. In China, the eastern concepts of harmony, hiddenness, and soft power play a far greater role in shaping policy and leadership strategies. In order to accurately use Covey’s themes I must treat them as tools to apply to particular situations, sensitive to context and persons or actors involved in a particular context.

Critique

I have several critiques of Covey’s book The Speed of Trust. These three critiques are based mostly on particular errors in the genre in which Covey writes for, as he seems stuck between writing a book for organizations or writing a book for personal self-help. Firstly, Covey overemphasizes the role of self and the role of the home in regards to organizations. Secondly, he falls prey to the Narrative Fallacy in his attempt for creative enterprise as a writer. Finally, he utilizes traditional success listology and business rhetoric, causing his material to appear trite and simple, when in actuality his material is quite extensive and full of new paradigms in considering new theories of trust.

Covey believes the home is also an organization. The home is not an organization. To view the home as an organization does incredible disservice to the home. Children should not be considered assets. The love given between parents and passed to the children should never be seen in economic terms. While the parents do act as leaders, ultimately the leader of a spirit-led household is God. The home is often the absolute opposite of an organization, where grief is allowed, tears are encouraged, the bottom line is forgotten in lieu of grace, and success is reliant not on profit or result but on the journey itself. Successful organizations, while they may consider the journey of some importance, ultimately draw a line when learning impedes progress, rent, and profit. A family must always seek to fill the emotional and spiritual needs first, and trust the engines of society to train children in the ways of the world and the proper way to fend for oneself in a given culture with unique requirements and contexts.

Covey, like many of his contemporary business writers, falls into the pit of the narrative fallacy. The narrative fallacy, according to Taleb (2007), is using stories “to overinterpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths . . . [while looking] at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them.” Covey’s book is full of stories, so many stories that often the stories run over and through each other. The problem isn’t that Covey uses stories, but that he is following a pattern in genre where current business writing requires to use of stories to maintain relevance; a pattern which he uses only in tradition. In one chapter, Covey relates over ten stories totally unrelated to each other except through the thin veneer of logic he imposes upon them. Furthermore, according to the notes at the back of the book, only 2.7% of the references are actually academic sources. The other 97.3% of the references are collated articles from newspapers, leadership biographies, business agendas, websites, and random media interviews, including almost 50% of the references dedicated to the quotations Covey inserts throughout the book to serve as bookmarks from chapter to chapter.

The last criticism I have of Covey’s work is his use of success listology and business rhetoric. Success listology is the simplification of complex business principles into simple 1-2-3 step procedures: “by following these steps blindly, you too can be successful and happy.” While many of his tactics may show fruit, maintaining an attitude of follow first, understand later, is too blind for my comfort. Answers are never easy, and if true change is to occur people must wrestle with the difficulties of decisions, or else true change does not occur. Change must begin in the heart, and only then can change transform.

In my work in China, I have encountered a crisis in trust. I am a stranger in a strange land, full of complexity and mystery. My hope is that through careful analysis of each particular situation, I can more fully identify with my students, and through that identification understand their language of trust. While the speed of trust changes everything, the language of trust is everything.

References

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap . . . and other’s don’t. Harper Business: New York.

Covey, S. M. R., & Merrill, R. R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. Free Press: New York.

Deutch, M. (1958). Trust and suspicion. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2, 265-279.

Johnson-George, C. E., & Swap, W. C. (1982). Measurement of specific interpersonal trust: Construction and validation of a scale to assess trust in a specific other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 1306-1317.

Martinez-Tur, V. & Peiro, J. M. (2009). The trust episode in organizations: Implications for private and public social capital. Social Science Information, 48(2): 143-174.

Rotter, J. B. (1967). A new scale for the measurement of interpersonal trust. Journal of Personality, 35, 651-665.

Taleb, N. N. (2007). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. Penguin: London.

Whitener, E. M., Brodt, S. E., Korsgaard, M. A., & Wener, J. M. (1998). Managers as initiators of trust: an exchange relationship framework for understanding managerial trustworthy behavior. Academy of Management Review, 23: 513-530.

Yamagishi, T., & Yamagishi, M. (1994). Trust and commitment in the United States and Japan. Motivation and Emotion, 18: 129-166.

1The Stockdale Paradox, as quoted from Jim Collin’s Good to Great, pg. 86

Book Review: Organizational Culture and Leadership, by E.H. Schein

 All organizations contain an invisible culture, with varying strains of subcultures. These cultures can be accessed by analyzing three levels: artifacts (visible structures), values (philosophies), and assumptions (perceptions). Leaders are at the forefront of culture as models; by learning how to discern an organization’s culture, leaders can then create, transmit, change, maturate, and foster the life of what Schein calls a “learning culture.”

The Learning Leader, as Schein says, creates culture by spreading shared assumptions, which result in shared values, and those values then showcase as positive artifacts. The organization is a living structure, which matures alongside the culture and like any living thing, without food (leadership) and water (culture), can die. However, changing culture is complex and often lifelong, requiring the slow and gradual application of principles, while keeping a careful eye the leader’s relationship with the organization in question.

Schein’s opus is the combination of a sociological experiment and the application of metaphysical business principles on a theoretical level, and in some cases, explanation through example. He compares and contrasts two companies, Action and Multi, both organizations which deal in high-tech fields, the former in electronics, and the latter in medical technologies. Schein claims the principles he espouses throughout the book as fact, but whether or not they are is unclear as both companies’ stories end without a proper answer of whether the culture had changed or if anything positive had happened. Market forces appear to dominate the field more than his principles, but as examples of how leadership generates culture, they prove to be adequate for the purposes of the book.

It is my role-modeling in the classroom that essentially sets the stage for learning and cooperation. What this means is not only do leaders affect culture on a subconscious level, but they have the ability (if they train themselves) to affect culture on a conscious level, if they first recognize personal responsibility in the formation of culture, and then endeavor to create change within that culture.

 

Bibliographic information/citation

Schein, E.H. (1992). Organizational Culture and Leadership. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Book Review: The Medici Effect, by Frans Johansson

2:30 in the morning. I am sitting at the desk, the light burning, the sounds of snores coming from the bedroom, the sour taste of coffee burrowing into my throat, my eyes bulging with caffeine, and my drive never further from the end. 70 unique essay topics based on 16 different team subjects, composed of students from forty different majors and disciplines: my goal is to give each student a unique topic, which combines not only with their team subject, but also offers a special personal challenge only he or she could complete. The task sounds insane, but the summer before I read through The Medici Effect, a book by Frans Johannson, which ensured me that with a combination of disparate and different elements creativity can flourish. My intention was to see whether even in a stolidly uncreative environment such as a Chinese university creativity could still take root and possibly fly into the sky once given the… proper incentive.

The plan then, based on the book, was to place students of differing majors and years in school together in research teams. Once in a team, I was going to give each team the choice of a different and unique subject, and from that subject I would design a topic based on that particular student’s major, year in school, writing preferences, and writing level. The first essay would be a test to see the methodology the student performed, and the second essay would be a sharpening of the wits, taking the subject heading and defining it even further until specificity was no longer a mystery but a requirement. However, to spin the matter even further, I was going to teach narrative research, a form of research commonly used in popular nature magazines but hopefully transformed into a pure academic subject.

Creative methodology is a particular interest of mine, and Johansson’s The Medici Effect has had a huge impact on my own ability to manage creative enterprise by capturing the moment of creation in an image known as the Intersection. The figure below is my interpretation of how Johansson proceeds to the Intersection and beyond, and I will use the space in this paper to describe the process of not only how to move from zone to zone, but how the Intersection ties in with the creative energy in my own life, work, and education, as the Medici Effect has had a profound effect on my ability to function as a husband, teacher, and student.

medici

Figure 1: The Medici Effect (Johansson, 2006), adapted by Benjamin Seeberger

According to Johansson, people exist within field value networks, or areas of experts such as organizations, companies, informal gatherings… in other words, the contexts of a given field (146). Field value networks exist in what I call Zone 1, or the Comfort Zone. Most people live here, working in their chosen professions, following in the paradigms of those who came before. However, in order to begin the journey to the Intersection, a person must first approach the chain of dependence, the support system designed for the maintenance of value networks (154). The only way a person can approach the Intersection, Johansson believes, is to totally abandon his or her field value network, and enter what I call the “leap instance” (189), a battlefield where a person must break free from the preconceptions of his or her field and embrace the discomfort of fear (157).

Zone 2, or the Risk Zone, is where the magic of intersections occur. Once freely disentangled from the field value network, the process of Intersectional innovation can begin (18). Johansson divides deeply two types of ideas: direction innovation and Intersectional innovation. Whereas directional innovation occurs through evolution and addition, Intersectional innovation occurs with disparate, clashing ideas “hitting head-on” where past experience and knowledge cannot be directly applied (163). Part of the reason for the strange environment of the Risk Zone is the constant barrage from what Johansson terms “associative barriers” (38), assumptions and beliefs about the way things are based on associations developed through professional, academic, and subconscious learning. In the Risk Zone, associative barriers can only be overcome through the application of various methods to rid the self of preconditional thinking regarding established ideas. The four methods Johansson mentions in the text are highlighted in Figure 1 and are integral to breaking down associations so that new pathways are open which can offer different solutions using unique combinations of concepts from varying but different fields (46-58). In order to discover the Intersection, however, concept trials must be constantly taking place, which are growth-over-time seeds placed in various aspects of the Intersectional grid (113), one eventually flowering and allowing for the progression into Zone 3.

The Possibility Zone is where the Intersection explodes and expands. Ideas like the internet, the automobile, and electricity all came out of the Possibility Zone, as once an idea is discovered, a hundred more ideas follow suit and build on the initial concept. Johansson describes the Intersection as “a place for wildly different ideas to bump into and build upon each other” (16) but more importantly as a place that can be found, built upon, and then acted upon rather than just a magical moment in history which luck might grant to a few (84). The Intersection is not just a random evolutionary quirk, but rather a solid action and search an individual takes. Once the Intersection has been found, Johansson states that the exponentials of that action taken explode in a flurry of activity (101), sometimes staggeringly too high to even count. Through this method, a person can not only navigate his or her way towards the Intersection, but he or she can actually create the Medici Effect (186). As compared with Johansson’s initial image of the Medici Effect as being a place in time, such as Renaissance Italy or Peter’s Cafe (2), having the power and ability to actually create the Medici Effect is an amazing and tantalizing goal.

Trying to plan for change however, can backfire. Johansson says that “the problem with all of this is that if we are willing to take risks and pursue intersections only when we are doing poorly, we’ll hurt our overall chances of success” (175). Just as trying to find creative enterprise as a last resort and trying to force action rarely has a chance to work, so sometimes even the very act of trying to create intersections in places where there are none provides little success. Creativity is built upon energy, and the Intersection thrives on this energy. Planting a forest in a desert without water, or pushing change on an obstinate old man will do nothing but cause resentment and possibly catastrophic brokenness. Innovation is a delusion when existing only as a dream without incentive or cause. Leonardo Da Vinci designed a flying machine in the 15th century, but airplanes did not take flight until needed in a multinational war which threatened not only one country but an entire continent, therefore needing intelligence and reconnaissance on a level that had never before existed. Without incentive, drive, and push, change is only a dream in the mind’s eye.

Some of my student papers have succeeded, others have not. Learning, as I have learned myself, is an intensely personal activity and cannot be engineered. Once I believed that with the right system anyone can learn, but I have learned over the last few years that even with the best of designs if the drive and desire is not there, learning does not. On the other hand, when it is there, it is beautiful.

References

Johansson, F. (2006). The Medici effect: What elephants and epidemics can teach us about innovation. HBS Press: Boston, MA.

21 Days, or More

The book Deep Change, by Robert E. Quinn, is a different sort of business book. Although it does consist of charts and tables, the primary thrust of each chapters are well-told stories of how people in organizations realized their own fallibility and overcame it, changing irrevocably. When I first encountered the book, I placed my own previously learned theories against the principles espoused in the book: the 21-day change.

When I was growing up, my mother always told me that to make proactive change in your life, you needed to do something actively for 21 days straight. On the 22nd day, she claimed, what you were doing would form a habit, and it would become embedded into you like a motor skill. Although that method may seem a little sparse on the details, it is not surprising that Quinn’s book is exactly 21 chapters long (minus the two prelude chapters, which illuminate the background to why deep change is difficult), and each chapter is seemingly intended to be read a day at time. However, Quinn goes into much greater detail in each chapter, covering a variety of subjects, from various steps to overcoming personal change, to specific problems organizations have in transforming, to finally listing principles that both people and organizations need to adopt when making deep change. The book is not only a guidebook on how to create deep change, but it is also a textbook on various subjects that both hinder and support deep change.

Quinn begins by going over several steps to ensure deep change. I have simplified them primarily for myself, so that I could create a model of steps to undertake:

 

Recognition of fear Begin the journey Finding life in the process Getting rid of old ideas Paradigm shift Establishing core values Building a new foundation

 

The second part of Quinn’s book illuminates various ways in which organizations have trouble with deep change. Much of this section of the book talks both about positive and negative methods that organizations use to handle change. He speaks of about five problems organizations face when dealing with change, namely: 1. Denial of the need for change, 2. Being lost but not knowing where the answer lies, 3. Complicated politics in upper-level management, 4. Being overwhelmed with the technical aspects of operating a business, and 5. Overcoming dependence and routine that is inevitably established. Although these five problems do plague organizations, they only serve as good examples of troubles that can come up. This is not an exhaustive section on organizational problems when pertaining to deep change.

The last section is perhaps Quinn’s achievement of the book. Overall, this section was very helpful is assessing aspects to attach to oneself or one’s organization when attempting deep change. However, like much of Quinn’s book, it seems like a box of playing blocks that can be put on top of each other to form a very strong structure, as they seem to be random ideas he has played at over the years with little cohesive qualities except for their excellent value as individual essays. As someone who was very interested in the method of deep change, I felt this section was too haphazard to be used outside of specific contexts. It felt more like a reference manual or a glossary of good ideas. I put the ideas into a short chart that hopefully will clarify some of Quinn’s wonderful points. For this chart, the leader is at the center of the diagram imbuing a sense of confidence, and then using organizational empowerment, helps the organization model the exterior attributes.

empowerment

Book Review: Servant Leadership, by R.K. Greenleaf

Servant leadership, in one word, is passion; undying loyalty to a single belief that you cannot help but drive yourself and those around you towards your vision. It comes from knowing yourself totally, building your life “as a piece of art,” and then working your way through society by training others to be as you are: an agents of an institution which has been changed to be driven to serve those under its care in every possible way. Greenleaf’s servant leadership is holistic, and depends on a number of factors.

(a) The servant leader must be a conceptual leader. (b) He must be a seeker, yearning for a better way. (c) He must be balanced with two sides: those who can implement his ideas, and those who through only passion and not gain, seek to keep him on a right path. (d) He must seek to give to others first, knowing that is the natural order. (e) He must then endeavor to create an institution that holds these principles, and serve not only that institution, but the people it helps with “electric devotion.” (f) He must help others to become as he is, and channel servant leadership throughout all who surround him, not through pride or pomp, but by knowing himself and being dedicated to his calling. (g) Finally, he must must always remember that his calling is to grow people.

Greenleaf, while a practicing Quaker, admits proudly that he is not pious, and this is shown in his work. His idealism has obviously been influenced by Christianity, yet he is unwilling to admit this, and so believes that all people should be servants first yet does not take into account the work of the spirit in changing people towards that end. That aside, his servant leader is a workhorse, yet does allow time for family, but is also single-minded towards one end, where the leader and his dream become the same thing (evidenced by Journey to the East, by Hesse). Prexy was able to maintain his lifestyle because of his connection with Christ, but for a common, secular man to attempt this without a lifeline, raises deep concerns.

The core of servant leadership is calling: finding your passion and focusing everything around that worldview. To totally give yourself to that calling however, is about timing, relationships, and opportunities. Had Herschel not been born in Warsaw, or Cowling not attended Yale, their lives would have been very different. Greenleaf challenges me; why have I not embraced my passion? Is it of any worth? Does that great work begin now, or at some more opportune time? He troubles me, and makes it sound all too easy (even though he admits it is not).

BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION/CITATION

Greenleaf, R.K. (2002). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness. New Jersey: Paulist Press.

Conflict beyond the clouds: Managing difficult conversations in cross-cultural contexts

In a rather bold introduction, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen introduce the reader to their book, “Difficult Conversations”, with the amazing story of how the concepts in the book teach people around the world a revolutionary way of handling conflict. They claim that Inuits in freezing northern Canada utilize the ideas to help settle conflicts with global oil companies looking to take a profit from the Eskimo homeland, how Saudi businessmen initiate the difficult conversations in the heat of the Persian gulf with American oil tycoons, of how African tribal leaders used the book to find a peaceful end to hundreds of years of bloody civil war, and even of how astronauts took the book to the International Space Station as a reference guide in dealing with the inevitable conflict between Russian cosmonauts and a menagerie of other cultures all stuck into a tiny glass bottle, rotating around the Earth’s atmosphere and no doubt dealing with dangers most of us could not imagine. Perhaps I am a cynic, but I find it hard to believe, after reading through the authors’ book, that the methodology presented in the book can be properly utilized in cultures without any western intervention.

Much of Stone, Patton, and Heen’s book revolve around cultural paradigms of behavior, which while embraced in many western countries, are often considered to be behavior of the worst sort in others. Working in an Asian context (as I do), the application of the three Conversations must be carefully fine-tuned and applied if used in delicate situations, as the concept of face propriety and the family unit are held in even higher esteem than such notions like the “law”, “proper behavior”, or even “self-awareness”. Stone, Patton, and Heen use the example of the “diplomatic hand grenade” (pg. xxix) in their opening preface to the book, as an image of what many reading the book hope to gain, but just as quickly as they dismiss the existence of such an element, so must I conclude the principles of the book may not work as intended in Asian contexts. In fact, if one applied the principles in the book upon an Asian context directly, the concepts might backfire, and the damage would be extensive.

To understand Stone, Patton, and Heen, we must first understand the final piece to their puzzle: the Learning Conversation. A lot of business theory over the past 20 years has focused on creating intelligent systems which allow an organization to learn and grow as changes occur both on an organizational level but also on a societal level. “Difficult Conversations” attempts to address the issue of conflict resolution with the creation of an intelligent resolution system for conflict: the Learning Conversation. However, such a system is founded upon several pillars. Through some careful analysis and according to Stone, Patton, and Heen, I have identified five pillars which form the foundations of the Learning Conversation, that goes beyond their original vision (the three conversations: interpretation of event, feeling, and identity), but which I believe are necessary to understand in order to contextualize the Conversation so that it can move across cultures.

 The first pillar: A view from the clouds, on the ground – a practically integrated worldview. On page 149 of the text, Stone, Patton, and Heen explore the crux of their conflict theory: the “Third Story”. Essentially, the Third Story is a state in which the observer understands that neither side of a conflict is either right or wrong – only different. The Third Story is the mediator, or in Chinese conflict theory, the “Third Party,” an entity with no stake in the conflict except for the resolution of the conflict between both parties. However, if we utilize Stone, Patton, and Heen’s model, the “Third Story” becomes an objective location where both sides can be seen clearly, which when inhabited by a mediator offers a “better” vantage point to begin to unravel the reasons of why a conflict begin and a healthy forum for discussing alternatives. However, what happens when the observer’s ethical underpinnings show a definitive lack of understanding in cross-cultural situations? For example, what happens when an American mediator attempts to start from the “Third Story” in a disagreement between another American and a Chinese? How can we expect that the mediator be fully aware of the functions of Chinese ethics and know how those differ from American ethics?

The Chinese board game Tu Shangguan illustrates the divide between eastern ethical boundaries and ethics of other cultures. For almost 400 years, Tu Shangguan was played and studied by the Qing dynasty elite, as a model for how to approach the dance of bureaucracy. The player begins the game as low-level bureaucrat, and through both random luck and the offering of bribes to other players, the low-level bureaucrat eventually proceeds through promotions and demotions, with the goal of eventually joining the royal family and ruling all of China. Bribery, during the Qing Dynasty, was not viewed as a perverse corruption. Quite the opposite, actually. The art of bribery has a long history in China, and is far less insidious than the interpretations of bribery among the popularized American political system. Ethical bribery in China often amounts to the building up of guanxi, social capital that people invest in, save, and use when the opportunity demands. However, to someone not familiar with Chinese politics, the use and sometimes abuse of guanxi can appear as rampant corruption. The Chinese concept of renqing adds a further layer guanxi through the promotion of moral imperatives to maintain guanxi. Such philosophical differences are beyond a simple black and white conflict scenario, in which a mediator can safely assume the place of the “Third Story” without being fully aware of the implications of how both ethical systems in conflict operate.

 The second pillar: Facing the music (with a little sacrifice). The second pillar I maintain contributes to Stone, Patton, and Heen’s conflict theory is that conflicts are complex, dynamic events, with multiple “contributions” (pg. 78) by people who because of orientation, see themselves in the beginning as blameless. When a problem is identified, the authors state that the impacted parties transform into “shifters”, truly believing the blame lies in another person’s sphere of influence, rather than their own. The key then, to unravel the conflict, is to create a “map of [conflict] contributions”, which can often only be done by the person starting from the “Third Story”.

However, the reason why conflict resolution can be difficult, Stone, Patton, and Heen maintain, is because “emotions and identity issues are wrapped” around those same contributions made which led to the conflict, and those emotions quietly hinge on “self-image and self-esteem” (pg. 144), core beliefs which act as a foundation to identity and purpose. These emotional burdens hinder the conflict contributors from fully appreciating the vivid qualities of the issue. Stone, Patton, and Heen state that while letting go of anger and emotion is vital to understanding the conflict, time is often an invisible but present character in the drama of resolution. Letting go of emotional burdens, furthermore, comes at great personal cost, especially as those burdens often serve as paragons of self-identity that root perception of self in an intricate fabric of perceived growth, even if that maturation comes bundled with negative experiences (many of which remain unaware, painted as positive trauma). Being able to identify those emotional burdens is essential to understanding the roots of conflict.

 The third pillar: Knowing yourself. One key conversation Stone, Patton, and Heen describe, is the “identity conversation”, a journey of conflict resolution that begins not only with understanding the internal source of conflict but more importantly, understanding how the “landscape of feelings” (pg. 96) affects not only conflict but also formation of complex identities. To know himself, a man must reach beyond the emotional reactions he has, but also evaluate the interplay of emotions in his own heart.

However, knowing oneself is only the beginning of comprehending the measured actions of conflict, especially in complex cross-cultural situations. The authors describe an activity called “role reversal” (pg. 76) in which the observer uses methods of empathy to project one’s mind into the eyes of another and view the actions of the observer – but in a conflict spanning multiple worldviews, this action often fails to ascertain any notable differences, due to issues of cultural blindness and ethical paradigms present in the home culture versus the visited culture.

I maintain that not only must the observer project empathic thoughts onto the conflicted party, but a “reverse role reversal” must take place, wherein the observer views the situation as an observer viewing the situation – by asking the question, “What am I thinking/how am I responding about what they are saying/thinking about my contributions?”, and finally evaluating those thoughts not in the observer’s home culture, but rather through the visited culture’s paradigm. But as the third pillar is about “knowing yourself”, so must the observer endeavor to know, as far as possible, all the “landscapes of feelings” and how those create identity within the conversation, for both parties.

 The fourth pillar: In the presence of wolves. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus counsels his disciples with the following statement: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Stone, Patton, and Heen write a lot about the particular methodologies of how to proceed through and develop a Learning Conversation. The authors (in the 10th edition) even put together a checklist, a step-by-step process of simplifying the Learning Conversation to a few steps (pg. 233). However, one of the most important yet hardly explained concepts in their theory of conflict resolution is the “blame web” which the authors address as early as the fourth chapter (pg. 59). The primary reason most difficult conversations are difficult is not because of the subject matter, but rather because of the subjects themselves and their refusal to submit to the other. When a mediator steps into the pit, the fangs come out and the claws are released, so to speak.

Therefore, the mediator or observer must be at all times connected to Stone, Patton, and Heen’s concept of “the heart of the matter,” (pg. 189) and continually seek a resolution for the conflicted parties that revolves around the key issues that need to be resolved. In cross-cultural conflicts, “the heart” is often shrouded in language and custom, but is always present. The observer must also be wise in the use of language, and practice the art of wordsmithing, or the choosing and selection of words culturally appropriate and empathically connected to the conflict’s conflagration of identities.

 The fifth pillar: The transformation stance. The final pillar, and most important to resolving cross-cultural conflicts while applying the principles of Stone, Patton, and Heen, centers around the concept of reframation. Reframation is the act of taking the Three Conversations framework by using words, actions, and retold stories through a medium that is better adapted to the parties currently engaged in conflict (pg. 202). The authors use a conversation between an American manager and a Brazilian worker to illustrate the concept of reframation, with the American manager constantly reframing her position and the worker’s position in different ways until the worker finally understands her problems with him without complex emotions coming into the conversation (pg. 203-204). While this sounds good on paper, in reality situations are much more complex, especially when the classic American model of confrontation is largely non-existent in the non-American culture.

Therefore, while reframation is absolutely essential to solving cross-cultural problems, sometimes other solutions must take precedence when trying to create a Learning Conversation. While Stone, Patton, and Heen touch on the topic for less than a page, creative solutions are of prime importance when preparing a situation for reframation (pg. 213). The authors suggest brainstorming as a technique to develop creative solutions, but I would suggest the more radical approach of cross-cultural hybridization, wherein the observer classifies cultural issues relevant to the case, and then researches proven methods within that culture to bring up difficult conversations, rather than the brunt method of American confrontation.

While the book was enlightening, a more serious approach to cross-cultural conflict resolution must always include the target culture’s methodologies for conflict resolution, as well as the innate character of ethical behaviors in that culture. While the Learning Conversation may be universal, the path to that conversation will always vary from culture to culture. The five pillars I have mentioned should serve as useful intermediaries for the cultural jump that is required for Stone, Patton, and Heen’s Learning Conversation primer to be successfully integrated into non-American cultures, although depending on the particularities of each culture, methodologies will need to change and be altered so that the confrontation approach of “Difficult Conversations” does not cause more harm than good.

Soft power in other cultures: a dream. According to the authors, when trying to broach “difficult conversations” in praxis, requires the use of the three-pronged Learning Conversation: the conversation about what is happening (pg. 23), the conversation about feelings (pg. 83), and the conversation about identity (pg. 109). Once these conversations have developed deep enough, the Third Story can be discovered (pg. 149), and by carefully proceeding through the “difficult conversation,” eventually both parties contribute jointly (pg. 257), and creative solutions to the problem-at-hand can be developed (pg. 213). As an English teacher in a college classroom in a non-English speaking country, difficult conversations often seem to arise, although in reality they are merely misunderstandings. As a husband in a cross-cultural marriage, quite often the fiercest arguments stem from the simplest misunderstanding: a word defined incorrectly, a false intent, or a misconstrued reaction to traditional methods. In my experience, “true” difficult conversations are rare, although they do exist and can be quite dangerous if not handled correctly. However, the three-step method Stone, Patton, and Heen propose, while quite ingenious, does not account for varying cultural interpretations of right and wrong, which are often at the crux of “true” difficult conversations.

Stone, Pattern, and Heen attempt to address this minor inconvenience, by introducing the concept of “intersections” (pg. 72), moments in which simple differences can be exacerbated into patterns of estrangement. However, when describing the ramifications, the authors plainly state “that so long as we each continue to see this matter as a matter of right versus wrong, rather than as an intersection, there is no way to avoid a train wreck. In contrast, successful relationships… are built on the knowledge that in intersections there is no one to blame. People are just different.” (pg. 74) While soundly tolerant, this singular statement epitomizes the authors’ belief: that without confrontation and acceptance of different ethical beliefs, there can never be solutions to difficult conversations.

Part of the reason why difficult conversations can sometimes seem unsolvable is the nature of facts themselves. In the appendix to the book, the authors attempted to answer questions from readers. The first question dealt with the supposed relativity of facts, to which the authors answered, “facts aren’t relative, but they can be hard to pin down.” (pg. 238) What is a fact? If a student copies the answers from another student for his exam, was he cheating or working cooperatively to answer a question? If a teacher gives all of his favorite students high scores, but the students who argue with his ideas low scores, does that make him a bad teacher, or a teacher who is suitably preparing his students for their future work in a culture that is defined not by product, but relationship? If a rich student refuses to buy the high-priced textbook, but instead copies the textbook from his classmate who borrowed the book from the teacher… is the teacher then a criminal, or is the teacher wise for choosing a textbook his department refused to purchase for his students, but if studied will allow his students to progress much further than otherwise?

These questions do not have easy answers, or like-wise, compartmentalized solutions. While the authors claim that facts aren’t relative, they also don’t disparage people from individual truths (pg 196). Sometimes, the authors believe, the only way to arrive at a suitable compromise is to first understand where those individual truths come from, but as Stone, Patton, and Heen state wisely, “most difficult conversations… are a series of exchanges and explorations that happen over time.” (pg. 216) The moral of the book, “Difficult Conversations”, is that both sides must come to the middle and agree on concessions in order to refrain from conflict and move forward. However, intentions are complex, often made up of both selfless and selfish acts which remain unsaid to even the source of those acts (pg. 120); add-in another layer of culture, and sometimes the complexificiation of identity (pg. 118) can take years, perhaps even a lifetime to truly understand and implement.

I do not believe that culture can be brushed aside. Under most circumstances, the authors agree with that sentiment. However, the cultural methodology of confrontation and conflict resolution must also be taken into account, and the three-pronged approach suggested in the book must be altered, perhaps in minor or major ways, in order to truly make a difference in non-American conflict scenarios.

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult conversations (10th ed.). New York: Penguin.