Archive for September, 2012

The Leadership Olympics: A Gold Medal Model

September 24, 2012

 

 

 

Do you know who taught U.S. Senator John  McCain “a thing or two about courage?”

A woman, who last week, was the most recent recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal.

In the misty vapors of big politics, the Medal is an undeniable signal of approval.

Manage Fear

McCain, who spent six horrible years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, quoted Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous dictum in an emotional tribute to her:” It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

Since the American Revolution, our Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions that will endure long past the achievement.The Medal requires an Act of Congress. It honors an individual – although not necessarily a US citizen.

Price Tag

The Gold Medal has often been awarded to those who serve the common good. Past winners include Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Jonas Salk and Rosa Parks. Notably, selfless heroism reflects the pinnacle of leadership but it always has a price tag.

In 1988, the brutal rule of a strongman who murdered protesters launched Myanmar’s difficult struggle for freedom. A remarkable woman, Suu Kyi committed more than two decades to challenging a repressive regime. She endured 15 years of house arrest in a shunning which completely restricted her speech and physical mobility. Although offered freedom in exchange for exile, she would not leave her people and their dreams of democracy.

Growth & Sustainability

In organizations and in communities, deficits in leadership affect sustainability.  First, because of intricate and growing interdependencies, weak or corrupt leaders have intolerable implications beyond their own sphere of influence. Second, because none of us has a grip on the macro trends that will deliver challenges we don’t anticipate. What is sure? The costs of poor leadership are failure, implosion, and decay while others, in a competitive world, make progress.

Aung San Suu Kyi gave up decades of her life for others. The NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote recently “few leaders now dare to throw caution and polls to the wind and tell people the truth about anything hard or controversial…Many won’t even give up a news cycle.”  His analysis underscores the patterns of political behavior that are deeply true and relevant: it is the fear of losing power that corrupts. He, like many others, thinks leaders are at their best when they dare to lead without fearing politics.

Courage Wins

So, how do any of us “honor The Lady from Myanmar in a way that really matters?”  Friedman suggests imitation. If you were fearless, what would you do?

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

In Pursuit of Ignorance

September 11, 2012

Charles Darwin, 1881

“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger…and it is more interesting,” says Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein. He claims exploring the unknown is the true engine of science. Ignorance, he says, helps scientists concentrate their research.

Firestein’s book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” argues that what we don’t know is more valuable than building on what we do know. He believes ignorance follows knowledge. Knowledge enables scientists to propose and pursue interesting questions. Rather than big tangles like the “How was the Universe formed?” Firestein favors the more specific. In the social and private sectors, this perspective has enormous merit for both routines and innovation.

Great Questions

Inquiry can catalyze learning and support change. In a recent proposal to an influential funder, we posed work with colleagues as applied research. The primary question: What early childhood learning investment works best with which kids? Why? This raises others:

  • When is the best time to provide intervention and enrichment?
  • How many opportunities are available in each intervention and enrichment opportunity?
  • What gains are made at what cost?
  • What proportion of 4-year olds are most at risk?
  • How are children distributed along a continuum of need? 

Thoughtful Ignorance

According to Firestein, “Thoughtful ignorance looks at gaps in a community’s understanding and seeks to resolve them.” A historic example underscores this opinion. Deeply religious Victorian society in the late 1800s was shocked by Darwin’s suggestion that humans and animals shared common ancestry. His “non-religious biology” asked some vital questions about the origin of the species and revealed  new, big ideas. Apparently, Charles Darwin was a prescient forecaster for Firestein. Long ago Darwin said: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Identify what you don’t know. Be willing to ask great questions; vigorously pursue discovery. These attitudes and practices yield improvements and change.  

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

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