Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Democracy in Action: Rallying Around the Environment and Other Issues That Really Matter Like Financial Security

These are interesting and exciting times for democracy. Pure-bred capitalism has shown its ugly side. Main Street Canada and America are showing signs of revolt. The spirit of involvement in our collective destiny is gaining momentum, particularly in the United States and judging by media commentary, also in Canada. Perhaps the chasm in values between those who govern and those being governed will finally be bridged.

Economists of the John Maynard Keynes persuasion must be thinking “I told you so” while America’s House of Representatives struggles to stabilize a financial mess brought on by too little oversight by yours truly. In Canada, yearly polling by Ekos shows that “competitiveness” and “minimal government” ranked 1st and 3rd for the political and economic elite but 20th and 22nd by the general public. “Virtually all of the government roles related to equality, social justice, collective rights, full employment and regulation were low on the elite’s preference list and high on the general public’s.”

These results suggest that Main Street Canada is open to government providing some smart steering to address problems that the market or "trickle down economics" cannot fix. The jury is still out on the sentiments of the public in the United States. When the chaos is over, like a death in the family, there will be a re-thinking of values. Going back to the lifestyle that was will not be an option.

For an example of democracy in action in Canada, check out http://www.voteforenvironment.ca/. The website is only three days old and is humming with activity

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Beware of polically-induced "spells" as they can mess with your reasoning

What’s the difference between a campaign of ‘hard questions’ about momentous issues and a carnival of lies? Lipstick.

---David Olive (September 20, 2008). Toronto Star

As some people like to say, “There’s a reason for everything”. Maybe Sarah Palin showed up in our lives because we needed a little more levity in a generally somber political environment. Fear, violence, climate upheaval and too much suffering around the world are taking their toll on our collective middle class psyches. Sarah has certainly been a distraction and a reminder that politicians play chess with our minds because that’s the way the game is played. A few little “truthies” and corn ball metaphors here and there are needed to camouflage all problems. Do you blame them?

On both sides of the border, the campaign adage is to repeat something often enough until it becomes real even if it isn’t. Image and persuasion trump the facts because apparently that’s what we respond to.

Politicians of all stripes and philosophies have learned that to reach us they must appeal to our primal emotional instincts. Largely unconscious, our automatic “inner theatre” was formed long ago when we were kids under the “spell” of our parents, teachers, friends and the cultures in which we grew up. Our reactions are typically either positive or negative and we gravitate or move away accordingly and evaluate the policy offerings within those frameworks. Critical thinking takes a back seat to whether we like a person or not.

To override our automatic “from the past” responses is extremely difficult in the high pressure environments in which we live and lead. Sorting out fact from fiction takes time and energy. So, we resort to falling under “spells” again and hope for the best. Put another way, we search for someone who will best feed our emotions, not necessarily our reason.

A fundamental tenet of great leadership is to be on the alert to “think about your thinking”. Called the “fourth dimension”, it can save the day when chaos and complexity reign and no simple answers suffice. It can also be the tool for breaking ‘spells”.

With time, people tire of the messages of hope, the hoopla, the negative ads and the grand communication schemes. This has been demonstrated over and over again in organizations where a “white knight” from the outside has been brought in with great flourish to fix things up. Many heads roll, many promises are made and then the reality of implementation without deep expertise, without consultation and without the benefit of the facts sets in. The honeymoon quickly fades but the cost to rectify the damage is enormous.

We do wake up naturally but it takes time. The trick is to accelerate the process while we have time to avoid serious damage. It means using time-honoured leadership lessons to ensure we’re not just caught up in our emotions. Besides asking a lot of questions and gathering smart contrarians around you, look for the facts, as demonstrated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenburg Public Policy Center though http://www.factcheck.org/.

In Canada, more so than the United States, ideological fatigue has set it, according to Frank Graves, President of Ekos Research Associates. We’re becoming more pragmatic and eclectic and certainly less attached to left-right arguments. We’re looking for “what works”.

That’s the bottom line: look for what works. That’s how nature does it.

Monday, September 01, 2008

While the Cat's Away, the Mice Come Out to Play: Canadian Listeriosis Outbreak is a Hard Lesson in Leadership Governance

Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in 20, and learning teacheth safely, when experience maketh more miserable than wise…it is costly wisdom that is bought by experience.

--- Roger Ascham (1515-1568) in The Street Master

The listeriosis outbreak traced to one Maple Leaf Foods plant in northern Toronto glaringly shines a light on the ethical and moral dilemmas underlying leadership. With 11 people dead so far and many more ill, the impact of the assumptions and beliefs of leaders within the food security system is tragic and economically costly. Only a full inquiry will unearth where the system went wrong. It’s a hard lesson in system governance and one which we will likely find was entirely preventable.

The movie Beautiful Mind gives us some clues as to the dilemmas inherent in any system and the principled solutions which are possible. Princeton University professor John F. Nash Jr. shared a 1994 Nobel Prize with three others for his research on “games theory” or the science of strategy in conflict situations. In 2005, two more researchers were awarded the Nobel for their games theory work. Clearly, the phenomenon has struck a chord in our increasingly complex society.

In layperson’s terms, Nash and other researchers have demonstrated that outcomes depend on not just your own decisions but also on what others do as in driving through an intersection. The particular scene in the movie illustrating Nash’s “ah ha” is a university bar where men and women are meeting and greeting and clearly influenced by each others’ actions. Taken further, Nash and other mathematicians demonstrated that co-operation in most instances trumps butting heads. It explains why some groups or individuals, organizations and countries succeed in promoting co-operation while others suffer from conflict. It has been used to explain economic conflicts such as price and trade wars, the workings of the stock market and why some communities are more successful (economically) than others in managing common resources. However, it won’t work without trust. That’s’ where things get “dicey”.

A clash of cultures (assumptions, beliefs and values) within the system can wreak havoc with making the right decisions. A public safety system such as food security requires many redundant checks and balances. Who does what when remains the repeatable big question as lessons are learned. There are hints in the press that government loosened the reins a little on the shop floor, giving more control to industry to police itself. Maybe that didn’t happen. If it did it would have stirred the “pot” of leadership assumptions and beliefs. What now is going to govern preventing serious food-related bacterial outbreaks in the general population?

A family story that has animated our history for 77 years provides some direction. I never understood while I was growing up why my mother Margaret would often bring up the subject of her sister Adelaide. To me it was history. To her, it was and still is painful, “what if?” history.

In my adult years, I’ve come to understand the senseless tragedy of Adelaide’s death—being at the wrong place at the wrong time when the system could do little to help her. At the same time, I have a strong appreciation of the advances that have been made to protect other young children from the same fate.

My grandmother on my mother’s side liked to travel and she yearned for her homeland. In early 1931, she embarked, with her two little girls Margaret, 5 years old and Adelaide 8, on a voyage across the Atlantic to Liverpool. Little did she know they were heading straight into a diphtheria epidemic! Within days of landing, both young girls became seriously ill and were hospitalized. Only my mother made the trip back. Why she survived and Adelaide did not remains a mystery.

In those days, although a successful vaccine had been developed, it was not widely available. It took the discovery and development of sulfa drugs following WW 11 to open up protection for the general population. Regular vaccinations for infants, children and boosters for adults are routine in developed countries.

What does this say about governance now? Since we know what prevents senseless deaths, the values and beliefs of a leader then and now no longer drive the ethics of decision-making. Instead, it’s the evidence of what works. Inotherwords, when in doubt wherever you are as a leader in the system, default to the evidence.

A just released World Health Organization (WHO) report on the determinants of health reinforces this principle. The blue-ribbon panel of International experts concluded that “social injustice is killing people on a grand scale.”

The evidence, according to the panel, is clear and irrefutable: societies, like the Nordic countries, are healthier because they spend generously on universal social programs, reduce income equalities, and regulate important health determinants such as food, housing and labour markets. In the spirit of “games theory”, the economies of these countries do not suffer. They thrive as expected. Sweden, for example, continues to do a credible job at balancing and re-balancing the needs of the free market (private enterprise) with the quality of life needs of the population, as a whole. These findings hold for rich and poor countries alike.

In light of the current food security scare in Canada, the WHO report is timely. For those leaders who wrestle with competing interests to make ethical decisions, the WHO findings “lead the way”. You might think that these findings have nothing to do with you in your organization. You might not like the WHO’s findings because of the kind of business you are in. Alternatively, the findings might be “bang on” for you. In reality, there are lessons to be learned no matter what your leadership challenges are and in what part of the system you work.

The WHO report speaks of the lack of political leadership and moral courage as key barriers. In every organization, not just government, these factors are relevant and play a role in influencing important outcomes. The food security problem in Canada, at the moment, is a symbol of the co-operative tensions in any complex system and that serious collateral damage can occur if the cat’s away.