Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Long Steady Glow from Early Beginnings: A Parent's Influence, Edward Kennedy's Leadership Legacy

Parents matter in the lifelong moral worldview of a person and the leadership philosophy thereof. In Edward Kennedy’s example, his mother was the teacher, his father the spark. Rose Kennedy, ever the torch bearer for the oppressed and the disadvantaged, inspired her youngest child and entire family with the source of great leadership: having a worthy cause.

“Teddy” Kennedy’s policy legacy is proof positive: despite tragedy and personal turmoil, over 46 years as a senator, he influenced the passing of 2,500 pieces of legislation. They included expanding health care (the “cause” of Kennedy’s life), increasing the minimum wage, revamping immigration laws and championing equal opportunity regardless of race, gender or disability.

The significance of our upbringing is a “no-brainer”. We know this. But, in the context of leadership for better or worse, it’s troublesome. Are constituents doomed or blessed depending on the early influences of their leaders? Given our storied human history to date, it appears we are. Yet, if we broaden our view from the short term, for example, in Teddy Kennedy’s case, there is a “long steady glow” which persists and is emblematic of progress. Leaders emboldened by worthy causes which benefit many not just a few do eventually have sustainable impacts.

The journey, however, is not easy, as illustrated by Teddy Kennedy. Mental resilience and toughness are necessary because causes have a cost: the journey is messy, taking unpredictable twists and turns often involving personal sacrifice and distress. One’s imperfections smack us in the face calling for “lessons learned”.

Are we up for this? Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, makes that point loud and clear in her recent book The Challenge of Africa. She sees hope amidst the poverty and desperation and the trails and tribulations. Her “Green Belt Movement” combined with the efforts of multiple other fearsome and extraordinary, ordinary leaders past and present are flicking the flywheel of positive change. Patience is required because change often spans more than any one person’s lifespan!! But, the legacy endures.

The “political mind” is a source of considerable study in the social and biological sciences. Breakthroughs in our understanding of neuropsychology show promise that we don’t have to be the prisoners of our early upbringing when faced with challenges outside our assumptions and beliefs. That is the learning opportunity for leaders.

There is one key ingredient which never goes away in the ongoing inquiry about great leadership and management: empathy. It’s a natural part of our human history. Without that in our family legacy, without empathy as a leader, it is difficult to nurture the “long steady glow” of progress.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Canadian Consular Officials in Kenya Low on Aristotle's Practical Wisdom

Now my retired mother is becoming extremely wary of travelling. She travelled all over the world with my father on business. But airplane crashes, VIA rail strikes and breakdowns, an ever-thickening U.S. border and no guarantee of protection from adversity by Canadian consular officials have dimmed her enthusiasm.

The apparent lack of good judgment by the Canadian consular officials in Kenya with respect to Suaad Hagi Mohamud’s plight sends shivers up our collective ordinary citizen spines (that’s most of us). The confidence that we will be protected from unfounded accusations as to our identity when travelling abroad has been dealt yet another huge blow, as many cases have preceded Hagi Mohamud’s.

Given what we know of the case, the most mysterious is the way in which decisions were made. They seem almost laughable in that the starting point was the Kenyan customs officials determining that Hagi Mohamud’s lips did not match those on her passport. After that the process went from bad to worse.

What was going on? Were Canadian consular officials spooked by some current terrorist threat and inadvertently transposed that to Hagi even when she produced every imaginable form of seemingly valid identification? Or, were they so rule bound that they lacked the ability to make a good decision? Is it possible that in the absence of this learned skill, they were tricked by their brains into making “bad” decisions and as a consequence created a truly farcical situation right up the line to the Prime Minister?

Aristotle would argue that in the face of what we know, all involved who had the authority to shape a good decision lacked “practical wisdom”—a master virtue that guides the application of the right amount and mix of their leadership virtues to a context specific situation. He called this a person’s “executive decision maker” necessary for stopping our range of virtues from “running amuck” and enabling us “to do the right thing in the right way at the right time”.

Practical wisdom evolves from experience and works best in an environment in which people are expected to use their good sense not just the rules. To be wise in the face of non-routine situations requires practice. A rigid bureaucracy does not allow wisdom to improve. Quite the contrary, it gets worse. This may be the real root cause of the problem.