Monday, May 26, 2014

Leadership Beyond Attribution

There are many occasions where titles and positions are given to people who are unable to exercise the leadership that would be expected in such roles.  I referred to my experiences in these situations a few weeks ago on this blog.  In some instances this may occur because there is a desire to be "at the table" or "in the mix."  Other situations may be in synch with the old Peter Principle where one has been elevated to the proverbial position of their incompetence or they have been assigned a parcel of responsibilities and the commensurate salary with the hopes that those trappings would impart the leadership skills or the motivation to lead because of the expectations of the position.

Sometimes those gambles when assigning leadership pay off, but the likelihood of this as far too infrequent for it to be considered a reliable strategy.  Instances where leadership is attributed are cited in Japanese organizations where leadership roles are often and easily attributed on the basis of age rather than merit.  Despite these assumptions about Japan, there is ample place for merit to hold sway and there are occasions where the talent does get recognized or asserted and is given the chance to develop.

In the Japanese school system, leadership is very carefully attributed based on seniority and it is an opportunity for students to get their turn developing their potential and their skills in these capacities, but leadership roles are not as strictly distributed on the basis of seniority.  While seniority maybe the deciding factor when individuals with similar skills are in competition for a promotion, there are many instances where leadership roles are not assigned on the basis of this.  When individuals demonstrate the capacity or the willingness to lead, it is easily assumed by those who are willing to take those roles on.  Those with the talent and the capacity to lead are given more opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and develop their leadership skills and eventually surpass those who may have seniority and a position that goes with it in the short term.

The capabilities that earn an individual a leadership position can be demonstrated by taking on volunteer roles, which in Japan are available in a wide variety of areas of interest in schools, communities, their workplaces and other groups.  However, I may risk getting ahead of myself by saying that leadership can be assumed by volunteering, when in fact it is an opportunity to demonstrate it, develop it and gain confidence from within and from others.  People earn the respect that can foster a confident leader by making their interest in a variety of roles clear and using their talent to deliver on the objectives of an initiative they get involved in.  That can be enough for a person to begin to grow into a leadership role if the support, structure and models of leadership are in place for an emerging leader to draw upon to develop their skills.  Having the infrastructure in place to nurture leaders and give them the opportunity to gradually take on more involved responsibilities is the key to developing leadership. Without that support nor a clear sense of the growth that emerging leaders is capable of throughout their development.

What is lacking in our current approaches to leadership is the support system and infrastructure for leaders to model their skills upon.  There are countless books trying to point the way, but there is every chance that the authors of those books are more interested in packaging a few superficial pointers into their next book deal than they are in providing substantive and constructive direction on how to build a leader from the foundation up, starting with the resources, talent and knowledge that each individual brings to their roles.  Leaders are not something to be foisted upon the minions.  They need to be recognized early and allowed to develop those skills naturally and at a reasonable pace.

This is part of the reason why a distributed leadership model is beginning to gain the toehold that it has as an approach to developing leadership.  As an educator, it is easy for me to draw upon the examples from the classroom.  At the start of my career, I taught in a multi-level classroom where there was a certain amount of undue deference to the oldest student in the class.  She was not a gifted student academically, in fact there was a chance that she had learning disabilities that had remained undiagnosed even in her late teens. Her command over the class was such that it even challenged my ability to teach and do what I was mandated to do.  Her age and personality earned her followers (or coerced them) but she had no interest in leading the class, at least not in a positive direction.  Whenever she was absent, the younger students in the class had the opportunity to fill the vacuum she had left.  To one extent they each took on more leadership of themselves and became more willing to become more accountable for their academic performance and for the atmosphere in the classroom as well.  Over the course of time those younger students developed the confidence to remain accountable even when that older student was there and eventually take enough ownership and responsibility to reduce the impact that girl had at the start of the school year.

If leadership were distributed to several people rather than attributed to a smaller group or even one person, a larger number of individuals will have a vested stake in the outcomes of the activities the group engages in.  There is also the likelihood that those responsibilities will be negotiated in a manner that makes everyone more accountable for their contribution and more engaged in achieving the goals that we normally expect a single designated leader to guide everyone toward.  The key to achieving success with this approach is to ensure the infrastructure to support this leadership and further nurture it is in place.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ah Yes, Sequel Season: A Plea for the Anti-Blockbuster

With the coming of the Memorial Day weekend in the United States and the appearance of X-Men Days of Future Past vying to dethrone Godzilla from its lofty position atop the film box office charts, another round of sequels, reboots, adaptations, prequels, tent poles, and fast food tie-ins moves from "in earnest" to full throttle.

I will forego the schedule/list of weekly box office contenders out of the risk of advertising anymore of the overhyped summer dross.  I'm assured that rabid movie fans have already filled out their schedules, booked Friday nights weeks in advance to get the gang together and vowed to render themselves critic-proof.  Other have opted out already, turning an eye to more independent fare or are already committed to a binge night of Mad Men or Walking Dead via Netflix.

Over the last few years there has been an ongoing to lament among some about the recycling that Hollywood has been indulging in over the last decade.  Film franchises have been resurrected after coming to logically conclusions just a year or two before or rendered unprofitable by an unappealing combination of rookie leading man and out-of-genre director that just didn't satisfy the fan boys or stay true to the source material.  The spectacles continue and will continue to come as long as they continue to turn a profit, regardless of the laments about the absent of originality in the motion picture industry.

The fact is that adaptations and rehashing of the type so many lament coming out of Hollywood right now is not new.  It precedes the recent reboots of Star Trek, Bond and Batman by decades if not centuries.  West Side Story's lineage to Romeo and Juliet is well documented and Shakespeare himself could be cited for its use of earlier materials.

There was a sense about a decade ago that there was an aesthetic or cultural need for these recycling of recent familiar sources.  There was a sense that times had become more serious and that the grit and realism of those movies were a reflection of the times that they were being remade for.  Christopher Dolan brought a seriousness to Batman Begins in 2005 that attempted to reflect the times that it was made in.  "More serious" films are always trying to do that regardless of the times that it is made but about 10-12 years ago, the popcorn fare was occasionally making forays to reflect the times as well.  The uncertainty surrounding the dusky armour of the Dark Knight was something that reflected the ambiguities in the 2000s, but it seems that commerce and the fixed components of the blockbuster formula as it has come together over the nearly 40 years since Jaws hit the theatres has won out.  All of the iterations of the comic book heroes and of course Star Wars, which is not only going to spawn sequels but spinoffs as well, seem to have put diversion and cross-promotional opportunities ahead of the opportunity to provide something that reflect the times they were made in or for.  Perhaps all we are seeking is escape once again, at least that's what the receipts are saying.

Are any of those films having the impact of their forebearers did?  Will any of them impact the culture to the extent that Star Wars or the original Star Trek series did on television?  Has Avatar been of any cultural significance since Ben Stiller's appearance in blue makeup at the Oscars in 2010?  It is less likely, despite the effort and expense that have gone into upping the special effects ante, the volume and the promotional campaigns each summer, than any of these movies have a lasting cultural impact.  As long as the profits exceed the investment, the model will hold and the possibilities of making the CGI and the spectacle appeal to global audience will further entrench to commitment to glossy bedlam that will unspool this summer.  Hollywood producers have narrowed and will continue to narrow their vision to the very escape that the comic books and the sequels provide.

Those "smaller" movies or boutique stories that strike those small audiences in ways that are unique and powerful to their audiences are still being made but the question is how many of those possible stories are being overlooked and left unmade because so many filmmakers are gunning for the $1 billion home-run of a box office tally at the expense of giving people opportunity to see something that reflects the time they are living in, make them reflect on where they are in their lives or in their relationships and risk conjuring up that Grade 11 Language Arts concept of catharsis.

Looking beyond the handful of current sources for adaptation (or original material for that matter) has often served Hollywood well.  It has even been profitable from time to time and even reflect the time in which it was made.  At the risk of being labelled puritanical or stodgy I recall what is probably my most memorable movie-going experience and the opportunity to connect with audiences in profound ways by pursuing a wider range of stories.

I had the opportunity to see film adaptation of The Crucible in 1997 while travelling on holiday in Europe.  I should have had the opportunity to read the play in Grade 9, but that is another story.  It would be half a lifetime later, at the age of 30 rather than 15 that I would see Arthur Miller's tale of the Salem witch hunts written during the McCarthy era and brought to the screen at a time when it may have been merely considered an exercise to appeal to school marms or some niche of the literati who wanted something more high-brow in the cinemas.  My good fortune, on this occasion was to watch it in Prague, a few blocks away from the castle where Vaclav Havel resided as president after a long, successful commitment to his principle of Living In Truth (both as a way of living and a manifesto against the oppressors who gave him opportunity after opportunity to cave in to comfort.)  As the credits rolled upon John Proctor's granted wish to die with his good name, I was stunned by the stillness in the theatre and the audible sobbing that took hold throughout the theatre.  A moment I would never forget and one that made me thankful I was spared earlier exposure to the play despite my wishes that I were in the "enriched" class in 1982.

The opportunity for Hollywood to vary from its successful template in not likely to occur anytime soon.  While changes in the TV industry have diversified or stratified audiences away from the old "big 3" and resulted in a greater willingness to risk and innovate in the story-telling that occurs there, the motion picture industry has seemed a bit more complacent over the last decade and perhaps even out of touch because of its efforts to retain the large audiences of popcorn eaters.  There have been signs that audiences are starting to consider other alternatives over the last few years and hopefully the industry will move away from the reliable template that has spawned so much imitation and duplication over the last decade or so and bring more diversity of stories in the years ahead...

but when?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Leadership: The Twinning of Authority

The shelves of the business sections are brimming with books on the topic of leadership and there are ample numbers of coaches, professors and facilitators will and able to hold forth on the subject, but in many instances the answer to developing leadership can vary dramatically depending on the individual and the situation that there are placed in.

At the start of my career as a teacher leadership in the classroom pivoted on the application of two types of authority: the authority that one had as a part of the position or role that they had and the authority they were as someone knowledgable in their field.  Both were required for a teacher to have the full opportunity to play a leadership role in their class.  Teachers had to demonstrate their authority and wield it as well if they were going to assume the respect and presence in their classrooms that was assigned to them.

Throughout my career, however, I have seen instances where both of these types of authority needed to be demonstrated by a person in a leadership position.  The lack of knowledge and ability to demonstrate the authoritativeness required in those positions substantially hindered the organizations that they worked within and became major obstacles to these respective organizations achieving their mandates or goals.

The first instance of this was at the start of my teaching career.  The principal of the school was given the position because of the power that it held.  The school was in a First Nations community and the principal was a member of the community.  He did not have the professional training required to do an adequate job as an educator, but it was hoped that he would be able to leverage the position in a manner that would give the community a bit more say about its destiny.  He had the position of authority and the title to go with it but his lack of skill or knowledge pertaining to the position and his inability or unwillingness to exercise the authority he had in his position greatly undermined the potential that he actually possessed as principal of the school.

There were probably colonial or cultural issues that made him reluctant to assert a certain amount of authority over the teachers that were on his staff.  He know that the "white" or "southern" teachers in the community had more education than he did and after spending much of his lifetime being taught by the predecessors of those teachers, it was difficult for him to presume he could indeed start telling them how they ought to do their jobs.  As time progressed and he continued to retreat from the opportunities to assert his authority as it was assigned to his title or recognize his ability to recognize his invaluable expertise as a member of his community and advise the staff on the specific needs or backgrounds of individual students or the generalities of the entire village, he squandered the authority he could have offered from his position.

In the 1990s notions of distributed leadership were not as well articulated and developed as they are today and further to that the cultural dynamic in the village was quite difficult to navigate as well.  The school had been in the village for about 30-40 years and students had been taught almost exclusively by southern teachers throughout that time.  In more recent years teachers from the community became more involved in teaching during the early grades of elementary school and some other courses related to the culture of the community as well.  Still, despite that progress, there was probably still a willingness to defer to the southern teachers because of the perceptions about their culture or the massive technological advantages they had inundated the community with ever since they first made contact a century or so before.

My generation of teachers, however, fresh from watching Dances With Wolves and coming away a bit more sensitive to or wary about the cultural politics between their community and the First Nations were less willing to take the opportunity to take an approach to leadership in the school that reflected a more modern approach to leadership or acknowledge the habits that formed as a result of a long, long history of having the upper hand.

Under these circumstances, leadership was merely assigned and titled rather than used and demonstrated in a deliberate manner.  Principal and Teachers shied away from the responsibilities that their titles carried.  The people subservient to each of those titles waited and demonstrate some respect for those titles but without anyone fulfilling their roles to their full potential, there was an arbitrariness to the structure or distribution of leadership that dissolved.  There were occasions when the leadership structure responded and became vibrant in the face of crisis, but all too often those crises were a consequence of nobody playing their roles to their fullest potential in the first place and the responses were too slow to achieve the desired results in the face of crisis.  Unfortunately, when those situations were brought to a simmer there was little self-awareness of the satisfaction that came with the accomplishment of addressing problems.  Instead of learning how things could or ought to be, there was a reversion to the more reluctant postures and the underlying problems and issues challenging the school continued to fester.  

A vacuum in leadership continued to dog the school and the community.  Teachers were replaced rather than tenured and ultimately the principal of the school saw his authority eroded with the addition of a vice-principal who would take on more of the leadership role in directing the teachers properly and getting the principal to provide the knowledge and expertise that he had been so reluctant to provide in the first place.

If the principal had a clearer understanding of his own potential and the knowledge he brought to the school, he and the school would have had a much greater chance of success.  In recognition of Marshall McLuhan's old adage that a fish is the last to realize what water is, the principal likely needed an outside source to advise him of what he already knew but may not have valued.  That outside source may have also needed to know what questions to ask the principal to extract, organize and value the knowledge that he had.

One problem may have been that a more monolithic model of leadership was assumed in this situation.  It is easy to argue that the principal failed because he simply did not lead or act in a manner that wielded or demonstrated the types of authority he brought to his position.  His position was assigned to him along with significant expectations in a position that loaded with challenges.  Because of the extent of his role and the impact it could have had, he needed more resources, training and opportunity to reveal his weaknesses than he was ever allowed.  If he had any one of those three things (resources, support or opportunity to admit weakness) it would have help him and the team that never came together to fill the yawning leadership void that he and his staff carefully strived to avoid.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Now A Marathoner

Bixby Bridge, courtesy Big Sur Intl Marathon.
This past Sunday, April 27, 2014, I rose at 3:15 am, drank some water, dressed in the items I'd stacked in the bathroom of my hotel room and walked down a street in Carmel. The first reminder of the day ahead was a large "Road Work Ahead" sign that I passed while congregating with the passengers on 185 other busses that would drive down to the start area for the Big Sur Marathon.  I sat quiet in the cold and dark for another hour or so, summoning up the confidence or the wherewithal to push my body north back up the highway I had just travelled.

I spoke sparingly throughout the drive and the morning. There were more experienced runners who knew the course and the race well. Others had run marathons and even ultra-marathons and Ironman triathlons.  We all knew Big Sur was something special and I was eager to follow this route to where it would take me and happy to cover territory that I had driven a few times before on holidays to be with the spirits of musicians, writers and photographers, alive or gone, who have been touchstones on several levels.

In the nominal or athletic sense, I had set my sights on Big Sur last May, when I completed a half-marathon in a time that indicated that a 4-hour marathon would be within my reach.  Six weeks later, I took a breath and signed on to do the race during that brief window when registrations were open and available.  I believe the registrations were complete in 53 or 58 minutes and I happened to be among them.

Big Sur held an allure long before that time, however.  My wife and I made our first getaway as a couple there and I immediately felt the attachment or connection to the place that I had anticipated. Tromping around from Big Sur to Salinas, Monterey and Carmel continually brought me in contact with creative giants whom I've idolized: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston both lived and photographed there; John Steinbeck looms large in Salinas; Clint Eastwood still continues to be a strong presence not only in the film world but the area as well; Charles Lloyd, probably my favorite jazz saxophonist, resided in Big Sur and has titled songs and albums in tribute to this breathtaking communion of sea, land and sky.

Each time I have come here I have felt a closer connection to each of these artists.  I encountered those who have aspired to carry the torch for those giants, or somehow gained an appreciation for what inspired them in this place.  Having this culmination of sacrifice and commitment occur in their neighbourhood meant so much more to me than it would if I were to run my first marathon anywhere else in the world.  I made a point of adding Charles Lloyd's calm tones to my otherwise frenetic aural adrenaline boost of a playlist. When I visited the race expo to pick up my race number and other items, I paused to caress a bust of John Steinbeck in the hotel lobby.

So, with that sense of the place and its titans in mind, I sat alone as alone as I could while surrounded by 4000 other runners, all hoping that the forecast rains would not start. I tried not to eavesdrop on those around me and probably succeeded. The plans and goals that other people shared for their respective days washed over me and did not leave a trace.  My efforts to retain my confidence while witnessing more expert regimens of gels, coffees, stretching or light jogs, were not as easy.  The stretching and last-minute fueling rituals indicated a degree of knowledge or experience that I did not have and I felt it would put me at a disadvantage in pursuing my goal.  An odd thought emerged, and the key one that shaped my experience - everyone here was running their own race.  Sure, a handful at the front were running to beat one another, but even they were running for themselves and for the experience that they set out to have. There was a hardy cohort of runners who were daring to run Big Sur a scant (and slightly mad) six days after running the Boston Marathon. A camaraderie, spoken by some and silent among others, held everyone together.  The runners that were with me throughout the race were stories that I wanted to hear more of, not simply people I wanted to get ahead of -- well, except for the purported Frenchman who was in leotards, a tricolour rouge, bleu et blanc wig and a pair of crocs.  Yes, crocs.  Him, I had to finish ahead of.

The first three miles were tricky.  I had lined up behind the 4 hour pacer and in the early going found myself struggling to keep up.  I had a hard time finding my stride in the tight scrum of runners packed together at the start and my body had not quite warmed up for the day.  As the miles clicked by and the first few landmarks and milestones disappeared, I was less likely to get boxed in and settled in to a pace and rhythm I was comfortable with.  The doubts that clouded me during that first half-hour cleared and I was amused to inhale the scent of cow manure as I ran by pastures.  Others were stopping to take pictures as they went along, but I did not feel compelled.  I had photographed it myself in the past, poorly by my own account and my cellphone would not rise to the occasion today. I passed the 4-hour pacer and made a point for the rest of the race to keep him at my back.  A terrible thing to say about a volunteer who is probably putting in more work than most of the other volunteers, but I suspect it is regarded as part of the territory.

The main challenge of the run, Hurricane Point, is a 2 mile climb where you gain about 540 feet in elevation before promptly heading downhill and onto Bixby Bridge, a point of reference that I told people has been likely featured in one of every three car commercials - the ads with the sense of the carefree open road with the top down and a blonde's tresses blowing in the wind.  At the bridge, runners have the opportunity to stop for a moment with the pianist who is tinkling away on a grand piano.  The musicians who dot the course leave me wondering about the blisters they accumulate as they play for the crowds that teem by for a few hours.

I was happy that I had finished the first half in under two hours, especially with the toughest, most time- and energy-consuming part of the race behind me.  Still, I only had a 2 1/2 minutes to play with if I was going to run out of gas in the second half of the race.  I did not at any point in the race have concerns about being able to finish it but my goal was to finish in under four hours.  It was a matter of keeping up a pace that would keep the goal in sight.  As 16 miles turned into 17 and I got a sense that the goal was in range as long as I managed 9-minute miles, I felt I hit the proverbial wall then. Apparently it is something that runners hit at 21 miles, but for me there was a stretch where I felt slow and fading.  I had one of the energy gels that I'd pocketed for the race and made a point of rationing for moments like this and managed to hang in there, but the moment's doubt lingered in my mind for a while.  The more upbeat songs in my playlist helped me break out of the phase and even prompted me to sing out a few lines as I reminded myself to keep my hands low and loose and keep my stride long.

Once I got past the 20-mile mark I felt the goal was indeed in reach, even if I found myself putting in those last few miles at a 10 minute pace, as much as I was against settling for that.  An incredible wave of emotion came over me at this point and I nearly burst into tears at the thought of finishing my race.  I made extra effort not to let up the pace as I reminded myself of my son's birth and how my wife did not have (or ask for) the option of resting toward the end of labour.  With Gabriel's birthdate written on the back of my race bib, I refused to settle for just eking out a sub-4 hour finish and did whatever I could to keep my form and stride strong and intact.  There were a few other near bursts of emotion as I neared the end and closed in on the 24-mile mark and climbed the last hill that I managed to recall other racers mentioning a few hours before.  As the buoyant horn lines of the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra pushed me through the second last mile and almost had me bopping along rather than running, I hit the button to replay the track and bop through the last stretch.

As I closed in on the finish line the race clock read 3:58 and my watch 3:52 and I pushed on to make sure that the "gun time" for the race would indeed be under 4 hours.  As I scanned the crowds to the left and saw my wife and son cheering me on that last stretch, I nearly broke down again, but managed to hold it together.  I did not give a triumphant raise of the hands or a fist-pump at the finish, but merely stopped my watch and went over to my family for hugs and to coax my son through the barricade to hang out with me in the finish area while Nadine brought the stroller around to join me.

After running much of the last 7 years in solitude and regretting an 11K run I did in 2006 in 93 minutes, I felt myself an invested member of the running community.  I paused to look around for the other runners I was with: Jack from the UK who had a shirt that indicated he had run 100 marathons; Atim, who greeted me at the start and was hoping to run in just over 4 hours, the others who my eyes dwelled upon for a while because of the apparent obstacles that had or would have to overcome to finish and continue to make running or exercise a part of a new commitment or sacrifice to improve their health. Even the "Frenchman."

I've been asked a few times in the last few days what my next marathon would be.  After driving the Big Sur highway the morning after the race and finding its telltale winds at full force, I joked that it would not be Big Sur.  The race conditions were likely too ideal to try to recapture.  I am not sure what the next one will be but I know that I am dealing with "when" and not "if." I feel and hope that the training miles ahead will be with a great sense of community with those fellow runners and a sense of belonging that I will feel and intend to offer to anyone I cross paths with the next time I am out on the trails.